Commercial Real Estate Needs To Replace 'Missing Generation' of Workers, Search Firm CEO Says
While attending high school about 40 miles northwest of London, Gemma Burgess' dream job would have been serving as a BBC News presenter or some other type of journalist. Instead, she ended up in the executive search business with a major focus on helping commercial property firms find talent.
Though Burgess had never thought about working so closely with the commercial real estate industry, once she started she became hooked and never left.
In April, Burgess took over as CEO of Chicago-based Ferguson Partners, one of the largest search firms focused on the built environment, after serving as president for more than a year. A U.K. native who moved to the U.S. with the company in 2014, Burgess succeeded co-founder William Ferguson, who remains chairman and is focused on engaging with clients.
Burgess, who lives in New York, splits her time between the firm's headquarters and its New York City office.
Now as the new CEO she's working to help companies recruit employees who will stick around to become leaders in the industry. Some 60% of Ferguson Partners' business comes from real estate and general contractors and firms that build highways, major bridges and other infrastructure. The firm has offices across the United States and in London, Toronto, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo.
Commercial real estate is facing a major gap when it comes to personnel, and the industry needs to act to fill it to ensure an ample supply of future leaders.
"The toughest thing right now is to try and recruit kind of that next generation of leaders, folks who have got 20 years of experience, but not 40 years of experience, who are sort of coming up behind the baby boomers taking leadership roles. But we do really suffer from that missing generation," Burgess said in an interview.
The lack of commercial real estate professionals in this group is the result of several things, including the industry's cyclical nature, she said. When business slows during financial downturns, employees seek work in other fields less susceptible to economic swings. Others leave the industry because they end up in roles they dislike and don't realize the variety of jobs in the commercial real estate field, she said.
"Sometimes what happens is we get these young folks, like high school or college kids, to come in and see a snippet of our industry, and they'll intern with a developer or lender or wherever and work analytics for a summer," she said. "They'll come away and think, 'Oh, I didn't like what I did.' And rather than saying, 'I don't like what I did in that one function or that one part of the industry,' they say, 'I don't like real estate,' and they go off and do something else."
The challenge of retaining employees is tough even when it comes to workers who have been at a commercial real estate firm for a couple of years, Burgess said. "It's like getting people in the door, keeping them in their seats, keeping them motivated to stay in a role for more than a year or two," she said.
Brokerages and real estate firms must also devote time and money to programs to prepare workers to do different jobs within the company and industry as a whole, Burgess said.
"We're going to have to evolve as an industry to build more of this training machine that will allow people to come in and do something for a while and then roll off and do something else to try and keep people for a bit longer than the sort of year or two that they want to stay for today," she said.
Ferguson Partners offered Burgess a career path, and she's been with the firm since she started as a vice president in 2007. She said she never envisioned becoming CEO of a global search firm when she got into the business in 2004.
Her transition from Ferguson Partners president to CEO has gone smoothly, Burgess said. "The great thing that we've done, what Bill [Ferguson] and the leadership team have done, is that there's this continuously sort of push for me to take a little step up a piece at a time," she said.
But being the top executive at Ferguson still is a little hard for Burgess to fathom.
"When you're only looking for that next role, it's quite surprising when you suddenly raise your head up" and you're CEO, she said. "You suddenly take a look up and what you can see is the board, and it's pretty shocking. I still see myself as an associate back 15 years ago."