11.22.2013 LIBN | First ladies of commercial RE
By Bernadette Starzee

When Kathleen Giamo began her commercial real estate career on Long Island in 1980, “you didn’t need a whole hand to count the number of women that were in the industry,” she said.

Thirty-three years later, things haven’t changed all that much.

“One of my biggest disappointments is that there aren’t more women in commercial real estate today,” said Giamo, who in 2005 – after a long career with Uniondale-based real estate ownership, management and development firm RXR Realty and its predecessors – founded The Giamo Group, a Melville commercial real estate consulting firm.

Giamo is currently handling the leasing for 135,000-square-foot Rubie Corporate Plaza in Melville.

The persistently small percentage of women in the industry is not for a lack of trying on Giamo’s part. She’s mentored several women real estate professionals.

“It’s an extremely fast, challenging field, and it’s an old boys’ network,” she said. “It’s difficult for women to not be intimidated.”

Of those women who are not intimidated, she said, many bow out for financial reasons. As most commercial real estate brokerage jobs are commission-only, it takes time – at least two years – to learn the business and develop relationships in order to make deals and earn income.

“I have mentored several women who were very good, but because they had different obligations – some were single mothers – they couldn’t afford to take risks and wait the time out,” Giamo said. “They got discouraged and gravitated to other industries that are more accommodating and inviting to women.”

The same year Giamo joined what was then Reckson Associates, Marie Zere founded Zere Real Estate Services Inc. in Great Neck. Still thriving today, the full-service commercial real estate firm, now based in Ronkonkoma, specializes in the acquisition and leasing of office, industrial and retail space and land.

Zere had previously worked at two real estate firms for a year and a half.

“I went out on my own because the other salespeople were going through the garbage pails at night stealing my customers,” she said.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Zere said she had to work extra hard for many years.

“I had to be smarter than they were,” she said. “I worked on things they wouldn’t work on and learned things they wouldn’t touch, and I became a guru.”

For instance, Zere focused on properties east of Hauppauge, which at the time sparked little interest among other brokers, and learned everything she could about zoning, land use and economic development.

“It’s still a man’s world – men help men, they feel more comfortable working with other men,” she said. “But it’s easier now, because I have a name.”

A single mother of two sons and a daughter, Zere stayed in the unforgiving industry because she “wanted a chance at the golden ring.” She was encouraged by a good start, brokering a “huge deal” almost right away, when New York Life Insurance Co. took office space at 6800 Jericho Turnpike in Syosset, earning her an $82,000 commission.

Her children grew up in the business.

“When I was 11, I was a listings girl in the Great Neck office,” said Michelle Zere, now executive vice president, who said her early introduction to the business gave her an advantage that many women don’t have.

“It takes a lot of time to learn the business, and a lot of people aren’t willing to take a woman under their wing,” she said. “In commercial real estate, there’s so much to learn – structural, environmental, land use, zoning issues. And there are so many types of properties.”

Giamo also benefited from having a mentor.

“I had the best teacher I could have had in Don Rechler,” Giamo said. “I was in the computer business when I met him, and he told me he felt I would have a great future in real estate. He hired me and taught me the business from the ground up.”

Rechler, she added, was a pioneer.

“Men didn’t hire women to come into this field and make them their protégé,” Giamo said.

Unlike jobs at real estate brokerage firms, Giamo’s position came with a salary and benefits, as is typical for development firms.

“The position offered security and the chance to be educated in the business,” she said.

Company support is key. Melissa Naeder, who joined Sabre Real Estate Group in Garden City as a director last year, specializes in helping national retailers expand on Long Island. “It helps having the credibility of a firm with a great reputation in the industry and a best-in-class support system,” Naeder said, noting the firm’s relationships and platform have enabled her to “spend more time focused primarily on the client’s needs, which in turn leads to more successful deals.”

Some of the larger firms have begun programs to develop women brokers. CBRE Group Inc. has national and tristate-area women’s networking groups with events throughout the year, including lectures from successful women in real estate and other fields and speed-mentoring, in which junior real estate women professionals meet for short spurts with senior people in the industry.

Despite its efforts, CBRE’s Woodbury office only has one female broker out of about 30, according to Ellen S. Rudin, managing director of the Woodbury office and New York City outer borough operations. Rudin is a real estate attorney and a licensed broker who had her own brokerage firm for about four years. At CBRE, she makes an effort to recruit women brokers, but struggles to find takers.

“It’s not like you can recruit women from other places, because there are so few of them,” she said, noting the one woman broker in the office was hired with no commercial experience and trained by the firm.

Rudin finds the dearth of female brokers perplexing, because she believes commercial real estate is a great business for women.

“It offers flexibility – you don’t have to be at your desk from 9 to 5,” she said.

Still, it’s a difficult, competitive business, requiring “drive and a thick skin,” Naeder said.

About a dozen years ago, when Rozita Soomekh entered the industry, she often lost out when competing with men for listings.

“The gentlemen felt more comfortable having a man handle their listing,” she said. “But now people know my name, and I bring a list of the properties I have sold and leased, and they trust me more.”

Focusing on one geographic area helped Soomekh gain name recognition in the marketplace.

“Early in my career, I was working in all five boroughs and it was difficult to get to know people,” she said.

About three years ago, Soomekh helped develop a commercial sales group in the Great Neck office of Douglas Elliman Real Estate and has become well-known in and around the village, where she has fully leased six office buildings in addition to handling leasing for retail properties.

For those women who stick it out, things grow easier with time and experience. While Naeder felt her gender put her at a disadvantage early on, lately, she sees the tide turning.

“I see it more as a positive,” she said. “There are so few of us that if you’re good at what you do, you can stand out and do very well in this industry.”