I believe a true leader needs to embody the ability to not just build a team but build the right team that is aligned with the leader’s objectives, passion and vision.
As Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Metro Commercial,Gina Cotton is responsible for managing Metro’s entire finance department and leads the day-to-day property management accounting function for over 6,500,000 square feet of retail properties within Metro’s portfolio. In addition, she provides strategic financial management for Metro’s brokerage and development services. Mrs. Cotton has previously served as a senior-level financial executive at KTR Capital Partners (acquired by Prologic), Ernst & Young, LLP and Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT). She is a graduate of St. Joseph’s University where she earned both undergraduate and MBA degrees.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
Growing up in a row home in Philadelphia with five siblings, my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic and the importance of education. When I was in high school, instead of enrolling in sewing or home economics, I took an accounting class. This led me to accounting as a profession. After graduating from college I found a position as a junior accountant for The Rubin Organization (which later became PREIT), a family-owned retail owner/operator/developer. This really catalyzed my career, and I’ve been in the real estate industry ever since.
Looking at my career, I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked for entrepreneurial companies that grew in size and stature during my time with them. This allowed me to take on different roles and responsibilities, constantly challenging me to step up to the plate.
I’d also say I was lucky to find my first mentor early in my career. Having that validation and guidance was a driver for me. At the age of 24, I had my first promotion with The Rubin Organization. I spent over 10 years there taking on roles of increased responsibility as the company expanded into the office sector and then further into multifamily following a merger.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
While working at The Rubin Organization, the company became more sophisticated and professional. As a result, so were my peers, many of whom were coming out of the public accounting world. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I was serious about advancing my career in the accounting profession, I would need ongoing education and training. There were two professional goals I had for myself, one was to become a CPA (certified public accountant) and the other was to go back to school for my master’s degree. Years earlier I had passed all the parts of the CPA test but was unable to get the license until I had public accounting experience. I decided it was time to pursue one of those goals- to look for an opportunity in public accounting, or apply to school for an MBA.
Traditionally, public accounting was not something you got into later in your career. You grew up there with a “class.” That seemed like a more challenging and less likely path. Although I had not given up on the idea, I decided to stay in my current position, which at the time was very manageable, and move towards enrolling in a master’s degree program. St. Joseph’s University, where I attended undergraduate studies, was starting its Executive MBA Program. It seemed like the perfect fit. The program was only offered to working professionals. It brought 40 people from all different industries together to learn in a team-based environment. On alternating Fridays and Saturdays, you would spend the day together with business professionals and professors in a board-room setting.
As I was awaiting the decision of my acceptance into the Executive MBA Program, I was looking for opportunities in public accounting as an alternative if the MBA didn’t work out. After obtaining several rejection letters, I saw an ad one of the Big Four accounting firms was running for a management-level real estate professional in its assurance practice. With no expectations, I took a chance and applied for the opening. The funny part of this story is that saying “be careful what you wish for” rang true for me!
With college acceptance and student loans in hand, I decided to move ahead and embark on going back to school. Not soon after, the accounting firm contacted me to come in for an interview, and I got the job. I accepted the position and stayed with the commitment to pursue my MBA. At that time my husband and I didn’t have any children, but we had been trying for a few years. Shortly thereafter, I found out I was pregnant! Nine months later I became a mother, and nine months after that received my MBA and accepted my diploma with my one-year-old son on my hip. I spent eight years as a manager and was promoted to Senior Manager at one of the top accounting firms. It was definitely challenging but so worth the discipline and experience it gave me.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Metro Commercial always wants to be on the cutting edge of technology, and I personally think technology enables us to become more efficient and streamline tasks. One recent project that I’ve had the pleasure to work on is sourcing and implementing our new, company-wide payroll system. Our provider has completely streamlined the human resources aspect of our business. From onboarding new employees to changing your address, to requesting paid time off and updating your bank account information, the portal can easily be accessed from the app or website right from employees’ cell phones. This initiative has improved the communication and accessibility for all of our employees, and from an organizational standpoint has enabled us to become more proficient by having every single form stored in our system for easy access.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Metro Commercial has been servicing the commercial retail industry for over 30 years and has been recognized as one of the top firms and brokers based on its volume of property sales and leases. Metro is dedicated to its employees and customers and prioritizes having a customer service-first mentality, which sets us apart from any other retail brokerage in the industry. Over the years, so many of Metro’s team members have been recognized for their accomplishments as we represent some of the top national retailers.
Specializing in tenant and landlord representation, investment sales, property management, and development services, Metro brings eyes and ears to its clients with unsurpassed market knowledge and an experienced in-house support team that delivers. Our strengths are our people and service excellence with the ability to bring a full-service model to the market. The brand is very well known and established. We do things differently with sophisticated in-house graphics and GIS capabilities, as well as our Master Brokerage Platform. This platform allows us to support the clients that have come to trust us with their regional needs on a national level. Our management and accounting teams take an owner’s mentality with the assets our clients entrust to us.
In a recent sale transaction, our client who was selling the asset requested our accounting team assist with the sale prorations for closing. Looking past the obvious transactions, we advised the client that the capital improvement dollars they incurred over the past few years were recoverable by the tenants through amortization, and therefore the new owner would benefit from that investment. Keeping this future benefit for the new owner in mind, the parties negotiated a payout at closing which provided our client with more than $50,000.
Our role in the industry is to provide expertise as a partner. Metro’s “Get it. Done” tag exemplifies our goal which is to always listen and respond. As our business is service-oriented, it is ingrained in our culture to always have our client’s best interest, first.
Is there a person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Ican’t say I ever had a formal “mentor,” but I cherish the working relationship I had with my first boss. I remember his leadership style was one of inclusion and opportunity, and he was a teacher in the way that he provided challenges, demanded accountability, and shared knowledge. He went so far as to send me on a job interview with a friend of his because he felt it was a good career move for me. I didn’t get the job, but that made him a mentor in my book as he allowed me the opportunity to grow and step outside of my comfort zone. As a result, I strive to mentor just as he did, and prioritize my team to continually grow and succeed in their roles.
Before coming to Metro and coming out of Ernst & Young, I worked for a startup private equity real estate firm. The role wasn’t solidified at first, but my boss instilled a lot of confidence in me and gave me the opportunity to grow and learn. The company started at zero and we grew the company to be worth $6 billion. There were a lot of “firsts” over the 10 years we were in business, and I’m grateful he allowed me to figure out the evolving landscape and collaborate with him on various projects. I am so thankful for this opportunity that enabled me to prove what I had the ability to achieve.
The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a woman 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?
Ibelieve the imbalance is a result of this industry being relationship-driven. Most men have business relationships with other men, therefore continuing the prominence of their networking and sustaining the male-dominated culture of commercial real estate. The lack of women in this industry creates a void.
What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
Ithink as individuals we need to encourage women in powerful roles to speak up and feel empowered to talk about their triumphs and challenges, both professionally and personally. I think this would create a culture of respect and inspire other women to do the same.
From a company standpoint, companies need to start promoting from within and give their current talent base the opportunity to make it to the next level. When we empower the people already working for us, we create an opportunity for them to mentor younger people within the organization as well, and show them there is room for growth and advancement.
As a society, we need to give women the flexibility to balance their careers and home lives, as I believe this lack of balance can hold women back from pursuing their professional goals and making it to the next level. If women had the time, they would be able to embark on the opportunities that come their way.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Ibelieve women leaders face the challenge of just being in the minority. But looking at the greater picture, I think one of the biggest challenges faced by female executives is the struggle between being the caretaker vs. the professional. Women in the workplace want to maintain the kind of job that is equal to what they trained for yet have the flexibility to do other things that are important to them, like raising a family. Even though we have made a lot of progress and we are much more in tune with the balance, the issue is still present. I also think there still is a bit of a stigma on whether a woman is the right “man” for the job from a commitment and dedication perspective. I do believe that is turning around though as more men today are prioritizing a work/life balance.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
There are a lot of things that excite me about the real estate industry as it’s always evolving. I think what we’re seeing from the entertainment aspect of real estate is experiential marketing, which I think is going to be the wave of the future. The younger generation wants to be out and about, have fun and experience life. That’s where I believe the industry is going to thrive. There have been new, interesting retailers that are all about the experience they provide to their customer, and that’s very exciting both as a real estate professional and consumer.
The wave of internet startups becoming bricks and mortar. I think this pattern will grow and we will see online shopping and bricks and mortar not only coexist but have to coexist.
I am also intrigued by the advancement of technology and how it’s streamlining all aspects of our business. Anything that enables us to provide our clients with cutting edge, up to the minute information will continue to differentiate us from our competition. Metro Commercial is always looking for ways to streamline and create efficiencies for our employees and our clients, which is very exciting.
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?
1. “B” and “C” regional malls. They have both seen their best days as 100% retail locations. The list of tenants filling vacancies in these assets are few and far between and the financial stability of many are weak. These “B” and “C” malls must focus on becoming something different than what they were initially built for. The real estate fundamentals are good, but the use of the real estate must expand and evolve to other asset types. In every market, the “A” regional mall will continue to dominate and get stronger which leaves no choice for the second and third-tier malls to reinvent themselves beyond retail-only assets. The wait is over…..owners of these assets need to act ASAP to pursue different avenues such as medical, residential, learning institutions, government facilities, offices and other non-retail categories if their asset is going to survive and thrive in the future.
2. The evolution of technology will replace long-standing jobs and positions within the entire industry. Real estate has always been data-driven. Establishing the best location (“location-location-location”) has always required a level of analytics that users relied upon to make important and expensive real estate decisions. In the past, this information was sourced and delivered by individuals creating and collecting that data. With the new advances in AI, IoT (internet of things) and other big data sources, the need for humans in these roles has been reduced, and in some cases eliminated. As a result, this will reduce the need for real estate professionals in all areas of the industry. The real estate professional of the future needs to be highly savvy in big data analytics, as well as an expert in a certain geography. The technology platforms available now are being adopted every day and will allow fewer people to become experts in larger areas, giving way to fewer people transacting at increased levels in wider geographies.
3. The internet. For all the good it brings, the internet is one of the biggest threats to physical/brick-and-mortar spaces that the entire CRE industry is facing. The ways in which humans use the internet directly impacts the ways they view and use physical space. When the internet disburses goods and services a physical space once offered, it has a devastating impact on that real estate. In some instances, the internet helps physical space but as a whole, it’s having a negative impact; specifically in the office and retail sectors. To counter, owners and investors of CRE need to bring diverse uses to their spaces and build in flexibility to accommodate these new uses.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Ibelieve a true leader needs to embody the ability to not just build a team but build the right team that is aligned with the leader’s objectives, passion and vision. A leader needs to empower their team and create a collaborative environment that will propel success. One of my favorite quotes is “people own what they create,” and I think this rings true when it comes to excelling as an individual and as a team.
Some specific examples I believe help teams thrive:
- Keep them informed and in the know — when your employees have the necessary information they are better equipped to meet expectations and identify potential issues
- Care — employees that genuinely believe you care about them and their success are more inclined to produce quality work for you and the company
- Encourage involvement — this shows you respect their ideas and capabilities
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 nonintuitive 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?
1. Unlike other career paths one might pursue, the real estate industry is a slow business to experience success in. Someone once said real estate is a “get rich slow business” and I believe that to be true. Transactions take a long time. The risk is often high. Entitlements are hard to obtain. Buildings take months and years to build. Value can be fleeting. If you take these shortcomings into account and pair them with shifting financial markets, the fluctuation of interest rates, and changing consumer habits, you may be presented with a challenge. Patience, endurance and perseverance are needed if you want to succeed, which is unlike any other industry. I’d recommend you stick it out as you may find yourself on the right side of things. When the market was down after the last crash, the firm I was with at the time had just raised capital, but no one was buying or selling. As soon as things started to turn but there was no source of lending, that capital came in handy to close on the great deals that were transacting.
2. Anybody can do it. I think you need to be a unique individual possessing certain qualities if you are to forge a sustainable career within the CRE industry. Among other things, you must possess the attributes I mentioned above. Being on the support side of the business for many years I’ve seen agents come and go.
3. Yesterday’s “location-location-location” will not necessarily be tomorrow’s. With demographic changes and the trend away from suburban living to urban or mixed-use developments (live-work-play) many tried and true locations are declining, and many unfavorable areas are in vogue. Areas once vacated or on the decline are now energized and resurging, and many established areas are being disrupted. Past performance does not predict future results in the current world we live and operate within. Look at what’s happening in the outskirts of Central Philadelphia, there’s a lot of progress being made that we wouldn’t have expected 10 or 20 years ago.
4. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice. In the real estate industry, you will cross paths with the same people year after year. Sometimes you’ll be working against each other and sometimes working in connection with each other. There is a perception in the real estate industry that in order to be successful, you must play a game of deception to negotiate a good deal. I say it is better to keep the lines of communication with those in the field amicable and keep your “enemies” close. You never know when you might need someone to help you or provide a reference down the line. Your reputation of being a good person will pay off. During a company sale transition, it would have been easier for me to be uncooperative and combative. The alternative was to provide the level of professionalism and accommodate the buyer’s needs and requests, which I have always done in my career. The relationships that were built with the buyer team paid off in the recognition and offer to work for them as a key member of their transition team. It is good to know that I can use that relationship should it provide value to me in the future.
5). Be prepared. In advance of any meeting or presentation, be prepared. Know your property. Know your owner. Know your tenant. Know the market. Know your competition. Know your deal terms. There is also a “likeability” factor and believe it or not, a softer side. In one pitch I participated in, the team consisted of lower and high-level individuals from the company. Everyone on the team had a part in the pitch. Of course, not all performed as well as others, and as a result, you might have thought our chances were jeopardized. Actually, quite the opposite happened. The way the team rallied around each other showed to the prospective client, and that was rewarded in the end. Were we prepared? Yes, but we brought the team-oriented, softer side as well.
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?
I’ve always had a long-term view on life, and I’ve learned that every decision you make matters. The movement I would inspire is realizing that not everyone’s professional trajectory is the same, so embrace every individual for what they hope to achieve out of life. You may need to take a risk in your career, which may be a lateral step or even a step backward. If you know where you’re going and you’re willing to do what it takes, you’ll eventually get to your destination. In my career, I had to take risks. Sometimes you might be presented with an opportunity that will change your trajectory, and you must capitalize when those opportunities come your way.