At the 2016 ULI Fall Meeting in Dallas, the ULI Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) presented a candid conversation with Lucy C. Billingsley, cofounder and partner of the Billingsley Company, an award-winning land development and property management firm based in Dallas with 3,200 acres (1,300 ha) of master-planned communities, as well as office parks and industrial and retail projects. The daughter of the legendary Trammell Crow, Billingsley has real estate in her DNA. In a shoot-from-the-hip style that often had the standing-room-only crowd laughing like she was delivering stand-up comedy, she shared stories about building businesses from scratch and working within a family business.
“I don’t consider this a view from the top, but from the way up,” said Billingsley in response to a query from WLI global chair Wendy Rowden, president of 42nd Street Development Corporation, about how she chose a career in real estate. Billingsley said that she studied economics at the University of Texas and loved it. “I’m inherently pragmatic. I started a career in business and kept marching down the road.” After graduation, she began working at the Dallas Market Center, 5 million-square-foot (465,000 sq m) wholesale trade center, and became its CEO at a young age. “I was really aggressive about growth and doing everything in the business the right way, so I ended up taking over more of the business. It’s my inherent nature.”
After leaving, she launched a travel agency, which she later sold for a profit. “Launching something on your own depends on your spouse, financial risk, how bold you are,” she noted. “Change? Bring it on.”
The experience of developing her own company was transformative. “I was a silver spoon but hardworking for 15 years at the Market Center,” said Billingsley. “The travel agency was important for my own self-confidence. The first 20 years of my career was probably motivated by fear, and the travel agency gave me confidence.”
In 1978, she cofounded Billingsley Company with her husband, Henry Billingsley. The company focuses on developing suburban office and multifamily residential, specializing in master-planned developments such as Austin Ranch that are based on the principles of new urbanism and sustainability. She said that she was able to work well with her husband because they have different skill sets. “Henry has a brilliance and knowledge I will never have. He’s created a foundation for everything we do.” Where they differ is on whether to sell land, she said. “That’s where the micromanager in me comes in: Hell no!”
Billingsley discussed Cypress Waters, located near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, which is being developed as a community for health and wellness with a lake and trails. “We have an opportunity to create the third great place,” she said, adding “corporations want to go where great retail is, too, along with parks and workout opportunities.”
The growth of the organization has been very smooth, she added. “We want to do the next deal right. We don’t sell much, so we become bigger, though our goal is to do something beautiful, not to be big.”
Billingsley said she’d like to spend more money on projects, but is driven by the bottom line. The issue is materials: She said they’ve built a lot of suburban tilt-wall construction, but over time, it doesn’t have the same effect as stone or other higher-end materials. “You have to give respect to doing things in the right way, to make a better place for long term.”
Rowden asked about the dynamics of working with the couple’s children—three out of four manage their own assets within the umbrella of the family business. “We’ve put assets in the kids’ names, so that’s given them opportunities to create their own life and businesses. They own their own projects and manage them.” Integrating her children into the company “gives three more engines” to keep things running, strengthening things for everyone. “We’re in an incredible market. This is the life of everyone in the company. Everyone wants growth and challenge.
“Women have huge advantages in this business,” she told the crowd. “If you walk into a room, what are the expectations? You can pass them pretty readily.” She noted that she’d been in conference rooms in heated debates when “a couple guys start acting up.” Her approach: “You go into the mother mode, and get them to behave. Obviously, this is inappropriate behavior.” She also said that women have a hard time giving difficult news to each other kindly and directly. “Women are great communicators, and are great in sales” and should use these skills to their advantage. Women can go outside their comfort zones by traveling, growing, and moving, she added. “To not do so would be to ignore our essence.”
Referring to a ULI Fall Meeting tour of her father’s projects, she said, “He had a big legacy, but it wasn’t the buildings. It was the culture, the values of giving,” with his gifts, including sculptures, evident all around the city. “The biggest legacy is how we connect with each other. People used to do deals with a handshake. Why don’t we now? People consider Dallas the fastest-growing area in the country. We have a reputation for doing things with high integrity, honestly and graciously. Maybe we can show that to America. Who you are is more important than what you do. That’s your essence.”
Kathleen McCormick, principal of Fountainhead Communications LLC in Boulder, Colorado, writes frequently about healthy, resilient, and sustainable communities.