Embrace being an introvert. While our culture generally praises extroverts as the more driven personality type and sees them as better able to succeed in business because of their overt confidence and ability to capture the attention of a room, introverts can be amazing leaders for many reasons. They are good listeners. And, because they listen so carefully and are thinking about what the other person is saying, they often see the motivations and nuances of conversations, which is powerful when forming business relationships. Secondly, while introverts in general may not have large numbers of close connections, they have deep connections that have been formed and nurtured over time and are enduring. Real estate is a relationship-driven business and being an introvert can actually be a huge advantage.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carol Ruiz.
Carol has worn a wide variety of hats, from waitress to award-winning documentary filmmaker to adjunct professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She also has a myriad of personal interests, starting with her grandsons (naturally), and including world travel, gourmet cooking, and fine wine. Carol is also an avid storyteller. Storytelling is the heart and soul of public relations, so it’s no wonder Carol ultimately chose PR as her career path.
Carol founded NewGround in 2007 as a full-service public relations and marketing agency that specializes in residential and commercial real estate development. She brings 20 years of experience in the field to the table. In those 20 years, Carol has developed relationships with editors all over the country and has amassed press in publications like the New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Reuters, just to name a few. She has an impressive list of clients, including, but by no means limited to, former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, MBK Real Estate, a subsidiary of Mitsui & Co., one of the world’s largest companies, TRI Pointe Group, one of the largest publicly held building companies in the country and Gatehouse Capital, the developer of W Hotels.
As principal of NewGround Carol oversees media and client relations and strategies as well as new business development. She creates campaigns that blend traditional and non-traditional PR approaches which result in comprehensive campaigns that drive sales and revenue for her clients.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
My degree is actually in television and film production. I was a writer/producer for a reality television series that had a PR agency that couldn’t seem to get any press for the show. My first major in school was journalism and I was the news editor of the college paper. I’d written a fair amount of press releases and had an understanding of what would capture the attention of the press, so I told the executive producer that I thought I could write a press release for the show and get us some coverage. I did just that and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was already thinking about leaving the show, so I decided to apply at a marketing and PR agency in the LA area, and a firm that specialized in real estate took a chance on me. I loved the work immediately and found real estate to be addictive. I’ve never looked back.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
One of the most interesting and fun projects I’ve ever worked on was The Hollywood, a high-end condo project located just off of Hollywood Blvd. It was the height of the Great Recession and aside from our PR retainer, the developer had zero budget for marketing, so we had to do some very creative thinking to promote the project. The developer had a distinct vision for the building. He designed it like a museum with stark white, high walls, and wanted creative types, from designers to musicians to film professionals, as buyers.
After being hired, we immediately got to work forming strategic partnerships for cross promotional purposes. One of the first partnerships was with Limn, a famed San Francisco-based design house that had just opened its first LA showroom close to The Hollywood. We met with the owner and gave him an overview of the project and its target buyers and asked him if he would furnish a penthouse unit where we could hold events that would promote both the building and Limn. He loved the idea and furnished the condo with approximately $350,000 worth of one-of-a-kind furniture and art.
We also formed a partnership with Angeleno magazine, which had an audience that perfectly aligned with our project. We offered the penthouse as a place they could hold events for their subscribers, some of which we would participate in as well. The grand opening event was one of the most memorable of my career. At the time, Angeleno was writing about some of LA’s popular graffiti artists and we decided to invite them to set the stage for the grand opening. The Hollywood’s subterranean garage has two levels, both of which were drab, dark concrete walls. We asked the graffiti artists to paint the walls and all we asked is that they use Hollywood as their theme and that they leave a small section of their creation unpainted and finish it during the event. Angeleno hosted the event and brought in local restaurants, liquor distributors and a DJ. We also invited BMW Mini as a sponsor and they brought in several cars to shine their headlights at the walls for creative lighting. Other sponsors, whose members were invited, were MOCA and GenArt, an organization of young art enthusiasts.
The event, which we named the “Underground Art Event,” was a resounding success, with more than 500 people attending. We started the evening with a VIP event in the Limn penthouse and created paths with detailed signage throughout the building so that all attendees would tour it, including the three models. The finale was held in the garage and the energy was electrifying. With the ultimate goal of generating sales, we were thrilled that five condos were purchased as a result of the event.
This experience taught me that while having a big budget (or any budget!) is desirable, it is possible to think of creative solutions that can be successful and sometimes more rewarding.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Earlier this year, we signed a company called BEYREP, which is essentially a matchmaking app for homeowners and remodelers. Among its many unique features, it pairs homeowners with a contractor who aligns with their vision and their personality. Considering the nightmare stories we’ve all heard or experienced ourselves while remodeling, I knew this was going to be a fun and successful account. Then COVID-19 happened and forced all of us to spend more time in our homes, rethinking how we live in them. I believe there will be a remodeling craze with people wanting private spaces for home offices, places to homeschool children, and room for multigenerational living. It excites me to be on the ground floor with a client that is helping people at a critical time. They are simplifying and streamlining the home remodeling process, which is a traditionally difficult and sometimes harrowing experience.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are storytellers. It’s in our DNA. Robert O’Shaughnessy, our president of marketing, started his professional career as a writer. Jamie Latta, our VP of social media content, is also a successful screen writer. And, as I said earlier, I am trained as a documentary filmmaker. When we take on a new client, we immediately dig for the stories that define the company and its leaders.
For instance, when we take on the marketing for a new home community, our first job is to establish the storyline and make the community the main character in the story. One of my favorite projects was an upscale condo project on the cusp of Marina del Rey and Venice, California called Latitude 33. The building, which our client purchased and transformed into a beautiful residential community, was a dilapidated 1970s office building that had been abandoned for a decade — and the surrounding community detested it. Our job was to make the community fall in love with Latitude 33 and embrace it as an intrinsic part of the neighborhood. The first thing we did was to develop relationships with the locals, including artists, restaurateurs, musicians, charities and more. We knew that any event we held would involve these relationships. We also knew the very first event would set the tone for the remainder of the campaign.
For the grand opening, all food, music, and entertainment was sourced from beloved local businesses and artists. We began with a VIP event in one of the penthouses that had a stunning view of the surrounding community and the Pacific Ocean, which lies just a couple blocks away. The project’s architect and developer spoke briefly to the crowd to communicate the vision behind Latitude 33 and how it would fit within the fabric of the community. Just after sunset, attendees moved through the building, touring the beautiful model units along the way. The event finale was held outside on a balmy summer evening and the highlight of the event was a performance by the building itself. We engaged the Museum of Traffic, a new company at the time, to do the first live projection mapping of an architectural surface in Los Angeles. Images that define the heart and soul of the surrounding community, including ocean waves, surfers, and bicyclists, were projected onto Latitude 33, along with the community’s logo. It was not only visible to attendees, but to all in the vicinity.
The grand opening did indeed set the tone for a successful campaign that saw Latitude 33 sell out approximately eight months ahead of projections and become a beloved part of the community.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people I am grateful to, from my dad who was a language teacher and drilled good grammar into me, to my journalism professor who pretty much strong-armed me into taking PR and marketing courses and encouraged me to go into public relations. I eventually listened to him.
But, I credit Wayne Nelson, the owner of Nelson & Gilmore, a marketing and PR agency where I spent 10 years, with many lessons that have made me a better business owner. Almost immediately after I joined the agency, he started taking me on new business pitches. He was a master and he mentored me. Two of the most important things he taught me were how to nurture business relationships and how to be convincing while staying genuine when presenting to potential clients. I knew nothing about new business when I started there and 10 years later, it became my favorite part of the industry.
He also taught me how to communicate in a more direct manner, which has served me well in the male-dominated field of real estate development. This may sound a little brutal, but it gives me a good laugh when I think back at how my sometimes-meandering explanations would invoke a rapid and succinct “I’m bored” from him. At first it shocked me a bit, but it also forced me to be more economic with my words while still getting my point across. A valuable lesson in any industry.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?
The real estate industry is not unique with its male dominated C-suite. Currently only about six percent of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies are held by women. According the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a real estate think tank, women make up 25% of its membership but only 14% of them hold CEO positions.
For real estate, I believe many of the industry’s male leadership advanced into a CEO or owner position from the construction trade, which to this day is nearly 90% male dominated. Because most real estate development companies are led by middle-aged white males who are not ready for retirement, this doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for change in the foreseeable future.
But, having been in this industry for more than 20 years, I can see the changes. I belong to one of ULI’s national Product Councils, which is comprised of real estate leaders from around the world. When I first joined the council, I was one of two women in the room, which equated to less than four percent. Now, we make up more than 10% of the membership. Not skyrocketing numbers, but progress.
What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
The most effective thing that companies can do is to change their hiring practices to ensure they are embracing diversity. Analyzing the gender balance in the company is a start, and then committing to hiring more women for open positions if an imbalance exists, would be the next step. Having a gender balanced hiring team would also help. To attract and retain more women, a company should offer equal pay and make sure the company culture is supportive of diversity.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The top challenges I see are: 1) Being in situations where you’re the only woman in the room;
2) Having to manage multiple rolls, as women are still the main family caretaker; 3) A lack of role models; and 4) The dichotomy of being viewed as too soft if we are too easy-going or a bitch if we have a tough persona.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
I absolutely love working with land planning firms. Land planners are forward thinkers and take a holistic view of community and place making. They are not just thinking about how fast and successfully a community they design will sell, but how it will hold up through the decades and even centuries.
And, who doesn’t love good architecture? It’s beautiful to look at but it’s also critically important to the lives of the people who live or work in a building. I once worked with an architect who designed stunning single-family homes and he told me he could design a home that could break up a marriage. He didn’t just think about how the architecture would look, but how a family would live in the home and the effect it would have on their psyche. He designed homes so that no matter where you stood, your eye was drawn to something interesting. And the play of light and space promoted a sense of well-being.
As a whole, I value that I work in an industry that fulfills one of our most basic human needs — shelter.
I’ve worked with some incredibly talented affordable housing developers who put their heart and soul, and good architecture, into their work of providing shelter to those with limited means. I’m in awe of those who can do it because it’s one of the hardest jobs in the housing industry.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
If you’d asked me this question six months ago, I would have said slowness to adapt to new technologies. But, for better or worse, COVID has forced the real estate industry to figure out, as an essential business, how to conduct business safely — and the best and biggest solution is technology. I’m seeing changes happening in a number of weeks that would normally have taken years, including holding virtual grand openings and taking the home selling process completely online.
Another concern is that the male dominated field of real estate development does not generally value marketing as much as it should. This is remarkable to me since marketing is the pipeline to sales. I think industry marketers should do a “Got Milk” type campaign inside the industry that demonstrates the ROI of marketing supported by hard data.
But by far the biggest concern in our industry is housing affordability. There are too many contributing factors to go in-depth here, but one solution again comes down to adapting to new technology. Homebuilders are notorious for being resistant to change. For example, they often use on-site stick construction that takes more time and money rather than off-site technologies that create less waste, take less time to build, and reduce costs.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
I believe the most important thing leaders can do is to create a culture that places their people as their most important resource: An atmosphere that empowers their people to make decisions, doesn’t punish for innocent mistakes, and encourages growth in both professional and personal ways.
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
Embrace being an introvert.
While our culture generally praises extroverts as the more driven personality type and sees them as better able to succeed in business because of their overt confidence and ability to capture the attention of a room, introverts can be amazing leaders for many reasons. They are good listeners. And, because they listen so carefully and are thinking about what the other person is saying, they often see the motivations and nuances of conversations, which is powerful when forming business relationships. Secondly, while introverts in general may not have large numbers of close connections, they have deep connections that have been formed and nurtured over time and are enduring. Real estate is a relationship-driven business and being an introvert can actually be a huge advantage.
There are many uncertainties inherent in real estate, from environmental, financial, and legislative to unknown future demand, so it is not an industry for the faint-of-heart. Having a high tolerance for risk can help a real estate professional succeed on a lasting level. A conversation I had early in my career with a nationally known and successful developer has always stuck with me. We were at a conference in Las Vegas and walking through a casino. I asked him if he’d be gambling while there. He told me: “No, why would I gamble while in Vegas, when I gamble every day of my life.”
Take time off.
While it’s often thought that the most successful people work 24/7, that is not a guarantee of success. In fact, it can be a formula for burnout both short- and long-term. A few years after starting my business in the height of the Great Recession and often working 15-hour days and weekends, I was rapidly approaching burnout and wasn’t enjoying what I did anymore. I signed up for a program called Strategic Coach and one of the main teachings was unplugging on a regular basis as a way to keep engaged and refreshed. And when I say unplugging, I mean no checking or answering any form of business communications during scheduled time off. I was afraid to do it at first, but I found over time that my love of business came back, and I was a better thinker and a better boss.
Whether it’s with your team, your clients, or your customers, setting expectations is critical. I remember a homebuilding client telling me that his company was getting poor customer service scores and when he evaluated why, it was in large part because he didn’t correctly set expectations about when a buyer’s home would be ready for move in. While he had a timeline established based on the best possible scenario, it did not give him much wiggle room for late deliveries, which are common in homebuilding. Hence, buyers often got impatient and unhappy. He began setting more conservative timelines, which allowed him to deliver homes sooner than buyers expected, and his customer service ratings subsequently soared.
Follow your gut.
But not always. Even Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book “Blink” acknowledges that there are situations in which your intuition can be off. I have been in real estate marketing for more than 20 years, so I can often make decisions quickly based on intuition, which really means I can filter things in my brain quickly because of years of experience in the field. However, if I’m not paying perfect attention, my split-second decisions may not be wise. So, do a gut check before making decisions that could impact your career and/or business.
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that if we funded our schools differently, with support from the federal, state and local levels, many other societal issues would be mitigated, including poverty, inequality, crime, incarceration, the high cost of healthcare, and many more. With schools largely funded by local governments, poorer areas are typically unable to provide an equitable educational experience for young students compared to wealthier areas. States like Minnesota and New Jersey have instituted reforms that have shown positive results. I believe investing in our youth is a nonpartisan issue and it should be looked at holistically on a national level versus just at the state and local levels.
How can our readers follow you online?
Personal LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carol-ruiz-83b4376/
Company LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/newground-pr-&-marketing/
Company Twitter: https://twitter.com/NewGroundCo
Company Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/newgroundco/
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!