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“Why you should start with accounting” With Jason Hartman & Ashlee Cabeal

While this might sound boring to some, I would have to start with accounting. As you enter the real estate field you certainly don’t need know what a CAP rate is or a Gross Rent Multiplier. If you knew how to read a balance sheet, though, or how to interpret a Cash Flow Statement, you […]

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While this might sound boring to some, I would have to start with accounting. As you enter the real estate field you certainly don’t need know what a CAP rate is or a Gross Rent Multiplier. If you knew how to read a balance sheet, though, or how to interpret a Cash Flow Statement, you will be able to learn those other things much intuitively. A basic understanding of accounting principles will greatly help you understand individual real estate deals and identify potential areas for concern.


As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashlee Cabeal, CPA. Ashlee, a longtime member of the Hamilton Zanze (HZ) team and was promoted to the role of Chief Financial Officer at the firm in 2019. A value-add real estate investment firm focused in the multifamily real estate category, the firm has acquired a portfolio of over $4.3 billion worth of assets since its founding in 2001.

Prior to her CFO role at HZ Ashlee served as a Senior Director on the company’s Transactions team, focusing on acquisitions, dispositions, and refinance activity. In this role she also provided expertise in deal sourcing, underwriting, loan originations, and closings. Before joining Hamilton Zanze as an intern in 2010, Ashlee worked as a senior audit associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers. There, she focused on servicing banking and private equity clients.

Ashlee has a B.S. in Accounting and a B.B.A. in Marketing from Loyola Marymount University, and an M.B.A. from the University of California, Davis. She is also a Certified Public Accountant in the state of California.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?

When I graduated college, I graduated with a BS in Accounting and a BA in Marketing. I then went into accounting at PriceWaterhouseCoopers for 3 years, just in time for the economy to nosedive into the Great Recession. At that point, I decided to take the full-time leap back into school to earn my MBA and open up some more options for my future.

A lot of the internship programs available for my summer internship in the Bay Area were with the big corporations, and I knew that wasn’t the type of environment for me. Thankfully, my Dad, who I have always respected and listened to, was investing in multifamily real estate and knew of Hamilton Zanze. He connected me with them for an interview for an internship, and nearly 10 years later I am still with the firm today, and happy to be a part of the real estate industry.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

That’s a tough one. Real estate investing is most certainly a serious business, but we have our way of getting our kicks in here and there. I would say there have been a lot of fun moments just after the final execution of a deal where I have had the chance to see my colleagues let their hair down and celebrate.

It always reminds me, and puts into context, that what we do certainly impacts people’s lives and can be very serious, but at the end of the day we’re not doing heart surgery and we can’t let the intensity get out of hand at risk of losing sanity, dignity, or otherwise.

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

I had the wonderful opportunity just a few months ago to take on the CFO role at Hamilton Zanze. So, in essence, a lot of things are a bit exciting for me right now. A couple of projects in particular, though, do stand out.

As a 19-year-old, first-generation investment firm, Hamilton Zanze has operated as a startup in many ways, growing as we purchase more multi-family apartment communities. As we look toward our next generation of operation, I am excited to be helping the firm establish a better system for data management to help in our reporting process to investors and potential future investors. We have a wealth of information, but we have yet to harvest and deploy that information to a wider network. We will also be able to help our investors evaluate their overall success with us across time and across properties, looking beyond just deal-level returns.

We’re also hard at work on building a more sophisticated Investor Portal, providing investment summaries and new opportunities in a way where online analysis can be more productive for them.

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

I’ve always been proud to work at Hamilton Zanze because this team truly wants to do right by our investors. Our investor pool has grown from a foundation of friends and family, and we still operate as if we might be sitting across the dinner table from each of them on any given Sunday. This sets a very high ethical bar for our team and acts as a valuable filter in the hiring process as well.

I remember one incident when an investor walked away from a deal very close to closing because it wasn’t working well for their requirements and they were temped away by another opportunity. Then, just a couple of weeks later they came back, with just days left on their 1031 exchange opportunity. While our Transactions group was frustrated by their sudden departure, having since filled the gap in equity needed to close the deal, they knew that this investor would lose a lot of money by losing out on their 1031 exchange opportunity. So they made room for them in the deal once again. That’s just how this team operates — we look out for people in our community no matter what.

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?

Our CIO at Hamilton Zanze, Kurt Houtkooper. Kurt was the one who I interviewed with nearly a decade ago, and he has consistently opened doors and opportunities for me ever since. At Hamilton Zanze, under Kurt’s day in and day out leadership, we consistently have the chance to grow and learn from one another across functions and experience levels. Kurt always says that ‘if you hear a conversation you don’t understand or you’re curious about, just walk in’. For a very long time, I was the only female on the Transactions team, which he oversees, and Kurt never treated me any differently good or bad. I will forever be thankful for the opportunity to learn from him and to work alongside of him.

And of course, there is my Dad. From his initial encouragement to explore the real estate investment environment, to his continued willingness to talk through day to day challenges or ideas with me, he has always supported my investment in my career and helped me grow along the way.

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 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?

In real estate, the money is made on the “buy,” or in the execution of the deal itself. A lot of the roles you seem to see women in are in property management or in title, or even in brokering, but not in the spot signing on the bottom line.

Part of that is likely because when you’re in the buying or selling seat, there is no off time. The people in these seats don’t turn it off. So it is hard to be a part of transactions and have a work-life balance, which many mothers desire. These transactions positions also require thick skin and an ability to ride some big highs and big lows. As we all know, when left to their own biases, people often presume that one gender is more capable of carrying those traits than another. That is simply not true, but a bias that is still very much engrained in the real estate industry.

What 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?

For one, every company and every team though should be analyzed at face value. Hamilton Zanze, for instance, has never once shown bias to me or my female colleagues. I believe this problem can be tackled if we all choose to work for the companies that don’t operate with bias or invest our dollars and time with those companies as well. If we made the effort to understand the culture or the legacy of the places where we choose to work or invest a bit better, we could help the more equitable organizations rise to the top.

Another way that companies can help is in the initial interviewing efforts. When a young woman comes in for an interview, don’t simply point them to just one department where you assume they will fit. Give them a chance to explore and contribute in each department, such as transactions, asset management, or investor relations, and support their exploration of these differing skillsets. The opportunity to dabble in each role helped me a great deal when I started out of the gates, and I certainly think I might have chosen more conservative routes had I not been exposed to the diverse options in the field.

While we operate as a fairly small, and family-friendly business at Hamilton Zanze, we are also very good at promoting the best talent regardless of their gender, family, or personal lives. I think more companies need to check their biases at the door and focus on the best talent and the best ideas and less on a proforma of what they think a work-life balance should look like.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

In general, I would say perhaps there is a lack of trust or confidence in female talent than compared to their male counterparts. Sometimes people will double check what you say, whether they are your colleagues or your partners in a deal, or what not. This means that women have to go through extra steps to establish themselves that their male peers might not. While this certainly doesn’t create a hard barrier to success, it can slow the process down and take a little more patience and a higher level of accuracy than they might have experienced otherwise.

Another one is one we have certainly all seen in one way or another, and that’s the issue of time away for maternity leave or illness from pregnancy or breastfeeding. Whether it’s missing one team huddle to go pump in a back room or missing out on a valuable educational conference due to time away having a child, young and mid-career females certainly have moments of absence that can create missed opportunities. In the grand scheme, these can certainly be overcome, but in those prime career growth years they are certainly felt more poignantly.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?

Real estate investing is always changing, along with the markets, the capital availability, and other factors, but the need for housing and shelter will never change. The next generation of consumers is always around the corner and that creates a very fluid housing market that is subject to taste and generational preferences, too.

And every deal is quite frankly different. The buyer and seller are not often the same, the lender, the title team, the occupants, the brokers, etc. Each deal provides a new opportunity to problem solve and that makes it fun from my perspective.

Another exciting thing, for right now, is the continued use of the 1031 exchange. This code stuck around through the most recent tax code changes, and it continues to open a lot of doors for success for investors in real estate. The process also has a lot of room to improve, as 6 out of 7 attempted exchanges currently fail, so it is an exciting time to help people get better and better at making these exchanges succeed.

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?

One thing that concerns me is that there is so much money in real estate right now. We find ourselves competing against many more investors than ever before, and they may not really have the experience necessary to operate these multifamily buildings like we do. It worries me for the sake of the renters out in the market right now. I would encourage renters to maintain a high property management bar as they select their places to live, to help protect many properties from falling under disrepair or even into dangerous states under these new investor types.

With all the new investors entering the real estate field, I also worry about today’s understanding of risk in this market. People need to acknowledge that real estate is a very risky asset class. To have so much young wealth entering this field can also bring with it great potential harm. I would hope that banks, non-profits, and civic organizations could get aggressive about education for new investors to ensure a higher level of risk awareness than is currently out there.

And of course, the state of volatility of the U.S. economy weighs on me right now. The possibility of another dramatic change to our political environment or to the social security system or the tax code could have a huge impact on the real estate industry. How do we grow our business to diversify our access to equity is top of mind for us all the time right now, and we want to always encourage our individual investors to diversify as well.

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

Let people make mistakes. Give them a chance to grow by delegating. It helps give you room to grow and helps them grow and learn more quickly at the same time.

I would also say that you should teach your team how to problem solve as well, not just how to “problem prevent.” While it’s valuable to share your lessons learned, it is also valuable to help support them as they learn some of their own lessons the hard way. That builds confidence and resolution — important skills for our next generation of leaders.

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?

While this might sound boring to some, I would have to start with accounting. As you enter the real estate field you certainly don’t need know what a CAP rate is or a Gross Rent Multiplier. If you knew how to read a balance sheet, though, or how to interpret a Cash Flow Statement, you will be able to learn those other things much intuitively. A basic understanding of accounting principles will greatly help you understand individual real estate deals and identify potential areas for concern.

Another important skill that is hard to put down on paper is a willingness to learn. If you’re not willing to listen, or you over-confidently believe somehow you already know certain things, you will create great challenges and potential failures for yourself. By learning from those with more seasoned deal experience, and watching how they analyze and prioritize information, you will grow a great deal. Be a good listener, as you learn a lot from listening and absorbing. Don’t interrupt or jump in or think you already have the answer, wait until you have heard it all before you make an assumption.

Also, be organized. Take this very seriously in order to protect the trust that people place in you. If you cause an error through a lack of organization, you will be hard pressed to earn their trust back the next time another opportunity comes in the door. Disorganization errors are much harder to forgive than errors cause by simply being a novice.

Another important point is to be willing to jump in and help. The only way we grow as a team is through helping each other, and through putting different minds on the same challenge to see it through multiple perspectives. And remember that it will come back around to you, so maintain a consistent attitude of digging in with your teammates.

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 have a passion for investment in young professionals, as I felt so much personal benefit from my own career and those that chose to invest in me. If I could inspire a movement it would be to make sure that every child, no matter where they are or the resources of their family, has access to a career mentor. We all need someone to help us brainstorm, someone to run ideas past, and someone to cheer us on with no particular vested interest in our success. That kind of support and professional love should be something accessible to everyone, and I only wish I personally could make that happen!

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashlee-cabeal-7055525/

Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!

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