Karen Simon: A Trailblazer in the World of Commercial Real Estate

5 Most Influential Women in Real Estate To Watch in 2022

Karen Simon, President and Managing Partner at Emersons Commercial Real Estate, has been active in office, retail, industrial, and land sectors in both leasing and sales in the DFW commercial real estate area for over 27 years and has been one of the top producers in most of the companies she has worked for.

Becoming one of the top producers in commercial real estate

When Karen first entered the commercial real estate business in 1983, it was a male-dominated career path, as women were very active only in residential real estate.

At the time, she was the head of public relations and intergovernmental relations for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in region 10, and responsible for handling the relationships between the department and the state governmental bodies within Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

She also handled public relations, newspapers and radio, so it was not possible for her to be active in the real estate business itself or hold a real estate license, as it would have been a conflict of interest with the Department’s function.

But in 1982, when the state of Texas passed a law that if you had qualified to hold a real estate license as a broker as opposed to an associate, you could have your transcripts evaluated, get prepared, and have one year to pass the exam as a broker, Karen sent in her transcripts.

As she lacked 9 classroom hours, she took a leave of absence, took the nine classroom hours in a two-week period, sat for the broker’s exam, and passed. “You had to make 75 on each section and God was with me that day,”
says Karen. “So, armed with a broker’s license, I went back to my job and, six months or so later, I met the head of the industrial division for the Henry S Miller Company, then the largest real estate company in Texas, fifth largest in the United States.

As luck would have it, they were looking to promote women in commercial real estate, as they did not have a single woman to head a commercial Department. So Karen was offered a position to head the Industrial Department in the Fort Worth or Tarrant County office and, after months of discussion and negotiation, she accepted their offer to start an industrial Fort Worth office.

The company offered to give her several months to become familiar with the industry, acquire the craftsmanship required, and offered to send her to school before she ventured forth.

“During the six years I was with them, I was the highest producer in the industrial department within the company statewide, more than once, which proved that clients didn’t care if you were a man or a woman,” says Karen. “All they cared about was, can you help us? Do you know enough to help us? Are you willing to work hard enough to help us?  So there you have it.”

The journey from academics to commercial real estate

Karen started out teaching in a community college, and the year she was up for tenure, she qualified because she had the time in service and the educational requirements.

“I realized that I was not mobile. I had two small children and a husband fully invested in Fort Worth at that time, the third generation of his family to practice law in Fort Worth,” she says. “So I wasn’t going to move, and the University of Texas in Austin had a campus in Arlington, Texas, but they didn’t hire their own as a matter of policy.”

Karen’s Master’s Degree and doctoral work were at Texas Christian University, so her academic career path was a bit stymied. Because the US government offers credit for education in Civil Service accreditation levels, they were willing to give her far more than private industry would.

“That’s how I got to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and I qualified as a GS 1415, which is the highest you can be outside Washington, unless you’re the regional administrator,” says Karen. “So I gravitated to learning something about real estate, working for a real estate entity. And I was the right woman, at the right time, in the right place, to help push the barriers for women and commercial real estate where I lived.”

Karen notes that, in Texas, people are a bit more hesitant to put women in roles that were traditionally dominated by men. The first time she went to an Industrial Real Estate School in Dallas, Texas, where she was supposed to be living, working, and studying for seven days, there were 36 men and she was the only woman, and the only one that spoke to her was a young man from Chicago.

“I used that as an example because the Southwest was very courteous and chivalrous where women were concerned, but didn’t treat them as equal Partners professionally. That’s wasn’t as true in the Northeast Midwest,” Karen observes. “So from the standpoint of opportunity, I would say my gender was both, a shortcoming and a positive, depending upon how you looked at it.”

However, Karen soon learned that clients didn’t care whether you were a male or a female. “The question was, were you willing to do the work? And were you capable of doing the work to make their lives better?” she notes. “If that was the case, they truly were gender-blind and I learned that I could work hard. I was willing to work hard, and I would have the opportunity because I would stand out in a crowd. If they looked around and saw 36 men and me, they might be more curious as to what I could do.”

The adventure of joining Emersons as a partner

Karen went from earning a teaching salary to working with a government that was blind to gender when it came to career advancement. She credits her success to the good fortune of having a support system and a supportive husband.

“He might not have liked it if I came home and said, I’m moving to Chicago tomorrow, but he just said to me at the time, do your best and we’ll see where it goes,” she says. “So it has been both an educational experience, and willingness to work hard and a desire for a new adventure.”

Karen had opened and started other real estate companies, all of which were initially larger than Emersons. “I first opened an office for a company called The Bradford Company, which I ran for 12 years. And it was a larger company with a large institutional base. But there was no chance for ownership opportunities,” she recalls.

When Karen joined Emersons, she was representing the CVS excess properties disposition in Texas. “I had been given the opportunity because I was with a company with a national reputation, and I got the properties for the state of Texas,” she says.

This assignment gave her a base of properties to meet other people in the real estate business, both investors and Realtors that were interested in a building or a piece of land for development purposes that she had for sale.

Emersons, based in Dallas, was primarily a retail property management and disposition company. In the course of meeting, they asked Karen if she would consider opening an office for them in Fort Worth. As one of them was originally from Fort Worth, they wanted a Fort Worth person to start an office there.

“They all recognize that we Fort Worthians are a group of pioneers, and cowboys really kind of like to do business with our own,” says Karen. “So they thought it best to have a local person, rather than someone from some other geographic who didn’t know the people that lived here and worked here, to head their office.”

To entice Karen, they offered her a partnership, and the opportunity of ownership. “I think those of us with entrepreneurial spirit like the idea of building a company that they not only have an active interest in growing, but an active participation,” observes Karen.

So they worked out a 50-50 partnership, and also after some time took on a junior partner so that they could offer people the opportunity of ownership when they meet certain criteria.

“In 2016, we opened the office here, and it has been a very educational journey,” says Karen. “We agreed that we would start small and grow over time as our portfolio grew, and they would handle all the property management, and my office would do leasing sales, consulting, and that’s the way we began.”

Competition tends to sharpen your skill set

Karen believes that every day is a new opportunity, from when she was teaching in a community college to the commercial real estate business.

“It may turn out not to be a very exciting day, but it’s different than the previous day, and I find that to be refreshing,” she says. “So, monotony is not really a challenge in this industry. I look upon it as a chance to continue to grow.”

Karen believes that competition tends to sharpen your skill set, because in order to remain competitive, you have to work hard, and be willing to put in the time and the education.

As an example, she notes that while commercial Realtors usually work Monday through Friday, residential Realtors work on the weekends when people want to look at houses.

“We work it out. One of us becomes available to meet a client’s timeframe,” she says. “If it has to be a meeting that takes place at 5 pm on Friday afternoon, that’s what we do. Competition makes you willing to do those things because somebody else might.”

A ProActive Management culture based on experience

Karen recounts how Emersons’ craftsmanship and ProActive Management culture brought about tremendous growth in 2019 when Emersons, along with a company called Priority Properties out of St. Louis, formed a partnership based on the fact that both had done a lot of real estate for Kroger.

Because Priority Properties and Emersons had vast experience in property management, Kroger made the decision not to choose between the two but get them to work together to handle their huge portfolio.

So they took over the management of 2,800 properties around the country, assumed the responsibilities of the employees in those markets, and Emersons went from managing about 7 million square feet to helping 1045 manage 100 million square feet.

Karen believes it was both, the craftsmanship of management and the willingness to work with others, that made them the arm of Kroger Real Estate Nationwide, and instead of Emerson having an office in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Priority Properties in St. Louis, they now have about 39 offices around the country.

As she notes, they didn’t say to Kroger, “Will you need to pick between us?” They said, let us work together on your behalf and formed a company called 1045, and many of the employees of Emersons became the employees of 1045.

Mentoring others to succeed

Karen also uses her academic background to help people excel. “They don’t necessarily have to be young. They just need to be intelligent, willing to learn, and on a career path where they’re willing to work long hours,” she says.

She recalls how when she first opened her office, she brought along a young man who is now a junior partner. “He started out as an intern and grew in that job to become an associate and last year became a junior partner,” she says. “His commission splits increased as his experience increased, and as he became more productive. He now has a young man he mentors, who started out initially as an intern, and is now an associate.”

As someone who has been the top producer in every company, at one point or another, Karen also works on a lot of things that are less economically productive, but are great learning tools for her people.

“It’s very emotionally satisfying to be recognized by others for your success, but a lot has to do with experience, and a lot has to do with luck,” she says. “Sometimes you hit a home run and it’s just a matter of luck, and sometimes you’ve spent hours or weeks. I recently closed a transaction that I worked on for three years. When finally something happens positively after all that time, it’s very satisfying.”

When it comes to helping women, Karen notes that it took many women to help other women along that journey, and she gets a tremendous sense of satisfaction to know that she has played a role in making that pathway easier for others.

A culture of diversity and fairness

Karen notes that Emersons has a substantial number of women and diversity in culture, from Caucasian, Black, Asian, Indian and Pakistani. “But it’s not a subject that we generally talk about. It just exists if that makes sense to you,” she says.

She observes that Emersons’ decision in 2016 to offer her the opportunity to start the office, and give her the opportunity of partnership, is an example that they were blind to the issue of whether or not she was a man or a woman.

“They have women in comparable roles at leadership,” she points out. “The Head of Financial Reporting and HR is a female. I would say it’s just not a really an issue as when I went to work for the Henry S Miller company, where they had to make a serious effort to bring a woman in a leadership role because they had none.”

Emersons has women in leadership roles in their Dallas office and continues to do so. “I’ve never heard this discussion that we need to hire a woman because the women were there,” says Karen. “I think, like any business, Emersons is there to make money, but they don’t look to disadvantage others, or make money at the expense of others. They have a strong moral standard. They look to make money based upon the merit of what they do.”

Karen believes that Emersons will continue to grow and that her office will continue to grow. She’s hopeful that some of the opportunities that come to the company as a whole will come to her office too.

“We may take on the responsibility of property management. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we are developing a larger portfolio of properties for lease, as well as sale. And that keeps our people busy,” she says.

The pride of being a Trailblazer

Karen believes she has achieved a great deal and feels very proud and very grateful to have been a Trailblazer not only for herself, but for women in general, but thinks that more opportunities lie before her.

“In 2007, I was named Businesswoman of the Year by the women’s State Chamber of Commerce. Before I ever retire, I’d like to do something like that again. So I don’t think that I have achieved all that I can,” she says.

Describing herself as human, with strengths and weaknesses, frailties and skills, Karen notes that our innate frailties, warmth imperfections, and many different qualities and strengths are what make us human.

She notes how successful or assertive women are often thought of as aggressive, and while a man comes across as being strong, women come across as being backbiting.

“I hope that I can convey a level of humility and humanity. I consider myself extremely fortunate. I’ve had tremendous opportunities. I’ve tried to make the best of who I am,” she concludes.