Balancing on a tightrope 45 feet up in the air might be unnerving — if the other 20 participants cheering you to the finish line aren't your trusted confidantes and fellow leadership trainees. For the members of the Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network, even the daunting task of negotiating a tightrope at a training session is possible thanks to support from fellow members of this international trade organization.

With a roster of nearly 5,000 commercial real estate professionals, the CREW Network dedicates itself to the success of its members by helping them develop relationships in the industry and offering opportunities for educational and leadership training, said Linda Hollemon, the organization's CEO. Hollemon served as the first president of CREW Network when it was formed in 1989.

Formerly known as the National Network of Commercial Real Estate Women (NNCREW), the CREW Network represents all of commercial real estate's major disciplines, including law, brokerage, property and asset management, development, consulting, construction, architecture, interior design, mortgage banking and investments.

Sally French Tyler, 2001 president of the CREW Network based in Lawrence, Kan., said the organization was formed for networking across several disciplines, because similar organizations had a more narrow scope. “The unique element of CREW was not that it was oriented toward women in a predominantly male industry [men are also welcomed as members in some local chapters], but that the groups brought together representatives from a wide variety of professions, all of whom were involved in some way with commercial real estate,” explained Tyler.

She added that the organization's name change was orchestrated partly as a branding tool. “We wanted prospective members to understand the uniqueness of the CREW Network — that we represent all the major disciplines in commercial real estate and are able to cover the entire landscape of transactions,” said Tyler, who also is employed as vice president of Fidelity National Title Insurance Co. in Atlanta.

In the 13 years since the CREW Network's inception, it has grown from 11 chapters and 1,100 members to 43 chapters and nearly 5,000 members. This year, the CREW Network added its first international chapter in Toronto, and has received inquiries from European cities about forming chapters overseas. “Our new name reflects who we are, as well as our primary focus, and it positions our organization to expand beyond domestic borders,” Tyler said.

Changing with the times

Emily Magal, 2002 CREW president-elect, noted that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., combined with this year's economic strife, required a redefinition of CREW's goals for the upcoming year.

“My year has changed in the past six weeks, between the recession and the tragic events that happened along with the potential long-term war,” said Magal, who is the founder of Moving Details Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based company that coordinates commercial moving. “I probably won't introduce any new programs. Instead, I'll be helping with our core business, to help our members exceed and excel in the industry.”

CREW will help members succeed by providing opportunities to develop new business, informing members about real estate industry events, developing leadership opportunities, and facilitating introductions to industry experts. Along with these important goals, another 2002 focal point for CREW will be the “Job Bank,” a members-only section of the organization's Web site (www.crewnetwork.org) that lists available jobs submitted by members across the nation.

As real estate professionals find themselves facing the first economic downturn since the recession of the early 1990s, they'll need more connections for new business, new jobs or education, Magal explained. “This coming year we have a tremendous opportunity to grow our value to our members,” Magal said. “In the most recent years, people have been so incredibly busy that they haven't had the time, the need or the energy to develop business contacts.”

Indeed, the CREW Network is in a growth mode. This year, chapters were established in Indianapolis and in New York. Another chapter is ready to start up in Jacksonville, Fla., and an existing group in Nashville, Tenn., is considering joining the national organization.

The power of a network

Searching for new business or a new job? Ready to relocate? For members of the CREW Network, these prospects don't seem as challenging with the support of an international network. For example, 48% of members have worked with another member on a transaction, and more than 75% have received or given a referral to another member.

For Karen Ward, an attorney at Gronek & Latham with 10 years experience in real estate transactions, the CREW Network is more than an affiliation to put on a résumé. “For me, CREW has been an amazing organization on a personal and professional level,” she said. “I've met not only business contacts, but also some of the closest personal friends I've ever had.”

Ward even asked a fellow member of the Orlando, Fla., CREW chapter to be her maid of honor in her upcoming wedding.

When Ward's law firm represented Universal Orlando in a $1.4 billion transaction, she recruited four CREW members and their firms to participate as title insurers in the refinancing of two theme parks, five potential hotel sites and nightlife development. “Personal relationships made the deal go faster and made everything easier,” she said.

Being able to pick up the phone and contact a CREW member in any city is what Terri Johnson, a member of CREW Philadelphia, describes as just one of the many benefits of membership.

“My affiliation with CREW has saved me hours of time, got me work and helped my career,” said Johnson, who is a senior vice president of sales at EMG, a national real estate consulting company.

Johnson cited a national award that the Philadelphia chapter received for initiating networking with multiple chapters around the country. She said 17 members from various chapters were involved in one deal, and four members were involved in another $50 million deal. This is the fourth consecutive year the chapter has been recognized for its networking acumen.

Longtime member Dottie Cunningham is a leader on the steering committee that worked to establish a chapter in New York. She has demonstrated her enthusiasm for CREW by helping establish the Baltimore CREW chapter and maintaining membership in five different chapters at varying points in her career, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Hartford, Conn., New Jersey and now New York.

Cunningham also credits her CREW affiliation with landing her current position as CEO of the New York-based Commercial Mortgage Securities Association (CMSA), a trade association serving the CMBS industry. When the headhunter was looking for candidates for the leadership of the association, at least three CREW members called to recommend Cunningham for the job. According to Cunningham, her experience with CREW was a selling point for the top management position at CMSA. She had the relevant experience and understood how a trade association operates.

Business and community leaders

CREW Network members are given the opportunity to develop leadership skills that offer professional and personal benefits. Some of the training is informal, but there also are formal examples, such as the Atlanta CREW chapter's Leadership Training Program.

To kick off the Atlanta program, the 21 participants were required to complete a tightrope course to get a sense of how much they could accomplish. Char Fortune Posey, president of C.H. Fortune & Co., an Atlanta commercial real estate services firm, and Lee Eastwood, vice president of Cousins Properties, a giant Atlanta-based real estate investment trust, developed the program in 1999.

“Together we designed a leadership program to advance the members' professional careers and personal lives through exposure to events they would not otherwise have the opportunity to experience,” Posey said.

CREW Atlanta developed its own leadership activities to identify members' strengths, such as the tightrope challenge and the strength-finder workshop, held in conjunction with the Gallup organization, an employment consulting company. Speakers on topics ranging from public speaking and management to personal growth techniques round out the program.

In its third year, the Leadership Training Program has begun to pay off. More than half of the Atlanta CREW leaders have completed the program in that short time. “It's truly helped with our succession planning,” Eastwood said. Plans are in the works to offer this program to other CREW chapters.

Leadership on all levels

The CREW Network annual convention, as well as national leadership seminars held each spring and winter, offer opportunities for leadership training. The convention draws more than 600 members to network, share ideas and foster professional growth.

According to Judith Levine, an attorney with Arter & Hadden LLP in Columbus, Ohio, the leadership training sessions at national meetings are a huge benefit. Getting ready to serve her second year on the CREW Network National Board, Levine said leadership training from the national organization has been a tremendous help with communication issues and succession planning in her local chapter.

Levine has had the opportunity to serve as both a participant and instructor in the seminars. She explained the leadership skills gleaned from these experiences become invaluable within each CREW chapter, business and home. “This training is something you can use in your everyday life,” she said.

Giving back to the community

The members of CREW feel fortunate for their successes: 63% are in top management positions such as president, CEO, partner or senior manager. Another 13% own small businesses, and 76% make decisions on hiring outside contractors or vendors. To encourage other women and girls to achieve economic self-sufficiency, the organization formed CREW Foundation, a separately incorporated arm of the organization.

In 2000, the CREW Foundation gave grants totaling $75,000 to three charitable organizations that promote economic self-sufficiency and self-determination for women and girls.

Deborah Quok, vice president at CB Richard Ellis in San Francisco, said the concept of supporting women and girls evolved because members wanted to help women in fields outside of real estate. “We will continue raising the bar on what we provide to the community,” she said.

For example, one of the charities the Chicago chapter supports is the Chicago Real Estate Initiative (CREI), which provides education for real estate careers.

Another ongoing project is CREW Atlanta's Compassion in Action, which raises up to $125,000 annually. Since 1993, the group has raised more than $800,000 to fund nonprofit organizations that provide emergency and transitional shelter, medical services, job placement, legal aid and child care for homeless women and children.

Whether completing a tightrope course to enhance leadership skills, networking with other members or visiting a women's shelter, the women of CREW Network exhibit a willingness to put in the time and effort needed to realize their life's ambitions.

The CREW Network at a glance

  • 63% of CREW members are presidents, CEOs, partners or senior managers of their companies
  • 76% make decisions on hiring outside vendors or contractors
  • Average income level: $112,000 per year
  • 77% have received or given a referral from or to another member
  • 20% have received a job referral through their interaction with CREW Network members
  • 3% are male
  • Average number of years in commercial real estate: 14
  • 15% specialize in law


— Source: CREW Network Demographics