For the final “Women in Construction” feature of the current series, Construction Network Ireland sat down with four of the women in the Commercial Real Estate and Construction and Engineering teams in law firm Matheson, together forming one of the leading commercial real estate law practices in Ireland.
Matheson acts on some of the largest and most high profile property transactions in Ireland, and as a firm has a wide client base of national and international companies and financial institutions doing business in and from Ireland. The firm works with institutional and private investors, developers, lenders, owners and occupiers on all aspects of real estate and construction.
Construction Network Ireland was fortunate enough to get four of the most powerful women in the business into one room to talk about what they do and the challenges they face. We talked to:
Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves, your experience in the industry and the work that you do?
Sally Anne Stone:
“I’m the newest partner in Matheson’s Commercial Real Estate Team. I started my career in the construction practice in Beauchamps solicitors at what was a very tough time in the economy, and when an opportunity came up on Cara’s team I moved to Matheson. I have been here six years now and I haven’t looked back”.
“Currently, the main focus in my role is commercial leasing on the tenant / occupier side. International businesses are buying and leasing properties in Ireland at a much higher rate these days than they would have in the past, and once we start working with them on the acquisition or
leasing transaction we then see them taking on significant build and fit out projects, so I work very closely with Rhona and her team for that reason.”
“I originally qualified and practised as a solicitor in Canada, Hong Kong and Ireland but then I left law to qualify and practise as an architect. Recently I made the move back to law, and this year I joined the Construction and Engineering Team working with Rhona”.
That is a unique balance of qualification and experience when it comes to working in the area that you are in. Do you find it a help in your role?
“Yes, from a legal perspective it is very advantageous (and adds real value to clients and transactions) to have real practical insight into the different professional roles and the construction process itself. I understand how things actually happen within those fields and I can translate my experience into the contracts we are drawing up.”
I am a partner and Head of the Construction and Engineering Team. I was a lateral hire to Matheson in 2005 and during my whole career in Matheson I have specialised in this field. I have the advantage (and it is an advantage) of having worked through the boom, the very tough times that followed and now into a much more stable but very active market certainly.
The practice I lead is heavily involved in Construction Lending, PPP Construction specialisation, and Capital Projects as well. Matheson has a huge focus on international clients, so many of the clients we work with are financial institutions and multinational clients.
How have you seen that change over the past few years as we have exited the recession?
Project / Construction lending is very much back on the agenda now. There is also a different pool of financial institutions providing construction finance at the moment – in the past it was the high street banks that we all know – whereas now, there is a much greater number of international financial institutions lending into Ireland and a lot more private money being invested in construction.
Many of the financial institutions we deal with have formed dedicated construction teams who know the right questions to ask when it comes to construction finance. They are somewhat more conservative than they may have been in the past, for obvious reasons but at the same time more focussed and smart. I find myself now involved in negotiating many aspects of a construction security package that just would not have been in focus five years ago. Negotiations now have a well informed and practical focus to them which is sensible and right.
“I’m the head of the Commercial Real Estate practice in Matheson and my path is probably the most linear of the women in the room in terms of career progression. I started in Matheson as a trainee in the 1990’s, I became a partner in 2004 and took over as head of the Commercial Real Estate practice during 2014. In that time I have seen a lot of change in the Irish legal landscape generally, as well as in our own firm which had a staff of around 150 back then and now employs over 600 people across four offices”.
“When I started out in my career, property would probably still have been seen as a fusty ‘conveyancing’ role. But, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the IFSC was developed putting Dublin on the map in terms of financial services, and a number of major urban renewal initiatives were rolled out which brought developments like Eastpoint, Park West and others, and by the time the Celtic Tiger was in full gallop Real Estate law in Ireland had become a much more sophisticated offering”.
“That evolution has become even more marked during the last three or four years. Property lawyers have always had to have a thorough working knowledge of banking, construction, tax and corporate law, but with the economic downturn and our subsequent recovery starting in 2012/2013, real estate practitioners also need to be skilled in insolvency and restructuring, the full spectrum of investment vehicles including regulated funds, and complex real estate finance structures. We have to have a really good idea of the totality of what is involved in order to help bring a project to fruition”.
“As Rhona said it used to be the main four domestic banks lending into the construction industry in Ireland, whereas now we are also seeing international financial institutions, international pension funds, international private equity fund money, and that is probably the biggest change in the industry over the last ten years.
“At present, we are working on projects with US, Asian, German, UK and Italian clients to name but a few, so there is a real mix which is interesting. Ours is very much a global practice now even though we are always dealing with real estate based here”.
“Many of the international funds investing in real estate in Ireland have had mixed press, but they have certainly helped rejuvenate the market here and many of them have come in and turned distressed assets into viable projects. You only have to look down the quays to see the effect that some of that private money is having on the market”.
Have any of you found that you have been treated any differently based on your gender in your work within the industry?
“Architecture is a bit different to the other professions, as women have been involved in that part of the construction world for a longer period. I have always found that the architectural profession is very supportive of female practitioners in Ireland”.
“Within architecture you can choose to be involved more on the design side or to be more heavily involved on site. On site you would come across people who can initially have a more negative approach to you based on gender”.
“If you are a man and new to a particular site, they assume immediately that you know what you’re doing; if you are a woman, initial thoughts can be ‘what is she doing here and does she know her stuff?’ In those scenarios, I found you have to earn respect rather than receiving it straight away. However, when you break that initial barrier, gender is no longer an issue”.
“As the architect on a project, you are the design team leader and the one who is ultimately responsible to the client for the overall success of the project. The architect also is responsible for administering the contract with the builder, so it is easier to establish your authority at a meeting, than it would be if you were performing the role of one of the other professions on site. But you do need to speak up and take charge to get the respect that you might naturally get as a man”.
For the rest of you, has it ever been an issue within your work in the industry?
Sally Anne Stone:
“For me I have never found it an issue. In the law, as with many aspects of the construction and real estate industry, you go to many meetings where it is all male or mostly male attendees, whether those are client meetings or dinners where you may be the only woman there, but it has never affected me or my career.
I moved from a male dominated team working with a male partner, to Matheson where I was working with Cara and I suppose it does help when you are being mentored by a female partner who is at the top of her career and to see how she works and deals with scenarios like that”.
“We were just discussing earlier on that we have all had much the same experience, in that we started out in mostly male teams where we were mentored by male partners, but who made no distinctions based on gender and who were supportive of us. Ultimately, if you demonstrate that you are good at what you do and deliver, senior colleagues will always want to see you rise, and at Matheson our promotions are very much based on merit.
As Kim said about architecture, Real Estate Law and Construction Law have always attracted females and we have never had a problem in recruiting women into those spaces, the greater challenge is retaining them into partnership and senior management positions”.
“As Sally Anne said a lot of the meetings and functions I have been to over the years were male dominated, and its not that I didn’t notice that, I just didn’t care as I was more focused on what I was doing.
I never found that there was the metaphorical pat on the head, and in all the time I have worked in Matheson I have never felt that – Matheson promote on merit.
I work on a team now that is 75% female, but that is pure coincidence. In recruiting my team we interviewed both men and women for all of the roles, diversity is important to us across the board, but ultimately we picked the best team”.
“Our statistics on diversity as a firm are good, it just so happens that in Real Estate and Construction they are really good! Of the five partners that we have in those areas, three are women. That is not by design in any way, it is just that all of the partners we now have were the right people for the job at the right time.
Firmwide of the 74 partners in Matheson, 36% of them are female and over the last three years 50% of new partners are female. From a management perspective, the real challenge is in retaining women and there are a few areas that we are looking at in Matheson to improve that”.
The first is that women can be less assertive than their male counterparts about putting themselves forward. That is beginning to change, I think, but promoting one’s own abilities, seeking out professional sponsors and developing a personal ‘brand’ all form part of the Senior Associates Professional Development Programme at Matheson, part of which is spent at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, and where each class has a good mix of men and women. Allowing our Associates to learn from one another as well as from their senior mentors helps to break down gender barriers at an early stage.
A second initiative in this field is our new Maternity Coaching Programme, which feeds into our overall talent development strategy. This allows women going on maternity leave to have a very detailed and focused discussion with the partners to whom they report on how to continue their career progression after maternity leave, how they can stay engaged with the office and their client base during their time out of the workplace if they wish, and strategies for stepping back into the role on their return. This makes their transition back into the workplace more seamless which is hugely positive for the women involved as well as the business.
Another important area of focus is how we can continue to support women at the top of their career who are juggling work and family life. Our initiative called “Smart@Matheson” looks at ways we can work smartly and more efficiently across the firm, with the added benefit that men and women with young families can use technology to connect with the office and their work, and spend time working remotely and outside of traditional office hours if needs be. One of things about working with international clients is that often when people in Ireland are closing down for the evening, they are just getting up so that flexibility actually benefits the firm!”
Sally Anne Stone:
“I actually started my Partnership process just after I came back from maternity leave, and despite the fact that I was physically out of the office for quite a while, I was still connected with the work I was doing and was able to slot back into it quite seamlessly. I certainly haven’t suffered any gender bias or ‘mother-bias’.
I think that the new Maternity Coaching Programme will really help both mothers going on maternity leave and also the Partners that they are working with before, during and after maternity leave. It really is a great initiative”.
What are the challenges and opportunities for the industry as you see it over the coming years?
“From a management perspective, one of the big challenges over the past few years, not just in the law but all aspects of the industry, is recruitment. A lot of people left Ireland over the past few years and now it is very challenging to bring people home. Thankfully at Matheson we have managed to recruit well over the past few years, but the process often takes much longer than it would have, say, 10 years ago.
In the market, a big area of change is in construction lending –discussions tend to focus on issues like insurance and contract security. Transactions definitely have a different angle now, which makes the process a lot more interesting but also a lot more robust for investors.
I see the industry as being very vibrant at the moment and I don’t see that slowing down in the short term. Ireland is still a very attractive place from which to do business, and there are a huge number of international clients who have invested heavily here already and want to expand.”
“The growth is definitely back, but there is a more cautious approach being taken by investors now. There is careful forward analysis of the market and potential tenants at project end. Contractors as well are looking for more security for payment from developers – lessons learned from the recent past.”
At this stage most construction finance is dependent on forward-sales and pre-lets, in order to secure the project, and the much more meticulous approach that investors are taking to assessing construction projects is something that we are very attuned to in Matheson.
Sally Anne Stone:
“In terms of how my role acting for occupiers has changed since I started 6 years ago, any of the commercial leases I would have done previously were on a much smaller scale, and they were often designed to extend existing premises.
Now due to a lack of product in the market, businesses are undertaking substantial pre-lets on what are still building sites, and the risk of the project not being delivered is being pushed onto the occupier who has to make a series of medium to long term decisions based on whether the project will come to completion in the timescale they need it.
In that way, the structure of the transactions we do and the balance during negotiations has shifted”.
“That is very true; the flipside is that while tenants are traditionally used to being asked for security for their performance of lease terms and payment of rent over a 20 – 25 year lease, now landlords are having to demonstrate that they have the financial strength to bring a construction project to completion, without costly delays, which is a real shift in the market over the past few years”.
What are the key professional challenges that you have faced?
Sally Anne Stone:
“As it is so recent, for me becoming partner in Matheson has been the greatest challenge to date. Becoming partner in Matheson is not just a case of receiving reward or a pat on the back because you have had a good year. It is, in effect, a year long interview process that involves laying out a very detailed business plan in respect of how you can contribute to the business in the next 5-10 years and is very much forward focused.”
“I think a lot of professions now operate the same way – getting to management level is no longer about getting a promotion and then resting on your laurels a bit, it is about showing what you can contribute over the coming years and how that can help grow the team and the business.”
“Moving on from that, the role of Partner itself is incredibly challenging but also very rewarding as well. It is not just about promoting your own field of expertise and your team, but more importantly about promoting the firm as well. Collaboration is a key focus for Matheson and many transactions require and significantly benefit from the collaboration of numerous specialist teams in Matheson. This is an approach which distinguishes Matheson from its competitors”.
“In terms of challenges, the move from architecture back to law has been easier than the move from law to architecture! There are a lot of aspects of the practice of architecture that are complimentary to the practice of law, in terms of attention to detail and meticulous planning, but in architecture, there is of course that additional and very hard to define “design flair” as well.
There was also the challenge of going back to college as a mature student in Ireland – back home it was quite common, while in Ireland it was, at the time, still quite unusual. In my own experience, there were fewer support structures for mature students here. I believe that is changing.”
“In some respects the biggest challenge I have faced to date is taking over the role of head of the Commercial Real Estate team. Having been a partner for 10 years already I had become more adept at juggling the management aspects of the job with legal practice, but leading the department has brought its own challenges.
Like most of the professions, whether it is law, architecture or whatever, we go to college, study and train on the job for years to become good at the professional practice we have chosen, and then with promotion, we have to make the transition overnight to business leader, manager, and accountant!
But that just highlights the importance of generous mentoring from other partners as you learn the ropes, and the quality of the professional support around you, both laterally and from the people coming up behind you – having a top team really makes everything that bit easier.
It might sound a little corny, but when I took on this role it was at a time when I could look at the people working around me and say ‘this is an A team’, and I could be very proud of them – I still am!”
I understand that you can’t talk about specific projects – that would be really interesting! – but what type of projects are you working on at present that is significant?
“We basically work on projects that cover everything that you can do with a piece of property, whether you are investing in it, trading it, building it, leasing it, or using it as security for finance.
We are working on some large new construction developments at present; without naming any names it is safe to say that we have a role in nearly all of the big transactions that are happening in Ireland at the moment, and they would cover some or all of the areas mentioned”.
“From this building, across the river, you can look right and you can look left all along the quays and there are cranes – we are involved in all of those builds.”
“Some of them are new builds, but many of them are rebuilds on existing sites – as there is less available land to build on the only thing to do is get more from your existing building and that is going to be a big factor in the industry over the next few years.”
“One of the really interesting things to come out of the last 10 years and working with so many FDI companies, is how our commercial real estate product looks and feels. The interior spec and ‘feel’ of a building is driven much more now by the ethos of the tenants that occupy it and many landlords have had to be re-educated on the fact that suspended ceilings may be becoming a thing of the past!”