Theresa Morzello, CBRE Group: It Takes a Village to Run a High-Rise

Theresa Morzello, managing director for CBRE Group Inc. in New York City, explains why she thinks there shouldn’t be hard-and-fast rules in property management.

Even though Theresa Morzello, managing director for CBRE Group Inc., has years of property management experience under her belt, the sheer size of a high-rise tower still gives her a rush.

Morzello supervises the CBRE unit that manages nearly 60 buildings located in Manhattan, with approximately 26 million square feet of total space. Whether she’s leading a charge on a major redevelopment or heading up an HVAC retrofit, Morzello knows that the size and scale of these projects involve not only a large financial investment, but also potential risk and exposure. “Especially in Manhattan, big buildings are very high-profile,” she explains, “and that’s always a consideration.”

As she watches new buildings go up across the New York City skyline, Morzello is focused on ways to make existing towers just as attractive to tenants as new high-rises.

Q: How did you get your start in property management?
A: I have an engineering degree, and my first job out of college was at a nuclear power plant. I was very comfortable with large equipment and operations and maintenance. I was working with another engineer my age, and he left the plant to take a job with MetLife’s newly formed property management group. Six months later, he contacted me and said they were looking to add staff. He encouraged me to apply, especially knowing that there was a high risk of my career needing to last longer than nuclear power would. So I traded in my steel-toed boots and bought a power suit.

I stayed with MetLife for about seven years, working with their investment properties across the country. As I started meeting people and developing professional relationships, my career blossomed. I then worked for a company performing electrical and energy consulting, and moved over to work in property and facilities management. I landed a role with Cushman & Wakefield, and was with them for about seven years before I was approached to take on the role of managing director for CBRE in 2014.

Q: What are some of your biggest career accomplishments so far?
A: When I was at Cushman & Wakefield, I was part of a team that won a BOMA New York Pinnacle Award for Renovated Buildings. Even though I had moved on to another assignment by the time we received the award, many of the building’s improvements had been done while I was there. It was a great honor to know the building had won the award, but the real joy and accomplishment came with actually seeing the building transformed. It was a real top-to-bottom renovation at 112 West 34th Street. In about four years, we did everything from updating lobbies, corridors, and restrooms to replacing chillers, installing BMS systems, and upgrading fire alarms.

It was also rewarding to watch the staff transform. The engineering and office staff were used to running the building a certain way. But with the landlord’s investment, everything started to evolve. The building looked better, and I think the staff changed their approach to managing it as a result. The engineers hadn’t worked with any kind of building management system before, but they were now running the facility with computers, technology, and controls. Watching that progress was a real career accomplishment.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your role?
A: By nature, I’m a problem-solver. Any opportunity to dig in and solve a problem is a big rush for me. What’s neat about the role I’m in now is that the “problem” could be sitting in a conference room with a client who just bought a $2 billion building, asking, “Now what do we do?” That’s a great problem to have.

I also still enjoy touring different buildings. It’s fascinating to be able to walk inside a building, tour it, and see the different ways people run their buildings. You learn so much from doing that.

Q: What valuable lessons have you learned over the years?
A: In my first property/facility management role, part of my building was owner-occupied and the other part was multi-tenant space. The rent-paying tenants had nothing to do with the owner. I was wearing both hats, and I walked in thinking there couldn’t be that much of a difference: it’s all bricks and mortar, right? I didn’t understand the nuances between property management and facilities management enough to be successful in that role. It’s easy to get caught up in tasks, checking the box to get through your to-do list. And you do it without looking up and asking, “Did I accomplish what the client wanted or what the tenant needed?” So I now try to lift my head up every now and then to ask myself, “I’m doing a lot of things – but am I doing what I should be doing or what people want me to do?”

Q: What words of wisdom do you have for young professionals who are starting out in this industry?
A: If you’re not learning, you’re dying. There’s always an opportunity to learn something new. Get out from behind your desk and away from the conference room. Walk around the building; walk the front of the house and the back of the house. Talk to everyone, including security, janitors, and your administrative staff. Sometimes they have frontline communications with tenants, and can offer some perspective and help you understand what everybody’s doing.

Also, as a manager, I think it’s important to never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. If you have to pick up a broom or mop because there’s a mess, you do it. Just because you’re wearing the suit doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do tasks like that. It truly takes a whole village to run a building; there are no hard-and-fast rules about “my job” vs. “your job.” That doesn’t exist in my world of property management.

Q: What’s the tallest building you’ve been involved with, and what unique challenges did it pose?
A: When I was with MetLife early on in my career, the company owned the 69-story 200 Park Avenue – which is where CBRE’s offices are located now. MetLife hired third-party managers to manage the building, but I was involved in the oversight of the asset as well as the agents who managed it. I remember walking through the building and being blown away by the scale of absolutely everything: the size of the engine room, the number of elevators, etc. There was a sudden realization that there’s no such thing as a small project; the dollars that go along with doing repairs or renovations here are huge. It creates a level of respect, and you want to be sure to do it right.

Q: How have you seen property management change over the years?
A: Technology has automated a lot of our systems, and you’d think that would make things easier. In some ways it has, but it has also created massive amounts of data. Managers now need to increase their administrative burden, thinking about what they’re doing with the data and how they’re managing it. How will you analyze your building’s data, and what will you use it for? With so much information coming at you, how do you translate it into value?

I used to say that property managers were jack of all trades, master of none. But now we have to be jack of all trades and master of a lot of them, too. Tenants are smarter and savvier; there’s a lot of investment that goes into renting space in a building, so it’s important to stay in step with tenants who have greater demands.

Q: What do you anticipate for the future of the property management industry?
A: A challenge for our industry is making existing buildings competitive, offering more of what tenants need now: more power, longer operating hours, more space, and more people in smaller spaces. If a landlord purchases a 40-year-old building but wants to compete with World Trade Center, how do we do that? To me, that is our biggest challenge – and I think it will continue to be.