At the turn of the century, most of corporate America was recovering from the Y2K computer scare, the fear that computer systems wouldn't be able to handle the conversion from 1999 to 2000. But in 2001, Duke Realty was focused on diversity. Even though commercial real estate was not known as being diverse ― Duke Realty wanted to branch out from the industry's white male roots and be more inclusive.
As one of the early steps in this goal, Duke Realty established a Diversity Council, an internal company committee comprised of up to 30 associates who must apply (but it's open to everyone in the company) and are selected to serve a two-year term. Once they complete their term, they remain "diversity ambassadors" for Duke Realty, said Sharon Lleva-Carter, vice president of business development, explaining that this means they continually seek ways to bring diversity and inclusion to their work practices.
"Duke Realty has 500 associates companywide, and we now have more than 80 diversity ambassadors," Lleva-Carter said.
[Fast Fact: Sixty-four percent of executive committee members; 35 percent of management committee members; and 17 percent of all associates are diversity ambassadors.]
Denise K. Dank
This high level of commitment and participation demonstrates how long Duke Realty has been striving towards its goals, said Denise K. Dank, chief human resources officer. "In 2010, our company went through a process to define its values and brand," she said, adding that an outside consultancy was brought in to conduct focus groups among the associates but purposely left out the senior management. "It found that our company's three core values are: responsible; resourceful; respectful."
Dank said all three values signify that the company recognizes the value of diversity and inclusion and that these are ingrained in its culture. "When we first started our diversity and inclusion program, there was the normal pushback in terms of people asking, `What does this have to do with business ― is this just a legality or a check-the-box thing?'" she said. "But 15 years in, we've long since passed that threshold in terms of everyone’s engagement with the initiative."
Dank and other senior executives at Duke Realty all share the same answer when it comes to that first question: What does this have to do with business? Their reply is that diversity and inclusion practices are not just good, they're good for business.
Lleva-Carter pointed out that Duke Realty's two main product types are industrial and healthcare real estate. "On the industrial side, we have a lot of overseas clients ― South Americans, Asians, international folks; on the healthcare side, there are a lot of women and minorities," she said. "As a business partner to these two sectors, we want to be diverse ourselves."
At Duke Realty, this commitment to diversity also extends to its suppliers and subcontractors. "Instead of hiring nationwide vendors, we tend to go with local vendors because they bring their knowledge and expertise about things that are unique to that market," explained Gregory N. Czarnik, vice president of construction systems. "For example, in Florida if we need a subcontractor to provide termite protection, the local suppliers know what products really work in that area. If we're partnering with a painting contractor up North, they can tell us what brands of paint tend to crack in extreme cold."
In addition to the local knowhow, small local vendors tend to be more price competitive and are able to work faster and better than national conglomerates, Czarnik said. "It's hard for the bigger companies to come in and find local craftsmen, but the local suppliers have their crews of experienced people and they tend to work quicker because they want to cash that check," he said.
Czarnik pointed out that many clients, particularly the more community-oriented operations ― public utilities, healthcare, and government ― actively look for firms that partner with local vendors. "They're attitude is, `We're investing in the community ― the money is spent, but it stays in the community,'" he said.&
To find the small, local diverse contractors, Duke Realty holds outreach events to advertise upcoming projects, Czarnik said. "We'll send out invitations to a one- or two-hour program to explain the job so they understand what's involved," he explained, adding that this makes bidding day go much more smoothly.
This is an easy thing for commercial real estate firms to do and is well-received among local Latino groups, minority councils, and women's enterprise chapters, Czarnik said. "These minority associations love getting these invitations," he said. "That's what their members pay their dues for ― to make those connections.
Dank added that some clients have diversity requirements. "So while some companies may scramble to put this together, we have ours in place so this gives us the edge when it comes to winning bids," she said.
Duke Realty's diversity efforts have won more than bids. The firm has also been honored with an impressive lineup of awards for its inclusive programs and initiatives [see Diversity and Inclusion Initiative]. Lleva-Carter said she's proud that the firm has been recognized. "These outside awards show our Millennials and young people that they work for a company that understands that we live in a world that is diverse," she said.
Dank agreed that promoting the firm's diversity efforts ― in marketing materials and on the company website ― is just as important as incorporating diversity strategies into the business practices, including making these part of annual goals and business unit reviews.
[Fast Fact: Since 2008, Duke Realty has published an annual diversity report for its associates.]
Duke Realty's VIP (Value in People) initiative strives to have a diverse candidate slate for all open positions before a hiring decision is made, Dank said. "While this is a simple move, a lot of companies don't require this," she said. "Our staffing manager works with our hiring managers in terms of posting and recruiting for open positions. If a business unit doesn't have a diverse group, we discuss strategies for improving that.”
Dank admitted she was worried that this might backfire and become a check-the-box exercise. "But we've had 100 percent compliance and genuine support of the initiative by hiring managers," she said. "In our construction department, we've hired 12 people within the past year ― 50 percent of these professional jobs went to diverse candidates."
[Fast Fact: In 2001, one in 11 (nine percent) of new hires at Duke Realty were minorities; in 2015, more than one in five (21 percent) new hires were minorities.]
Educating Minority Youth
Still, an ongoing challenge for Duke Realty is finding diverse candidates in the first place, Dank said. "There is very little diversity in commercial real estate, especially in operations positions like leasing or business development or construction ― it's heavily dominated by white males," she said. Duke Realty looks for ways to bring more diversity to the industry.
One recent example is that Duke Realty partnered this past year with Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis. "Our construction professionals teach a class there once a week to show kids in a practical way the assortment of careers in construction," Dank explained. "It opens their eyes to the variety of potential careers in this industry."
Czarnik added that the class makeup is 75 percent African American, 25 percent Latino and 30 percent female. "We're introducing them to our industry and letting them know it's not just swinging a hammer," he said. "They can be engineers, lawyers, designers, carpenters, electricians. We try to show all the angles and tell them, `If you don't like working outside, you can work in an office.'"
So far, the students have been receptive to the class, Czarnik said, adding that it's very interactive and hands-on, which helps keeps everyone's interest. "It's not one person droning on and on," he said. "The kids really love the field trips and tours. This is our first year doing it, so it'll be interesting to see where they go. They may graduate and go on to Ivy Tech Community College [a local vocational college] or they may take apprenticeships."
Looking ahead in 2016, Duke Realty has a new president and chief executive officer, James B. Connor (following the retirement of Dennis Oklak), and Dank said that she is confident that he will not only carry on the company's diversity and inclusion efforts but push them forward. "He has demonstrated over the past years his support of the company's initiatives and has been a thought leader himself on this issue," she said. "Often top leaders are supportive but not personally engaged. Our new CEO will not only be personally involved, but he will take things to a new level."
A statement from Connor confirmed this expectation: "Our goal is to continue to support all of our existing programs and initiatives, as well as expand into new areas that will continue our progress as a leading company in the areas of inclusion and diversity," he said.
Two early examples of this are evident in the company's newest diversity programs ― diversity networking and mentoring. For years, Duke Realty has networked with minority professional groups at an informal level, Dank explained. "This year, we've upped our game because our new CEO said this needs to be a more accountable program," she said, adding that this is a smart move because so many jobs come through referrals and personal connections.
Under the Diversity Networking program, the company's management committee ― which is comprised of 50 senior leaders ― will be required to partner with a minority organization and adhere to participation requirements (listed above). "The requirements are simple but impactful," Dank said, adding that the company has researched and identified groups in every city where it has an office to find groups that primarily serve women and minorities, such as INROADS, Project REAP, CREW Network, and Hispanic and African American certified public accounting groups.
The company's new mentoring program is similar in that, for years, Duke Realty has offered a mentoring program to its associates. "In the past, we've offered mentoring to all associates, but we have now added a new diversity mentoring program," she said, explaining that this it is by invitation only. "We identify our female and minority associates who are deemed to have upward mobility, and we tap them to be mentored by a member of our executive committee."
As a member of the executive committee herself, Dank will be a mentor this year to Alana McCann, a project manager in construction who has been with the company for three and a half years. Dank said she's excited to help a younger associate maneuver through the business world and learn some of the unwritten rules, as well as help sponsor and support her ideas. She added that she expects to learn things herself. "In any mentoring situation, the mentors learn from the mentees ― they know things we don't," she said.
For her part, McCann said was honored to be chosen as a mentee. "It will be a great networking opportunity ― not just to work with Denise more closely but to get to know the other members of the executive committee and interact with the other mentees," she said, adding that she's also looking forward to working on the special project. "I'm serving on the Diversity Council, so Denise and I have already decided that our special project will focus on diversity, and I welcome that opportunity to work on those initiatives."
Final Words of Advice
As impressive and successful as Duke Realty's programs are, Dank said it was not an easy sell in the beginning. "Expect some pushback because the industry is so predominantly white male, and smaller private companies are often entrepreneurial and only concerned with closing the deal ― they don't see the value in this," she said.
Fifteen years ago, diversity and inclusion were not front and center at Duke Realty, Dank said. "But the advantage of time is that now our associates embrace diversity and inclusion as a key part of our culture,” she said. “In addition, our board of directors is very supportive of our diversity and inclusion initiative.”
For companies still at the beginning of this effort, Dank shared these words of wisdom, “Expect pushback and don’t be discouraged by it. Learn from others, secure strong executive sponsorship, and involve as many employees as possible in order to cultivate widespread engagement and ownership of the initiative.”