Deniz Hawley, director of CPM transition and administration, plays a key role at St. Louis-based Sansone Group, overseeing the company’s property administration department. She has worked at the company since 2017 and has found a home here after working in both the legal and real estate industries throughout her career.
Hawley is just one more example of the impact that women continue to make in the commercial real estate industry. Yes, commercial real estate remains a field largely populated by men. But as Hawley says, more women are moving into the business. And more of them are rising through the ranks to leadership positions.
To mark International Women’s Day, which was held March 8, we spoke with Hawley about her career, the challenges she’s faced throughout it and the steps needed to attract more women to commercial real estate. Deniz Hawley as Sansone Group’s representative for this feature.
What led you to a career in commercial real estate?
Deniz Hawley: Before moving into real estate, I primarily worked in law. Eventually, I moved to St. Louis with my son and found a job working in residential real estate. I started out as a leasing agent. I then moved up to the property management side, which I really enjoyed. We had some commercial spaces in some of our residential buildings, and I found that I really enjoyed working the commercial side of the industry.
I ended up interviewing at Sansone Group for a property manager position. But during the interview, we touched on my legal background. Sansone Group had a person in a director’s position who was moving out of the property management department and into the development department. I had a choice to either take the property manager position or the position I currently hold. I took the manager of property administration role. That came with overseeing the property administration department and a small team of people. I’ve since built that up and built the role up.
Every year this department has grown a bit more. It now bridges the gap between our development and property management department. It’s an interesting and unique role. I’m lucky to work for a company that has this vision and sees the need for this position.
Why is this position such a great fit for you?
Hawley: I’ve always been a bit of a nerd. I love reading and researching. I have always enjoyed the property management side of things and being a traditional property manager. But even when I worked in the legal field, I was more inclined to research through the documents. Some people are great with numbers. I’m great with words. Given that this position is involved in the legal aspects of property management and lease documents, it seemed like a perfect fit for me. This position is about providing the foundation so that property managers can do their jobs, so that they have all the information they need.
This position also requires minimal travel. I came here with my son as a single mom. Being able to have that work-life balance while still feeling fulfilled in my career is important to me. It helps, too, that I’m not getting calls from alarm monitor companies at 2 in the morning.
I know every day is different, but what is a typical day like for you on the job?
Hawley: This is a customer-service business. That’s property management in general. You are always dealing with issues, and if you are doing it well, you are proactively solving potential issues. You are taking actions on behalf of your clients to maintain these assets and avoid problems. The way we are structured, by the time an issue gets to me, it’s about problem-solving and client customer service. I enjoy that. That employs a lot of what I learned in legal litigation. It’s about bringing all parties together and coming to an agreeable solution for everyone.
I think of it like a puzzle. I do a lot of reading through documents, and sometimes that language is vague. Or something looks great on paper, but when you implement certain things, it gets a little tricky. I spend a great deal of time coordinating with other people about the best approach to day-to-day issues that property managers and directors face.
The thing I love most, though, is getting involved in the procedures of the department, implementing new ones strategically and thinking about how all the moving pieces best fit together. It feels like I am given the space to leave an imprint on the department and company, that I can integrate the visionary ideas that the principals have into the day-to-day of what the department does.
What personality traits do you have that help you succeed in this field?
Hawley: I take the approach that it is in everyone’s best interest to get problems resolved. No one wants to live with that problem forever. I’ve always been very good in a crisis. My natural personality is to resolve problems and then feel that adrenaline later. That come sin handy. My natural response is to act.
The biggest step in problem-solving is finding the common ground among everyone. Whenever that happens, you can calm the emotions down. It’s a logical process from that point on. Then it’s just about looking at the actual issue and seeing where we all want to get to. From there, you can plot the path to that resolution.
I did theater and public speaking when I was younger. Oddly enough, that comes in handy. It helps you identify if someone is coming from an emotionally charged situation. You have to resolve that first so that we can get to resolving the actual problem.
My mother was an immigrant from Turkey. She met my dad in the military. They fell in love and moved to a small town. Unfortunately, at times it was difficult for my mother to fit in. One of the lessons I remember her telling my brother and I was that when people are lashing out, it is more about them than it is about you. The only thing you can control is how you react to that. That has been a very beneficial lesson for me.
Have you faced challenges in this industry because of your gender?
Hawley: Absolutely. We are all still in that struggle as working women. We are all still fighting to get a seat at the table. My parents were great about instilling in me as I was growing up that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I was smart enough. They always told me that if I worked hard enough, I could do whatever I wanted to do. While it certainly hasn’t been easy, I also take that philosophy. Put your head down and do good work. If it is acknowledged, that is wonderful. If not, I know that at the end of the day the work I am doing is fulfilling to me. I am proud of it. At Sansone Group, they have recognized the work that I do. They are very supportive of that.
I enjoy some privileges that others don’t. The big thing for me is to put my head down, work hard and speak my truth whenever I see something that I don’t agree with. I will say something, politely and professionally when I do see something that isn’t right. At the end of the day, I try to do what I feel is right.
I also try to bring other women up with me. I have a team of four that I manage. Three of these team members are women. They come from different backgrounds, nationalities and age groups. I try to diversify my department. Bringing other people up is the point. You bring others along with you.
How important have mentors been to your career?
Hawley: They are absolutely important. What I have learned from my mentors has led me here. The former executive vice president of Sansone Group, Sharon Littken, was a mentor to me. She is retired now, but she was with the company for more than 40 years. Seeing how she navigated certain situations left a huge impression on me. The exposure to a woman in that position is so important for everyone, not just women.
I try to do the same for other people, especially new employees coming into the company. I want to make sure that people who come to this company have options. People thrive whenever they have options presented to them and they have exposure to different experiences.
What will it take to get more women into CRE careers?
Hawley: Real estate was and still is a very male-dominated industry. But I think that the industry benefits greatly when everyone gets on board with women being able to play the same game. What’s happened in other industries is that we have had to create our own table. Women in certain companies are doing that now. It’s what’s happened with me at Sansone. All you want is a fair shake. You want to be judged on the quality of your work. I think that whenever you cut everything else away and look at what a woman can bring to the table, and how much we can juggle, you see that we absolutely can excel in real estate.
There just needs to be a cultural shift. I do think it is happening. I am very, very proud to be a part of that, to be in a company where it doesn’t matter that I am a woman.
When you are not working, how do you like to spend your time?
Hawley: I have a 9-year-old son. I spend most of my time at various sporting events with him. I moonlight as a taxi driver for a 9-year-old boy. We go hiking a lot. We like being outdoors. I like taking my son to musicals, too. He enjoys watching them. I am also into books. I work a lot, so the quiet time away with just my son is important.