Chicago had Marilyn Lissner before it had the NBC Tower, Harold Washington Library or 77 West Wacker. In her four-plus decades of work in commercial real estate, she has witnessed monumental changes, to the city as well as to the industry.
As an executive director in the Chicago office of Cushman & Wakefield, Lissner advises clients on high-level strategic planning, negotiation and implementation of real estate transactions, as well as corporate advisory and portfolio management solutions. Before she is honored by CREW Chicago at their annual awards dinner on Feb 27th, we sat down with her to get her take on how things have changed.
You’ve been with Cushman & Wakefield for over 33 years—a rarity in a field where so many switch firms so often. What has it been like working at one brokerage for so long?
The Cushman and Wakefield that I joined in 1986 is not the Cushman and Wakefield of today. It’s been ever evolving and growing from what was a private brokerage and management firm into a global firm. We went from 19,000 people to over 50,000 people. That was a response to our clients—you can’t stand on the shore and let your clients go to Europe and Asia and not follow them.
Over the past 40 years, the Chicago real estate market has changed as much as its skyline, just as you pointed out with your own organization. How would you define these changes? Are investors showing the same appetite for Chicago-area assets as they were when you began?
I’ve lived here all my life. I remember in the eighth grade writing about the city of Chicago and the Board of Trade building being an iconic building, the city’s tallest. Chicago’s location, economic strength, transportation, universities and museums have always made it a wonderful place to live and work. I think it’s mostly changed for the better. We have incredible and diverse architecture, and it continues to amaze me how beautiful and functional these buildings are. And they are more people oriented as well with the most incredible technology and amenities.
Having said that, I think there has been a change in the office investor profile. In the very early days, I would meet with landlords who were just regular landlords, meaning they may have been a contractor or developer, but they weren’t doing joint ventures and partnerships with institutions. But as the buildings developed the cost increased. And so, you found that the individual entrepreneur sort of transition to reach REITs, major international investors and private equity funds. However, following the dot-com bubble and this last recession, the mindset changed; it was no longer a lease and hold for a long period of time, but much more of a “let’s build it, lease it, sell it” mentality.
The highlight now is not necessarily office. There is a much slower recovery cycle and investors think that that whole rent level and expansion have peaked. The hottest markets right now are industrial and multifamily. There definitely has not been increased investor interest around retail, which has been really impacted by e-commerce.
Chicago as a city is very viable and will continue to grow, especially when you start to read about the big areas of future growth like Lincoln Yards and The 78. I mean, it’s just truly amazing. I’m not sure that we’ll see the completion of those in my lifetime, but the fact that we are forecasting future growth in those areas is really significant. It says something about the positive impact of Chicago.
Have you seen better equity and inclusivity for women in commercial real estate over the course of your career? Alternately, as a successful woman in real estate, would you rather have that qualifier taken off and just be a successful person in real estate?
You know, 2020 is the 100-year anniversary of women receiving the right to vote. Starting from there and working to where we are today, are we good? Are we happy? And the answer is always going to be no. But what do we do to improve the situation? The word “gender” becomes an obsolete word and it’s about people and their talents. And that to me is what I would like to see.
I’ve been very active mentoring women, and in the Girl Scouts actually where I’ve mentored younger women. I think that women need mentoring. And truthfully, as a founder of CREW, it was a movement. It was the very first time that women organized as a support system and with a goal to help each other achieve success in our field and become leaders. And it’s still very viable, unfortunately, because I would love to see it be much more gender neutral. But there’s inherent bias in our society that prevents that.
Yes, there’s no question it has improved from the days of Susan B. Anthony to the days when I first joined commercial real estate. But one of the best ways to keep improving the situation for women—it has to start at the top. Leaders of companies have to recognize that having a diversity of people in their organization is going to be much more profitable, innovative and creative.
However, talk is not enough. There needs to be some consideration at the top for how you make your organization more diverse so that we don’t have this whole gender issue. It’s going to take a long time, but complacency is not really an option. I think that many companies are beginning to recognize that.
What do you enjoy the most about real estate? What motivates you to jump into each new project?
I have to admit I’m kind of a deal junkie. I love the new challenges, the continuous learning experience the diversity of what I do with each and every client—who each has a set of experiences or needs that continue to make me sharper.
There are ancillary benefits of working with people that I like and continuing to collaborate, connect and learn from my colleagues, as well as my competitors, which makes this a pretty good job. But not without reserving time for other things like CREW or other women’s networks that I belong to or working with Girl Scouts or doing not-for-profit work. That sort of all blends together that keeps me pretty busy. And then of course, my family, which is most important, and I’m lucky to have them.