Mary Hager and Michele Wheeler have a lot in common. Both women have risen to C-suite-level positions in what has historically been a male-dominated commercial real estate industry.
In the “View from the Top” discussion sponsored by Gensler, the two talk about how they broke through the glass ceiling, lessons they learned, and how they are helping support a new generation of leaders. “It is an extra-special topic to not only hear about the paths of these women and how they’ve gotten to the top, but also how they have leveraged each other to get there and built a relationship that has made them stronger in the business world,” said Ellen Klasson, chair of the WLI Americas Executive Committee and managing director at RCLCO Real Estate Consulting.
Hager serves as executive director of investment management at Greystar. In that role, she oversees Thackeray Partners, which she cofounded 17 years ago and later sold to Greystar in 2020. She also oversees the firm’s involvement in the commercial real estate space and serves on its executive committee and global investment committee. Wheeler is the CEO of Dallas-based Jackson-Shaw Company, a private development firm that builds industrial, hospitality, and residential projects nationally.
Both women entered the real estate industry in the late 1980s, mainly by chance. Their path to the top was by no means a straight shot. A common theme for both was taking advantage of opportunities to learn various areas and disciplines within the real estate industry. Wheeler took an external path, moving to different companies and working in different property types with roles in accounting and finance and brokerage before landing in development in the early 1990s. “When I made decisions about moving, it was because I wanted to learn something new or be exposed to something different,” she said.
Hager’s path was largely internal. She got her foot in the door at Trammell Crow Company, where she stayed for 16 years before cofounding Thackeray Partners, a real estate investment firm. While she was at Trammell Crow, she had the opportunity to work in areas such as finance, lender and partner workouts, investments, portfolio management, and investor relations. “It was a nice way to see different functions within the industry, and I really felt like I loved it and knew what I wanted to do by the time we started raising funds,” said Hager.
The two women also agree that it is hard to get to the top alone. It’s necessary to leverage relationships, networking, and educational opportunities such as the ones they have found through ULI. “I think it is so important for everyone to have that person or group where you can be vulnerable and help you understand the bigger picture and not just the role that you play, but how all of the pieces fit together,” Klasson said.
Hager and Wheeler forged a relationship in the early days of Thackeray Partners when both were doing industrial deals, Hager from the equity capital side and Wheeler as a developer. Their initial breakfast meeting ended up lasting three hours. They found a lot of common ground in their experiences, what they were trying to do, and how they were thinking about co-investment. Over the years, they have done a few deals together, and that friendship has been invaluable in being able to ask questions and talk candidly to better understand the nuances that go into a deal on both sides of the table.
These days, both are in that executive seat and thinking about what’s next. A key focus is how to help build strong teams and position their people for success. They look for some of the same qualities that they possess—people who are curious, ask questions, want to learn, and have initiative, as well as have an aptitude to do the job.
Although the two women are still on that path of learning, they also value the role they have now in teaching and creating environments where their people can sharpen their skills and learn the nuances of the business. In the near-term environment, now is when the teaching becomes the most valuable. A lot of people in the industry today joined after 2009 and have not been through a down cycle. “There is going to be a lot of learning that comes from this next season of time,” Wheeler said.
“There is no better training ground than going through a downturn,” Hager agreed. Sometimes the market gets a little frothy and it is important to look at the risks you’ve taken, and it can be a good time to take a pause, she said. Real estate is innately a cyclical business with good times and bad. “The most exciting thing about a downturn are the opportunities that come after a downturn,” she said..