Never judge a book by its cover, you never know who you might be dealing with so treat everyone with kindness and respect. Many might have ignored the track suit bystander because he didn’t look the part. Growing up in the inner city in NYC truly helped me to hone my “street smarts” and my instincts have always been a strength, particularly in business.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tammy Jones
Tammy Jones has more than 20 years of experience in the commercial real estate industry, investing and lending on CRE assets her entire career on behalf of large pension funds and institutional investors. This includes Equitable Real (the largest pension fund advisor and investment management firm at the time), GMACCM (one of the largest CRE lenders, owned by GM) and CW Capital (the U.S. debt investment platform owned by Caisse de dépôt , one of the largest pension fund managers in Quebec). Since 2009, Ms. Jones has served as both Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Basis Investment Group (Basis), a multi-strategy commercial real estate investment platform she founded with JEMB Realty Corporation that invests and lends across the capital stack primarily in the middle market. Basis acquires and originates a variety of senior and subordinated loans, preferred equity and joint venture equity positions on behalf of its investors. Under Ms. Jones’s leadership, Basis has succeeded in closing over $4 billion in commercial real estate debt and structured equity related investments across the United States.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
For me, launching a career in commercial real estate did not follow a linear path. I knew nothing about the industry and I basically fell into the field. After I graduated college as an Economics major, I still wasn’t sure on my career direction. I decided that I needed a role that would expose me to different areas of business, so I entered into a financial management training program at Equitable Life. This job was perfect for me because it gave me the opportunity to see all of the businesses in Equitable’s platform. After rotating through the different subsidies of the Equitable Enterprise, I found myself really drawn to Equitable’s commercial real estate investment platform. Unlike other investments, real estate is a tangible asset that you can actually see and touch. I loved understanding how to invest in markets and why each property was uniquely positioned. I also began to understood that commercial real estate was a wealth creation business and that it could be very entrepreneurial. I eventually left the training program and joined the real estate team at Equitable and the rest is history.
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?
Asa CEO, one of my most important roles is raising money for the company. When we were on the road raising capital, we met with or talked to about 130 investors. After arriving early at an offsite one day to present to an Investment Board, I noticed a gentleman standing right outside of the entrance to building, wearing a track suit and smoking a cigarette. I typically speak to everyone, so I gave him a smile, said hello and went into the building. My colleague and I were a bit confused about where to go, but we stepped into the elevator and right before the doors were about to close, the man in the track suit stepped in. My colleague pressed the button for the second floor and man turned to us to tell us to go to the fourth floor. He said this nicely, but with a hint of authority in his voice. My colleague started to challenge him, but my street instincts kicked in and I cut my colleague off as I instantly recognized who this man was. I said, “Thank you. It’s nice to meet you Tom.” My colleague was shocked that I guessed that man in the track suit was actually the Chairman of the Board with whom we were meeting. When doing my research for the meeting, the Chair was the only person who did not have a picture online. Something about this man’s confidence, despite his attire, clued me in to his importance. Needless to say, we got the capital from this board and Tom (not his real name) seemed to really like our investment thesis.
Lessons learned. First, never judge a book by its cover, you never know who you might be dealing with so treat everyone with kindness and respect. Many might have ignored the track suit bystander because he didn’t look the part. Growing up in the inner city in NYC truly helped me to hone my “street smarts” and my instincts have always been a strength, particularly in business. Whatever your “superpower” is, learn to trust it. Finally, someone told me once, “get comfortable being uncomfortable, opportunity lies on the edge of your discomfort”. I am glad that I took the risk in addressing the gentleman in the track suit, it resulted in a great opportunity.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Last year our team closed its first private equity commercial real estate investment fund, BIG Real Estate Fund I, to invest and lend on commercial real estate across the United States with a particular focus in middle market. We completed the final close of our fund in May 2019, oversubscribed at $410 million.
Through the determination, creativity and resourcefulness of the entire Basis team, we were able to surpass our fundraising target in a time of economic uncertainty, when many other new funds struggled to raise capital. As one of the only African American women to raise a private equity commercial real estate Fund in the United States, I hope that I have broken down a barrier that others will follow. Unfortunately, in spite of strong performance, access to capital for women and minorities continues to be challenge. I am using the Basis platform to be the change that I want to see and to provide access to capital for all. So far, Basis has invested and loaned more than $750MM to other highly qualified woman and minority commercial real owner and the performance of this portfolio has been outstanding.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Basis is a diversified investment platform that offers investors equity-like returns with the risk profile and structured downside protections of debt, along with a significant current income component. A one-stop shop for debt and equity across the capital stack, Basis also actively offers senior loans across asset classes throughout the U.S. As a licensed Freddie Mac Small Balance Loan Seller-Servicer, Basis is also able to provide capital for borrowers seeking financing options for smaller multifamily properties.
Our status as a certified minority woman owned business makes Basis pretty unique in this traditionally male dominated industry. Throughout my career, I have always strived for diversity and inclusion. This is evidenced by our own team’s, composition, which is 77% women and minorities. At Basis, we believe that diversity is our “secret sauce” and has led to our out performance and strong track record.
In addition, we created the Basis Impact Group Foundation to inspire the next generation of minorities and women in commercial real estate by exposing under resourced youth to the career and wealth building opportunities that exist in the commercial real estate industry. Through its partnership with numerous professional real estate organizations, the Foundation’s educational program helps hundreds of young people access the potential of this essential but often exclusive field.
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?
One of my mentors is Debbie Harmon, CEO of Artemis Real Estate Partners, a commercial real estate investing firm. Early in Basis’s fundraising, I really bombed a very important investor presentation. It was one of those times when my flow was just off, and while I was disappointed with the meeting, I knew that I could not give up. I called Debbie for advice and to see if she would provide a strong reference for me with this investor. Debbie went beyond that. She met with the investor in person to talk about Basis and truly put her reputation on the line for me. Very few people have done something like this for me in my career. After Debbie’s meeting, the investor agreed to meet with me again, something unheard of in their process. Debbie did not stop there. She told me to capture the moment by writing down (for myself) what I learned from the experience — an important life lesson and a seminal moment in the growth of our business. Self-reflection is important to make change. She also listened to my pitch and reviewed my deck. Based on Debbie’s advice, I made some key changes to my approach and pitch and we ultimately got this investor and 15 other investors on board! The initial set back turned out to lead us to success!
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?
Legacy industries like commercial real estate (which are often family and/or privately owned and managed) are even slower at expanding opportunity to women and minorities. While inclusivity has made some progress in the past few decades, there is still have a long way to go. Studies continue to emerge that point to the benefits of diversity in the workplace and among leadership. It has been proven that diverse teams produced better outcomes. Change has to start at the top with the decision makers. If we want to see real change, we need to continue to promote diversity and inclusion at the Board level and in the senior teams of commercial real estate firms,
When people see me, they don’t see the stereotype of a CEO in the commercial real estate industry. As the workplace becomes increasingly diverse, we have to look for ways to be more inclusive. It’s important to remember that “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance”. We need to work hard at both.
What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
First, the stakeholders need to recognize that there is a disparity and ask themselves why their organizations do not reflect the changing demographics. Second, the leadership (Board and senior teams) need to actively work on a plan to address the imbalance with measurable targets. And finally, none of us can do this alone, so forming strategic partnerships with other companies and professional trade organizations who are facing the same challenges are key to affecting change.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Ithink the biggest challenge for women executives if that we often have to work twice as hard to reach the same goals. It’s been ingrained in me from a young age that to succeed in life you have to work smarter, better and faster than everyone else. Being the lone female voice in the room allowed me to advocate for myself and my brand in order to dispel the skepticism from those who doubt my capabilities and experience.
Can you share 3 things that most excites you about the Real Estate industry?
- Institutional investors are becoming more willing to invest with first-time and emerging managers (but there is still tremendous room for growth)
- Non-gateway markets like Nashville, Austin, Salt Lake City and others are buzzing with economic activity and in turn a wide range of real estate investment opportunities continue to exist. Basis focus in the middle market over the last decade plus gives our firm a competitive advantage over investors who are just beginning to explore these markets.
- While there is still more work to do, the public sector has started to step in more and more to create public-private partnerships to support minority and women owners and developers to access commercial real estate opportunities.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry?
- There is an affordability housing crisis in America,
- We are late cycle and commercial real estate valuations are at all-time highs, particularly in the gateway markets. It is a time for caution.
- Diversity is still a significant challenge in the industry
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Invest in your employees and give others an opportunity to lead. Create a diverse and inclusive work environment. Listen well to your team. Position your employees for success by helping them to identify roles that are a fit with their strengths. Lead by example.
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?
- Always stay one step ahead. Study the markets and the demographics. Be a leader in your industry and don’t just follow others.
- Be nimble and ready to pivot if the market changes.
- Take calculated risks
- Trust your instincts. They’re usually right.
- Don’t just network, find sponsorship
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence in your industry. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
Changing the face of the CRE industry to be more inclusive. Roughly 77% of the senior jobs in CRE are still held by white men. This is an industry with a significant diversity challenge. I am dedicated to partnering with others to build a diversity ecosystem starting with an early stage pipeline through providing opportunities at the entrepreneurship, management and Board level. We have to attack this issue with a multi-pronged approach because as an industry, we have been poking at this issue for years with little results. CRE is a wealth creating business and if we equalize the playing field and improve access to capital, particularly for African Americans, Latinos and other ethnic minorities, we can begin to address the significant disparity in generational wealth creation.