We have been here before. The roundtables. The informative and substantative conversations. The one one one meetings. Sure, this time we again held these discussions and meetings via Zoom. But that is, as they say, life in the New Normal. Holding the first of our year-long, monthly scheduled virtual roundtables, a diverse crew of vendors and end users connected for two days and several hours worth of networking, hosted by Commercial Construction & Renovation Publisher David Corson and Editor Michael Pallerino.
The roundtable, always filled with keen insights into the trends and challenges impacting the industry at large, was also highlighted by in depth insights on how some of the industry's leading female professionals got to where they are today.
Following is a snapshot of our discussion.
CCR: What’s the biggest thing on your to-do list?
Jessica Fumo, Removery LLC: Right now, the biggest thing on my to-do list is to continue to create and implement process. Removery is growing at an aggressive pace, and my goal is to make the facilities process as seamless and effective as possible. I love (keyword, "love") structure, and love being able to help others. By offering a solid foundation for the Facilities team, I get to appreciate and enjoy both aspects of what I love most as we grow.
Brooke Auberry, Sabre Real Estate Advisors: Travel. I love traveling and I am looking forward to more adventures with colleagues as it becomes safer to get out there. I work with retail tenants across the country, so traveling to markets to assist in their expansion strategy and finding new and exciting concepts in other cities is what I love about my job.
As much as retail has been hard hit by the pandemic—and we have seen so many casualties with both national and mom and pop brands—this has also created a lot of opportunity for the retailers that could pivot their business models and adapt to the new normal. It also helps other brands entering the market at cheaper rents and better deals that may not have been possible before.
I am very interested to see what the aftermath holds for some markets that were hit extremely hard like NYC and LA, and others that continue to boom like cities in Texas and Florida.
BJ Harris, Samjen Residential and Commercial Realty: Currently, we’re working on several projects. One is located in Selma, Alabama, where we’re buying a few buildings in the area. It is a small city with a lot of history, so we’re trying to bring in big companies that can offer technology and skills training in the areas of construction, development, engineering, technology, finances and manufacturing. Our hope is that this will help increase job growth in the city, and bring in new flow of opportunities for businesses and residence alike.
One of the developments we’re working on is a small corporate boutique hotel. The mixed use development will be around 18,000 square feet and give corporations, investors and professional the opportunity to visit the city for a period of time with many of the convenience—i.e., internet, office spaces, meeting rooms, copying/fax stations, restaurants, etc.—they need to continue working.
It is our hope that companies and entrepreneurs alike will stay longer, fall in love with the city, truly learn about its rich history, and help create new job opportunities for the residents in area.
Christine Price, Jones Sign: I want to travel a little bit, get out to our headquarters in Green Bay (Wisconsin). I miss meeting with clients—that connection of physically being in the building. As far as the outlook of sales, I’m seeing a lot of rebrands. Even if consumers aren’t going into the stores, exterior refresh sales are picking up. We're seeing a lot of investment in lighting upgrades and new signage in rebrands. In addition, I’m starting to see some movement in hospitality. I think you're going to see more people traveling, so projects that were on hold will start to move.
It has been an interesting ride, to say the least, in hospitality this year. It was hard, and hit me personally and professionally. I have been in hospitality industry for over 30 years. I started out as a desk clerk in operations at a full-service, 5-Star property.
I am not sure that hospitality is going to come back with a vengeance this year like everyone is saying. It will be slow. I do see lots of repositioning and reflagging.
This year, we're looking at rebranding. NTMA will be 100 years old in two years—2023. We are working on a refresh of the logo and message that celebrates the milestone. This is a perfect year to do that since all marketing has shifted.
We’ve also started looking at the possibility of a focus on renovations because Terrazzo is a unique material and can easily go over many surfaces. You see it a lot in airports, schools, government and healthcare facilities because it is durable. One of our messages this year will be about pulling out your carpet or vinyl and putting in terrazzo.
CCR: Is there an advantage for using terrazzo over carpet, especially in precautions and safety measures people will be looking at post-pandemic?
NTMA's Moreno: The advantage of terrazzo is that it is seamless. It is antimicrobial and is very easy to maintain. You don’t have to use harsh chemicals and it lasts forever.
After Katrina came through New Orleans, every piece of flooring had to be removed with the exception of terrazzo. All they had to do was come back in and re-polish it.
I’m looking forward to more face to face. I have done a little. I think it goes miles with folks who are now working in their homes to those who aren’t used to it. I’ve done it for years, so it’s normal for me, except for missing the travel. Nobody knows if they are going to stay like that forever.
I miss saying, "I’m going to be in town next week. Let’s have lunch." Now, we can still do that. We can meet on a park bench if that’s more comfortable. People just want the interaction, which I totally appreciate. I like being with my clients and industry peers.
Amanda Poulton, GNC: We’re under new leadership and it’s given us momentum to be the best expression of our brand. It’s a really exciting time. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to look at our fleet; we have a ton of stores out there. We put our customer first in everything we do, including our store design. We are evaluating our stores in which we ask ourselves: "Are the stores a reflection of our brand? What can we do to remodel our stores? How can we continue to innovate our brand experience?" It is so exciting.
CCR: What have been some of the lessons you've learned over the past year?
Samjen Residential and Commercial Realty's Harris: One of the things is not to allow society to make me move faster than I already do. Everything has made me appreciate the time spent, not only working and doing the things that I’m doing for my company, but also with my family. I am going to continue to enjoy every day. When you look at everything that has happened and the people who are no longer here, you understand that nothing is guaranteed. It makes me appreciate life a lot more. I'm also thinking more about helping other people. This situation has taken a lot of the selfishness out of society.
NTMA's Moreno: I was in Alaska visiting Anchorage with my husband when everything hit. It was right when they decided to shutdown South by Southwest. I was with a bunch of meeting planners and everyone was just horrified. So we set up a home office. Like everyone else, I spent a lot of time learning Zoom. I also found that there was an efficiency to that. I didn't have to spend 45 minutes in the car driving to and from meetings.
We also conducted a research project where we asked architects and interior designers if they were going to attend trade shows in the future. The architects weren’t sure, but the interior designers said they would. Interior designers do a lot of local events, so they feel like after the pandemic that they will continue to do so.
Lu Sacharski, Interserve Hospitality: I have had a home office almost my whole entire career, so there was no adjustment for me. But what I have done for the past 30 years has changed—a lot. I mean, Zoom meetings were an adjustment. There was a learning curve. Did I have everything set up correctly? Could people see me? Hear me? Was I going to be seen and not heard, or vice-versa?
I think we are going to come back with a new normal, whatever that turns out to be. I think the people in home offices will go into an office maybe one a week, or once a month. I think that could be the new normal—the new way of doing business. The things ’m working on with designers; it’s amazing what you can do and see. But I miss the touchy-feely part of looking at a fabric, carpet or terrazzo. I love the sample pieces.
Jones Sign's Price: One of the takeaways for our company was how well the diversity of our projects carried us through. We were able to record an increase in sales last year over the prior year. That’s because we had a lot of larger developments, which equal larger project timelines. They were still moving forward and continue to do so.
One of those was with Marriott. So there was a diversity between the stadium and sports work we do. On the national scene, the turnaround is quicker. We’re starting to see a slowdown in the design and architectural phases of larger timeline projects.
And like everyone else, I miss the personal connections. I value the time I spend with people. So now, whether it is screen time or in-person time, we will find the best mix moving forward.
Sabre Advisors' Auberry: The biggest lesson for me is how much I took for granted the importance of staying connected and having human interaction other than from a computer screen or phone.
So much of what we do in commercial real estate is about networking and having that in person connection. Sitting down to have lunch, coffee or a happy hour with clients and colleagues is what I miss the most. As so many companies did, we had to figure out the “new normal” and re-think how we could continue to maintain our high level of customer experience with our clients, and also as a team when we could no longer sit across the table from each other. So, as you can imagine, there have been countless Zoom meetings, happy hours and game nights that came out of this.
It has been a great way to stay in touch and I think it is here to stay. But for me, there is nothing like the in-person connection. I’m ready to see people again, and have fun and network. I’m looking forward to that. Overall, the transition has been relatively easy, but it has certainly felt like Groundhog Day, almost every single day for a year. It has definitely been a wild ride.
GNC's Poulton: Personally, it’s about counting your blessings. This has been the first time I have been able to stop, breath and look at the world around me. It has given me some great insights. And for that, I am very grateful. I’m an interior designer by trade, so there have always been a lot of meetings face to face.
So, how do you manage that virtually—the touching and feeling of the product, finishes, fixtures? Conveying a visual message to help guide conversations in a world that still very much is interested in instant gratification. Enhancing the aspect of visual presentations has been interesting. For example, augmented reality (AR) has helped. I think that will stick with us moving forward.
Springwise Facility Management's Harnishfeger: Like Christina said, the diversity of our clients has kept us going. In so many ways, it has felt seamless business-wise for us. Now it has just been networking from home. I’m missing the corporate scene—having that interaction, which goes a long way because sales and operation can be face to face. Now, I am focusing time with people, whether it is on the business or personal side. I'm trying to make each of those relationships meaningful.
Being able to help people is gratifying. My lesson learned is to just keep moving forward, no matter how you’re doing it. I believe there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Removery's Fumo: Personally, living through a pandemic has been eye-opening. It was a reality check—this is real life and can happen. It gave me the opportunity to slow down. From work to home, we moved at lightning speed every single day. At first, I was like, “What are we going to do? How are we going to sit in a house for two months, three months and not do anything?” I have three active, young children. There is going to be no sports, no going to school? It honestly really helped me though. I was able to count my blessings. It gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my children—time I haven’t had since I started my career.
Professionally, the biggest takeaway is the planning piece. Who saw this coming? But now we know we have to be prepared for anything. Preparation must be an ongoing thing. What will it be next year? I don’t want my stores and my company to be in a situation where they are closed until we can find X, Y and Z. I want to be prepared for that next time.
CCR: Tell us a little about your story.
Removery's Fumo: I was born and raised in a small town in New York. I married my high school sweetheart and we have three children–ages 12, 9 and 6. Being a mother was my childhood dream. The kids definitely keep me busy between school and sporting events. When I am not working, I am usually at practice on a field or court somewhere. I love the beach and sunshine, and love when I get a lazy day to relax. In the middle of the pandemic, we decided to leave New York and make our way south to South Carolina. It has been an amazing journey and I really love it here.
I learned about the facilities world while I was in college and was offered an internship in the physical plant. I had no idea what that was, but I was always willing to learn and work hard, plus I appreciated the opportunity since my business professor recommended me for the internship. From Day 1, I loved the job. Due to unfortunate circumstances, I was left to handle the office by myself, which is where I was given so much opportunity to learn and grow while creating my own flow and process. The experience really helped me see what facilities was about and how fast the facilities world worked. It was go, go, go.
After I graduated, I knew I wanted to stay in the field and applied for a job at Dressbarn’s corporate office. I got the job and never looked back. After Dressbarn, I worked for Party City and, of course my current job with Removery LLC. My professional journey has been nothing short of amazing, and has helped mold me into the person I am today. It has helped me meet so many incredible colleagues in the facilities industry. I’ve had some amazing leaders and mentors along the way and can’t wait to see what the future has in store for me. There is still so much to learn. My next goal is to earn my ProFM Credential.
Interserv Hospitality's Sacharski: I was born and raised, and still live in Wisconsin. I started my career wanting to be a nurse, but nursing school was expensive. So I got a part-time job working at a hotel—the Pfister Hotel—in downtown Milwaukee. It is a 5-Star hotel; simply beautiful. I just fell in love with hospitality. The money wasn't there at the time—I started working for minimum wage.
I ended up meeting a gentleman who invited me to attend the Preferred Hotel Association Meeting Conference. He thought I would be a good fit for his hotel in Lake Geneva. At the time, it was a resort called the Lake Geneva Playboy Resort and Hotel. So I left the Pfister. It was a phenomenal experience.
We ended up being bought and sold a couple of times. At the time, I did not even know what an acquisition was. I move onto working for an architect millwork firm that manufactured, furnished and installed mill work items. This was during the time that Holiday Inn was going through the Crown Plazas. They were a hot commodity.
I worked on the Holiday Inn Corporate Headquarters on Cherry Blossom Lane in Memphis, Tennessee. I worked on the Union Station in St. Louis. It was restored and brought back into the fold. I was hooked.
Sabre Advisors' Auberry: I've been living in New York City for a little over 16 years. The last two and a half years, prior to the pandemic, I've been bi-coastal in LA and DC. I am originally from Washington, Indiana, which is a small town of about 12,000 people in southern Indiana. When we were young, we traveled a lot for soccer and I'd always ask if we could move somewhere else, as I knew I didn’t belong in a small town and just wanted to experience so much more than my little town had to offer.
Early on, I was obsessed with New York City, as you see so many movies and TV shows growing up that were based here. I just couldn’t wait to be apart of something bigger.
I started out in real estate for the love of architecture and beautiful houses. When I was in high school, I did an internship with a local real estate firm and realized quickly that I did not want to do residential. I loved the commercial side. This was about the time when all the Wal-Marts were turning into Super Wal-Marts. In my hometown, I was able to be part of a team that helped piece together a parcel of land that the Wal-Mart was looking to buy. My love affair with real estate started there.
After graduating from Indiana University, I took a job with a regional real estate developer in Indianapolis to appease my parents, who wanted me to stay close.
It only lasted about nine months because after coming to New York for my birthday to visit all my friends who moved from IU, I knew this was my home and left six weeks later. Once I got my bearings of the city, I landed a job with Mogull Realty. It was a big, fancy job and I had the big, fancy corner office in Trump Tower, facing 5th Avenue, with two assistants and interns. It was great.
After it ran its course, I took roles on the retailer side of the business as a Director of Real Estate for companies such as AT&T, The Children's Place, Dressbarn and Energy Kitchen. I've worked in about 35 states and 1,300-plus cities, where I have done deals opening retail stores across the country. I love what I do and feel very lucky to continue my career in this industry.
NTMA's Moreno: I was born down in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and grew up in Houston. In my early 20s, my husband and I moved to Fredericksburg. We didn't know anybody here, so it was a huge leap of faith. He had a job. But at the time, Fredericksburg was a very small town. There were not a lot of opportunities, so I worked at the hardware store. We decided to have children, so I decided to be a stay-at-home mom.
At the time, we had an incredible choir in Fredericksburg, of which my children were a part of. I started volunteering with the group, working on events and doing marketing. That turned into a job. We took the choir all over the country, and to Germany, Canada and Wales.
From there, I went to work for the local hospital in the foundation department, and then onto another small charitable foundation. Then I went to work for the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association. I didn't know anything about terrazzo when I started, but I ended up falling in love with it. It's very artistic. We get to work with a lot of public artists who are involved in creating some of the floor designs.
GNC's Poulton: I'm from New Castle, Pennsylvania, so I never really left Western Pennsylvania. I started thinking about art and art therapy. I became really involved with the psychology behind design—how do we change behaviors based upon changing the environment? I went to La Roche College, which is now La Roche University, and received a Bachelor's of Science degree in Interior Design. From there, I started working for an architect, with a focus in education design—primarily K-12 new locations and remodels.
I eventually moved on and I received a Master's of Science degree in Interior Architecture from Chatham University. That is where my life in retail design started. It was very, very different from education design. I went from doing 300,000 square feet build-outs to 1,400 square feet—and at a much faster pace.
They were really in a growth mode when I started at GNC. We were cranking out 250 stores a year for five-plus years. I began rising through the ranks. I also obtained my LEED certification during that time. I've been working at GNC for about 12 years now. It's exciting and has led me into doing new concepts, new fixture designs and working internationally. I even expanded into visual merchandising projects. I love the fast-paced environment that we have.
Samjen Commercial Realty, BJ Harris: I was born and raised in Tampa, Florida. I have three kids, an MBA in Business Management, and have been married to my high school sweetheart for almost 26 years.
When I got into this industry, I knew I only had one of four choices. Either go into to law like many of my family members, real estate development like my grandparents, technology like my mother or get a job. So I chose real estate.
Working for IBM, my mother traveled a lot for work and was always afraid of what she would find when she returned home. My boyfriend (now husband) and I loved real estate, so we were always trying to fix up or repair something. We were extremely focused and not afraid of hard work, so she never knew what she was coming home to. It was either a newly tiled floor, painted walls, reupholstered furniture or us trying to purchase real estate to flip, even though were under 18.
Most of our friends and cousins were 18 and older, so we were always trying to negotiate with them to help us purchase property and split the profits. We had the money (my Mom) and it didn’t help that she was very encouraging, a great role model herself, and was always purchasing books on real estate investments, finances, self-development, world history, etc. So we were quite inspired.
We originally started in commercial real estate because my husband had a background in financing. He received multiple licenses in banking and financing industry, and wanted to combine the two (real estate and financing). Over the years, we just grew into the business. Our kids, who are now all adults, are also licensed and learning both sides of the business (lending and real estate). Our goal is to help bring more people into the fold, encourage more licensed professionals to get into the real estate industry and create new job growth.
Springwise's Harnishfeger: I grew up in California. Originally, everything I did seemed to lead from one thing to the next. I started with Sears Credit Application processing in high school. That was my first job. It was great. I loved it. From there, I went into banking. I ended up in commercial real estate sales, leasing management, redevelopment agency type things, managing properties and helping redevelop them. I worked for the City of San Buenaventura. I did a lot downtown there with investors. I miss that aspect of things.
Through my husband's job, we ended up in Virginia Beach. I didn't know what I was going to do. I knew I would just figure it out. I found my job at Dollar Tree Stores in the newspaper. I'm dating myself there. I started as a supervisor and worked my way into Manager of Facilities, where I worked for eight years.
When I left, we had around 4,000 stores. It was a great experience. I left to work on the vendor side. I was looking for a new challenge—something different to take my background experience. I've been on the vendor side for about 12 years now. I've been with Springwise for seven. I love that I get to meet so many different people from so many different walks of life. I love to hear their stories, find out what they do
My husband's job—again—led us to Pensacola (Florida). For me, I have my home office and the airport. I figure I can do everything with those. There's always an adventure—something to do. We've been blessed and are thankful to be where we are.
Jones Sign's Price: I'm also in Tampa. I am a St. Pete native. When I was younger, going to college and was trying to figure out what to do, I worked for a sign company, which my family owned at the time. I am the only one left in the industry.
During the recession, I was working for a regional sign company in sales. The recession scared me. So I went back and finished my degree in Business Sustainability. I don't know that I'll ever really apply it, but the experience outweighs the degree. Today, working for Jones has helped me offer my clients more. It has been a great move.
Personally, I have two boys, 16 and 11. I sit on the foundation board for an independent charter school that's sustainability focused. I'm really passionate about that, and I love my volunteer time. I sit on a tax district board, and help with the things that fall into my realm—the built environment.
Signage is one of the toughest categories to be in. Most products have been commoditized to some degree. We're in construction, so we know that will never be 100%. But signage, you're taking a brand; you're making it three-dimensional; you're lighting it; you're fabricating it. You're doing an install that's never going to be the same, whether you have to shut down a street in New York City. It's always a challenge and I'm always learning. I'm drawn to that.