NOLA L. SARKISIAN
It seems like several lifetimes ago for Letty Bierschenk.
The year was 1970 and she was working her way up through the investment marketing department at Coldwell Banker in downtown Los Angeles. But each day, before she began her regular work, there was coffee to make for her male colleagues. And when the brew was ready, the men would be able to take cups to their desks, while Bierschenk had to drink her coffee in an office lounge. The same rule applied for smoking.
"It was the nature of business at the time," Bierschenk recalled. "You just accepted it because that's how things were done. I would not have dreamed of saying anything or complaining. I just went along with the flow and concentrated on my work."
And through it all, she never reconsidered her decision to enter commercial real estate. "It was a time when women were slowly making strides, but there was a lot of work to be done," said Bierschenk, now 70.
As it turned out, she did it well. By 1980, she was a vice president and manager for national investment marketing activities, a position that allowed her to develop and execute programs for training, marketing and business development company-wide.
Bierschenk's story and her attitude at the time is not uncommon among women who moved into commercial real estate, a business long dominated by men. Despite the occasional rebel who would simply balk at typing or making coffee, many others managed to move up the ranks by extra education, hard work and determination often eclipsing their male counterparts.
Denise Anthony, president of Commercial Real Estate Women, a networking organization, said Bierschenk was one of those women who "had to jump through many hoops, which many younger people today do not realize. She was definitely one of the pioneers who made the industry more accessible to women."
As with many stories involving women in commercial real estate, Bierschenk, a UCLA graduate, fell into the profession by default. After college, she spent 15 years at General Electric, working in the receiving department where she tested glass tubes for televisions.
"I enjoyed my time there, but I was ready for a change. I felt like I had accomplished what I had wanted to," she said.
Opting to stay home with her family, Bierschenk began looking for part-time work but ended up starting another career at the age of 40. Hired by Coldwell Banker, she first performed administrative duties such as editing company publications with titles like "Using the After-Tax Discounted Yield to Compare Investment Alternatives."
But she started getting hooked by the complexities of real estate transactions and began moving up through the ranks. To accommodate her talent, Bierschenk's boss created positions for her. But it took a long time to break into management.
"Nobody cared if I was a woman and they needed help on the deal. But upstairs, if somebody wanted a new manager, they looked at a man," she said.
To cope with the growing frustration, she and a group of female co-workers would often caravan to Palm Springs for weekend retreats. Between sunning and shopping, they would air grievances and provide moral support to one another.
"We really bonded at that time," Bierschenk said. "Everyone had their own issues to deal with, but this provided a forum to let everyone know they weren't alone."
To boost her real estate savvy, she enrolled at the Northrop University School of Law and earned a master's degree in federal taxation. She attended classes three nights a week and finished her studies in 1978.
All the while, she enjoyed support from her family. Cap rates and internal rates of return became common topics during dinners often prepared by her husband, an aerospace engineer at Rockwell International.
"It was really never a passion of hers to cook, so they shared a lot of responsibilities and roles across the board," said her son, Kurt Bierschenk, now 33. "They were ahead of their time."
Another breakthrough occurred when Bierschenk attended a Coldwell Banker conference for 100 managers in Houston 99 of whom were men.
"I was one of 10 presenters and after my presentation, the speaker who was next asked to give up his time so I could continue with my talk," she said. "Sure, many of them were uncomfortable, but several came up and said they were pleased to know that (I was) on the team."
In 1983, she moved to the San Fernando Valley office of Coldwell Banker and sold commercial property. She later signed on with Grubb & Ellis Co. as an investment specialist, handling a portfolio totaling roughly $200 million. She oversaw such high-profile transactions as the sales of the 100 Wilshire office tower in Santa Monica and the Pacific Stock Exchange a convoluted transaction that spanned four years.
"It was a very complex property there were tremendous constraints from the issue of parking to easements," said Richard Pope, now senior vice president of administration at Stanwill Properties Inc. who was involved with the transaction while with another firm. "Most people would have thrown up their hands and walked away. There was never an unhappy word out of her mouth. 'Can't' doesn't exist in her vocabulary."
Since 1993, Bierschenk has served as a consultant to her family firm, the Bierschenk Group Inc., working side by side with the two sons she raised. Bill Bierschenk, 41, founded the 15-year-old company and is president and chief executive. Kurt Bierschenk is now vice president after signing on a couple of years later. They now work on four or five deals at a time totaling $40 million to $50 million.
"We value her advice and years of expertise," Kurt Bierschenk said. "The office atmosphere is no different than any other. We call her Letty and she calls us Bill and Kurt, not honey."
To date, Letty Bierschenk figures she has had a hand in $1 billion worth of real estate deals throughout her career.
No doubt, the road to success is less bumpy nowadays for women in commercial real estate. But how long will it take before more women head up major real estate institutions?
"Anything is possible, it just may take awhile," Bierschenk said.
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