Women in property

Women in property

Total Property - Issue 1 2019

Total Property caught up with four of commercial property’s leading women who have blazed a trail to the top of their fields: Leonie Freeman, new chief executive of the Property Council; Angela Bull, chief executive of Auckland-based property investment firm Tramco; prominent lawyer Adina Thorn; and Jo McDonald, associate director at Development Advisory Services.

Long-time property entrepreneur Leonie Freeman has a unique role in shaping the industry as chief executive of the Property Council.

With 30 years in the industry, Freeman has championed both commercial and residential property and was the brains behind realestate.co.nz.

She bought and transformed her own residential property management business in 2000, before becoming a strategic property adviser during the establishment of Auckland Council. She went on to be general manager of asset development for Housing New Zealand. 

Recently she has dedicated her time to leading a philanthropic initiative to solve Auckland’s housing crisis.

“At Auckland University half the property students would be female but we don't seem to be keeping them in the industry,” says Freeman. “Because it’s male dominated, a lot of women look at that and make other choices. Getting more women in the industry is not about social justice, it is about wanting good people in the sector.

“As a sector there needs to be a bigger effort in diversity, in how we get females into leadership roles and on to boards.”

Auckland property investment company Tramco hired Angela Bull as its chief executive three years ago. With a legal background, Bull has extensive experience in property investment, retail developments and infrastructure.

She started out in corporate law firms dealing with resource management and property law around infrastructure and residential development. One of her first projects was the groundbreaking Stonefields residential development at Mt Wellington for Landco.

In a 2006 career pivot, Bull joined Foodstuffs as property development general manager.

Moving to Tramco gave her the opportunity to work in Auckland’s Viaduct precinct where it has 14 hectares of land. The role allows her to lead the company’s direction and work on activating the Viaduct as the America’s Cup approaches.

In a career spanning over 15 years, she recalls going to Property Council events and sitting around meeting tables as the only woman. “There are still not enough women in senior property roles but I’m pleased to say that is starting to change. There’s more focus on getting women into leadership roles than there ever has been.”

Adina Thorn is a prominent lawyer heading one of New Zealand’s biggest leaky buildings product liability claims.

Thorn is representing 1,100 commercial and residential building owners in the $250 million class action against various James Hardie group companies for the alleged failure of cladding products.

She has extensive experience in construction disputes, having previously worked for law firms acting for both home owners and defendants, including councils. She has settled hundreds of claims and now has her own law firm.

Since leaving university in 2003 with law (honours) and property degrees, Thorn has built up specialist skills in property, construction and litigation.

She sees no reason why the lack of women in the sector can't change. “Gender doesn't come into the role – property ownership is property ownership and a lease is a lease. There is no reason women can't enter the commercial and industrial sector. It’s a matter of confidence in a lot of cases.”

Thorn has an even split of women and men working on her case against James Hardie.

When Jo McDonald left the University of Auckland with a property degree she joined Westfield's two-year graduate programme, and was then offered a full-time role due to her ambition to build shopping centres.

Delivering the upper-floor extension to Christchurch's Riccarton shopping mall in 2009, while trading continued at ground level, was a career-defining success. “I was under pressure to prove I could step up and do it. There was a lot of focus on me because I was a female now working in the big boys’ world.”

Four years later, she moved to Kiwi Property and became involved in the master-planning for Sylvia Park's extension, while also handling earthquake insurance claims for Christchurch's Northlands Mall and the extension of Auckland's LynnMall, the Brickworks.

After working for Southpark delivering 120 high-level apartments at Kensington Park on Auckland's North Shore, McDonald has joined Development Advisory Services putting a team together around vertical builds.

“It’s a lot easier to be a woman in property in New Zealand than it is in Australia,” she says. “People are willing to give advice and take a chance on you.”

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