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Rough Starts: Lessons From Launching A CRE Career In 2020

Six months into her new job, Daye Williams still didn’t feel like she knew exactly how the office worked.

A business analyst for Transwestern in Chicago, Williams, 24, had recently graduated from Furman University in South Carolina, beginning with an entry-level position in September 2019. She had pivoted from studying finance in school to exploring commercial real estate and was hooked. Touring spaces in Chicago like the refurbished Old Main Post Office west of downtown made her excited about the possibilities of working in CRE. But as soon as COVID-19, the pandemic and lockdown orders hit in March, things suddenly became very slow, and very scary.

Williams soon found herself working out of her apartment, with nothing to do, worrying about being the ‘last one in, first one out.’ She filled up afternoons taking Excel classes online, hoping to stay busy, eventually compiling a massive to-do list for every one of the firm’s clients just to have something to do.

“At the beginning, there wasn’t much you could do except take notes,” she said. “Nobody knew what was going on or had any answers. The list was just something I could control in the moment, a way to say, ‘Hey, I’m here to help.’”

Fear, uncertainty, and eventually, ennui; Williams’ experience mirrors emotions felt by many in CRE last year. But the roller coaster of 2020 was especially difficult on those who were just starting their careers, seeking to get a foothold in an industry that suddenly stopped last spring, and has been struggling to regain momentum ever since. The lack of personal interactions outside of Zoom has led many of the new CRE workers Bisnow spoke to to mourn the loss of potential connections and experience.

“It’s an extremely social industry, you need to be there and see it,” Williams said. “I feel like I absorb so much more in person than through a computer.”

A reputation for antiquated corporate culture and slow adaptation of technology, as well as a reluctance to restructure bonus and compensation packages across the board despite this past year’s slowdown in deal volume, means it can be especially tough for new hires or those trying to break into the industry. But while there are undoubtedly significant challenges to those building their careers amid an unprecedented market slowdown — not to mention all the careers that didn’t get started because internships and jobs didn’t get filled — some of those new to commercial real estate believe their timing may be advantageous.

They include Patrick Kapla, 24, who graduated with a master’s from the University of Wisconsin last spring and started in September 2020 as a private equity real estate associate at Thrivent Financial in Minneapolis. ”I’m excited to be in the real world, making a little money and seeing the real stuff instead of looking at case studies,” he said. Kapla believes now is an ideal time to get in the business, as challenging as it may be.

“There’s a lot of dry powder out there,” he said. “This is one of three or four times in our lifetimes where we’ll have such great opportunities. I’m trying to soak in the information and identify when and where the opportunities are.”

Daye Williams, second from left, with her fellow new employees at Transwestern’s Chicago office.

For those who have found themselves in CRE during a challenging time, there’s light at the end of the tunnel, said Ryan Timpani, a managing director of JLL in Phoenix and an industry veteran who just started his new role in Arizona last year.

“With deal flow at an all-time low, invest in your knowledge base,” he said. “A lot of people just took a knee over the last year. Use this time to educate yourselves as a way to beat out some of your contemporaries. There will be a flurry of activity when people feel it’s safe to go out in public again, and you’ll come out of this primed for success.”

Even CRE tech firms, which in theory might be better equipped to deal with the technological demands of the coronavirus pandemic, have struggled with onboarding and hiring new employees. Cora Preining, 30, a community manager for the Czech proptech startup Spaceflow, who lives in Austria, started work at the firm in mid-March of 2020. She had booked her ticket to meet her colleagues in Prague on Monday, but the borders were closed a few days before she could travel.

As a remote worker, she feels she has adjusted to the challenges of working during the pandemic better than most, but missed the chance to meet her co-workers and many of her clients.

“Client-wise it of course would have been helpful being able to get to know them in person and having the chance to introduce myself personally to them,” she said. “It has been a really different and challenging year that has driven many to new ways of thinking and change, be it in communication, perspective or realignment.”

For those lucky enough to have and hold onto jobs in 2020, there’s a sense that the tough year will breed a certain level of grit and determination. Preining said she appreciated the value of close colleagues despite not sharing an office. Kapla said the socially distanced situation made him appreciate the value of face-to-face meetings and networking.

Williams ultimately feels that the experiences of the year have taught her to be more entrepreneurial, despite all the workplace obstacles — she’s found herself the on-call Generation Z tech support a few times at the onset of the remote work reset. She has seen brokers at Transwestern pivot to medical and industrial properties, and she was even able to initiate the sale of a medical property. She said it has been tough seeing what was such a robust industry in the early months of 2020 grind to a halt, but the scramble to keep busy, and relevant, may have provided a more imaginative outlook on the industry.

“It’s about thinking creatively, challenging everything I knew, searching for new ways to be inspired,” she said.

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