From the earliest days of her career, Barbara Liberatore Black has worked in a man’s world. When she arrived in Miami in the 1980s, the number of female commercial real estate brokers could be counted, literally, on two fingers — if you included Black. Even today, as managing director of JLL’s South Florida office, she is the lone female in a leadership team of 12.
With opportunities limited for women, in the late 1980s Black co-founded her own firm, Cresa South Florida, which grew to a leadership team of seven partners — six of them men. The firm’s strong reputation as a tenant advisory firm led to its sale in late 2015 to JLL (formerly Jones Lang LaSalle).
While gender bias has abated in the workplace, Black says there’s a great deal of work to be done. Women often still have to work harder, and be better prepared, than male counterparts, she says.
For years, she competed against Alan Kleber, then with Cushman & Wakefield. On one occasion, when she and her partner lost the business, she called Kleber to congratulate him and his team. “This was incredibly unconventional in our business,” Kleber wrote in an email, saying he had not placed nor received similar calls up to that point. Kleber was so impressed that eventually he joined her firm as a partner.
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“Barbara may be recognized for her success as a woman … many in our industry and especially us [her partners] celebrate and appreciate Barbara’s success because of her command of our tradecraft. Man or woman aside, Barbara is absolutely one of the best corporate real estate advisers in the country.” During her career, she has advised clients on leasing more than 10 million square feet in transactions valued at $3 billion.
Statewide, JLL leases and manages commercial properties comprising more than 28 million square feet, including Miami’s Southeast Financial Center, 701 Brickell and 1221 Brickell. The firm employs more than 800 people at offices in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville.
Q: You got into a career dominated by men in the early ’80s, when women in commercial real estate were a rarity. Did you face obstacles based on your gender?
A: Gender bias in commercial real estate hit me even before I launched my career. When I applied for my first brokerage job after earning my real estate license in Washington, D.C., the manager who interviewed me made it clear he would hire me were it not for my upcoming wedding. He felt I would always be distracted by my personal life and encouraged me to focus on my family. I pushed back and he offered me a job as a secretary, but I went on to join another company. Years later, he found out I was getting divorced and called to offer me a brokerage position.
Women brokers were virtually nonexistent in commercial real estate in the 1980s. We made up a very small percentage of the industry nationally, and even less in South Florida. When I arrived in Miami, there was one woman in residential real estate moving into commercial, but I was the only female on the commercial side. We’ve come a long way as an industry, though challenges still exist.
Q: Men’s attitudes toward women have been a hot topic in light of the recent Donald Trump tape. How have those attitudes played out in your own professional life?
A: I’ve learned that breaking through the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ and earning the respect of my male counterparts means working harder and taking myself more seriously than they do. The vast majority of my colleagues have been gentlemen, but there are a few examples of men stepping over the line.
In my early days as a broker, I thought I nailed my first major business pitch. I left the room confident and ready to get to work for the client. The next day, the prospect called and I was certain he was going to hire me. Instead, he was calling to ask me out on a date. It was deflating to my morale, but it was a sign of what I was up against in commercial real estate.
Gender bias in the workplace has long been a constant in business, and the tape has put the issue in the public forefront. I’m hopeful that employers and employees will learn from this high-profile example and be more mindful of their words and actions.
Q: Women have now been in C-suite office and the boardroom for several decades, even though they appear in far fewer numbers than men. Do you think today’s young female professionals still face gender bias on a widespread basis?
A: Absolutely, bias is still evident in business, and it’s by no means limited to real estate. I recently took part in an event organized by CREW-Miami (Commercial Real Estate Women) that explored gender bias in the real estate and legal professions. A study by the Florida Bar earlier this year found that 43 percent of young women lawyers had experienced gender discrimination during their career. That’s a staggering number in 2016.
Eliminating this inequality has to begin at the top, with executives first acknowledging the problem and then working together with their male and female colleagues to phase it out. Solutions like equal pay for all employees, mentoring initiatives and workplace diversity programs can all go a long way. Companies must realize that failing to address bias means risking the loss of talent, which is the greatest asset for many businesses. In other words, every company and every industry has an incentive to get this right.
Q: What advice do you have for young — or not so young — professional women to ensure they are taken seriously in the workplace?
A: Throughout my career, I’ve seen firsthand how mentorship can make an incredible difference in helping women grow and reach leadership positions. At the time I started in real estate, my mentor was a man. He gave me valuable advice that helped shape my career, and I now put a good share of my time into coaching younger team members at JLL. I recommend finding that mentor — whether it’s a man or woman — early on.
The advice I pass along to women includes taking time to learn and understand the business that you are in as well (or better) than your male counterparts, approaching business interactions with a firm handshake, and avoiding laughing at inappropriate jokes. When someone puts you down or criticizes you, overcome the adversity with facts and knowledge.
Q: Much of what we’re talking about speaks to company culture. As you have formed and led your own teams, what kind of cultural standards have you sought to create? How has that changed over time?
A: When I co-launched Cresa South Florida focusing on tenant advisory in the late 1980s, we were working in silos and each of us concentrated on serving clients in different industries. As we began to build our firm, specifically with the addition of partners Alan Kleber, Matthew Goodman, John Marshall and Matthew Cheezem, we realized we needed to adopt a collaborative, team-oriented approach. This shift allowed us to deepen our client relationships, pursue new businesses opportunities together, and harness the intellectual capital of the entire firm to the benefit of our clients.
Over time, our revenues grew from $3 million a year to $15 million a year and we were widely recognized as the market’s top tenant advisory firm. Our partners put a great deal of thought into joining JLL before finalizing the sale last year. In the end, we were attracted to JLL’s collaborative culture and the similarities that our teams shared when it comes to building and growing relationships both within the firm and in the community.
[Editor’s note: Since the December 2015 sale of Cresa South Florida, Cresa, a national firm, has opened a new South Florida office, based in Fort Lauderdale and led by Caroline Fleischer.]
Q: For women — and often, also for men — success in business means giving up something: personal time, relationships, fitness, children. What have you given up?
A: I was single and without children for much of my early career in real estate. This allowed me to dedicate significant time to my professional growth. By the time I married and became a mom, I was already in a leadership position. This meant I had to balance the demands of running a growing business and counseling clients with spending personal time at home with my husband and daughter. One rule I never broke was having dinner together every night as a family (and I cook!). That time together is sacred to me. Also, I give credit to my husband, who has supported me and been a counselor in tough times.
My rule remains ‘family first’ and at JLL, we understand the importance of giving our team members the flexibility to attend to their families when they need to. This mind-set fosters employee happiness and loyalty, and we find that flexibility is often balanced with committed team members who are willing to go the extra mile for their colleagues and clients.
Q: Why, and when, did you start your own company?
A: I formed Cresa South Florida in 1987 along with David Preve and Charlie Barton because I felt I had reached my potential at my former firm and wanted to be part of building a company.
Q: Let’s talk about your specific industry — commercial real estate. Miami isn’t the kind of corporate town where you can fill an office building with a single big tenant. What does it take to be successful in the South Florida market?
A: As Miami and South Florida grow their standing as a global market, we are seeing a rising number of companies moving and expanding their presence here. The decision to occupy real estate in a complex market like Miami takes time, and that’s where a firm like ours factors into the decision-making process. We go beyond the transaction to become a true advisor to our clients. Our role at JLL is to assist in all facets of the real estate process. This includes site selection, workplace design and planning, budgeting and growth forecasting, lease negotiations, and relationship building in the community.
Q: What sectors do you see growing that can lead to increased office-space needs?
A: Throughout my career, I’ve built a specialty in representing professional services firms, particularly large and mid-size law firms expanding and relocating in South Florida. Major industries like law, finance, logistics, hospitality, healthcare, technology and professional services are dominant in our office market, but we’ve seen a sharp rise among entrepreneurial firms in Miami over the past few years. This growth has ushered in co-working space operators such as WeWork and Pipeline Workspaces, which are occupying blocks of office space and filling a need among entrepreneurs who see value in being part of a shared space. What ultimately sets Miami apart from every city in the country is our proximity and appeal to Latin America. International investment has touched practically every sector of our economy, and has fueled Miami’s rise as a global city.
Q: How do you diversify your business, since a one-faceted business may have limitations here in Miami?
A: JLL’s Florida expansion isn’t about growing for growth’s sake. We’re building a statewide firm that delivers service, market intelligence and results that are a step above our competition — and we’re targeting clients that represent a diverse cross-section of industries.
One of our firm’s major strengths is our robust landlord leasing and property management practices, where we represent the most prominent office towers in South Florida. JLL is also recognized for its tenant representation practice, which services the region’s premier new-to-market office tenants and existing companies expanding or relocating. JLL also counsels the market’s largest owners of warehouse properties and represents trade and logistics companies that occupy industrial space. We provide other specialized services, including property management, capital markets, project and development services and corporate solutions. Our team is on the front lines in the key sectors in commercial real estate, from office to industrial, retail, hospitality and multifamily.
Q: Tell us about how your role has changed since selling your company to JLL?
A: My day-to-day role really hasn’t changed. I remain engaged as part of the South Florida management team and continue to advise our clients in making business and real estate decisions. One of the greatest impacts since joining JLL has come in the form of new tools at our disposal, such as expanded marketing capabilities, technology and research that has made us even more effective in serving clients.
Several members of our leadership have a role in mentoring new hires. Our mentorship program spans up to two years and we start by teaching the fundamentals and then work our way up to sales. Few firms have such an in-depth mentorship program, but we think it’s really valuable because we are teaching our younger members how we do business and serve clients, while also fostering company loyalty.
Q: What’s the best advice you ever got?
A: Just be yourself. If you believe you are doing the right thing, then don’t question yourself. My daughter, Katie, does this better than I do — if it doesn’t feel like the right thing to do, then move on.
Q: What did you learn the hard way that you wished someone had told you?
A: I grew up thinking that the world was black and white. I came to learn that there are gray areas in life and business, and that has made things easier.
This article was updated to reflect information about the opening of the new Cresa South Florida office.
Barbara Liberatore Black
Current position: Managing director, JLL South Florida
Born: Washington, D.C.
Personal: Married to Bob Black for 26 years; daughter, Katie Black, age 23
Hobbies: cooking, yoga, taking time for friends and mentoring women
Community engagement: The Commonwealth Institute - Board and Chair of Strategies for Success; Realtor Commercial Association - Board of Governors; Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce - Board of Directors, Chairman Circle