Clarity and Power: Mary Ann Tighe on Having a Thick Skin and Getting Things Done
By Julia Gamolina
The Wall Street Journal has written, “(There is) an exceedingly small club of women who have managed to move to the top of the brokerage business. That club’s most prominent member is Mary Ann Tighe.” Crain’s New York Business has named Mary Ann the most powerful woman—across both the public and private sectors—in New York, and chose her for induction to the Crain’s Business Hall of Fame. Placing her at the top of its ranking of the City’s most powerful women, Crain’s observed, “Ms. Tighe has a history of…transforming the face of Manhattan.”
Indeed she does. From the revitalization of Times Square and the rebirth of Downtown to the westward expansion of Midtown’s central business district, Mary Ann Tighe has been at the forefront of the transformation of New York’s skyline during her 32 years in the real estate industry. She has been responsible for more than 101.6 million square feet of commercial transactions, and her deals have anchored more than 14.4 million square feet of new construction in the New York region—believed to be a record in commercial brokerage.
Mary Ann has been CEO of CBRE’s New York Tri-State Region since 2002, and is a nine-time winner of the Real Estate Board of New York’s Deal of the Year Award for ingenious brokerage, a record number of wins since the award was created in 1944. For a three-year term starting in January 2010, Mary Ann served as Chairman of the Real Estate Board of New York, the first woman to hold this position in REBNY’s then 114-year history, and the first broker in 30 years.
Mary Ann began her real estate career as a broker at the Edward S. Gordon Company, ultimately rising to the position of Vice Chairman of Insignia/ESG, where she was regularly recognized among the firm’s top producers. Prior to entering the real estate field, Mary Ann served as a Vice President of the American Broadcasting Companies, where she launched the A&E cable channel. Recognized nationally for her expertise in the arts, Mary Ann was also formerly the Deputy Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Advisor to Vice President Walter Mondale, and a staff member of the Smithsonian Institution. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Mary Ann talks about the three phases of her career, advising young architects to find their mentors and get to know all aspects of the profession.
JG: In college, you studied English, and then went on to study Art History. How did your interest in both first develop?
MAT: My earliest interests all centered around reading - it’s still my great passion. I always had the intention of working, but I grew up in a blue collar family, so my idea of something that would combine reading and working was to be a teacher. English was my first love, and I’m grateful that I learned how to write. It’s a great foundation for business.
What ultimately happened is that I was in Washington, DC, in college, and I grew up going to museums by myself here in Manhattan. Being in DC and being near the national mall, I loved them all, I decided to turn my love into something I would do, thinking that instead of being a teacher, I would be a curator.
What was your first job out of school?
In college, I got a Fellowship at the Smithsonian, and I became really immersed in that life. The Smithsonian was my true graduate education, even though in parallel I was pursuing my masters degree in Art History. Through one of the great charmed events in my life, I went from being a Fellow to being hired by the Smithsonian - I became the “Education Specialist” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. I was on the staff that opened the museum.
How did you get to the White House?
I was a very enthusiastic Democrat - this is back when Jimmy Carter was elected, the first Democratic president in many years. When the inaugural week occured, there were many events on the mall of the Smithsonian, and we had an event at the Hirshhorn where Joan Mondale, the Vice President’s wife, came and gave a speech - and it was terrible!
I took it upon myself, after this speech, to write to her Chief of Staff. I said, “I’m on the staff of the Smithsonian at the Hirshhorn museum, and if Mrs. Mondale ever needs any speeches about the arts, I would be happy to write some.” It was like putting something in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean.
A few weeks later though, a stack of books arrived from the Library of Congress to my desk at the Hirshhorn, with a note from Chief of Staff Bess Abell that said, “We need twenty minutes worth of remarks for the American Crafts Council.” I knew zero about american crafts [laughs], but I read those books, and then I sat at my typewriter, pretended I was the wife of the Vice President, typed up this speech, and sent it on!
Every week another stack of books would arrive and they would ask me to write remarks for something related to arts & culture. One day when I was 26 years old, and I got a phone call asking if I would come to the White House to talk about a job. I was meeting with a man named Michael Berman, Walter Mondale’s Chief of Staff. He asked me, “How much do you make a year?” I told him, and he told me he could pay almost four times that to advise their domestic policy staff on arts and culture and to write speeches.
By that point I was divorced, and I had a very young child - I figured I’ll take the job and save some money, and I did. I stayed in the job for about 15 months, and then I was offered a position as a Deputy Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. I did that for four years, even into the Reagan Administration.
I see your career as having three phases - in the arts in DC, in television at ABC, and then in real estate in New York. What was your main take-away from this first phase?
At the Smithsonian, the take-away there was to always work for a person who appreciates you. So many good things came to my life from the woman I reported to there; she believed in me and that opened a lot of doors. At the Arts Endowment, I learned to have thicker skin. I learned that if you were to ever do anything interesting in life, you are not going to receive universal approbation. I love that Nancy Pelosi, when asked to define the difference between herself and Donald Trump, said, “I have thick skin, and he doesn’t.”
At the White House, I learned an enormous lesson, that has proven to this day to be incredibly powerful, and that is: personal relationships trump everything else. I had always been a very good worker bee, but there was another guy on the Domestic Policy staff with me, and I felt like he never did anything - he was always just hanging around, wandering from office to office, schmoozing people. One day, I needed to get something done and I couldn’t find my way - I needed to speak to President Carter’s Chief of Staff, and I couldn’t get an audience. Low and behold this guy, who seemed like a ne'er do well and who I thought of as a flibbertigibbet - who by the way, went on to become a Congressman - came into my office and said, “I hear you want to meet with Ham - want me to set it up for you?” And he did.
We were identical in rank, but he had established enough of a relationship that he could get this important meeting for me. From that moment, I realized it’s one things to get your tasks done, but another to spend time with people and get to know them as human beings, and for them to get to know you - that’s what makes all the difference in the world. People prefer to have a comfort level - they’re not looking for an automaton who will just turn out the work.
How did you transition to ABC?
I married a fellow who was becoming a doctor, and who asked me, “Where do you want to end up?” I told him I wanted to go home to New York - living in Manhattan was my goal in life [laughs]. So David did all of his training at NYU, and four years into our marriage, my time in Washington was over. When I went to work for Carter though, I signed a non-compete which said that for the first three years after I left government service, I could not work for anyone who had received a grant from the federal government.
Apparently there was a waiver for this at the time, but no one had told me about it! I had to find a job that essentially had nothing to do with what I was trained to do, but, that time was the dawn of cable television. When I was at the Smithsonian, I made a number of hours of television - for the bicentennial year, I had produced a whole series for the Smithsonian on American art. Blessedly, ABC Video Enterprises hired me to start a cultural channel, and for that, I was very qualified.
How was your time there and what did you learn?
It was a little bit of a scary time - my husband was in residency, I had my child, and we were dependent on my income. Thankfully it worked out. I learned that negotiating was a skill that wasn’t topic-specific. If you knew how to negotiate, you can take that skill into many realms.
However, even though I liked the people and I liked the work, I traveled constantly. I began thinking that I needed a job that’s based in New York, where my business was to stay in New York so that I could be with my family, and that’s how I came to real estate.
So you came to real estate with a network, a thick skin, and the ability to negotiate. You were pretty prepared!
I was still terrified; I was 36 with no knowledge of the industry. Looking back on it, I think I must have been insane. I had a peculiar kind of fearlessness, I think. During all of these years however, I had also written for various magazines on the side, and the way I got my job in real estate was through my writing as a journalist.
What happened was, I had been introduced to Seymour Durst. Seymour then introduced me to three brokerage firms, and after meeting with the firms, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to work for the firm called the Edward S. Gordon Company, after the man who owned it, because of the energy of the office. It looked highly unstructured and struck me as a pure meritocracy, and about that I was right. At 36, I knew that I didn’t want to be in an environment that had a rigid hierarchy.
I met with Ed, and he told me, “You have no business background at all.” I left, but instead of feeling rejected, for whatever reason, I began thinking about it. Shortly thereafter, I got a call from someone who connects writers with assignments, asking if I would write an article for a new magazine, called Manhattan Inc. I said, “Sure! I want to write a profile of Edward S. Gordon.”
They said, “Isn’t that a real estate guy? We thought you’d write on someone in media or the arts.” I said, “I want to write about Ed.” One thing I noted, was that Ed had a huge ego [laughs]. One meeting with him, and I didn’t need to know another thing.
So I called him up, and told him I wanted to profile him. In order to do that, I told him I needed to follow him around for a few days and spend some time with him. He said sure. After I followed him around, I could claim I had real estate experience [laughs]! I wrote the article, it was published in October, and I started at ESGC on November 4th. So the first significant moment was this, this not taking no for an answer, and finding another door through which to enter.
Tell me about your time in real estate.
There are so many highlights. First, getting Carol Nelson to mentor and partner with me. Then, the first great deal that I did when I joined was the first building being built in New York in a ten year period - after a very dark period in New York - the Conde Nast building, which was called 4 Times Square. This was the beginning of the redevelopment of Times Square. This was the first deal I could lay claim to entirely; I thought it up and I did it. The New York Times building, which really was my idea, was a great highlight, being the Chairman of the Real Estate Board, and finally moving Conde to the World Trade Center - they were the first major firm to move in.
The next big highlight was when I left the Edward S. Gordon Company to go to CBRE, and eight months later, we acquired my old firm and I came back as CEO, in 2002.
Why did you leave?
9/11 was an enormously impactful moment for those of us in real estate, and I began thinking about my own life, and that I wasn’t too happy about where I was. Eddie had died and then it was very much a boys club, and even though I was a Vice Chairman, and even though I was treated very nicely personally, the company wasn’t my vision of what my optimal organization would be. I did my homework about where to go next, and I came up with CBRE because they were an important firm globally, and a dominant firm nationally, and but nowhere in New York. I cold-called the CEO, asked him if he knew who I was, he did, and I left my firm and brought some of my people with me.
Over the years, we managed to become the dominant firm, and that was a great thing.
Where do you feel you are in your career today?
I feel as though I have immense power in my profession - both within my firm, and also within the city as a whole. I want to be able to use the power for purposes that benefit my colleagues, my clients, our shareholders, but also the city that I feel so committed to. I know how to get things done, and that’s a nice place to be.
How do you get things done?
Becoming chairman of the Real Estate Board in 2010, and doing that for three years, taught me an enormous amount about the mechanisms of the city, how to exercise power, and the hurdles that come up. For example, the midtown east rezoning was an idea that I had, but then I needed to learn how to make it happen.
Getting all the relevant parties on board, and knowing who all the relevant parties are, is all very important. That comes with experience - I always say, even in pursuing business, who is it that can actually say yes? If you’re not talking to that person, you’re not going to get a yes.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in your career?
The hardest period for me was coming back to my firm after having left it, when CBRE acquired the Gordon Company, and discovering that many of my old colleagues were not only not happy to have me back, but also not happy to have me in a position of control. I realized that you couldn’t necessarily expect people to love you; you wanted respect, but maybe you weren’t going to get love. That’s when I turned outward to the Real Estate Board, and then became Chairman of the Board. Suddenly, I was doing something that nobody else has ever done, as a broker, and certainly as a woman - there hadn’t been a broker in the role in over 30 years, and there hadn’t been a woman Chair since the Board was founded 114 years before my appointment. It’s when I stopped caring about affection that it came.
I also have to say, it used to be that I knew that I had the respect of women in our industry, but I was always struck by the fact that I didn’t have the same celebrity with men in the industry. In recent years though, that’s not true. I think the reason is that young men today are very different. At this point, I have many male mentees, in and outside of my firm.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I try to have clarity about what it is I’m trying to do. If you’re trying to do something complicated, you’re going to inevitably be veering off the track in all different places, and you need some kind of touchstone to keep reminding you, “This is why I’m doing this, or this is why we’re doing this.”
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers in this industry?
Get to know the people who do what you do, but also make it a point to get to know people who don’t do what you do. One of the things that was a huge success for me was not being a broker who just talked to other brokers, which is what brokers do, but I was fascinated with all the aspects, and was talking to people in construction, in design, people in every aspect of our business. It’s day and night, the difference that that makes.
What has resulted from this is that it’s almost impossible for you to tell me a problem in any aspect of the urban built environment, where I wouldn’t know who to get the answer from. I’m not talking about googling it - I’m talking about the best expert in what you need to know. It’s not only that you’re doing right by your customer, but it’s also about using your time incredibly effectively and it’s also having a transfer of respect back and forth. People like to be experts for you, they welcome the opportunity to do that, and I often think the greatest bonds are formed when you ask people to do the thing that they’re expert at, because they take such pride in doing it for you.
What is specific to our industry, to the built environment, that’s not the same in other fields, in navigating it?
The government. The government is your partner, full out. If you don’t make an effort to know the structure by which approvals happen, or where disapproval could happen, things don’t get done. That’s a hard thing for people to understand, particularly when you’re focused on design, but if you have a lucky architect who has a friend in City Planning - things will be much easier for you.
Finally, what advice do you have specifically for architects?
The issue of who your mentor is, is huge in an architectural environment, because to an extraordinary extent, architectural firms are still dominated by particular individuals - far more than at a law firm, or an accounting firm, or a brokerage firm. You will rarely see any of those firms where one person is dominant, or the sole genius, etc. If you are in that kind of firm, the need for that sole genius to get you, and to promote you, becomes key.
The second thing I will say, and boy have I seen this watching the greatest of architects work: the common denominator among the starchitects, and they can be as different as Norman Foster, Bjarke Ingels, or David Childs - is their ability to take their client beyond where their clients’ vision is.
I always think of this moment with Renzo Piano, when the Times building was going up. The Times was very conscious of the budget, and Renzo had this idea of the mast for the top of the building - this mast was something like a $20 million dollar item and served no purpose. I remember Arthur Sulzberger, the CEO of the Times at the time, and Michael Golden, the Vice Chairman, going to see Renzo, and they were planning on coming out of that meeting without the mast. But in this meeting Renzo, who is a sailor, said he created this mast because it bends ever so slightly with the wind, theoretically. He said it was important for the Times to know which way the wind was blowing. Very articulate.
As you know, the Times building has a mast. All of those guys have the ability to push their clients, to persuade. To find the connection that the clients will understand, that will make the work better.