“Listen to people!” with Jason Hartman & Carmen Decker

As a society, we need to continue to make equality and diversity something that is expected, and when we see injustices, we have to point them out. We can’t be shy about having uncomfortable conversations. I hear a lot of people talking about supporting young girls, but it’s equally as important to teach boys and men […]

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As a society, we need to continue to make equality and diversity something that is expected, and when we see injustices, we have to point them out. We can’t be shy about having uncomfortable conversations. I hear a lot of people talking about supporting young girls, but it’s equally as important to teach boys and men that equality is a right, and it’s not necessarily a girl or woman’s job to fit into their world. It’s all our jobs as men and women to encourage a world that’s open and inclusive to everyone.

As the President of Kimco Realty’s Western Region, Carmen M. Decker is a seasoned real estate professional with a wide range of experience in leasing, property sales, and asset management. Mrs. Decker has significantly advanced her career and oversees a portfolio of more than 100 shopping centers comprising over 20 million square feet. She is responsible for strategic planning, property management, redevelopment, acquisitions, and dispositions for the region. Mrs. Decker joined Kimco in 2011 as Director of Real Estate and most recently served as Vice President of Leasing and Asset Management for the Pacific Northwest Sub-Region. She has over 15 years of experience in retail real estate and is a licensed real estate broker in Washington, as well as a member of the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

Mrs. Decker holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and completed Harvard Business School’s Program in Leadership Development.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always had a thing for real estate. Growing up my parents never owned a home, but my mom would do this silly thing where she would take me and my siblings to open houses on the weekends just for fun. We lived about 30 minutes outside of the city and I think she saw it as a good way to bond as a family. We would walk through these homes and see how people decorated, and she would always point out that if we worked hard, one day we could live in one of them.

During college, I got a job as a receptionist at a property management company, and I always found myself listening to the property managers solving problems and making their clients feel heard. I thought this was very cool and it really piqued my interest in real estate.

As a history major, I always thought I would become a high school teacher, but upon moving to San Francisco after graduation, the harsh reality of living off a teacher’s salary in a major city seemed challenging so I started looking for a new direction.

One day I was at a coffee shop working on my resume and struck up a conversation with a man who was waiting for his coffee, and he coincidentally owned a commercial brokerage firm that was on the second floor of the coffee shop. I told him my story and after speaking to him for a while, he said he was hiring for a receptionist, and asked if I wanted an interview. The next day I interviewed with him and got the job! Right away I loved it and have been enamored with real estate ever since.

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?

Iwas initially the receptionist at the firm and after a few months, took on the marketing coordinator role, but what I really wanted was to be a “runner” or broker in training. There was a woman who was a retail broker who I really bonded with, and I wanted to learn as much from her as possible. We met over drinks one night and she told me she was going to another brokerage company in the Bay Area called Terranomics Retail Services that specialized in retail real estate. After reflecting on what I needed in my career at that time, I decided I wanted to go to a different firm that was more supportive of my professional goals. I asked her to put in a good word for me and I applied as an administrative assistant. I interviewed making it very clear that I wanted to be a broker but was asked to start in an administrative role to prove myself first. The company was growing quickly with a handful of young men already training, and within a few months I worked up the courage with another administrative assistant to confront the managing director about transitioning to a runner position. We pitched him that times were changing and we deserved a shot, but in retrospect, it was a really risky move. He took a little bit to come around, but luckily for us, he gave us a shot. Through this experience, I realized that if you really want something, you have to ask for it, take major risks and also sometimes get lucky.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

About two years ago I was given the opportunity to lead Kimco’s Western Region.In addition to leading a large group of real estate professionals and managing an amazing portfolio, I was tasked with taking a team that was struggling from a lack of togetherness and culture and rebuilding the team from its foundation toward a culture that really emphasizes teamwork, collaboration and mutual respect. I spent the first few months meeting with each of the nine offices in the Western Region and discussed with every team member and department how working together and mutual respect is the answer to our collective success. We are only as good as the person sitting next to us and as a result, we must lift each other up and support the growth of the entire team. After some serious work and much group discussion, I started seeing people reach across departments to help others and learn from one another, and the work product has improved tremendously over the last few years. I’ve also seen a deeper and greater understanding of why we do what we do every day, and more importantly, how each of us plays an individual role in making Kimco better and a stronger competitor in the marketplace. I’m very proud of how far the team has come. People have really developed strong connections with teammates across the region, and I look forward to seeing the new culture we have created together continue to thrive.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Ithink what makes Kimco stand out as a company is the people. It’s not uncommon to be sitting in a meeting where over half of the people have devoted 10–15 years of their lives to working for Kimco. I think that goes back to the company doing a great job at training and nurturing their employees, getting them on board with the vision, and making them feel empowered by the leadership they are surrounded by. Kimco puts a big emphasis on people coming to work and enjoying what they do every day. The company encourages self-improvement and continuing education, no matter what level you’re at. It’s really important to the company that every person is proud to say they work at Kimco, which is kind of unique in any industry today.

Is there a person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Ispoke about him briefly, but Matt Kircher who hired me at Terranomics has played a huge role in where I am in my career today. He is currently a Managing Director and Executive Vice President at CBRE in San Francisco, and when I first started working for him, he was a Managing Director at Terranomics. Since that day forward, he’s always been a constant support, advisor, and a real friend. A lot of young people come into the business because their parents are in the industry, but I was the first person in my immediate family to attend college, and my parents didn’t think I was ready to move from Seattle to San Francisco without a job. Neither of my parents were in the industry, so they didn’t understand it. Matt became a big brother and gave me sound advice, constructive feedback, and showed me the ropes. I can say honestly that I didn’t know what I was doing, and he really guided me when I was just starting out in the industry. I would watch how Matt acted, responded to people in meetings, and took in all that he had to offer. When I moved back to Seattle to start a family, it was hard to leave because he was like family to me. When I got married and had a baby, my husband and I took our son back to introduce him to Matt and his wife Mary. Additionally, when I took the job at Kimco, he was the first person I called for advice. I still call him and we always meet at every ICSC convention to catch up. I can proudly say without hesitation I know I wouldn’t be where I am without the opportunities and the exposure that he’s given me and has continued to give me over the years.

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?

Obviously, the residential and commercial fields are quite different, so I’ll speak to the commercial real estate industry. It’s only been in the last 10 to 15 years that women have started to work their way above an administrative type role so while there are a lot of women in the commercial field, a vast majority of them have historically been in a support role capacity until very recently. Historically, most senior-level jobs have been held by men, not only in real estate but in most industries, and it’s natural to gravitate towards seeking to mentor and work with those we relate to. But the world is changing very fast and we now all know the clear and indisputable benefits of diversity, and how that positively impacts the result of a company and its culture. The more ambitious women that come into the industry, the more opportunities there will be to mentor and develop talented females to grow into senior-level roles, and I think we are starting to see that now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely an uphill battle, but I have hope that it’s changing. I see that change every day at Kimco And I’m really proud to be a part of it.

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 find ways to give back and spend time mentoring all young women and also men, so they are better prepared for the realities and what’s happening in the world. We need to show them the ropes and give them opportunities to succeed, but also to safely fail and learn from those failures. I believe that if you don’t have exposure to what’s possible, you can’t be expected to achieve in that environment. All young people deserve that opportunity, whether they grew up with parents who support them and show them the way or not.

From a company standpoint, I believe we need to support continuing education and push a broader definition of inclusion. This is one way to create a culture that allows everyone to have the space to contribute and provide opportunities for growth. Kimco created a terrific program internally called LABS which stands for Leaders Advancing Business Solutions, and I think that’s a really brilliant way to push rising stars within the company outside of their comfort zones. We need to give everyone an opportunity to shine in ways that they might not be able to in their normal day-to-day lives. Throughout this program, I saw people really commit themselves in a way that I hadn’t before, which is why I think it’s such a great program and I’m very proud that I was a part of it.

As a society, we need to continue to make equality and diversity something that is expected, and when we see injustices, we have to point them out. We can’t be shy about having uncomfortable conversations. I hear a lot of people talking about supporting young girls, but it’s equally as important to teach boys and men that equality is a right, and it’s not necessarily a girl or woman’s job to fit into their world. It’s all our jobs as men and women to encourage a world that’s open and inclusive to everyone.

What are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Ithink the biggest challenge I have found is that the concept of senior leadership roles for women is still very new. Eight times out of 10 in senior-level meetings or work dinners there simply aren’t a lot of women, or any women at all for that matter. We don’t have as many females in the same place to look to for mentorship that is specific to the female experience. And because men have historically been at these tables with only men, they too are in a place experiencing this new world for the first time. Most women don’t have a sister, mother or grandmother to go to for guidance since we’re often the first generation of women in these leadership roles. At times, it can be a bit isolating. But I know that’s changing and I frankly look forward to continuing to lift up other strong women and men who believe in the positives of this new normal.

Another obvious challenge is having a family while working long hours and traveling. I travel a lot in my role and as much as I love my work, I love my family more. It’s not just a challenge for the women in these roles, but also for the entire family. My husband has been incredibly supportive of my career growth and is very proud of me, as are my children. We’re learning to navigate it together and I’m very lucky to have their support. I’m also grateful to be at a company that understands the importance of both success at work and at home, and I know that not every woman in a leadership role will have that.

What 3 things most excite you about the real estate industry?

1). It’s always changing! People change, cities change, and what excites the customer changes.

2). The evolution of the commercial retail space requires you to be flexible, creative, and forward-thinking, which can be a little uneasy. We don’t know what the real estate industry will look like in 10 years, but we have an awesome opportunity to be a part of giving the industry its new shape. How many people can say that about their industry? This is an industry that has been disrupted many times. There will be winners and losers, but the winners will say, “This is a huge challenge, but what are we going to do about it, and how are we going to twist and turn to find what the customer doesn’t even know they want yet?” I think it’s an exciting time to be a part of that change!

3). It’s a great pleasure to help create a shopping center that is the center of a community and offers an environment that serves that community. A shopping center is a place where people bring their kids on weekends, go to the movies, go shopping, and create memories. I love that we can be a small part of those memories.

Can you share three things that most concern you about the industry. If you have the ability to implement three ways to improve or reform the industry, what would you suggest?

The first thing I’d like to see is the industry continuing to modernize and find ways to use technology and data to better serve the customer. It’s something that we’re doing a lot of at Kimco but as an industry, we’re in the beginning stages of understanding how that technology can be used to improve the business. We have some work to do.

The second thing I’d like to see is for the industry to keep pushing for greater diversity. I strongly feel that each person brings a different experience and knowledge base to what they do every day and if we have a room full of people who grew up the same way, live in the same communities and have the same life experience sitting at the big table, we are missing a massive opportunity to connect with our customers.

Lastly, we’re in a strange place right now in the industry where many landlords, developers and tenants are all a little bit scared about the future of retail. That fear they’re feeling often creates a bit of hostility between the groups, and people stop being reasonable and aren’t able to work together. This is problematic for a shopping center because the customer will only want to come back if the experience is perfect and we create that environment together. You can’t be a landlord providing a beautiful shopping center in the right location, but the tenant mix doesn’t serve the surrounding customer. On the flip side, you can’t be an exceptional retailer and provide great products to your customer and be in a location that is undesirable with a co-tenancy that doesn’t lend itself to cross-shopping. The customer will just stay at home and shop online. Ultimately, we’re in this together and the success of the industry is really a collective success more than ever.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

The advice I would give is that it’s important to get to know your people. You need to know what motivates them and truly seek to understand what they want to get out of their career, and give them opportunities to help them grow in that direction. People often fear their employees might outgrow them, but that’s exactly what you want. If you’re nurturing someone to the point where they outgrow their role, then you’re doing your job. You want to bring the best out of every person.

One other piece of advice is to recognize that you’ll have people on your team who are extroverts and aren’t afraid to speak up. It’s great because they are contributing and adding great value to the conversation. But there are also people who are deep thinkers, maybe they are a little more reserved, maybe they need a moment and space to speak up. As a leader, you need to create that space. Look around the room for the non-verbal cues. If you notice those who are clearly deep in thought, stop the conversation and ask them directly what they think. That helps the team grow, brings forward new and unconventional leaders and supports the diversity of thought that I think is vital to a team’s success.

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). In a world where we are increasingly more isolated, people want to be surrounded by people at the end of the day. Experiential retail is becoming more and more important, and we must create a fun, exciting experience that will entice customers to return.

2). Whatever you are doing, you must ask a lot of questions to understand someone’s motivations. The more you understand motivations, the better chance you can reach success without sacrificing your own needs. Win-win.

3). Listen to people! If you ask a question and leave a space for silence, you’ll likely get the real answer by giving someone space and the opportunity to truly speak. I always find I learn the most during a conversation where there is space for awkward silence.

4). Ask kids the daunting questions that you have in your heads every day. They are the future customers! Ask them what they think of an experience at a shopping center and what they think is new and cool out there. You’ll often be surprised by what you can learn from their unfiltered responses.

5). The only thing I know for sure is that the commercial real estate industry won’t stop changing, so don’t get complacent. Constantly push the limits of your curiosity and determine what can be better, and what is no longer relevant. Don’t be afraid to make changes, to try new things that may fail and always ask yourself what might happen in 10–15 years that seems impossible today but could have a significant impact on the asset one day. For example, I often think about the inevitable densification of land in urban centers. What should we be doing today to plan for and protect our shopping centers for that eventual change?

Bottom line is that if you see or feel a trend emerging, don’t ignore it. Get curious and get ahead of it.

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?

Ithink the concept of togetherness and how we connect as people in today’s world is underrated. We eat at restaurants with our heads buried in our phones, we stand in elevators without making eye contact, and when someone smiles at us we look away. Our culture is suffering in a lot of ways because we lack an understanding and appreciation of how we impact those around us every day. We are living in a culture where individualism is really celebrated which is great, but the truth is, no one gets to a place of success alone. I do not believe in the concept of being “self-made” because unless you raised yourself, never had a teacher in school, paid your own bills since birth, and gave yourself your last work promotion, then you achieved your hard-earned success with the help of others. I would love to see a movement where we all start working together and supporting each other more. I would love to see more people mentoring and recognizing that each one of us will need the love and support of others throughout life, and should return that favor whenever possible. We need to start opening our minds to our daily impact on those around us, and the importance of showing empathy and patience. I have found that my team at Kimco works harder and has more success when team members support each other. They are more passionate about their role in the company and at the end of the day go home more fulfilled by their work.

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