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BOMA/Chicago Board Spotlight: Micah Larmie with Transwestern

Transwestern’s Micah Larmie knows all about the inner workings of what makes a property management company hum smoothly, dating back to her time working as an auditor of system, finance and accounting practices. But it was her move into running the daily operations of the Illinois Center, 233 N. Michigan Avenue, 111 E. Wacker Drive and more that propelled her into a new career trajectory, culminating in last year’s defining win of the BOMA International TOBY Award.

BOMA/Chicago had the opportunity recently to chat with Micah at Accenture Tower (500 W. Madison, formerly Citigroup Center), where she currently supports a wide-ranging portfolio of Transwestern properties – over 25 million square feet of office, industrial, retail and mixed-used assets in Chicagoland, Detroit, Minneapolis and Des Moines.

Micah, with your energetic personality, you’re not the type of sit behind a desk all day. Tell us about your efforts to bring people together and the rewards of your efforts.

I strive to create leadership groups involving people with whom I like to bounce off ideas and network with. I get great value from these professional relationships and have developed great friendships as a result. I organize happy hours, women's lunches and breakfasts with the varied group of friends and colleagues I have met over the years as it’s often that they don't all know each other. It’s always been important to me to introduce as many women in the industry to other women as I believe they benefit from knowing each other in various ways, either in professional development, bringing business to each other and/or learning from each other. Being social and bringing people together is natural for me.

Our industry may be unique in the sense that a lot of us work in very small teams. In property management, most of us don’t work in corporate offices, for example my team here is limited to the people in my office. Through networking and professional development, we can share what we’re dealing with and have  sounding boards when we need them. Not every industry has something like that, so I feel lucky every day to be in the commercial real estate industry.

Was that a reason why you joined the BOMA/Chicago board, because you felt like this was an area where you could leave a mark on the organization? 

I feel very honored and proud to have been asked to be on the board for BOMA/Chicago. It comes with a considerable amount of responsibility. I don't want to be on the board just to say I'm on a board. I want to leverage it to make some impactful changes to our area of the industry. I know it won’t happen overnight, but I believe I bring a fresh perspective.

When I entered this career on the property management side of the business, I stepped into leadership roles right away and I found that I thrived being able to learn to lead, contribute and effect change The board interested me because it met a personal goal of mine to be an influential person within my industry, which I'm very passionate about and have dedicated a significant portion of my life to doing. Every little bit we can do to represent women in the commercial building community is a good thing.

I also think the Chicago real estate industry could use more women and more youth. At times, I feel like I'm not as in tune with the younger generation that's coming up as I should be, so the opportunity to be invigorated by a high level of interaction is exciting.

Speaking of the younger generation – what kind of advice do you share with emerging leaders?

To be as involved as possible, go to networking events and talk to people outside of your company. That’s hard for a lot of younger people. If they come to an event as a pack of 10 people, they’ll tend to stick with their own crowd. I suggest they find people who have been in the industry for a while, someone who will take you under their wing and eventually introduce you to other people that are involved in the industry in roles other than yours. It’s why I encourage people to take others up on their offers for coffee, lunch and other networking opportunities. Above all, getting to know as many people as you can within the industry has so many benefits.

As you move up, your roles change and further opportunities are limited to what positions are available, so you want to be that person who is thought of when that general manager leaves to do something else. Along the way, you are going to meet wonderful people that are going to become more than colleagues and help shape your life. Some of my very best friends came from those first four or five years of networking in the industry.

What spoke to you about going into this industry since you originally took a slightly different path?

I went to school for accounting and management information systems, so I started as an internal auditor. One of my stops was at Equity Office, the largest office owner across the country, where I would travel around the country and audit managers. At the time, property management never even crossed my mind. I thought I'd be a tax accountant my whole life. But the more I understood property management, the more I loved it. I loved seeing how someone's job was so dynamic and how every day is different. There are so many different tasks you do as a property manager. It was extremely interesting to me and since there's a lot of accounting involved in property management, I can use what I learned in school.

Based on you being a real “people person,” it’s hard to picture you sitting in a conference room by yourself for 16 hours.

I would rather be out in the field traveling and moving around the building working with security, HR, construction, even coaching how to be a more cohesive team. That’s what my role affords me. In addition to this building, I’m also the Senior Vice President for Transwestern, so I oversee the Midwest region. We are the second largest market in our company, with close to 200 employees. We have about 90 assets, ranging from 20,000 square feet to 2.2 million square feet.

Property management is really a lot of problem-solving. You have your to-do list and then you have 30 other things that hit your plate that day. No one day is the same, each team member, tenant, building, client, city provides different challenges and learning opportunities. You are never bored in Property Management.

One of your greatest accomplishments is sitting on the shelf behind you – the International TOBY award. Tell us a little about winning that and what it meant to you. 

Those of us in property management always think of the TOBY as the Oscars of the buildings. That may not mean a ton to most people, but you think of someone who is up for an Oscar, how much time they have put into refining their craft and how much they've changed their life in order to become that character, I think that the TOBYs are similar to that. We entered the TOBY competition for the first time in 2016 and I had been at this building just over a year by the time we submitted. The building itself has almost 100 people that work on the management and supporting teams and you need to get almost every one of those people involved to even enter a TOBY, let alone win. It's not just the managers running around and doing the work, it’s every bit of those 100 people.

The TOBY submission requires a 30+ page write-up that is very intensive and you lean on all the department leaders in the building to gather the information. Then you have a three-hour walkthrough where every inch of the building has to look pristine. Nothing can go wrong. They will literally say "There's a cigarette butt on that grate outside" or "There's an odor in the dock next to the compactor.” So you're calling your waste removal guy and saying, “OK, I need you guys to pull the compactor out the night before, power wash the dock and bring back clean compactors." It requires a lot of logistics, planning and teamwork. Going for the International TOBY award was probably the best thing that ever happened to my team because everyone pitched in, everyone felt that their part was important in the win and we’re really proud of our accomplishment in winning.

As a result of our hard work, our team grew together, and everyone tried harder and harder each year to bring home the win. For anyone that enters, most say that it truly is a unique team-building experience. There's nothing like it. Nobody can win a TOBY on an island by themselves saying, "We're going to win this award and I'm going to tell you what to do.” You need to get the full buy-in and understanding from the team that this is a big deal, but it is also good tool to get a moving in the same direction.

500 W. Madison has gone through quite a metamorphosis, from a place where people pass through on their way to and from the train to a destination with restaurants and retail. What effect has that had on how you are going about your day and week?

The client that owns the building, KBS, is one of the largest office owners in the country. They pride themselves on their buildings being hospitable - but when I first started at the property, it was a sterile, unwelcoming train station. There wasn’t a friendly officer, in a nice suit, at the front door saying hello. The security officers were wearing patches and looked like grumpy mall cops. The team dynamic needed some work, there wasn’t a lot of elective interaction between the teams at the property.

That's not how KBS or Transwestern runs their buildings. Customer service and teamwork are our priorities which is why we work well together. KBS invested millions of dollars in renovations to provide our tenants with the best-in-class services and amenities, adding excellent restaurants, overhauling our food court, and allowing us to start fresh. Right down to their mall cop uniforms. The aesthetic changes allowed for us to make a fresh start on the teamwork and customer service side of the equation – with a new look on the outside, we brought a new look to the management services as well.

Let's talk about something that you have genuinely enjoyed, which is your mentoring and coaching, and particularly as it applies to other women. Are there situations where you have looked back on over the last few years and said, "I propelled that person from point A to point B?”

I like to hire people who want the next thing. Sometimes you have to say, "Slow down a little, you're not going to the next level tomorrow," but I will say just growing people out of the 500 West Madison office into other buildings, we've had a lot of success with that. It’s a large building with a lot of opportunity to get involved and moreover, the managers in the office encourage the involvement. It's important to give staff the opportunity to participate in meetings, go to events, and attend dinners with clients when they are in town.

I like to teach women how to lead early on bit by bit. You don't wait for someone to go from answering phones and emails to a Property Manager to say, "Well, now you have to manage this team and figure it all out. Good luck.”

What’s interesting is, for the people who are here, growth is not just staying with the team. It's also growing up and out. 

That’s right. They all know that if they were looking at a job somewhere else, they can talk to me. I’ll give them the straight story – like "Yes, that's a great opportunity." If I know someone in the industry is looking to fill a role that I think one of our team members would be interested in or is ready for, then, I’ll tell them. I'm open about that, I don’t ever want to stagnate the growth of a strong woman I don’t want slow them down if we don’t have that opportunity at Transwestern. Also, I always hope they will be open enough to talk to me about it because I also don't want to lose them to an opportunity that's not going to grow them.

Why is it so important for women not just to ascend to the head of a property management company but to also have a voice in the community?

The industry is evolving. 20 years ago, a lot of the females were more administrative and there were a lot of males in general manager roles. Now, I would think it's probably about 70 percent women and 30 percent men. But on the other side, the regional leadership and senior leadership is mostly comprised of men.

So let's break the glass ceiling, right? I can impact some change and I think we need to continue to evolve.