Cheryl Gray, Senior Vice President, Residential, helps lead Bentall Kennedy’s energy reduction efforts as the company strives to become a global leader in responsible environmental practices.
What does it take to be successful in the property management industry today? For starters, it takes more than it did two decades ago, back when pagers and fax machines were the profession’s high-tech tools of choice. Nowadays, successful property management professionals are tech-savvy on a multitude of fronts. They’re also number-crunchers, problem-solvers and bench-markers, tasked with protecting the interests of building owners, residents, communities—and lately, the greater good of the planet.
As our issue’s Industry Influencer, Cheryl Gray is the embodiment of all these attributes and more. A hands-on contributor, she’s someone who can be counted on to oversee the minutest details of daily operations. A trusted visionary, she’s always got a well-honed eye on the future.
Cheryl’s tenure with Bentall Kennedy began in the year 2000 when she was hired as vice president of the eastern region, overseeing the company’s growing office and industrial portfolio. She went on to lead Bentall Kennedy’s Strategic Resources Group, then switched sectors completely in 2012, helping bring Bentall Kennedy’s’ residential brand to market. Today the company boasts over 3,900 rental units and 22 multi-family properties from Ontario to British Columbia.
Among her peers Cheryl is a respected industry leader. She is currently Senior Vice President of the Executive Committee of the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) and previously served as the National Secretary Treasurer of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada (BOMA). Recently, Cheryl was honoured as the 2014 National Real Estate Management Member of the Year with REIC, and in 2012 she was recognized by IREM as part of their “Women Changing the World of Real Estate Management” initiative.
Professional accolades aside, Cheryl has been at the forefront of the green movement since it first sprouted about a decade ago, and has been integral to Bentall Kennedy’s achievements in sustainability ever since. This being our annual “Energy Issue,” it made perfect sense to feature Cheryl as our respected Industry Influencer.
How did you get started in the property management industry?
Like many, I really just fell into it. It all began in the early eighties in Calgary, where, much like today, you either worked in oil or you worked in real estate. I was working on the development side, but when the bottom fell out of the market, the only division left standing in our company was the property management team. I was approached by the general manager to head up the ten new multi-family rental buildings that were coming on stream. I did that for a couple of years, but it was a tough economy. My husband and I decided to relocate to Toronto, and from there it was just a progression of jobs. I was a property manager, then I switched to the commercial side, was promoted to director, and so on, leading to where I am today with Bentall Kennedy.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that it’s never the same day twice. No matter what happens in the world—whether it’s SARS or blackouts or ice storms—we’re impacted. All the buildings that people use daily for living, working or shopping—they are all managed, and consequently, we, as property managers, have to manage through those challenges and come out standing on the other side. It’s always interesting and dynamic. It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush as you never know what’s coming.
What do you consider the most challenging aspect of your work?
Being in property management is like running your own business. A lot of people think it’s just about ensuring a building is clean, but there’s so much more to it than that. You have customers within the buildings you manage. You have clients who own those buildings and who you need to report to. You have suppliers, service providers, financial responsibility and a staffing component to manage. A property manager really has to be able to deal with all those things like a business owner would. Property management has a broad focus with constantly shifting priorities.
How, and when, did Bentall Kennedy first approach the green movement?
It’s been an interesting evolution. During my previous role [with Bentall Kennedy’s Strategic Resources Group] I went to one of the first green real estate conferences held in Canada. That was back in the mid-2000s when ‘Green’ was just emerging, but we didn’t have a real sense of what it was going to mean to the industry yet. So, we just kind of dipped our toe in the water. We did a green cleaning specification very early on. Eventually, we saw potential in the green movement in real estate. We developed a strategic plan to address sustainability under the banner of a program called “Forever Green.” This plan continues to evolve and is constantly reviewed to identify priorities and improve performance. Today, sustainability encompasses so many aspects of what we do—energy, water, procurement, social engagement, giving back to the community and transparency. It guides our residents towards behavioural changes that will improve the sustainable performance of our properties, and ensure that sustainability continues to be a differentiator for Bentall Kennedy.
Beyond the obvious environmental and cost-savings benefits, what are some of the drivers behind your initiatives?
In the residential space, you have a lot more opportunities to get people involved because they live in the buildings, so the benefits are more obvious. That’s why our “Forever Green at Home” program is so successful. But beyond our tenants and residents, these days, more and more young people are selecting the kinds of organizations they want to work for based on the values the company embodies. When I was young, I just hoped to find a job I liked. But that’s changing. Employees are more engaged with sustainable initiatives and giving back to their communities. They want to see results and know they are part of something. Transparency is important. As an example, we have been doing greenhouse gas emissions reporting on all our asset classes for about seven years utilizing a customized system called Eco-Tracker. Eco-Tracker is fundamental for us to monitor and manage our conservation efforts, track our achievements and see what we have managed to reduce. Further, we were one of the first Canadian real estate firms to produce a public Corporate Sustainability Report.
How important is innovation for driving success at Bentall Kennedy?
Searching out innovative solutions and experimenting with sustainable technology has tremendous value for us. In all our asset classes we invest a technical services group. In residential, one of our technical services team is a LEED AP and worked previously in the engineering field as a consultant. He is very committed to sustainability best practices. We look to him for a lot of our research and he helps drive a lot of initiatives —whether it’s water reduction, solar heating or LED lighting. The coolest example I can think of is a biomimicry product we used on one of our buildings out in B.C. Based on the lotus leaf, it actually sloughs off dirt so we don’t have to clean the building as often, which means saving water. With all these things, you just have to do your research, because not everything will prove to be viable. But with some digging, there’s a lot you can do.
As a recognized leading woman of the industry, what helped you get to where you are today?
How did I get where I am today…a lot of hard work and tenacity! In the early days, there were very few women in this business. The property manager side had some, but it was rare to see one beyond that level. In the mid-90s, when I was promoted to a director of one company, I was their first female property director. And that’s really not that long ago! Seeing women in the C-Suite in real estate was unheard of back then. You do see it today, but we still have a long way to go. The skill sets, whether male or female, are no different—but what is different are the opportunities being offered. Mentoring is something that helped changed this for me in my early career What I have done is pay it forward and see that some of the men and women I used to mentor are assistant vice presidents and vice presidents, I feel pride looking back and knowing I played a role in guiding them.
On a professional level, what are you most proud of?
My biggest success is really those mentoring opportunities. Staying connected, maintaining relationships that continue today. Seeing those young men and women succeed makes me proud because of the role I played in helping them. That and the fact that I love what I do. I always have. You wouldn’t stay doing the same thing for 34 years if you didn’t.
Erin Ruddy is the editor of Canadian Apartment Magazine.