Karen Simon: Holding Her Own in Male-Dominated Commercial Real Estate Industry

The 10 Most Successful Businesswomen to Watch 2023

In the 1980s, a woman entered the largely male-dominated commercial real estate field, held her own, and soon made an impact. Now, almost three decades later, her peers and aspiring women leaders see her as a role model and a trailblazer in the commercial real estate industry. Meet Karen Simon, President and Managing Partner of Emersons Commercial Real Estate, who has held and opened the doors for other women in the commercial real estate business, as well as mentored and helped them along their journey.

Stepping Onto the Commercial Real Estate Field

Karen’s professional journey did not start from the commercial real estate industry. Prior to joining it, she worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as Executive Assistant to the Regional Administrator for Region 10, a five-state region. She handled inter-governmental relations, the Governors’ offices, the state legislative offices, as well as dealt with the national congressional offices. Karen recalls that she used to handle all public relations for the five-state region. For example, when there was a problem with the media in New Orleans, she would go out and try to solve it.

“So, I was accustomed to being in an industry that encompassed real estate, but I didn’t directly deal with the real estate itself,” Karen says. “I knew, for example, what Section 8 (Housing) was, and I knew about loans for Senior Housing. So, it wasn’t such a different zone. It was just a different aspect of the real estate business.”

When Karen was working with HUD, she received a notice that said, “If someone qualified to be a real estate broker, and they didn’t have a salesman license, they could have their transcripts analyzed, and if they qualified, they could take the brokers’ exam, and they had one year to pass it.”

That notice was significant. Those working with HUD were not allowed to hold a salesman license as it would be a conflict of interest. Karen points out, “you would be beholden to whoever held your license.” It was, however, different if someone was a broker. Brokers held their own license even when they didn’t have to use it, and the license didn’t make them beholden to anyone else.

Karen sent her transcripts and discovered that she had 57 out of 60 hours of real estate-related coursework for which the state was willing to give her credit. So, she took two weeks’ leave of absence and took three classes – two during the day and one on the weekends. After that, she qualified for the nine hours she needed and sat for the broker exam. “To my amazement and delight, I passed the exam,” Karen says. “So, I had a real estate broker license, which I could hold myself, and I just felt like it was an achievement on my part.”

About six months later, at a Christmas party, Karen met the head of the industrial department of Henry S. Miller, then the largest real estate company in Texas and the fifth largest in the United States.

Karen recalls that during a casual conversation, he asked her about her work, and when she told him about her job at HUD, he wanted to know whether she had ever handled real estate specifically. Her answer was, “no.” Karen, however, told him that she had a real estate broker license. Hearing that, his eyes lit up, and he asked her whether she had ever considered a career in the private sector.

“I said no,” Karen says. “And, he said, ‘well, let me set a time and let’s have a lunch, and let me tell you about the real estate business and our company’.” She met him, and another six months later, she accepted their offer – to be the head of the industrial department at the Henry S. Miller’s company in Tarrant County, the County in which Fort Worth is a leading city.

At the time, Karen knew nothing about the industrial real estate business. The head of the industrial department assured her that she could learn as she knew a lot about the real estate industry and managing people. “We will teach you the rest,” he told her.

“Well, over a period of time, they made me an attractive offer, and I accepted it,” Karen says. So, armed with a broker license and a new job, she moved forward and started going to industrial real estate schools. Within a few months, she felt comfortable enough with what she knew and hired some people and began learning the real estate business first hand. And that is how Karen entered the commercial real estate industry. “I was the right person in the right place at the right time to break their barrier,” she says.

Karen knew from the beginning that she didn’t want to get into residential real estate. She was not keen on getting involved with anything that had beds – hotels or houses. “I certainly didn’t want to be involved with individual housing,” she says.

Clients Didn’t Care but Colleagues Cared about Gender

In 1983, when Henry S. Miller hired her, Karen became the first woman to head the commercial division in the organization. As, at the time, women rarely joined the industrial real estate business, and therefore, she was often the only woman in the room. She, however, found that clients and people in manufacturing or distribution did not care if someone was a man or a woman. “They only cared that you were able to perform the necessary duties to implement and fulfill their needs,” Karen says.

Clients did not care about gender and cared only about skills, but Karen’s colleagues were not that welcoming. The greatest challenge for her was: to gain the acceptance of colleagues or counterparts. They feared that as she was a woman without experience, the right background, or education, they would have to carry her job for her.

Karen recalls that Henry S. Miller was willing to send her to industrial real estate schools to learn the technical aspects of industrial real estate business. “They were such a large company that I got to look at a lot of opportunities based upon their place in the workforce, but I had to prove to my counterparts that I was not someone that they had to carry along and that I could hold my own,” she adds. And Karen was willing to work hard and did not mind saying, “I don’t know but I’m willing to find out” as it was a unique opportunity for her.

“Certainly, people remembered me when I walked into a room because I was the only female. The first time I went to an industrial real estate school, there were 36 men and me. The second time I went a year later, there were 42 people, and 3 of them were women,” Karen points out. “So, we were making a very small progress.”

Ownership and Partnership Offer by Emersons

After Henry S. Miller, Karen worked for a few other real estate companies and started in Tarrant County, a real estate office for Bradford, which was based in Dallas. She ran the company for 12 years and then established another office, which she handled for about 2 years. During this time, Karen also met Richard Webb and Matthew Price who founded Emersons in 2004.

Emersons, which has its corporate office in Dallas, had an office in Oklahoma City, and the owners wanted to expand its footprint and open an office in Fort Worth, Tarrant County. To ensure the successful opening of their Fort Worth office, Richard and Matthew offered Karen what no one else had really offered her before, which was actual ownership – a partnership. “I wasn’t working for someone now. I was a partner,” says Karen. She joined Emersons in 2016 and has been a partner since then.

“We were partners and are partners,” she says. “There is a strong entrepreneurial spirit that runs through many of us, and the idea of being the managing partner in a company in which you have ownership is very attractive to some of us.”

In 2019, three years after Karen joined Emersons, it partnered with St. Louis-based Priority Properties and formed a management company called 1045, which manages all of Kroger’s real estate nationwide. So, Emersons went from managing 3 offices to basically having 19 offices across the country.

When Karen joined Emersons, the company managed a 7 million sq. area in Dallas-Fort Worth Area. Now they are 50 percent owners of 1045, and they manage a 100 million sq. ft. “It is in an area that is outside my jurisdictions, but I would like us to benefit and prosper from their success, and at the same time, be a contributor to their success,” says Karen.

Emersons has offered Karen a lot of latitudes and a lot of decision-making. It has also given her a lot of latitude to grow the company as well as herself. The company may offer suggestions, but it does not look over her shoulders. Even when it does not agree with all of her decisions she makes, Emersons does not “necessarily” tell her that it is not a good idea or stop her from following through with it. “It has been a growing experience for me because I don’t have someone to lean on or blame, either way, for the decisions I make,” says Karen.

Karen wants to continue growing Emersons and make it more recognizable in the marketplace.

Leading by Example and Work-Life Balance

Karen believes in leading by example, and according to her, she has a very laidback leadership style. She also truly believes that one can never know too much about a subject. “I think that you ought to be either an expert in a field, not just in commercial real estate but in a sub-specialty, or you need to be an expert in a geographic area, where you know more about the area in all the fields than anybody else,” Karen says.

As a leader, she also encourages people to make choices for themselves and find their comfort zone for success, and she also believes in individuality. Some of the people, for example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, worked by choice remotely, and sort of, continued to do so. “I believe there are a lot of opportunities that you miss in interactions when you are working remotely, but I allow them to make those decisions for themselves, sort of sync or swim on their own,” Karen says. “And I recognize that individuality is the key to some people’s success.”

And, Karen prefers work-life balance over work-life integration. She never allowed her busy work schedule to stop her from attending her children’s major events. Karen points out that she was not a homeroom mother because her work didn’t allow her that much latitude for volunteerism at the time when her children were small, but they knew she was there for them for all the important and significant things. “I always tried to have a work-life balance. I never wanted my children to feel they were secondary,” she adds.

As she was able to maintain a work-life balance, she now has a wonderful relationship with her children. “I don’t know that they would have been as successful if they had not known they were emotionally supported,” says Karen.

Rings From Things

If Karen had not been in commercial real estate industry, she would have been a jewelry designer. She has long had an interest in jewelry design. In 2011, when gold began to “tremendously” escalate in value and people started selling their family heirlooms for gold value, Karen said to herself, “there are going to be a lot of beautiful things that are simply being melted as people are choosing to sell them because the gold value was higher than the piece of jewelry”, and she decided to take a risk and started buying antique broaches and pendants from jewelers. She redesigned them into rings and formed a company called Rings from Things.

Karen has done a lot of shows for jewelers and large companies such as Neiman Marcus. During Covid, she had to cut back on doing those shows, and then she had to stop it. “I wasn’t mobile enough to go around the country and do that and still do my job as the head of a company, so I sort of put it on the back burner,” Karen says. “But it is my hobby and my avocation, and I enjoyed it very much.”

When Karen was young, she took painting classes and painted flowers and fruits. She was very proud of her paintings, and one day, she brought home a “masterpiece” and said to her husband, “Honey, I have done this and I thought you would like it for your office.” He looked at her and said, “Honey, it’s really nice, too nice, for me, and I think I need to give it to your mother.” His words, Karen laughs and says, made her realize that her artistic inclination was not going to make her a painter. “Over time, I realized that I can use that same sense of design and make small pieces that other people would appreciate,” she says. “I still design rings, but I do more on a custom basis for friends and acquaintances. I have pieces that are in Jewelry shops in New York and Dallas. So, it is still fun for me.”

Karen reveals that she has no plans to revive the jewelry business. “Probably, not until the time I retire because it is not a business that you can do as infrequently as I have,” she says. “In the last six months, I probably only designed and sold half a dozen rings.”

“It won’t be a career from which I could support myself because I just don’t have the talent to develop the distribution you would need to make it a career. But I still love it,” she adds.

Suggestions for Aspiring Women Leaders

Karen has a few suggestions for those aspiring women leaders who are willing to accept suggestions. Her first suggestion is related to how a woman should dress to work. She is of the opinion that woman needs to dress in a professional sense, modestly, and must look serious as opposed to getting dressed to go to a party or luncheon. “You don’t want them to remember you for what you were wearing,” Karen says. “You want them to remember you for what you say.”

She tells women to consider that as one tool in their war chest.

Karen’s second suggestion is that they need to be well-prepared before go into any meeting. They need to know as much as they can possibly know about the subject – whether it is the company that they are going to meet with or about the properties they are going to present, she says.

Also, she wants women to always be comfortable in saying that: “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that, but I will find out for you.” 

Advice For Younger Self

When Karen was in school, girls were encouraged to pursue a career in teaching or nursing; they rarely studied to become doctors or get a job in finance. Now, when she looks back at her school days, she wishes she had been encouraged to get a degree in real estate or finance. Karen has a Bachelor of Science degree in History and Education and a master’s degree in 20th Century Political Thoughts, and she worked on a doctorate in the same area. She says that as she was not mobile enough as a young wife and mother, she could not move to further her career in that area. And, as Karen also didn’t want to enroll in a community college, she looked around to see where she would get the greatest benefit for the education she had. “I found that it was with the Federal Government because they gave you a lot of credit for the education and volunteer work that you did in the management capacity,” she says.

She thoroughly enjoyed her time at HUD. “But, if I had been raised at a different time, I might have wound up in the real estate business, to begin with,” she adds.

A younger Karen was sort of frantic. She started college at 16 and graduated a month after her 20th birthday. Karen completed both her high school and college in three and a half years and had her first child by the time she was 21.

If she had to give an advice to her younger self, Karen says it would be, “Do things at a little bit slower pace. Relax, slow down, allow yourself to enjoy each phase of your life as opposed to feeling that if you don’t get it done now, you won’t get it done at all.”