People are our most valuable asset. In our modern society, we look for the best talent and have hired women in all roles, including construction superintendents, a role that has traditionally been dominated by men. As individuals in homebuilding, we need to provide more training for these types of positions, to encourage more women to apply for these roles.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carola Cherief, vice president of sales and marketing at Trumark Homes-a next-generation homes builder.
Based in Trumark’s Newport Beach office, Carola Cheriefis responsible for all aspects of sales and marketing for the Southern California Division of Trumark Homes as well as the marketing of the TruLiving brand, a Trumark portfolio comprised of age-qualified master planned communities.
Cherief has more than two decades of global experience in the homebuilding industry. She began her career in the French division of KB Homes, Kaufman & Broad S.A., where she held various sales positions including sales counselor, international sales manager and vice president of sales. As International Sales Manager, she spearheaded a project for the first French builder to introduce sales of Parisian condominiums abroad in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and Israel. Cherief then moved with KB Homes to California in 2002 and has since held senior sales and marketing management roles for both public and private builders including Centex Homes, Ryland Homes, K. Hovnanian Homes and Kalia Homes, a luxury builder based in Costa Rica.
Cherief is an active member of the Building Industry Association’s Greater Sales and Marketing Council (GSMC) and was a previous board member of the Orange County chapter of Building Industry Association. She earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attended graduate school in Geneva, Switzerland at the Graduate Institute of International Relations. Cherief is fluent in both Spanish and French.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
Iwas 28-year-old stay-at-home-mom living in Paris, France, when my husband decided to go back to school. One of us needed to work and a friend who I had met in graduate school, who was an assistant controller for Kaufman & Broad, suggested I apply for a sales position with the company. During the interview, I explained that I would probably only work for 18 months. It’s been 29 years and I never looked back.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far?
I have been blessed with the opportunity of working both in the U.S. and global homebuilding industry, and with people that I admire. I realized how much I loved my job and industry during the recession.
The recession hit while I was living in Orange County, Calif. I lost my job — as did most people I knew. It was a terrible time. Most of my friends and colleagues walked away from their homes, depleted their savings and had their kids take out larger loans for college — or had to drop out altogether. Two of my three kids were in college and I refused to follow that path. I also wanted to prove to them that it was not acceptable to simply accept our predicament.
I thought about my skill set. I had been in sales and marketing management for over 10 years, but there were no management jobs available. I could return to real estate sales, but the market was effectively destroyed. One day I came across an ad for a company that was recruiting for gold traders and I remembered that in Economics, when real estate and the stock market declines, gold increases. I interviewed and got the job, drove an hour and a half each way and maintained my income. I sold on a trading floor, honed my sales skills and met some amazing salespeople. In the end, I wasn’t truly happy and realized how lucky I was to have worked in the homebuilding industry and felt so blessed to have been able to return to it. Additionally, I was able to set an example for my millennial daughters who today work extremely hard and are all very successful in their careers.
Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
No matter how tough times are, you must take a step back, realize your strengths and not let yourself get defeated.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The biggest issue in housing today is affordability. At Trumark, our team has spent — and continues to spend — countless hours designing new products that meet the needs of today’s buyers, to help reduce the cost of homes. I’m lucky to have had building experience in Paris where this phenomenon happened decades ago so my past is guiding me in this process.
On another note, one of the most satisfying roles in my career has been mentoring newcomers to the industry. Both in France and in the U.S., I have mentored people that today have become leaders in the industry. Part of my success I owe to them as well, as they also helped in my decision making and shaped who I am.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Trumark co-founders Mike Maples and Gregg Nelson regard tenacity and creative problem-solving, two of the five core competencies (deal-making, market insight, and operational excellence being the others) as essential traits to being part of the Trumark team. It’s such an honor to be part of a company that was named Builder of the Year by Professional Builder in 2018 and Developer of the Year by Builder and Developer Magazine in 2019.
The diversity of projects that Trumark develops is also exciting, from single-family attached and detached homes to high rises, commercial mixed-use and recently, age-qualified neighborhoods. Our offering is vast. The ability to be innovative is an aspect that I appreciate at Trumark. Currently, we developed a project with no set floorplans. This is at our West Village project in Brea, Calif. There are nine-floor layouts which homeowners can choose from to design their home. This product in production is something homebuilding has never done before and required extensive research and training of not only our teams but of our sub-contractors.
Recently, an affiliate of Japan-based Daiwa House Industry Co. acquired a majority stake in Trumark. The acquisition links Trumark’s operating expertise with financial resources equal to the largest homebuilders in the nation, which will enable us to continue our pursuit of acquisitions, operational excellence, and innovation.
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?
At every step in my career, I have had bosses, almost all male, that have been open to guiding and mentoring me. I have known and worked for my current boss, Richard Douglass on and off for 15 years. He often uses military or sports analogies, as he sees much of business as a battle or like sports, implementing fundamental practices and disciplines. You need to know and trust the people in the trenches or your teammates and make sure they feel secure in their decision making and feel at ease with expressing their views with your decision making.
I also have to say that all my bosses where understanding that I was a mother. When my children were young, I was privileged to have an amazing nanny who helped me raise my daughters. She loved my daughters like her own and I was at peace to devote myself as much as possible to my career.
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?
Historically, the homebuilding industry has been predominantly male, but times are changing. I’m lucky to work for a company that promotes diversity, so we do have women in many different roles, and at all levels. It is important that companies consider individual talents — not just gender.
What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
- People are our most valuable asset. In our modern society, we look for the best talent and have hired women in all roles, including construction superintendents, a role that has traditionally been dominated by men. As individuals in homebuilding, we need to provide more training for these types of positions, to encourage more women to apply for these roles.
- It is important that companies encourage life-work balance. The home building industry can be intense, but at Trumark Homes we allow people to work from home when necessary. It’s all about being tenacious and getting the work done. We have one exciting benefit that we call Trumark 150. Every month we are given $150 to spend on ourselves for our wellbeing. I use mine on a gym membership. Last year we held “relationship month” to better our relationships with loved ones. The Trumark 150 was extended to our significant others, children or friends. These types of initiatives are especially important to women who realize that they can make a difference in their careers and not neglect their loved ones. More companies can incorporate these types of programs in the workplace.
- In our industry, the Building Industry Association (BIA) holds an annual women’s conference that unites leaders from both inside and outside the industry to talk about their experiences. The event is attended by over 700 people and provides women with relatable advice to succeed. Past conference speakers have included Randi Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media. Zuckerberg is the former Head of Marketing at Facebook, an entrepreneur, investor, bestselling author and tech media personality. Also providing keynote addresses was Dianne McGrath, a successful researcher, consultant and Mars One Astronaut Candidate, and Megan Telles, a reporter with KTLA 5 News in Los Angeles.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women, in general, need to feel that they always have everything under control, whether it be at work or home. I feel that most male counterparts rely on their wives or significant others to handle the organization necessary for their lives outside of work. Women feel they must handle it all.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry? (Home Building)
- I love my job and the homebuilding industry because no two days are ever the same. One day I’m with my sales team reviewing sales and the next I have a hard hat on in the field reviewing our product. The next day I’m with architects planning entry level product subsequent to a meeting for specifications to include in luxury homes. Then it’s on to a meeting with the ad agency to plan marketing strategy. All this culminates in events such as Grand Openings where I get to engage face-to-face with our buyers.
- One of the most satisfying roles in my career has been mentoring industry newcomers. Both in France and in the U.S., I have mentored people that today have become leaders in the industry. Part of my success I owe to them as well, as they also helped in my decision making and shaped who I am. I’m often asked for advice by newcomers on how to find mentors. My advice is to work hard, be curious not only about your role but the whole operation, look to develop your leadership skills and be open to constructive criticism. These traits inspire mentors to help you succeed.
- It is rewarding when I am able to drive through completed Trumark neighborhoods and see the happy families playing in the front yard. That’s when I realize that a home is the one of the most important parts of one’s life and that somehow my job contributed to a homebuyer’s happiness.
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?
- We currently live in a Pinterest and HDTV-world where first-time buyers expect to get finishes comparable to what they see on TV in their new homes. This is not always financially feasible. It is essential for us to find acceptable compromises and educate first-time buyers.
- During the crisis (2007 to 2012), the industry did not recruit, and as a result, our talent pool has limited experienced mid-level managers. Fortunately, this has created an opportunity for younger managers to quickly access more senior roles.
- Unlike the car industry, homebuilding does not quickly adapt to technical innovation. It would be ideal to adapt building technology to the needs of our buyers, to build homes that are adaptable to people of all ages. All builders are adding smart technology, but ideally, we could include adjustable countertops or flexible rooms where people could age in place. At Trumark, in some of our homes we have added what we refer to as “Truflex” options, which enables our buyers to convert an extra-large master into a master and nursery when their needs change. This is just the beginning; we continue to strive to be at the forefront of innovation.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Communication is key. All companies have yearly or quarterly reviews. I believe what is brought up in these reviews should be of no surprise to your employees. It is important to bring up issues immediately as they arise as it is equally important to recognize achievements in real time. Bringing up issues lets people have the opportunity to immediately correct behavior and recognition keeps employees engaged and promotes a positive workplace environment.
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?
- Make sure you have people of different ages, experience and genders working on a project. It is often thought that uniting a group of experts will produce the best results. Actually, we have realized that a diverse group that has open communication styles will result in a better project. Many companies hold executive staff meetings where only the Directors or VP levels are included. We include all management levels as we understand that junior managers are vital to our success and have valuable input. We encourage 360-degree feedback, and encourage them to give their opinions and/or dispute senior managers’ opinions, which we welcome.
- In California, land is scarce and very expensive. We are constantly forced to watch our build costs. It is imperative to focus on our buyer and constantly review the changing desires of the consumer, so we can build products that meets their needs. This is a topic that always brings about contentious opinions and much debate. In the end, the more we discuss, the better product we produce. Our mission is always to deliver products that enhance and inspire.
- Always listen to your field people, sales and construction. They are on the front lines and can provide valuable insights. The more they are included in the decision making the better. At the end of each project, we always hold a meeting with the entire team to debrief and review what went well and what we need to improve going forward.
- Training is essential. Continue to always review the essentials. Often, we assume that experienced employees don’t need training, but each project is different, and circumstances evolve. It is important to continuously make sure we are all on the same page.
- Above all, customer service is key. At Trumark Homes, every employee knows that our customer comes first. We survey every homeowner when they move in, at six months and at one year. We expect them to be pleased not only with their home but with the entire process. The surveys also help us to optimize our processes moving forward.
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. 🙂
At Trumark we are proud to partner with charity: water, a nonprofit organization bringing fresh, clean drinking water to people in developing nations. Clean water is the most essential resource on the planet, yet for hundreds of millions of the world’s population, it is the rarest. After witnessing firsthand the immense need for potable water in African villages, Trumark co-founders Mike Maples and Gregg Nelson were determined to do their part to help end the water crisis in the most disadvantaged areas of the world. Through our partnership with charity: water, for about every 50 homes we build, Trumark has committed to donate a water well that will provide approximately 200 people with access to potable water. To date, Trumark’s contributions have improved the lives of over 7,500 underserved people. Creating wells means that hundreds of girls can go to school instead of walking hours just to bring water back to their families. You can watch Trumark’s impact here: https://vimeo.com/387534085/20083dae60.
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Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!