The road to leadership is different for everyone. For Kennedy Wilson president Mary Ricks, it meant taking a leap, being a team player and knowing she’d be able to prove herself.
Mary Ricks: When this is behind us, I hope that companies make a more concerted effort to help women with a step up, because they’re going to need it. I mean, women have been really bearing the brunt of COVID.
Tanya Ott: Even before COVID, women were severely underrepresented in the real estate investment industry. Today, one leader explains why and what needs to be done to address the problem.
Tanya: I’m Tanya Ott and today on the podcast we’ve got the latest installment of our conversation about women in financial services. We’ve talked [to] leaders in investment management, banking, technology … and today it’s real estate.
Mary: Hi, my name is Mary Ricks and I am the president of Kennedy Wilson. We’re a global real estate company and we mostly operate on the West Coast of the United States and throughout Europe, mostly in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain.
Tanya: You came to the president role that you’re in right now two years ago. Was it a position that existed before you had it or did they create it for you? I was a little bit unclear on that.
Mary: It didn’t exist before. I had been over in Europe running our company there, that was a public company. We IPO’d in 2014. I was the CEO of that company and grew that business with the senior management team there. When it was time for me to come back to the United States—mostly for personal reasons, my mom getting older and just time to kind of hunker down with my daughter and my partner in the US—I was promoted by Bill McMorrow, our CEO, and by the board. I was grateful for that and it’s been a great opportunity to run Europe still and to play a bigger role in our US business.
Tanya: Taking over the world, it sounds like. I’m really interested in your career journey because you got a B.A. in sociology from UCLA. I’m curious how you went from a sociology degree to what you’re in now.
Mary: That’s a great question. I was a college athlete at UCLA. You’re right, I majored in sociology and I really wanted to be, early in my career, I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a social worker, work with kids. The recruiter for the first real estate company I worked for, he was a former athlete at UCLA as well. He came to the UCLA athletic director, Dr. Judy Holland and he asked her could she recommend any student for the training program. [He] felt like athletes, successful athletes, had all that it took to be successful in business. For some lucky reason, Dr. Holland thought of me and recommended me. I was just so, so lucky for that. I didn’t know anything about real estate and I decided to give it a try. It seemed like it was fun. I could learn something new. I remember being the only female in our training class. There were seven or eight of us. A lot of success is luck and that was one of those lucky breaks.
Tanya: I love how you say just sort of offhand, I was an athlete. But you were really kind of part of, I don’t want to embarrass you, but kind of like an athletic dynasty of sorts. Your brother ...
Mary: You know what? That’s so true. That’s probably why I was able to go to UCLA and play ball because my brother, who’s nine years older than me, he played baseball at USC. I grew up kind of being beaten up and roughed up and thrown baseballs at my head and learning to be tough with him. Then my sister, who’s five years older than me, she was a basketball player at UNLV and then went on to be the women’s basketball coach at UCLA and has had an incredible career. So, yeah, I grew up with older siblings who were much better than I was and they just made me be tough, I guess.
Tanya: You played on UCLA’s national championship softball team in the mid ‘80s.
Mary: Yeah, we won a couple of championships.
Tanya: Yeah. Was it ‘84 and ‘85?
Mary: ‘84, ‘85, which is forever ago. But it seems like not very long ago because the memories are such an important part of my whole growing up as a young woman, as a young athlete, just the honor to play for UCLA and all my teammates, many of [whom] went on to be Olympic athletes. It was just incredible, really incredible. I really credit not only growing up with my siblings, but then everything that I was able to do at UCLA with all my teammates to so much of what I’ve been able to accomplish in business.
Tanya: How did that experience being on a team and being involved in athletics affect or influence your approach to leadership?
Mary: You woke up every day going to practice and wanting to do the best you could do yourself, but it really was just all about, how can we win as a team? How can we support each other? For us, it’s all about surrounding ourselves with the best people. How do we be simpatico with each other, be respectful of each other and everybody do their different roles and support each other as a team? That’s really what carries the day in any business.
Tanya: These conversations that we’ve been having, this series is all about gender equity in the industry and women are seriously underrepresented in real estate development and investment and particularly in senior roles. I was looking at a study that came out of Harvard almost a decade ago now by a woman who’s a lecturer at Harvard Business School and a long-time real estate investor. The study got a lot of attention. It found that women held just 4% of senior investment roles of major real estate firms.1 One of the things that she attributed that to was institutional sexism. Now, you’ve been in the industry for a really long time, have you seen that?
Mary: I mean, I wish I could say no. Throughout my career, I definitely have seen that. We’ve made a lot of strides, but the numbers still aren’t where we need them to be. But we’ve been making progress.
Tanya: What are the fronts on which you think the industry has made the most progress?
Mary: Like many senior women at the top, we’ve been conscious of the situation. It’s imperative for all of us to do our part to help. At the beginning of 2020, so before the COVID pandemic, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. According to a study between 2015 and 2020, the share of women grew from 23% to 28% in SVP roles—that’s across corporate America, so not just real estate—and from 17% to 21% in the C-suite.2 Women of color and the entire range of diversity remained dramatically underrepresented, but there was a small improvement. Much of this has to do with the narrative out in the world, the requirements mandated by corporate America or the regulatory bodies with the sphere of influence on corporate America. A great example of that is the proposal to the SEC by Nasdaq to adopt new listing rules related to board diversity and inclusion.
Those things will help. Those things will help greatly. There are 3,000 companies, I believe, listed on Nasdaq. The requirement or the proposal is to have at least one woman on all Nasdaq boards and one director who is a racial minority or LGBTQ. These are ways by which you’re going to reach a lot of companies, a lot of companies are going to be thinking about this, it being a requirement. And these are important factors in making changes.
Tanya: Do you worry that making it a requirement puts the people who end up in those positions, the women, the people of minority status, in a position where they may feel looked at that they were appointed to the board because of that minority status?
Mary: I’ve been getting a lot of calls myself from different boards and I always kind of laugh about it because I know I’m going to get more calls than any of my male colleagues would get, perhaps. But we take what we can get. Women at the senior level, they want to prove themselves. They want to do the right thing. While you may [say], “OK, I know why I’m possibly sitting in the seat,” it doesn’t matter. I’m going to prove myself. Any means by which the numbers improved, by which changes are made, is positive. When you think about finance, women in the real estate world, there are so few senior women. So whatever it takes to help us change that narrative, we need to take that. Then it’s incumbent upon senior women and senior men, senior management of companies to make those changes, because it has been proven that the companies that have more diversity, they perform better.
Having sat in Europe for quite a long time, I saw ESG [become] a requirement and companies being focused on ESG much more so than in the United States. It was rewarding to see, when I came back to the United States, that become a more important narrative as well. Investors are showing their commitment to ESG with their pocketbook. If companies don’t check ESG boxes and aren’t focused on ESG, shareholders or investors will go elsewhere.
Tanya: ESG for people who aren’t familiar with it, that’s environmental, social and governance issues and investors are increasingly applying these nonfinancial factors as part of their analysis process when they’re identifying risks and growth opportunities.
When you were talking earlier about the study that recently came out that looked at women in the industry and it was showing a positive trend up, you said “before COVID”, it came out before COVID. It’s going to be really interesting to see what things look like after COVID, because we’ve obviously seen a lot about women having to leave the workforce because there are challenges with balancing home-schooling children or caring for older parents or whatever the case may be during some of the lockdowns. What are you anticipating?
Mary: It’s so true and really it’s kind of depressing, quite honestly, because I feel like we were making a lot more strides before COVID. And you’re right, The brunt of that extra child care, health care, looking after the house, that generally has fallen more on women. I do think it will be a negative to the numbers. It’s been much harder for women than for men during this time. But again, I hope that when this is behind us, I hope that companies make a more concerted effort to help women with a step up, because they’re going to need it. Women have been really bearing the brunt of COVID.
Tanya: One of the things that that Harvard study that I referenced pointed out was that one of the big issues that companies have had is with retention. Some of the issues that they face in retention are not only women being recruited to other companies or other industries, but women perhaps not being able to stay in the industry or stay in the workforce because of family responsibilities. I wonder if you might talk to that a little bit, because you’ve been in it for quite a while. I’m sure you’ve seen people come and go for all kinds of reasons. But that retention issue, how significant is that?
Mary: We haven’t lost any women ourselves. We’ve got a couple of hundred people in the company, so we haven’t seen it directly. But I’m sure it’s significant. You also have burnout, right? Women are taking the brunt of home-schooling their kids. They’re working from home. They’re having to figure out meals. How do you go shop and get food in the house? There are all kinds of other issues now that women are having to think about and those times of being able to send your kids to school and/or child care after school so women can go into the workforce, it’s extremely hard right now. It’s going to be hard. When the numbers come out, when COVID is behind us, we’re going to see a dip in the numbers. And companies are going to have to step up
Tanya: We’ve talked about women a lot, but there’s a whole range of diversity. There’s, of course, gender, there’s also race, there’s LGBTQ+ status, economic background, all of that. And that’s another thing that companies have to address. What’s your thinking on being able to be more broadly defining or how to embed that kind of inclusion in an organisation?
Mary: For me, it needs to start with big corporate America with a big narrative. I’ll never forget watching Squawk Box—I want to say it was December 1st—where the Nasdaq proposal came out and it was like, whoa, that is big. That’s so important because that was not only women, but it was also the diversity that you just talked about, all those different diversity buckets, if you will. That is so important because that gets out there, it gets into the consciousness of corporate America. And you need to see that the big guys really be working on this. I’ve seen Goldman Sachs come out and say they want support and they won’t take companies public unless there’s diversity on their boards. And it’s not just gender diversity. You’ve seen State Street basically mandate diversity within their divisional companies. So you’re seeing a lot of big corporate names, big corporate America, big corporate CEOs come out and talk about all kinds of diversity.
Tanya: How have the sorts of roles that women usually have in this industry affect their path to the C-suite?
Mary: That’s a great question. You see a lot of women in property management. You see a lot of women in asset management. Those are great things, those are really important aspects to the real estate business, but in terms of really revenue-generating or CFO-type roles, you see way fewer women. For Kennedy Wilson, we try to give [women] experience within all different aspects of our business. Everybody has to be analytical. Everybody has to play an asset management role. Everybody has to play an acquisitions role. We rotate everybody so they can have the experience. It’s just opportunity, really. Women haven’t had the opportunity and haven’t been thought of for those roles that generally lead to the C-suite.
Tanya: What do you hope the conversation about gender equity in real estate investment is going to look like in, say, 10 or 20 or 30 years from now?
Mary: So I have a young daughter who’s 10, so I hope when she’s getting into the workforce, I hope we don’t talk about this. I hope it’s just fair. It’s an even playing field and we don’t have to have the conversation.
Tanya: Of course, hope isn’t necessarily a bankable plan. What is the one thing that you would want to change to make a difference in gender equity?
Mary: That is a hard one because don’t think it’s any one thing. It’s multiples of things that need to happen. We need to look after our young women. We need to give them those opportunities. You need to really lean towards giving the inclusion and diversity choice the upper hand. You need to pay it forwards, basically.
Tanya: Part of it sounds like just clearly making the choice for diversity when you have two candidates who are equally qualified for the position. Are there other elements to that, sponsorship, mentorship, starting with the pipeline much earlier, maybe as early as your 10-year-old daughter.
Mary: I would love that. That’s a great idea. One of the things that I’ve been talking to our human resources director, who’s a woman, Regina Finnegan and she’s a super successful senior woman who has three grown-up kids. She’s fought the battle like many of senior women have. We’ve been talking about how do we go to universities and recruit women that don’t even know they’re interested in real estate?
Tanya: Maybe women majoring in sociology ...
Mary: Exactly. When I think about what I was going to do, I got extremely lucky. Regina and I have been talking about recruiting women, going into colleges and universities where young women don’t even know that they might be interested in real estate. It’s such a great business. It’s just diverse in terms of being able to see it, touch it, being able to travel. You’re not doing the same thing a lot. There are always new challenges that you’re facing, from the beginning of acquiring an asset to selling an asset. There’s a whole big process in between. It’s exhilarating, really. It’s a great, great business. And I don’t think women have had the opportunity because generally it’s driven by the finance world. They haven’t gravitated towards the business. So it’s incumbent on us to go to them.
Tanya: Mary, thank you so much for the conversation. We’ve learned a lot and there’s a lot more that we’re going to learn throughout the series.
Mary: Thanks so much for the opportunity, really appreciate it.
Tanya: Mary Ricks is the president of Kennedy Wilson, a global real estate company that operates on the West Coast of the United States and in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain. She [is] just one of several women in leadership we’ve interviewed for the series. The road to leadership in financial services has been different for each of them. For some it starts with athletics, for others it’s a willingness to say “no” or to find their way through uncomfortable situations. They’ve got tips and tricks like the seven-minute rule … which you hear the CFO of T. Rowe Price explain in our interview at deloitte.com/insights. Check it out!
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The Deloitte Center for Financial Services, which supports the organisation's US Financial Services practice, provides insight and research to assist senior-level decision-makers within banks, capital markets firms, investment managers, insurance carriers and real estate organisations. The centre is staffed by a group of professionals with a wide array of in-depth industry experiences as well as cutting-edge research and analytical skills. Through our research, roundtables, and other forms of engagement, we seek to be a trusted source for relevant, timely, and reliable insights.