Power Players

In the numbers game of commercial sales and leasing, this dynamic duo are the clear champions.
Jeff Johnston
From left to right: Kirsten Early, partner and director of retail for SRSA Commercial Real Estate and Rhonda Sharkawy, senior retail leasing and development executive for Stirling Properties.

When it comes to selling and leasing commercial property, there are two women that stand above the crowd: Rhonda Sharkawy, senior retail leasing and development executive for Stirling Properties; and Kirsten Early, partner and director of retail for SRSA Commercial Real Estate.

Consistently claiming the title of Top Overall Retail Producer from the New Orleans Metropolitan Assocation of Realtors (NOMAR) Commercial Investment Division’s (CID) annual awards since 2003, Sharkawy’s sales volumes have ranged from $10.7M (2002) to $45.1M (2013).

For the last five years in a row, she has received the F. Poche Waguespack Award — given by the CID for achieving the highest volume in the industry of sales and leases in the marketplace for the year. With a total commercial brokerage volume of $28,135,784 in 2015, she was inducted into the 2016 NOMAR Hall of Fame.

Sharkawy is the first agent in her company’s history to receive the Waguespack Award and one of only a handful of women to achieve this honor since it was created back in 1964.

Early is the latest member to join this elite group, grabbing the Waguespack Award for 2015 with a total commercial volume of $25 million, along with the award for Overall Top Retail Producer for the year with a total sales volume of $21.8 million.

The youngest partner ever hired by her firm, the New Orleans native is also the current secretary for X Team International, a leading retail real estate brokerage alliance servicing 45 major markets throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.

Biz New Orleans: How did you get into real estate?

Rhonda Sharkawy: My parents were an architect and a developer, so basically I have always been around a T-square. I was born in Chicago, but I’ve lived everywhere from Missouri to Egypt. After getting my bachelor’s degree at Loyola, I got my master’s in land and real estate development and another master’s in construction science from Texas A&M University.

After that, I knew I had to get back to New Orleans. I had fallen in love with this city while at Loyola. My dad wasn’t happy about it (she laughs) because he didn’t see New Orleans as an upcoming city. That was almost 20 years ago. I was happy to prove him wrong.

I was fortunate enough to join the team at Stirling Properties in 1998 as development director, and then transitioned in 2001 to my current role.  

Kirsten Early: I grew up in the business. My mom was in the business and my stepfather was a partner at SRSA. When the firm was expanding back in 1998, I was offered a position. I was working for a regional bank as a lender at the time, so it was definitely a leap of faith— particularly since our business is all commission based — but I was drawn to the flexibility of real estate. Also, the business is very entrepreneurial and I like the fact that I can set my own goals. Rhonda and I actually started in the business within months of each other.

A specialist in shopping centers, Sharkawy’s notable retail projects have included the Magnolia Marketplace (left) on South Claiborne and River Chase (right) in Covington.

Biz: What are some of your more recognizable projects? Maybe those of which you are the most proud?

RS: I love creating shopping centers. I came into the business really wanting to do adaptive reuse, but those opportunities are few and far between.

I was part of the development team that brokered River Chase in Covington and worked on the recent Whole Foods addition in Mandeville. I’m particularly proud of my work on Magnolia Marketplace. That is a development that has really transformed the area and created a great artery so that people no longer have to go to the Westbank or Elmwood to do their shopping.

KE: I’d say my pride and joy is an opportunity I was given on behalf of HRI to assemble 50 acres in Uptown New Orleans for the Walmart that’s now on Tchoupitoulas. It was a huge undertaking and took well over 4 years. Some of the properties had been owned by the same family for a couple hundred years. I worked with over 30 owners plus an assemblage of abandoned warehouses, abandoned housing and blighted property. It was a real private/public partnership.  I’ve since become well known for my expertise in commercial assemblage projects.

I also handled the disposition of Albertson’s properties when they exited the market. This involved $40 to $50 million worth of real estate. I presently assist in the strategic planning of sites for multiple national retailers. At least 20 companies are in my current portfolio. I’d say the most recognizable project currently is Dave and Busters — a project that I helped bring to the city. It’s under construction now at Poydras and Loyola. If you look up you’ll see all the construction cranes. The opening is scheduled for the second quarter of 2017.

Biz: What is it like being a female in a male dominated profession?

RS: Well, thankfully, it’s starting to change. When I got in the business, I would go to the big trade shows — like the International Council of Shopping Centers — and only about one out of every 50 professionals was a woman. Now it’s more like one in 20. I love the chance it gives me to mentor other women though. I always have one or two that I’m working with.

KE: I will say that 18 years ago, trying to make a name for myself in this industry was definitely challenging. It was very much a male dominated business, so it wasn’t easy for me to get a foot in the door. Things have changed, though. I see more and more women in our business, which is great. The way I look at it is that we’re all business people. I don’t see it as an issue anymore.

Biz: What are your biggest challenges?

RS: I can’t think of any real challenges, but I’d say there can be frustrations. I currently have 26 shopping centers in my portfolio, so that’s a lot of relationships to maintain, paperwork to do and expectations to manage. Every landlord has different expectations, so it’s about guiding them and the retailers. I also spend a good amount of time analyzing markets. My territory stretches from the Panhandle through to Texas.

KE: I am always reminding myself of how important it is to be creative and this is an industry that rewards patience. Most of the transactions I work on take years so you really have to be dedicated to seeing things through. We live in a very unique market with limited land so it can be a challenge, as well.

For example, when CVS wanted to come into this market and develop sites, two or three of those sites were assemblages, one of which involved 17 different families.

When Vitamin Shoppe came in looking for a defined area of the market, they waited for the perfect location on Veterans for eight years. This market just doesn’t move like others.

I cover not just Louisiana, but Mississippi and Alabama, so I have to know the landlords, and the developers in and all of those markets.

Known for her work on assemblages — which have included the CVS Pharmacy at 800 Canal St. — Early also helped bring restaurant and entertainment giant Dave & Buster’s to the city. Now under construction at Poydras and Loyola, the facility is scheduled to open during the second quarter of 2017.

Biz: What do you think has been the secret of your success?

RS: I think it helps that I’m a real people person. You have to be responsive in this business. I don’t have a turn off time, and I’m good with that because I truly love what I do. Whenever I’m in a new city, my first question is always ‘Where is the retail?’ I’m always looking at who I can bring here and where can I put them?

Stirling also has such an amazing team. It’s like with learning a language — you can be taught it in school, but you don’t really learn it until you get out there and are immersed in it. I couldn’t do what I do without my team. I’m so fortunate to be a part of one of the most comprehensive full-service commercial real estate companies in the country, with nearly 100 million square feet of properties and land for lease or sale, 17 million square feet of managed properties and 20 million square feet developed from the ground up.

KE: Persistence is the big one. You also have to be detail oriented and recognize that this is not a 9 to 5 job. I have clients on both the East and West Coast.

I also know that nobody in this business succeeds on their own. I am very fortunate to have a great team supporting me. SRSA is 25 years old this year and over this time we have established ourselves as one of the top brokerage companies in the Gulf South.

Biz: What motivates you?

RS: My 11-year-old, Hanna, whom I always try to lead by example. She is my pride and joy. Professionally, I’d say bringing value and services to communities, and, of course, my clients. My business relationships are also my personal friendships. Work is play and play is work. I really believe you have to like the people you work with to be successful, and I am fortunate there. Outside of work I am also very active in non-profit and social organizations. I don’t sleep a lot!

KE: Opportunity. I was given a great opportunity 18 years ago and I’ll never forget that. To me, failure is not an option. I feel a strong sense of accountability to my company, my partners, and most importantly my clients. I drive down the street and I can see projects I’ve worked on from start to finish. It feels really good to see the result of my efforts.

Biz: How do you view today’s marketplace? What do you think the future holds?

RS: In the last few years, things have really exploded here, we’ve had a lot of new entry retailers — both in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole. Retailers see that Louisiana has strong sales, even when the national economy softened, we didn’t see much of that here. We’ve never followed the economic bell curve. I think that fact, combined with the federal money from Katrina and the fact that we had this devastating event that resulted in so much rebuilding has left us with a tighter city in terms of density. I think we’re just going to see more new retailers coming in over the next few years. That growth is just going to continue.

KE: I’ve never seen so much development going on, not just here, but in the other markets I cover. That’s exciting. The junior and big box stores are going to have to continue to reinvent themselves, and I think we’re going to see less malls, with only the strong ones surviving. There is going to be more downsizing of stores, more retailers can realizing they can achieve their sales goals with less area, and more retailers offering more diverse entertainment options.



Categories: Real Estate, The Magazine