By Konrad Putzier
For New York’s real estate executives, traveling to countries like Qatar or China in search of capital can be a cultural challenge – especially if you’re a woman and six months pregnant.
“I wore a hijab in Saudi Arabia for the whole time, it was totally weird,” said Marcella Fasulo, senior vice president at CBRE’s institutional properties group, recalling a recent business trip. At CBRE, Fasulo specializes in finding foreign investors to buy New York properties, working on a team led by star broker Darcy Stacom. This involves a lot of travelling, and a lot of encounters with people who have a slightly tortured attitude towards women in influential positions.
“Travelling really makes me realize how different the United States is,” she said. “(Men in Qatar or Saudi Arabia) are very respectful. They kind of view you as a third sex – not a man or woman but a business person. I’ve built some incredible relationships there.”
“(My gender) was not as much of an issue,” she added. “People were just shocked that I would travel at 6 months pregnant.”
Still, being a woman can sometimes complicate talks with foreign investors. “I have felt that I have to prove myself. There were a lot of instances where people test me in a way I know they wouldn’t test men,” she said. For example, on a recent trip to China an executive at a large institutional client asked her a number of questions he clearly knew the answers to – ostensibly to test her. Once she answered the questions and added some further suggestions, the executive gave her different contact information. She had proven to him that she could be a serious business partner.
There is a widespread perception that women still have to go to lengths to prove their worth in New York’s commercial real estate industry as well. Although gender equality is more advanced than in countries like Saudi Arabia, women are notoriously underrepresented in senior positions and industry events often have the whiff of old boys’ clubs. Fasulo dismisses the notion that New York’s commercial real estate sector is sexist, pointing to the success of women like MaryAnn Tighe. Still, the fact that she is one of only a handful of female senior executives leaves room for doubt.
Regardless of whether her gender is an obstacle, Fasulo’s rise has been remarkable. At 33, she is one of the youngest senior vice presidents in the business. She recently arranged Singapore-based Pontiac Land Group’s equity investment in the planned 1,050-foot MoMa tower and worked on Greenland Group’s investment in the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn – one of the most high-profile foreign investments in New York real estate in recent years.
“We only took the asset out to a very limited audience. We approached Greenland, and within a couple of days they were planning a trip to New York City,” she recalled.
In July 2013, Fasulo received a Greenland delegation and showed them the site. A couple of weeks later, the delegation returned to review the project in more detail. In order to convince the visitors that investing in Brooklyn is a good idea, Fasulo tweaked her presentation in order to make the local market more understandable: she compared Brooklyn to Kowloon, a peninsula in Hon Kong. “The two are uncannily similar, and it helped them understand Brooklyn in a better way,” she claimed. A couple of months later, Greenland Group bought a 70-percent stake in the residential mega project, becoming Forest City’s partner. The project has since been renamed Pacific Park.
Local real estate executives sometimes complain that Asian investors blindly overpay for New York properties, inflating prices, but Fasulo strongly disagrees. “A lot of people believe foreign investors are dumb money, but it’s actually quite the contrary,” she said. “They are billionaires for a reason.” Foreign buyers often have plans with properties that aren’t obvious to locals, she argued. One example is the Anbang Group’s purchase of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown for $1.9 billion – widely derided as overpriced. But the Chinese insurer recently surprised the industry by announcing plans to turn part of the hotel into condos, potentially opening up a new revenue stream.
Fasulo explained that last year Asian investors often shied away from New York office properties because yields were lower than in London, another market popular among global buyers. But this year, as yields in the two cities are compressing, foreign buyers are showing a renewed interest in office properties here.
Fasulo speaks about foreign investment with the confidence of a broker with decades of experience. In fact, her entry into the brokerage business was fairly recent. After graduating from Lehigh University with a degree in marketing, she joined Darcy Stacom’s team at CBRE as a business development analyst focusing on research. After two years she switched professions, becoming an associate broker at Savills in 2007. “(Becoming a broker) was more of a natural progression because of my personality and my tendency to focus on marketing,” she said.
Another two years later, she returned to Darcy Stacom’s team at CBRE – this time as a broker and vice president. In 2011, she began focusing on foreign capital – a role she has filled since.
Fasulo, whose maiden name is Griggs, is married to Dan Fasulo, the former managing director of Real Capital Analytics. She is seven and a half months pregnant with their first child, but hopes to only take a brief maternity leave. Global capital doesn’t take a year off, and neither will Marcella Fasulo.