Arlington real estate exec walks the walk

Betty Dillard

As chief operating officer for SCM Real Estate Services Inc. and its affiliate SkyWalker Property Partners, Carol Coffman-Sosebee is always on the move – literally. While directing the growth strategies and diversification into new markets for both companies, as well as managing the property management division’s portfolio of more than $58 million in leasing and sales transactions, Coffman-Sosebee rarely sits down. Instead, she works while she walks. After a back injury last year, she converted her office space and conducts most of her business on a TreadDesk, a combination treadmill and desk. She walks an average of about four miles a day and says she not only feels better but is able to get more work done. “It’s made a huge difference. I don’t get tired during the day,” she said. Coffman-Sosebee, 59, joined SCM in 1999 from Swearingen Management Co. in Dallas, where she was responsible for accounting and administration for a portfolio of 10 million square feet of office, industrial and retail property. She had similar positions at Koll Management Services and Trammell Crow Co. Her skills are grounded in accounting and her passion is executing a business plan, but Coffman-Sosebee doesn’t have an accounting degree. She earned her bachelor’s degree in literature and history from the University of Texas at Dallas and her master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington. “That seems divergent but it turns out that I always had good technical knowledge – I lean that direction – but the social work gave me insight into how to make technological changes and how to work with the people who deploy those changes. Applying that social work degree helped me learn management,” she said. True to SCM’s motto, “making places better,” Coffman-Sosebee is active in the Fort Worth chapter of Building Owners Management Association (she obtained the certified property manager certification in 1987) as well as the Dallas chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW). She is CREW’s secretary and treasurer and will serve on the programs committee gearing up for the national convention of the CREW Network in October in Dallas. In 2012, she was honored by the Arlington Chamber of Commerce Women’s Alliance with its Hero Award for helping lead SCM to its 20th anniversary, while mentoring young female real estate professionals and volunteering in the community.

You’ve spent your entire professional career charting new territory in commercial real estate. Yes, my whole working life has been in commercial real estate since I was 23. What seems to be a continuing theme with me from the beginning is that I’ve always been what I consider to be an early adopter, someone who is kind of an operations geek. Business success comes from execution of a plan. If everybody wants to be a salesperson or the accountant, you won’t have someone who can make the overall operation better and more efficient. That operations piece is what I’ve always enjoyed – continuing to be open to improving processes. For most people it’s boring but for me it’s fun. When I was with Swearingen, I researched and put into plan a mini computer system. It was a big leap for a company that size and at that time when there were few computers. Recently, here, I felt like we’d be crazy to try to keep a lot of computer systems in house when you can move everything to the cloud. We’ve been moving in the last three years to move all our processes to the cloud. We have no servers here. For a company our size to have no servers is out there. We’re early adopting that. It’s a risk-reward system. The reward is we spend a tenth of what companies using servers would spend. The risk is you have no control over your data. You turn it over to somebody else to deal with. That’s the area where I think of myself a little different. Gary [Walker, SCM’s president/founder] thinks of what he wants to do and turns it over to me and I make it happen. I have the vision of how to get things done and he has the vision of what he wants to get done. That’s why we have such a successful working relationship.

Moving to the cloud must be one of the biggest industry changes you’ve seen. The biggest change I ever saw was in the beginning with the first use of computers. People then were still doing their accounting on paper. My bosses bought an Apple III computer, stuck it in a closet and that’s where I would go to do financials. I first learned VisiCalc, then Lotus 1-2-3. Nobody knows what those are today. It’s one thing to have the tools. It’s another thing to be able to use the tools effectively. That’s the piece I get really excited about. You have to be willing to be open to all the new tools that come along. When I started in commercial real estate accounting, one person could only do the accounting for two or three properties. Today, one person can do the accounting for 40 properties, at least. You have to be able to deploy those tools so people can read those reports and know how to use them. That’s the challenge but that’s what makes it fun.

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You’re now a mentor for women in the industry. Were there many women when you started? Not at all. In the roles that are traditionally male-dominated – like agent roles and property management roles – women were very slow to get in those kinds of positions. My mentoring has mostly been through CREW. It’s a national network that provides support and mentorship for women in commercial real estate. It began as a way for these sporadically placed women to get together and ask questions. It now includes leadership development and career outreach. Since I’ve been in this role I see how critical it is for women to have those kinds of resources. I’ve been in CREW for six years and have been the chair of a committee that reaches out to university students. We do career panels as a way to give students an insight into commercial real estate and we have a shadow program where a student can follow a CREW member on her job to learn about the business. They need to know what they need to know to get into the business. I enjoy trying to make the knowledge and experience I’ve gained available to other members and younger women trying to get into the business.