Case Study: Forest City Ratner

Brooklyn, New York
Metropolitan Area
825 Employees
Seven out of 13 C-suite positions held by women, including CEO
Visible and Challenging Job Assignments
An Inclusive Culture
Development of External Networks
Leadership Training
Flexibility & Family Leave

In in the male-dominated world of New York City real estate, the women of Forest City Ratner stand out. “We are a sea of women among a sea of men,” says Susi Yu, executive vice president for residential development.

“Sometimes, someone has to break the mold. She is unstoppable,” says a long-term colleague, referring to MaryAnne Gilmartin, president and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) in New York.

“MaryAnne is central to attracting and advancing talented women. Her brand is one of a strong leader and a woman who is human and accessible. She has an aura of being able to juggle a tremendous amount and handle it with aplomb,” says David Berliner, executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“Bruce Ratner runs a true meritocracy,” says Gilmartin, referring to the executive chairman. “We hire the best of the best and engage them in solving heady challenges. Those who bring passion to the work get results and in turn are rewarded.”

Forest City Ratner is the New York subsidiary of the larger Forest City Enterprises, based in Cleveland. Gilmartin has thrived in this environment and has attracted other women to the firm. Top executives who are women include the controller and heads of retail, residential development, external affairs, and human resources.

Men and women thrive at Forest City Ratner by rising to the challenge of working on high-profile and innovative projects that change neighborhoods and the skyline of New York City. The firm’s development projects include the following: the New York Times Building, designed by Renzo Piano Workshop of Genoa and Paris; 8 Spruce Street, a 76-story residential building in lower Manhattan designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry; and Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a state-of-the-art arena that is home to the National Basketball Association’s Brooklyn Nets, the National Hockey League’s Islanders, and hundreds of events a year.

In our WLI survey, women told us the most important thing companies can do to create workplace environments where more women will advance is to provide visible and challenging assignments and an inclusive culture. Forest City Ratner stands out as a firm where challenging assignments are the name of the game and the culture is proven as one where men and women excel. Because the organization is very flat, relatively junior employees wear many hats and have the opportunity to take on a great deal of responsibility.

In this hard-charging environment, a strong network of relationships with colleagues is another ingredient that yields collective success. “We rely on each other to bring different skills to every project,” says Adam Greene, assistant vice president for development. “The environment is demanding in a good way—we are inspired to collaborate, share information, and do our very best work.”

Yu agrees: “I had to stand up to Frank Gehry regarding the feasibility of his design when I was working on 8 Spruce Street.” This type of challenge has given Yu and others opportunities to master new skills and increase the scope of their work.

Yu describes those who thrive at FCRC as hungry, curious, and smart. The environment is entrepreneurial and while there is expertise within the company, employees need to seek it out. This environment engenders creative problem-solving and challenges each member of the team to rise to complex challenges. “There’s a safety net, but there’s a long fall between where you are operating and the net,” Yu explains.

In this hard-charging environment, a strong network of relationships with colleagues is another ingredient that yields collective success.

The company also provides an environment where men and women are supported in taking active roles in their families. Gilmartin is the mother of three and a role model for bringing a great deal of energy to both work and family. “I don’t like the term work/life balance,” says Gilmartin, “I prefer the seesaw metaphor as we move back and forth between roles.”

“The company has offered flexible options to new mothers, and we are interested in offering more flexible options to fathers,” Berliner says. The company is headquartered in downtown Brooklyn, where a number of employees live; it is an environment where it is not uncommon to see children in the office.

“When I had three young children at home, FCRC provided flexibility in my work schedule to be there for my family,” says Linda Chiarelli, senior vice president and deputy director of construction. “Now that my family and I are at a different stage of life, I choose to begin with the construction crews at 7 in the morning and work with the development teams until 7 in the evening.”

In addition to providing challenging roles and an inclusive culture, Forest City Ratner provides focused development opportunities and executive coaching to augment work experiences. A number of high-potential leaders have completed training programs at the Coro New York City Leadership Center.

To help in the development of strong external networks for female leaders, FCRC provides support in serving on not-for-profit boards through its philanthropy budget.

To provide career development for all employees, Livia Corredor, codirector of legal affairs, led the introduction of “We LEAD” last year (acronym for Women’s Leadership, Education, Advancement, and Development). The group eventually hit its stride through small lunch gatherings that grew to more than 50 participants, both men and women.

A speaker series this year featured the personal stories of luminaries of the New York real estate scene, including Jill Kaplan, publisher of Crain’s New York Business; Suri Kasirer, a lobbyist with Kasirer Consulting; Pamela Liebman, president and CEO of Corcoran Group Real Estate; and Mary Ann Tighe, chief executive officer at New York Tristate Region at CBRE Group.

The We LEAD group is continuing to plan a diverse array of activities, including community involvement through Habitat for Humanity.

“This group gives women and men at all levels at FCRC access to a very strong network of relationships inside and outside the company,” Corredor says. A success story arising from the group’s lunch meetings includes that of one woman who made a connection that enabled her to rotate from a role as a building manager to external affairs, an area of great passion for her.

“I never read the memo that said you should feel intimated when you are in a room with 25 men,” says Gilmartin. “Because real estate development has become increasingly quantitative and detail oriented—demanding the synthesis of a great deal of information and making decisions at warp speed—it can play to the natural strengths women bring to their lives inside and outside of work.”

At FCRC, both men and women thrive by approaching high-grade challenges with teams that value creativity and innovative solutions.

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