Suzann Cabling is the Chief Financial Officer of Jackson Square Properties, a private real estate investment company based in San Francisco. She began her career in finance as an accountant, ultimately leaving to pursue her dream of working in real estate. During the first tech boom in San Francisco, she worked at eTrade Financial and went on to earn her MBA from a joint program through UC Berkeley and Columbia University. Today, Jackson Square Properties owns 20,000 residential units across nine states worth more than $3.8 billion.
Ms. Cabling graciously agreed to a 30-minute telephone interview in May 2017. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] I’d like to learn a little about your career trajectory. Can you tell me how you became the CFO at Jackson Square Properties?
[Ms. Cabling] It started as a desire to be in business and finance in general. In college, I did well in my accounting classes and I decided to pursue that track instead of a general business degree. At my school, there was a lot of pressure to take the CPA exam and spend at least two years in public accounting. I did that to get my license and I hated it! I didn’t enjoy taxes or auditing—it’s like being in a freezer suit on New Year’s Eve counting frozen peas. That wasn’t very fun, but the experience was amazing. It was exactly what I needed to get to the next step.
I always had a goal to get into real estate. It was my first love, but I didn’t want to be a broker or a lender. I knew I would come in at an entry level if I didn’t gain some skills. I followed my heart and got the finance experience. After public accounting, I worked in private industry and took a little detour during the first tech boom in San Francisco. I worked at eTrade Financial.
What I do in real estate now falls under financial services; our firm buys and sells apartment buildings nationwide. We have over 20,000 units. After working as a financial analyst at a couple of different places, I got laid off after the internet bubble crashed and I decided that it was time to get into real estate. I’d done property management through college, collecting rent and handling evictions for family-owned assets. I got a job at a small, family-run office which bought and sold apartments just in California, and then I went to business school. With my newly minted MBA, I was able to get the job here at Jackson Square Properties. It’s a big firm that buys and sells a lot of apartments and I do all of the finance. I get to handle just what I love now, which is just the equity.
[OnlineEducation.com] When did you know that you wanted to get into finance initially?
[Ms. Cabling] It all came together when I realized I was good at accounting. I always knew I would do something in business and even as a kid, I would always be the banker when we played Monopoly. The fact that people trusted me handling the money fed something in my soul.
[OnlineEducation.com] In addition to the equity side, what are your favorite parts of your current role?
[Ms. Cabling] I work with a lot of great people and I’m also acting COO. I’ve been there for 11 years. Two years after I started, the COO left and they gave me the role, but I didn’t want the title because CFO is what represents my experience and knowledge. To be a CFO of a small or medium-sized company means that you have a certain skillset. Of course, titles and egos don’t really matter here. We roll up our sleeves and just do work.
In a medium-sized company, I’m able to shape the culture and I love that. We have 14 people at the company. We’re small in numbers despite having a lot of assets because we outsource the property management side.
[OnlineEducation.com] Has it changed significantly in the past few years with the most recent real estate boom in San Francisco?
[Ms. Cabling] Yes, our strategy has changed. In the last few years, we’ve undertaken a project to upgrade the assets in our portfolio. We used to own a number of ‘B’ and ‘C Class’ properties in really great locations, but they were just junky—ugly and not anything someone would be proud to own. We upgraded those, largely because we thought the 1031 exchange* was going away. So if that law had changed, then we would have been stuck with properties that we didn’t really want to own.
Overall, the cap rate is what we look at. A low cap rate means that prices are high and right now, it indicates that the market is heated, so we’re being very careful about buying, sitting on the sidelines a bit and accumulating cash for what we believe is a small downturn coming.
[OnlineEducation.com] Generally, what are some of the major financial challenges that you help iron out on a day-to-day basis in your role?
[Ms. Cabling] Putting together a deal is one. When we sell a property, I have to measure everything out and ensure that our 1031 exchange will work. There are a lot of tests that need to be met such as trading up and paying only certain parts out of the sales proceeds so that an exchange qualifies. Financial reporting is also a challenge. We have several different property management firms that we work with and their reporting is all different, so creating portfolio reports is a challenge. Ensuring that we have enough equity to channel into the next deal is another, as well as tracking all the funds for renovation. Renovation is important because we’re a value-add buyer. We’ll buy an apartment building and upgrade the exteriors and interiors in order to reposition the asset to be more competitive in the market.
[OnlineEducation.com] You mentioned that you have 20,000 units. Are most of them in the Bay Area?
[Ms. Cabling] No, we have a large presence in Denver, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle, and Southern California. We like the coasts and we have some scattered assets in places such as Austin. The Bay Area is expensive and many places have rent control. Staying on top of that is important because it affects our business plans. Always taking the pulse of the politics of the market—whether tax laws may be changing or whether rent control is being implemented in a city we’re invested in. I have to do quite a bit of reading to stay up to date.
[OnlineEducation.com] Is there any area around the U.S. that you particularly enjoy working with?
[Ms. Cabling] Austin, Texas! There are a lot of tech firms here in the Bay Area that are going out there—Apple, Google, Amazon—they’re all building in Austin and there is a highly educated workforce there, many of whom want to be lifetime renters, which is crazy. Growing up, I always wanted to own my own home and the first time I did that, it was a big deal. But a lot of people there—perhaps millennials or even Gen Xers—don’t want that, so we have to stay up to date on the desired amenities. They don’t just want pools, racquetball courts, or tennis courts, they want a fire pit, a package room for Amazon, a dog wash, and a place to repair their bicycles. It’s always changing! There’s always something different happening with apartments.
[OnlineEducation.com] I want to talk a little about your impressions of the demographics of finance. Is it diverse?
[Ms. Cabling] It’s mainly men in real estate and in finance, but I want to say that maybe I’m lucky; I don’t feel that I’ve been limited by that. Perhaps I’ve just ignored it or I was taught that I shouldn’t focus on what’s keeping you down, you just work harder to get where you want to be. It hasn’t really been that big of a deal. It’s probably been a wise decision to not focus on it too much because I don’t see it as a limiting factor. I use all of my strengths and sometimes the softness that a woman can bring to a meeting or the compassionate side can be a benefit. We deal with residents and increasing rents, and there’s a human side to it. I can bring that to the table.
[OnlineEducation.com] As a CFO, it makes sense that you don’t feel too limited. There’s not much higher you can rise! Do you think that over the course of your career you’ve ever felt challenged due to being one of the few women in your industry?
[Ms. Cabling] Yes, I think sometimes it makes the men uncomfortable because they don’t know if they can swear in a meeting or if I’m going to be too soft. Men tend to yell and swear, and that’s not my style, but I have to put them at ease so they can work within their style.
[OnlineEducation.com] It’s interesting that you point out the discomfort on the men’s side because of their own behavior. Are there any other situations where you felt that if you were a man, perhaps something wouldn’t have happened?
[Ms. Cabling] Yes, I’ve definitely felt that way. It’s affected me the most when we’re at work, but not talking about work. I have nothing to add to a conversation about football or basketball. I like baseball, so I can add something to that conversation, but sports in general, I don’t have anything to say. That’s limiting. Also, I’m horrible at golf and I don’t really like it. I did take some lessons once because being in business, you get invited to golf sometimes, but it’s not my thing, so then I’m left out.
[OnlineEducation.com] Those elements of cultural capital can be limiting.
[Ms. Cabling] Yes, the cultural capital. That’s a great phrase. I can’t compete there, so I’ve overcompensated with my education and knowledge. I’ve got the highest level education of anyone in my office and most of the other men in my position because that gave me the confidence to be able to compete on the work topics.
[OnlineEducation.com] Absolutely. The question is do you have any advice for women aspiring to be in leadership positions in finance?
[Ms. Cabling] Make other people feel comfortable. It can be as simple as dressing conservatively because you don’t want to be a distraction in the office with perfume or pretty clothes. I don’t wear fancy nail polish on purpose and I keep my hair and dress very conservative at work. If you’re a distraction, then you’re only viewed for your femininity and not your knowledge. You always want to always play that card first. You’re here for your brain, not your good looks.
[OnlineEducation.com] How about any education or specialized training you think would be useful for someone in your role today?
[Ms. Cabling] I think it’s very important to learn a skill because if you have a general business degree, so does everyone else. Having the CPA certification, for example, shows that you have a body of knowledge that others don’t have.
Also, I think some women are scared to set their sight on the highest positions and I would say don’t be; it’s self-limiting to do that. You’re only limited by yourself. I don’t believe that the men are keeping us back. It’s really that women are choosing to be underrepresented in certain fields. A lot of women also don’t really love finance, too. You’re better off doing something you love because the money will follow. You have to figure out what you’re good at and what you like, and chase that as hard as you can regardless of who else is in the field.
Overall, playing the victim is useless. This is where women get limited. They believe that there is a glass ceiling, but if you just decide that there isn’t and work harder than everybody else, you’ll get there. If one firm or shop isn’t appreciating you, find a better cultural fit. Or if you don’t like the culture, get to the top and change it!
*IRC Section 1031 (a)(1): “No gain or loss shall be recognized on the exchange of property held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment, if such property is exchanged solely for property of like-kind which is to be held either for productive use in a trade or business or for investment.”