Recently, I sold a property where all parties were women, including the buyer, the seller, the buyer’s broker and myself, the listing broker. Lowry Speech and Occupational Therapy (now Abound Children’s Therapy) owner Debra Fenton recently approached CBRE to sell her office condo in Glendale for her children’s speech and occupational therapy business, which she established in 2006. While marketing the property, Gail Hamilton, a commercial real estate firm owner, requested to show the property. Gail’s client, Samera Habib of S.H. Law Solutions, ultimately purchased the property for her law practice.
Looking back on my commercial real estate career, I realized that this all-women transaction was an anomaly. On its heels, I wanted to highlight several women in commercial real estate, including the women of this transaction who are making great strides in Denver.
Fenton, the founder of Lowry Speech Therapy, leads a team of therapists who all specialize in working with children for speech and occupational therapy services. Hamilton is a licensed broker in the Denver area for over 20 years. Habib, a skilled divorce attorney, is recognized and respected in the Denver court system for her attention to detail and her command as a litigator. Hillary Ellis is a commercial real estate attorney with Kutak Rock LLP in Denver where she focuses on all aspects of complex commercial real estate matters, including development, acquisition and disposition of commercial properties, related corporate structuring and financing as well as leasing of retail, office and industrial properties. ToriAnn Ammaturo is the director with Graham Street Realty, where she is responsible for deal origination and asset management in both the San Francisco Bay Area and Denver markets.
•Wiley: How did you first get interested in commercial real estate?
• Fenton: It seemed like a great investment opportunity given the market a few years back. Why would I want to pay a landlord when I could pay myself? I also liked the idea of cost control and not having to worry about being locked into a lease.
• Hamilton: I grew up in a family of residential and commercial developers/builders and was always drawn to commercial property transactions and the economics and efficiencies needed when analyzing the best property match for clients.
• Habib: To earn income in my practice is time; to earn money in real estate is a risk but typically a good one. I would rather build equity for myself than pay a landlord and, by doing so, build the owner’s equity in real estate.
• Ellis: My time as an account executive for Herman Miller Workplace Resource prior to law school introduced me to the Denver real estate community. Through my participation in the various real estate trade organizations I met so many people who were really passionate about Denver and its future as a growing city. It was exciting to be a part of the conversation as to where our city was going, and it led me back to school to pursue a career in real estate law.
• Ammaturo: I have always been interested in real estate – the allure for me is an investment you can physically touch. I was never aware of all the different career possibilities and didn’t come from a family with a background in real estate, which is all too common. I was fortunate to go to a university that offered a real estate program, which confirmed my interest. I still was originally interested in residential real estate and was lucky to be given an opportunity to work on office buildings with my accounting background and never looked back.
• Wiley: What obstacles have you experienced in commercial real estate or owning your own business?
• Habib: I’ve obtained two Small Business Administration government loans and, although the terms are great, they are very tedious to get through and the closings with the lenders were both challenging.
• Ellis: The real estate industry can be tough, but there are great organizations like Commercial Real Estate for Women that really helped me build confidence as a young account executive and project manager and, later, when I started practicing law, allowed me to foster the relationships I had developed with other women in those organizations.
• Fenton: I have bought and sold two office condos and both were great investments. However, with owning property, there is a little more of a time commitment for maintenance, homeowners’ association meetings, etc. Overall, it has been a very positive experience.
• Wiley: Did you always intend to work for yourself and/or run your own firm? If not, what prompted the decision to “run the show?”
•Fenton: I’m independent by nature, and I have a hard time sitting still for very long. I started as a sole proprietor in 2006, and the business really took off quite quickly, leading me to lease my first space and hire more therapists. Over the years, I kept altering my business model to meet the growing need for therapy services. I had never planned on hiring any employees or growing the practice to the size it is now, but the business had a mind of its own, and I just kept adjusting my business model.
• Hamilton: After being managing broker and partner with a local commercial real estate firm from 1986-1991, I decided to align myself with two other (women) Certified Commercial Investment Member designees in 1992 and formed Commercial Advisors LLC. We all agreed that we wanted to be “generalists” in sales and leasing, and not forced to choose one property type, or spend our time managing agents and employees rather than working on the “art of the deals.”
• Wiley: How has Denver’s growth affected your business in the past five years?
• Ammaturo: Historically, the company I work for only invested in Bay Area office buildings. About two years ago, we started looking in Denver and now over half our portfolio is there. The market is very interesting to our firm and going to college in Colorado gave me a leg up internally as we expanded in a new market.
• Wiley: What changes do you anticipate for Denver and its growing population?
• Hamilton: In every market sector, we keep getting surprised by the continued increases in rents and prices, and demand over supply, even in the face of lower cap rates. It’s promising to see so much business optimism with lower tax rates and interest rates that are still reasonable. Hopefully, the new commercial construction in the metro area will allow businesses to expand while opening up more second-generation spaces and buildings.
• Ellis: I see Denver becoming younger and more diverse, and I am excited for Denver’s evolution as a city. With the influx of millennials moving here and tech companies relocating or opening up second headquarters, I think (and hope) there will continue to be an influx of new and interesting mixed-use development projects and more opportunities for art and music. It’s an exciting time to live here!
• Ammaturo: Given the millennial focus on quality of life and the cities/ state focus on growth and commitment on enhancing its infrastructure with developments like the light rail, I think population will continue to grow. Even though Denver is getting to be more expensive, it’s still affordable compared to core markets.
• Wiley: I began my career in commercial real estate when I joined CBRE in 2005. I realized that the field was under represented by women. I had one female friend who was a successful industrial broker, and she encouraged me to get into the commercial business. Looking back over the past 13 years, this industry has changed so much. It’s incredibly refreshing to meet and do business with other women brokers, business owners, attorneys, asset managers, landlords, etc., and I anticipate female representation in commercial real estate will only get stronger in the years ahead.