Top local real estate women share industry lessons

Melanie Mann, Suzy Aron, Ora Reynolds and Cindy Circo spoke to members of ULI as part of the group’s new Women’s Leadership Initiative.

Melanie Mann, Suzy Aron, Ora Reynolds and Cindy Circo spoke to members of ULI as part of the group’s new Women’s Leadership Initiative.

The Kansas City chapter of the Urban Land Institute is spearheading a new initiative to promote the advancement of women by raising the visibility and number of women leaders in ULI and the real estate industry as a whole. The Women’s Leadership Initiative on Tuesday hosted a panel of some of the most influential women in Kansas City’s real estate scene: Melanie Mann of Park Place Partners, Suzy Aron of Aron Real Estate, and Ora Reynolds, newly minted CEO of Hunt Midwest.

On entering the real estate business
ARON: “I grew up in the garment business and used to design all the clothes for the fast food industry all over the country: McDonalds, Hardees, Pizza Hut, Tasty Squeeze, A&W, and we grew with them as they grew. And as I went all over the country, I understood the value of what was going to happen in suburbia. When the garment business just wasn’t going to happen anymore, my father and I started buying suburban land. I’d take that money I made from shopping centers in Johnson County down here to buildings (in the Crossroads), because this is the part I really love. Nobody gave a damn about these buildings, and I could just pick up great properties for no money. And I understood with my friends how to redevelop them.”

MANN: After a 12-year stint developing properties, Mann’s partner – worried that the real estate business was consolidating – decided he wanted to liquidate their portfolio.
“So I did what every strong, independent woman does, and I went home and cried all night. And then I pulled myself together and met with my accountant and best friend, who said, ‘When someone wants to sell, that’s when you buy.’ So, I priced every property in my portfolio, and presented it to Jim, and said, ‘you can buy at this price, or I can buy at this price, you pick.’ So, he bought some, I bought some, and we actually kept a few properties together, and that was kind of the start of me in development,” she said.

On growing business, community
ARON: “I’ve probably sold 60 buildings down here (in the Crossroads Arts District), and lease most of them, so I really know everybody. When I walk down the street, or if I need someone’s help with a problem we need to fix whether it’s cracked sidewalks or day labor, I can go to the population and talk to my friends,” she said. “Dialogue and communication is the secret to why our neighborhood has been successful. And truly, once you come to the Crossroads, you usually stay. I think we have many, many people who used to be tenants who are now owners, and many people who were in 2,000 feet are now in 10,000 feet. So it’s a community, and I think that’s what’s most rewarding for me.”

REYNOLDS: Reynolds says Hunt Midwest is spreading its influence by playing across the entire spectrum of a person’s life: from apartment to home and then senior housing, the company’s newest hot growth area.

“Because of the resources we had, is we were able to go out and do things that the small guys couldn’t do,” she said. “We can create these neighborhoods and really build a community with all these great amenities, and you have the ability to move up within that community. We also tried to do it at a price point where a lot of people could get in there, and that’s really made us very successful… In the Shoal Creek area alone, we’ve added 25,000 people in 20 years. We’ve basically added a small suburb by by having all these price points, by having great amenities, by creating a community and giving people then that opportunity to move up in the community.”

On finding inspiration
MANN: “When my partner, Jeff Alpert, and I thought about building Park Place, our philosophy was to find the best piece of ground and then find what the best thing is to do on that piece of ground. We never do anything twice, so it’s a lot more fun, but it’s a lot harder,” Mann said. “We would travel around the country, often at ULI events, and find some of the experts that helped us. We just liked seeing every project that was either old or new and writing down the things we liked and the things we wanted to stay away from.”

REYNOLDS: Reynolds said she’s passionate about finding new ways to do things. At Hunt Midwest, that’s meant that at any given time, the company has one or two unique projects going in which they “have no idea how we’re going to make money doing it,” she said. With most projects, “you have to understand what the pieces are and how you make money, but you get to do a few where you’re still trying to figure it out.”

ARON: I either fall in love with the buildings or it’s the people. It’s really an exciting opportunity – it’s really like a marriage honestly, when you sell someone a property, you really get to know them. You know what turns them on, what scares them, you know if they need help. It’s a collaborative event.

How are you taking advantage of Kansas City’s resurgence?
REYNOLDS: “How do we continue to invest in the community? For us, we’re building buildings and creating jobs and giving people a place to live and we’re trying to bring new business into the area to make this more vibrant,” Reynolds said. “People say they had the choice to live in Austin, Seattle, or Denver, and they’ve chosen Kansas City. For us, the technology deal with Google allowed us to create a mission critical data center in our underground and finally after years of working with the state, get a set of incentives to try and bring more of these technology jobs here which will continue to kind of feed and create that synergy.”