As part of our Common Ground campaign for Gender Equality, Pace proudly salutes the women of real estate! Here’s to every achievement earned, every milestone passed, and every glass ceiling shattered.
Mary Ann Tighe is a true trailblazer: an American commercial real estate broker and CEO of the New York Tri-State Region of CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm. The Wall Street Journal has written, “(There is) an exceedingly small club of women who have managed to move to the top of the brokerage business. That club’s most prominent member is Mary Ann Tighe.” Crain’s New York Business has named Mary Ann the most powerful woman—across both the public and private sectors—in New York. (You can read Mary Ann’s full bio here.)
We were thrilled and so grateful to talk with Mary Ann for our Common Ground campaign, to hear about her achievements, how she broke in and made it in the industry, advice she has for other women in the field, and much more.
Q: How did you get your start in the real estate business?
I had been in several completely different businesses that involved an enormous amount of travel. I was 36 years old, I was in the cable television industry and I was in Europe buying TV for ABC video services. I started Arts & Entertainment, the A&E channel, so I was buying programming from the Italian television network and lamenting the fact that I spent an enormous amount of time every month on the road. This was in the early 1980s. I had a young son at that point and a husband and was really bothered by the fact that I was not getting to spend enough time with them. In the course of that trip to Venice, I met a retired commercial real estate broker. He told me all about his career and I thought to myself, “I could do that work.” He had experienced an enormous amount of success in the industry and I respected the way he described the business, which I really had no knowledge of. I thought the business involved renting stores! His description of the business is what engaged me. The beauty of the CRE world, as he described it, was that I would not have to travel at all, because my business would all be in New York, where I live. So that was really the beginning of how I made the transition from working for ABC Video Enterprises and coming into the world of CRE, which I did in November of 1984.
Q: Did you or do you have any role models in the industry, or someone who influenced you in a significant way in the field?
My role model was Carol Nelson, a woman I met about 18 months after coming into the business. At that point, she was the only woman of any significant stature in commercial brokerage. She was first my mentor, ultimately my partner, and remains my friend today – she’s retired. What Carol taught me was more the mindset of commercial brokerage than any particulars of how to do the deals themselves. Those I learned from others who were wonderful mentors in different ways. It was Carole who sort of toughened me up mentally for what is fundamentally a sales business that involves a fair amount of rejection and, at the highest levels, an intense amount of competition. “Good girls” typically want to be everybody’s friend. Carol was very much a female, she wasn’t trying to be one of the boys, ever. She was a girl’s girl. Yet at the same time, her ability to compete was extraordinary. She taught me how to take a “no” and not be discouraged by it. She taught me how to hammer ideas, to whom to present those ideas, and how to sell them. Those things have lasted to the present day in terms of the benefits they provided in my career.
Q: What were some obstacles or challenges you faced along the way on your career path?
I think that in my earliest years, the challenge was coming from businesses that were inherently collaborative. In addition to the cable industry, I had worked at The Smithsonian as an art historian, my primary training. I’d always worked with people and shared ideas with people and been very open and communicative. In the early days of commercial real estate, everyone was a competitor, even the person at the desk next to you. So the idea of not sharing information was alien and many of my early errors resulted in my saying things that I should have kept to myself. Fortunately, the industry has evolved significantly since then, so many of those traits actually proved to my benefit over time, because I’m a natural partner.
People always want to focus on gender issues. Interestingly, because I had Carol as a role model and I was dealing with somebody who was incontestably feminine in her approach, I never felt the need to “dress for success” – whatever the clichés of the time were – or to try to pretend I was interested in sports, which I remain uninterested in! I was just who I was. As long as I was knowledgeable and creative and inexhaustible in the real estate room – if I had those things, it didn’t matter that I was a woman. I always said that if you were able to do great deals for your customers, they really didn’t care what you were.
In terms of partnering with my mostly male colleagues, I think of that great line from “The Godfather” – Hyman Roth’s great trait, that he always made money for his partners. I would say that has been my secret, too. I always make money for my partners – and that’s why I’ve never had a problem partnering with men I work with.
I want to emphasize that I had the protection of a woman who had dealt with all those things, regarding gender inequality. That’s the deciding difference. Carol experienced it in spades! I always said in the early years, she was busy blocking for me, or she was saying, “You see that? Here’s how you deal with it. Ignore it, or confront it…” or whatever. So I had the ultimate protector or coach.
Q: Have you seen changes in gender equality since you started in the field?
Yes, there’s no question that in the early years, Carol and I were the only women there. Very funny experience: a couple of years back, we were working for Teach for America, doing their New York office, which was a substantial deal. The first day, we all piled into the room to meet with the landlord’s side of the table – the landlord, his attorney, and his brokerage team – all men. Then my team comes in and the men all look startled. I suddenly looked at our team and realized we were 100% women. Everybody! The person representing Teach for America, our attorney, our brokerage team – all of us were women. We hadn’t even thought about it. I looked down the table and I actually said, “Why do you have that expression on your face?” and they said, “We’ve never negotiated against a whole group of women.” I said, “Well, watch out… because you know how good we have to be to be doing this!”
That – having a whole team of women – would never have happened 20 years again, even 15 years ago. Today, I can’t think of a situation where I’m on a team and there aren’t other women. Certainly, that’s a reflection of my firm, I can’t speak to the entire industry – the numbers are still against women in the industry.
Q: What’s one major milestone or achievement you can share from your career?
Maybe I would point to moving Condé Nast twice – first to Times Square and then to 1 World Trade Center. I think both of those deals were landmark deals for Condé, but also for our city. Condé turned around Times Square and then their move to the World Trade Center validated that location.
I want to pass the 100-million-square-foot mark, in terms of deals done. I am pretty sure I am at 97 million, so I think the odds are good that I’m going to pass the 100 million mark. I’ve been doing this for 32 years! I’m sure it will be a record, certainly in the United States.
Q: What advice would you give to women who may be starting out, trying to break in, or trying to advance in the field?
I think, in general, people can always be employed if they know more about a subject than most people. It can be the smallest subject. By the way, this is particularly true in big cities. One of the greatest things about New York City is that if you have any expertise, the marketplace finds you. I always think of the lady who waxes my eyebrows. Why does she have such a robust business? In any big city, if you are really good at one thing, people want that one thing – whatever it is. Try to make yourself an expert at something because, sure as can be, that will cause people to want to connect with you. People will call you and say, “I hear you really understand the pricing of Times Square signage. I’m buying a building in Times Square and I’m thinking of putting a sign on it. Tell me what you think it would be worth and how you would go about that.” If you happen to be the expert in Times Square signage, it’s the foundation on which you can build a business.
For women, I add the following: if you’re going to work for a company and not be your own boss, you should try to discern whether or not it’s a company that is a true meritocracy or if it’s lip service to gender equality… that really, in fact, is a boys’ club in disguise. Most companies say, “For us, it’s all about what you accomplish,” but then you take a look at the landscape of the company. How many women are in executive positions? How many women are on the board? It tells you right away who they are, because you can talk all you want. But it’s not having a single person, but a collection of people who you can look to and say, “This is a landscape where my performance will be the way in which I’m judged.”
Q: As part of our campaign for gender equality, we’re working with Bottomless Closet, a local non-profit that helps disadvantaged women who are transitioning from unemployment and public assistance into the workplace. Do you have any words of encouragement or advice for these women who are attempting to find work and establish a career – in any field – in spite of severe hardship?
So often, the role a woman plays in life is not really broken into work-life components. Most women have to find their way in the workplace. What they’re doing is also bringing their family along with them. If they keep foremost in their mind what the end game is, that it’s not just about themselves, but they’re changing the lives of their children, of their parents, perhaps, or whoever it is that they’re the primary caretaker for. If they realize that the work they’re doing actually has a purpose that goes beyond whatever that day job is, I think it gives them courage and ambition and satisfaction.
I have seen this very particularly in the construction trade in New York. We have something called NEW: Nontraditional Employment for Women, which is our construction industry’s place where we bring women into the construction trades. This program was created out of a brilliant judge, a woman judge, out of a consent decree that said that the New York construction trades had violated equal rights, back in the ’70s. The end result was this program, which has put several thousands of women into the construction trade. If you talk to these women, they’ll tell you that they gave their family a future. They now have health care and they now have retirement money.
If you keep the big goal, the big reason you’re doing this foremost in your mind, the mission will always give you the courage to do something.
Q: Last question, on a more lighthearted note: what’s the last great book you read or show you binged?
I am obsessed with Game of Thrones – obsessed! I had no desire to watch this show. I don’t like fantasy, don’t like Middle Ages, don’t like violence. My son, who is an adult – 45 years old, said “Mom, you have to watch this!” Everybody is telling me I have to watch it. So, we get the DVDs and my husband and I watch the first two episodes. That night, I called my son and told him, “I am not watching this disgusting show that demeans women. This is ridiculous!” He said, “Mom, just stick with it for a few more episodes.” Suffice to say, I am so brokenhearted that we finished Series 6 and we have to wait until the summer for Series 7. I literally conduct conversations and go on the internet to think about what’s going to happen to these characters. There’s something magic about the show! There’s something also about the magic of how they made something so complex and how they made the characters so very real, despite the bizarre things that happen in that world.
As far as a book is concerned, I just finished reading the 900-page Power at Ground Zero, about the making of the World Trade Center. I can’t say I recommend it to everybody, but if you’re hard core like I am, it’s a fantastic book.