Inclusivity, not finance, takes centre stage at CREFC’s Autumn Conference

Commercial real estate finance industry figures discussed diversity and inclusion at the London event.

‘Diversity and dynamism’ were the themes of the Commercial Real Estate Finance Council (CREFC) Europe’s 2018 Autumn Conference in London in late November, with a discussion of the subject placed at the top of the bill.

Explaining the decision to Real Estate Capital, CREFC Europe chief executive Peter Cosmetatos says he was “delighted” when the conference co-chairs settled on a theme which brought together diversity and inclusion “and the dynamic nature of our industry at a time of change and disruption”.

“In the year that the Presidents Club scandal broke, it felt really important to put leadership, diversity and inclusion centre stage,” explains Cosmetatos, referring to the Financial Times’ January exposé of the all-male club, dominated by property people, members of which allegedly sexually harassed female hostesses during a gathering at London’s Dorchester hotel.

“Even though the world of finance has made more progress than the UK property industry on diversity, this definitely remains a conversation we need to have,” Cosmetatos continues. Referencing a point made by one of the panellists, Mike Adams, chief executive of Purple, which campaigns for businesses to see disability as a commercial opportunity, Cosmetatos adds: “The opportunities that can be unlocked by more diverse and inclusive businesses and places are huge – and getting there is a matter of individual as well as organisational responsibility.”

Joining Adams on the opening panel were Jane Hollinshead, principal of IJD Consulting and board member of Pathways to Property, which focuses on social mobility in the real estate industry; David Mann, partner at surveyor Tuffin Ferraby Taylor, who co-chairs Freehold, a networking group for LGBT real estate professionals; and Stacey Flor, co-head of origination CRE for the UK and Ireland at Wells Fargo. The panel was moderated by Alison Lambert, finance director for Europe at Oxford Properties.

Here is a taste of the discussion:

Alison Lambert, Oxford Properties: “What are the issues around disability and the workplace?”

Mike Adams, Purple: “Disability is a business leadership issue. In the UK, 13 million people have a disability, which equates to 19 percent of the adult population; there are 250 people in this room, meaning 50 people will have rights under disability legislation. Out of those 50 people, 40 of them will walk in and you will not know they have an impairment. One of the current issues for UK industry is around wellbeing and mental health and how you attract, recruit and retain talent. Rather than being about diversity, I think it’s about dynamism. How do you as an organisation send out a message to your customers, your suppliers, your staff about what kind of organisation you are?”

Lambert: “How do we make sure we break down stereotypes in the industry?”

David Mann, Tuffin Ferraby Taylor: “In a lot of ways we are victims of tradition; we’ve always employed graduates from Reading, employed people who look and talk like us; it’s the easy, boring option. It’s usually a relative who suggested surveying to people as a profession and that is a big shame. We need to be getting into schools and getting the next generation excited about construction and real estate. I’d urge you all as businesses to support organisations like Changing the Face of Property or Property Needs You. Look outside the box in recruitment policies. Get kids – not your friends’ kids – from different social backgrounds in for mentoring, for example.”

Lambert: “Do we talk enough about social mobility?”

Jane Hollinshead, IJD Consulting: “Social mobility is one of the few strands of D&I that hasn’t been explored and in today’s climate, we ignore it at our peril as we risk becoming a more polarised society. Pathways to Property was set up by Reading University because so many of its undergraduates had relatives already in real estate and we needed to look more broadly. It was a response to a challenge from a newcomer to the industry, from an investment banking background, who said ‘This can’t be right – how can we change this?’ But in terms of what will make a good employee of the next generation, it will be looking less at qualifications and more about characteristics.”

Lambert: “My heart fell through the floor when I read about the behaviour at the Presidents Club. From a gender perspective what progress is being made in the industry?”

Stacey Flor, Wells Fargo: “At Wells Fargo, we’ve spent many years focusing on diversity and inclusion as one of our company’s core values and included in that is gender. One of the most important things for us is graduate recruitment. To increase the number of women in leadership positions in banking and property, it’s important to make us all accountable. It’s about setting guidelines of best practice and sticking to them.”

Hollinshead: “The Presidents Club has triggered lots of other conversations with the next generation in our industry who are embarrassed to be associated with a sector that would participate in that kind of thing. It has been a catalyst for a broader discussion around gender, ethnicity and social mobility; and it might just accelerate the glacial progress to date.”

Lambert: We can be diverse, but how do we be inclusive? How do we make people feel part of a team?

Mann: “Having networks helps. When we started Freehold, one of our early joiners was a director of one of the major surveying practices. He said: ‘I’ll join but no way must my employer ever find out I’m gay, it would be career limiting’. Two years later, that person’s chief executive was hosting a Freehold event, celebrating and formally acknowledging his LGBT colleagues. It resulted in our member being much more happy, loyal to and productive for the company.”

Adams: “If you think 3, 4, 5 percent of your workforce have disability needs, that is an under-representation – it should be 19 percent. It means you have people in your organisation probably operating sub-optimally, who have mental health or other disabilities, who are really anxious about whether they will disclose or not. To attract talent, you have to address what’s already in your organisation. There are three groups to concentrate on; the board, because it’s a leadership issue; your frontline staff, making them feel confident to have that initial conversation with a disabled person; and line managers, empowering them to have a performance conversation with an individual who has a disability.”

Lambert: Is the gender pay gap being addressed?

Flor: “The gender pay gap disclosure has been really useful as it’s got people talking. It is on the agenda of senior management and that’s important. For material changes to happen, it has to constantly be in people’s minds; and the UK Government’s Gender Pay Gap report, that publishes companies’ pay data, including Wells Fargo’s, is an important tool that will keep the conversation going.”

Lambert: How can we really trigger change?

Hollinshead: “A really big driver of change will be stakeholder relationships, whether that’s your clients or investors; when people holding the purse strings or the opportunity start to say ‘unless you change we’re not going to give you funding, work or a mandate,’ that’s when things will happen.”

Mann: “Clients are holding up a mirror to us. One (a major property company) recently told me, if someone comes in and gives us a pitch and it’s all men, we’ll reject it immediately. That’s a very powerful message to our industry.”

Adams: “I think we’re in a better position on disability than we think we are. There is a sense of understanding and a commitment to do something, but you need to make a commitment within your organisation to gain traction.”

Flor: “I think the biggest advice for people who work at big organisations is just be the change yourself, do it yourself, don’t wait for HR to do it.”

Adams: “Success will be when this issue of disability is not located in the diversity department.”