Teodora Zobel of Midwood Investment & Developmen: “Just keep at it”
Just keep at it. Perseverance is everything. When I first started and I had to cold-call owners to try and get them to sell their assets, there was a day where I heard 25 “no’s” in a row. It’s not always easy, especially in the beginning of your career. If you really enjoy something, work hard at it, and keep chugging along, eventually something does and will work out.
As a part of my series about strong women leaders of the Real Estate industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Teodora Zobel, Executive Vice President of Investments- Midwood Investment & Development.
Teodora is responsible for all aspects of Midwood’s investment strategy including sourcing, evaluating, and structuring new acquisitions, as well as long-term capital planning. Prior to joining Midwood, Teodora worked at Cushman and Wakefield in the Global Consulting group where she focused on real estate optimization strategies for a broad range of clients such as the City of Toronto, Verizon and Mount Sinai Hospital. Teodora started her career in the Economic and Valuation Consulting group at KPMG LLP. Teodora received her MBA from NYU’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business and a dual Bachelor’s Degree in Finance and Accounting from Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics. Teodora is involved with Women in Need, a non-profit organization that provides shelter to families in New York.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Real Estate industry?
I started my career in consulting, and eventually started working on real estate transactions, where I’d advise our clients on space utilization, site location and space needs. I quickly realized that being able to create compelling spaces in unique locations is a fascinating part of the business, and so I shifted to working for an investor/developer. Today, I run an investment team focused on finding commercial properties to purchase, as well as land for development. Every day is different and there’s always something new to learn.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occured to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
There are so many different personalities in this business, which is mostly male dominated. I remember someone requested a meeting with me because they wanted to purchase one of our assets. We were sitting in a conference room, and he was playing with his phone. After a while I asked him if he’d like to start the meeting, and he said he was waiting for a “decision maker” to show up! It never occurred to him that that person could be a woman. It’s easy to get frustrated in a moment like that, but it’s also an opportunity to shift another person’s perspective. There’s always an opportunity to learn something in a moment like that.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At Midwood Investment & Development, we both invest in existing real estate and develop new projects. Currently, we have unique developments in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. We try to improve the communities we build in by adding high-quality architecture and resources to the neighborhoods that we build in. For example, in Studio City, California, we recently built a retail project that has access to the Los Angeles River, a grocery store, a selection of stores and restaurants, outdoor seating areas and weekend programming. It will be the main hang-out for the neighborhood and a place where residents can socialize and gather.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are few companies in the industry that are as committed to evolving, being creative and encouraging curiosity in the way that Midwood is. The process of continually iterating and improving is ingrained in every facet of our business. Most recently, we’ve started to evaluate and learn how to make our assets more sustainable and prepared for the future — programs like solar power, energy efficiency and EV charging stations.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are several mentors and friends that have helped me over the years. Midwood’s CEO, John Usdan, has been instrumental in teaching me industry fundamentals such as site selection, risk assessment and how to think in a contrarian way. I also have a great network of women in the industry that I can always go to for advice and support.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. The Real Estate industry, like the Veterinarian, Nursing and Public Relations fields, is a women dominated industry. Yet despite this, less than 20 percent of senior positions in Real Estate companies are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what do you think is the cause of this imbalance?
Residential real estate is better represented in general — I don’t consider commercial real estate female-dominated. It’s clear that the issue in the commercial real estate industry begins at the mid-level. The industry has an easier time recruiting women for entry-level positions and then tends to lose them at the mid-level as they start families. There are typically not many flexible arrangements available, and that becomes a real impediment for retention. It will be interesting to see how that evolves in a post-Covid reality.
What 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender balance going forward?
First, I don’t think companies can expect to become organically/unintentionally more diverse. It needs to be set as an objective and worked towards proactively by purposefully seeking to hire outside of the standard pathways. Second, in interviewing, candidates should be exposed to multiple interviewers to avoid biases. It creates a more balanced approach. And finally, as I mentioned, making sure women are supported as they transition into motherhood (if they choose to) as their career progresses.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
As a working mom, I’m lucky to work for a progressive company that supports a healthy balance between work and family. However, I find that for many of my peers, employers don’t do enough to support moms. Recently, I was at a Parent Association meeting for one of my kids and all the participants (except one) were moms. Until the childcare and home-management balance changes, there needs to be flexibility afforded to those that are trying to juggle active parenting with being engaged at work.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Real Estate industry?
– Real estate affords the ability to take an interdisciplinary approach to built environments. I love hearing different perspectives on why a strategy is selected — be it from an urban planning, architecture, demographics, macro/micro trends, data analytics, environmental or other discipline.
– There’s always more to learn — whether it’s different markets, financial structures, or regulations. It keeps evolving.
– The spaces people occupy can have a big impact on their lives. Creating an environment people want to spend their time in (to work or live) is exciting.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
A couple of thoughts in terms of trends affecting commercial real estate. First, returns are compressing rapidly because of the availability of cheap capital. This leads many investors to expand their risk appetite and take on more debt in unproven asset classes or markets with inflated assumptions. Time and time again, we’ve seen this not work out well in the end. Also, costs continue to push up [both land and construction costs], which ultimately leads to upward rent pressure and continued unaffordability for low-middle income consumers.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Transparency, trust, and communication. Transparency, even in tough times, can make people so much more aligned with the overall team/company vision. Trusting employees to take responsibility for and ownership in their work is empowering and necessary as companies scale. Communication goes hand in hand with all of that. Given the challenges we faced working through Covid, my team implemented a daily check-in call first thing each morning. It’s usually only 15–20 minutes but allows us to get aligned and set the priorities for the day ahead.
Ok, here is the main question of our interview. You are a “Real Estate Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the Real Estate industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
1. Just keep at it. Perseverance is everything. When I first started and I had to cold-call owners to try and get them to sell their assets, there was a day where I heard 25 “no’s” in a row. It’s not always easy, especially in the beginning of your career. If you really enjoy something, work hard at it, and keep chugging along, eventually something does and will work out.
2. Patience is paramount in an environment where deals can take years to get done…in development, an entitlement process can take a decade.
3. Don’t celebrate a deal until it’s closed. This is something I get superstitious about, but I learned that the hard way. Something can and will go wrong at the last minute, so spending time preparing for that is always time well spent.
4. The ability to understand people is so critical — the customers/tenants, owners, and all our counter parties. There are times when you really need to step back and focus on the other side’s perspective and what they need in order to feel good about a transaction or situation. It’s almost never purely about money.
5. Know how to take calculated risks. Without taking any risk, it’s hard to make outsized profits; however, understanding your real downside in every scenario, quantifying it, and understanding all the different options can help mitigate some of the unknowns.
Because of your position, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement would be to listen to someone for 5 minutes completely and open-mindedly before responding in a debate or conversation. We live in a very polarized world and it’s so easy for people to only take in information that conforms to their world view. Listening, even for a few minutes to another person is validating, and could also lead to greater learning or change in perspective.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for your time, and your excellent insights!