October 2009

Carrie Gates

Carrie Gates – Interview

You have just completed your one year term as President of OBCAI. How was the experience?
It was very fulfilling and rewarding. I had a fantastic Board to work with and together we accomplished a lot. I have 20 years experience working for Barrister and I feel extremely fortunate to work in an industry that I love, and for a company that I believe in, and which always supported me. Serving as President was an opportunity for me to give something back. Although I made the choice in the spirit of giving, what I didn’t expect was that I would receive so much in return. This year has been an experience that I will never forget, truly rewarding and fulfilling. I’m incredibly appreciative.

What were some of the challenges over the past year?
OBCAI has come a long way since our start. We’ve continued to grow and evolve as an organization. Under the direction of Association Headquarters we’ve matured as an organization, and achieved a new level of professionalism that we could not have achieved otherwise. But in order to realize our full potential, as an Association, and for our industry as a whole, there is so much more that we can and should be achieving. Our challenge has been that we lacked 3 key ingredients needed to achieve our full potential. One, adequate industry data. Two, strong leadership, and three adequate member support.

Industry data is an important function of any trade Association. Industry survey information is extremely important. That’s what drives marketing and PR. The trend data and statistics allow us to communicate facts and figures to the public that they can easily understand. OBCAI frequently receives requests from members of the press and public. Industry data also provides insight needed to make business decisions which can directly impact our Members’ bottom line and their working capital. We frequently receive requests from banks, lenders, and asset managers looking for that type of information. Insufficient and poor quality data was a challenge that we needed to overcome. We needed to increase survey participation and the quality of the data that we had available. Historically, survey participation has been weak. I attribute that to member apathy and/or fear that someone will steal their recipe for their secret sauce. That fear is simply unfounded, and there is no reason for members to have concern. The information that is submitted is completely confidential. No one at OBCAI or the Board ever sees, or even has access to, the individual proprietary information that is submitted. It is complied by an independent third party, and only the aggregate data is released. Conversely, individual participation will have a very positive impact on OBCAI’s ability to benefit the industry and bring more value to members.

Lack of unity and cohesiveness is another challenge. It is important to our future success that we convey a very clear, concise, and compelling message if we expect to be truly heard. We need to speak (loudly) as ONE industry with ONE voice. Our industry is still relatively young – we’re very fragmented internally, and not easily recognized or understood by the public. That lack of internal unity and cohesiveness is a barrier that we need to overcome; it’s confusing to the public and sends a mixed message. What we have is a lot of Platoon Leaders, going in different directions, doing their own thing, and no real true Commander and Chief. OBCAI is truly an international unified voice of the industry – we need strong leadership in our Executive Director position to take us there and help us accomplish our mission more effectively, and lead that charge.

As a member owned non-profit we depend on the contributions of our members for our funding and support. The money derived through membership dues, conference registration, etcetera fund the programs that OBCAI provides. Our volunteer support provides the manpower needed to get the job done. That was a tall mountain to climb this year. We had a lot of turnover in our committee chairs and volunteer positions due to job loss and industry consolidation. We definitely felt the rippling effect of the economy on our membership.

What were some of the achievements over the past year?
We wanted to deliver more value to our members by increasing our marketing and PR. This is an important time in the life of our industry. I truly believe that our industry provides the answer to what companies need. More need to know that we exist. This is the first year that OBCAI had a Marketing/PR Committee dedicated to spreading our message to the public. Our goal was to increase our communication to three specific target audiences: a) The real estate community (landlord/brokers/etcetera), b) Other associations and industry trade groups like BOMA, CoreNet, SBA, and SCORE and c) Members of the public- corporate clients, decision makers, potential end-users of our space, and members of the press. We had quite a few distributed press releases, news articles and other things. But I think their most important achievement was implementing our new Social Networking Platform. This is significant because it allows us to stand out as a leader within Commercial Real Estate; provides the ability to direct our own press; and capture top of mind - and the links are beneficial for SEO purposes. It is also provides a cost effective channel of distribution that allows us to spread our message to the public very inexpensively. It’s a good fit for our marketing budget and our members’ hard earned dollars!

We produced an industry survey that had unprecedented participation, over 575 locations from 20 countries. It’s truly the most comprehensive financial study of our industry that exists. The data contained in the survey is an extremely valuable resource for members. It gives us important insight needed to run our business and make decisions, and will have significant impact on OBCAI’s future marketing and PR efforts. The income derived from the sale of the survey will bring in revenue to help support future OBCAI programs and marketing.

We successfully started 3 new LMN’s - Los Angeles, Ohio, and Florida - and our LMN sponsored Unity Day Video Conference was a huge success. We had over 18 different groups from 9 countries participate. It was a big symbolic step forward toward strengthening and unifying our industry. In spite of the economic challenges we all face, THIS IS OUR TIME, as an industry!! Companies need the benefits of what we provide now more than ever, and we have the opportunity to serve as a valuable resource and driving economic force in fueling recovery. If we are going to win the war against outside officing alternatives, we need the troops on the ground to be engaged, and work as a team. It’s all about Teamwork!! We’re really happy about the progress here.

We hired a new Executive Director to manage our Association. As I said before, The Executive Director position is crucial. Our Board Members only serve a 2 year term, but the ED position is one constant that does not change. The person who fills that role serves as a lighthouse for the industry. We need someone who stands on top of the mountain, like a beacon in the night leading us forward, and saying to the world “Hey World! Here we are! We exist!” - leading that charge. The Board and I felt that we needed a strong consistent leader to fill that role. We wanted someone who is committed to achieving our mission and serving our members. Someone who understands our industry and the needs of our members. Someone with experience in running the business of running an association. That person needed to have passion and vision for what we could achieve. They needed to inspire confidence and support from our members, and be an effective leader. We wanted someone experienced in working with government and legislative bodies, with a proven track record for effectively managing the business aspects of running an association. Guess what, we found him. Richard Meyers!!

What will your role be on the Board as immediate “Past President”?
As immediate Past President I will continue to represent the Association as a Board Member, serve as a mentor for our incoming President, Carolina Rendeiro, and will be the Chairperson in charge of the nominating committee choosing candidates for next year’s open Board positions.

What are OBCAI’s challenges and goals over the coming year?
We need to continue building value for our members. One of our goals should be to focus on strengthening our international participation. We are living in a global marketplace that is more connected than ever before. Increasing our presence on an international level will elevate the industry and bring more value to our members. As I’ve said before, OBCAI represents one industry, with one voice, to one WORLD. I think Carolina is just the person we need to crack it out of the park on this one! I’m so pleased to see that we’ve chosen our first non-USA President-Elect to follow in her footsteps, Javier Garcia!

We should continue strengthening our voice and expand our outreach. We will continue to build our marketing and PR efforts. The new website we have planned will no doubt have a very positive impact. Having a great online directory so people can find our members is important. Continue utilization of our Social Networking will drive results. And I also recommend that we continue to strengthen our relationship with other associations and industry trade groups. Increasing what I call “Cooperation and Collaboration”! As an industry, we talk about it a lot, and we’ve planted some seeds, but I think we are finally ready to bring that to fruition. Teamwork!

We will continue to further our advocacy initiatives. In response to the financial crisis, one of the goals during my term was to seek out possible opportunities to obtain financial relief that would benefit our members. As a non-profit organization, OBCAI is eligible to obtain funding, and access resources, that we as individual for-profit businesses would not otherwise have access to. This would be beneficial not only to our members, but also to the clients whom we serve. During my term we began to explore some financial grant programs, and other business incentives. We are still in the very preliminary stages, and grant writing is a tedious process. This was something left undone under my term, but I am very hopeful that with Carolina’s leadership, and the continued support of our members, we will see something wonderful come to fruition this year.

Why is it important for OBCAI to meet those challenges?
Members need access to cash and credit in order to sustain themselves, and position themselves for the future so that we’re able to meet the needs of a post-recession workforce. If you look at the demographics of our industry, we are in a very weak financial position. The majority of our industry is small business owner entrepreneurs, aged within 15 years of retirement, the majority of which capitalize their business off personal lines of credit and home equity loans. They’ve suffered a huge decrease in personal net worth as a result of the financial crisis, and lines of credit have tightened up. Many planned to finance the bulk of their retirement off the sale of their business and personal assets. Faced with decreasing revenue, and increased bad debit from clients and rising health care costs, many of these individuals will be tempted to walk away from their business, or be forced to sell at a significantly depreciated price.
They need money, plain and simple. Don’t get me wrong, Member discount programs are great; I’m not knocking that at all. It’s important to control our expenses. But I’m not talking about saving five dollars off the price of copy paper here. Because, let’s be honest, that’s not going to cut it. These folks need money for FFE, and new technology equipment, to service their tenants and remain competitive, and to position themselves for the future. They need the need the cash margin in their bottom line so they can pay expenses and sustain themselves, and hold on long enough to cash out when it will support their retirement and cover their health care.

Also importantly, let’s not forget about the clients whom we serve. The impact to them would have a tremendously positive effect. Personally, I feel passionately about this. OBCAI is an INDUSTRY association, and our purpose is to drive economic trade within the industry for the mutual benefit of everyone involved. We have a responsibility not only to our members, but also the clients whom we serve. Without them we have nothing. In today’s climate, not only are we the right solution to their needs, I feel our business model is an important resource in helping drive recovery. A rising tide lifts all boats. Likewise, a sinking ship has a very negative water displacement. More like a whirlpool that sucks up everyone down, us and the consumer. Our industry is mainly small business owners, and so are many of our clients. We are small business helping small business. What is the economic impact to the industry if we lose one of our own, and a client looses their deposit and capital investment? Something to think about. OBCAI does not have the resources to fund that kind of relief, but we can absolutely be the conduit.

How are the current economic trends affecting Office Business Centers?
Everyone is feeling the effects of the downturn. Our industry is no exception. But I was very encouraging to see on the industry survey that OBCAI members are significantly more profitable than non-members. That certainly speaks very well for our group of members.

Overall, revenue is down, which is to be expected. We’re seeing increased competition from the traditional office market, and commercial landlords. The supply of space on the market being offered at below market prices is increasing, which is a challenge for us. Every time there is a recession, we see increased competition from landlords who attempt to enter our market. All the more reason why we need to differentiate ourselves as an industry brand.

Service revenue is down from traditional sources - telephone usage, admin services, etcetera. There’s an increased demand from our tenants for technology services and bandwidth. They require more and more Internet based services, VoIP is becoming more popular.

We’ve seen continued growth in our footprint as an industry. New suites are being built, and bringing more inventory online. We are also continuing to see more industry consolidation.

Tell us about your background and how you got into the industry.
It was by chance really. Real estate was actually my third choice. I went to school to become a teacher, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that my heart wasn’t in it. So I was looking to make a change. Vince [Otte] had just acquired the company from Fegen, and was looking to hire some new people. A neighbor worked for a tenant, and suggested that my friend and I apply. How I got into the industry probably isn’t as important as why I stayed.

I took a year long leave of absence in 2001-02 after the birth of my second daughter due to health reasons. Somehow I got meningitis, and shortly after that 9/11 happened. Barrister was very supportive, but also quite amusing. When I told Vince I was quitting, he laughed and tore up my resignation! He recommended I take a leave of absence instead, which I accepted.

My time away was a great experience and really gave me a new perspective. As an American in the wake of 9/11, and a mother with 2 daughters now, I realized how much we take for granted. I enjoy freedoms and career options that generations before me, and many even today do not have. I also missed working. Although I had planned to take 5 years off and re-enter the workforce in some other commercial real estate capacity, I really missed Barrister, and the people I worked with. I also realized how much I truly believe in our industry, and the business we are in. So, I was back to work in one year, more dedicated and committed than ever.

What is your business leadership philosophy?
I think it all comes down to teamwork, and character. Teamwork divides the effort and multiplies the effect.

I believe firmly that real success, and true value, are derived from the ground up, and are the result of teamwork and commitment to achieving results. Ultimately success or failure is determined by the people who do the work, in the hearts and mind of the players on the field, by how hard they’re willing to work and by how bad they want it. The will to succeed and commitment to teamwork are the two most important things to have if you want to be victorious at anything in life, sports, combat, and business, whatever. I think Vince Lombardi said it best: “Individual commitment to a group effort is what makes a team work, a company work, and a society work, and a civilization work.” Having that desire and commitment is something which comes from within, and from every member of the team. It requires hard work, having the ability and willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done, to find solutions and overcome obstacles, and to achieving results, and dedication to the greater good and best interest of the team at heart.

I don’t believe in top down management, and I don’t think you motivate people with a hammer. A leader’s role is to provide a clearly defined objective, ensure the right players on the field, and have an efficient and systematic channel of communication. But ultimately, effective leadership boils down to character, and if they believe in you. Players on the field, troops on the ground, need to have confidence in your ability and willingness to take care of them in the end. It’s about confidence and trust. No soldier is ever going to fall on the sword, or give it their best, for a leader who isn’t committed to achieving results, or whom they don’t trust has their best interest at heart. Integrity and character count.

What do you enjoy most about your position with your company? What do you enjoy most about your work with the Association?
That’s easy; it’s the people, for sure. I work with a great group!! We are very much a team. We work hard together, and we play hard. Sometimes we even bicker a little bit like family, but in the end we always come through for each other. Integrity, responsibility, and commitment to excellence are all very important to us – a big part of who we are as a company. That’s something that you see consistently throughout - we don’t accept clients or employees with bad credit. That ideology comes from the top down, and it’s a foundation that we all share. We love what we do, and it shows. We keep our promises, and we’re committed to ensuring success across the board every step of the way – for our customers, but also landlords, vendors, employees too. I think that’s why we have so much longevity with our clients and our staff. After 20 years of working together, some of my co-workers, clients and vendors are like family to me.

What I saw in OBCAI was a way for me to give back. As I’ve said before, I have a wonderful life, truly blessed. I’m very appreciative of that. I’m incredibly passionate about what we do “our industry” and I see so much opportunity. My first experience with OBCAI was the Denver 2004 convention. I had a great time, and I definitely took away something positive. I became more involved because I thought it was a great opportunity to be of service and contribute value to my company and an industry that had given me so much. What I didn’t expect was that I would get so much more in return. Every year we’ve taken away something that has enabled us to reduce our overhead, or increase our profits somehow. I enjoy the camaraderie of my colleagues and peers, and I’ve made friendships that I’m sure will be life long with people who I might not have met otherwise. And the time I’ve spent volunteering has always been very fulfilling and rewarding. Who knew?!

How do you spend your time outside of work?
I have a fantastic husband, Jim, and two beautiful daughters – Katie, ten, and Ashley, eight. Oh, and of course there’s Twinkie, the hamster and most important member of our family. We live Southern California, in an area north of Los Angeles, which is a great place to be. We have a boat, so we like to go waterskiing and camping. We have a great group of friends, about 15 families that we’ve known for ages and do a lot with. Our kids are all approximately the same ages, so we all have a good time together. It’s nice.