Gilda Perez-Alvarado, Global CEO, JLL Hotels & Hospitality
Updated: May 1, 2021
This past year has been transformational for everyone, but particularly so for Gilda Perez-Alvarado. Not only was she promoted to the role of Global CEO, Hotels & Hospitality, for real estate giant JLL, she also became a mother for the first time at age 39.
Each are incredible achievements on their own, but put them together, throw in a pandemic…and the plot really thickens. To give you a sense of scope, JLL's Hotels & Hospitality Group has completed $83 billion of transactions worldwide over the last five years. Gilda is running a team of 350 real estate professionals in more than 30 countries. Amazingly, just 18 days after giving birth and with the pandemic looming, Gilda packed up her newborn daughter and husband and relocated to Nicaragua to stay with her parents and work remotely.
Gilda has so much insight to share we’ve broken her interview into three instalments: look for Part 2 on Wednesday and Part 3 on Friday.
Part 1: Gilda’s Career Path
What drew you to the hotel business?
My passion is travel. I’ve always been a global citizen and love seeing the world. I was born in Costa Rica, soon after my parents moved to North Africa, then Europe, then back to Costa Rica. Being global nomads and academics, my parents decided to get their PhDs in Indiana when I was 13. I lived there and went to high school in West Lafayette.
After high school, I went to Cornell to study biochemistry. I realized after a week it was going to be a lonely career, so I followed my passion and transferred to Cornell’s Hotel School. My grandmother had owned a hotel and restaurant in Costa Rica and separately, my mom was the manager of the largest hotel in Costa Rica when we lived there. My dad is an economist, so in essence, my career reflects a combination of both my parents. I am a big nerd, so I was drawn to the science of the hotel business, the math behind the P&L, and focused my studies on real estate finance.
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
Neither. My biggest characteristic is that I am very curious. I like to meet people, hear their stories, learn, experience. I think of an extrovert as someone that likes to be the center of attention and I don’t see myself that way. I prefer to listen and interact. My curiosity is a quality that has enabled me to develop into the role I have now. I know every person on the team, and I notice the idiosyncrasies and the local characteristics of each office when I travel. When you grow up in so many places and exposed to so many environments, you not only form a strong sense of self, but you also quickly learn to find what you have in common with others. Today, where there is much divisive rhetoric, it is more important than ever to be able to connect with people. I have strong bonds with every single stakeholder, in work and in my life.
Tell us a bit about your career path. You started in consulting?
I started at PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Miami covering the Caribbean and Latin America. Probably the best job anybody can get out of school is consulting. You develop an excellent basis of knowledge and analytical skills. You have to be able to put your thoughts on paper and substantiate them with facts.
Island hopping in the Caribbean and exotic destinations in Latin America was great, but I really wanted to get into hotel investment and do something more global. One of my mentors, Professor Dan Quan from Cornell, introduced me to JLL and the rest is history. I started in JLL’s Miami office in 2004 and I pinch myself that I am the CEO of the group now.
What has been your trajectory at JLL?
In Miami, I started out as an analyst. A big part of my job was learning the art of the deal, how to develop and manage relationships. Brokerage is about connecting people and finding solutions for clients, in contrast to what I had been doing in consulting where you are doing reports on your own after the fieldwork. So, if you have both consulting and brokerage experience, it makes you a very well-rounded professional.
I’ve gone through two economic cycles. I was in Miami for a year, working on deals in Florida and the Caribbean. As we were in growth mode, I had the opportunity to move to New York. At the time, there was a lot of interest in New York properties from investors in the Middle East, which is when I first got exposed to cross-border transactions. After two years in New York, I had the chance to move to London, which was where the hotel group was headquartered at the time. Working with the same Middle Eastern client base with expanded investor interest now on luxury hotel transactions in Europe, one of my bigger projects was the sale of the famous Turnberry Resort in Scotland on behalf of Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
While in London, business was booming and we created a new business line to advise on hotel debt, helping clients secure loans and financing. I was offered the chance to develop this further for Spain and Portugal. But life had other plans! The day I moved to Madrid in 2008 was the day Lehman Brothers crashed! The business plan we laid out quickly pivoted from doing financing to advising banks on hotel asset receiverships and workouts. We called it Business Recovery Services.
Because of the crash and business being quiet, I decided to utilize the lull to expand my skillset by getting my executive MBA at Instituto de Empresa (IE Business School) in Madrid. By the time I finished my degree in 2010, business was rebounding in New York and JLL offered me the opportunity to return to that office.
Once in New York, with deeper experience with international markets, we pitched creating a Global Hotel Desk, which was really an excuse to work with friends and colleagues from around the world and find a way for us to put all our international knowledge to good use. Now, one of JLL’s key business areas, we market hotel properties on an international level in partnership with the local teams who market properties domestically, using their specific local expertise, so it is a very powerful combination.
Prior to the pandemic, the business grew steadily. We handled some notable transactions of iconic hotels: the Plaza Hotel in New York, Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, St. Regis San Francisco, St. Regis New York and the Four Seasons Toronto.
Sounds like a smooth ride, have you had plateaus in your career? How have you handled it?
Yes, I’ve had plateaus, but when I do, I always find a project. Whether it’s continuing my education or pitching the idea for a new business line, that is how I have worked my way out of plateaus. You always have to be looking for new challenges.
I also feel like this comes back to my curiosity, and my hunger to grow and learn. While I have not changed companies, my career has had so many distinct chapters, either from the countries I’ve worked in, or the deals or assignments I’ve been a part of, I’ve continued to move and evolve. I would not be doing what I am doing today if I didn’t have growth opportunities or assignments that challenged me.
Have you had to compete for jobs and promotions?
Always, because the environment is incredibly competitive. I take nothing for granted and nothing is given to me. I've looked for every opportunity. Growing up, I was a competitive swimmer and very focused on academics, so I have always been measured. I like to think I compete with myself first and foremost. I work hard because I love it. But you have to keep an eye out to see what others are doing, and this inspires me, it makes me want to learn how they achieved success. I have mostly competed with men for jobs because there are not many women in real estate, and we have to change that.
Why do you think there aren’t more women in real estate?
Women have been indoctrinated to think there is only room for one woman and that is the biggest mistake ever. We have to erase the rhetoric that there “can be only one woman.” I can’t tell you how many times, since the very beginning of my career, that I’ve been put on a team with other women and the manager says, “Well, I hope it doesn’t get catty.” We need to stop allowing that kind of talk.
Women want to be around other women and help each other. One of my closest colleagues and allies at JLL is a woman, she is amazing, she is the Americas Hotel COO and my right hand. She is incredibly thoughtful, and what I love about our relationship is that it is very honest and raw. We need to rip up the script. Competition is not the way forward. As women, we are going to fail if that is the case. I’m much more interested in collaborating and connecting.
Have you had mentors, who and how did you find them?
Many. You can and should learn from anybody and everybody, and any situation. I learned very early on not to idealize people. No one is perfect, there are no heroes. You learn from doing and failing. I’ve learned from so many people how to do things, but equally important, I’ve learned how not to do things. We are so used to reading success stories, and we are trained to think there is a perfect way, that there is a straight path. But there is no straight path. Life is not all rosy, and perfection comes from imperfection. The only consistency I have had in mentorship is my parents, and I am very close with them, but so many people have taught and helped me along the way. My advice would be to think of it as building a network, connecting with as many people as you can to create your path and help others.
Do you believe leaders are born or made?
I think leaders are born with some skills and trained for the rest. I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot over the past year, dealing with crisis and change management during the pandemic. Having a female leader is a bit confusing to people because women seek consensus. My style is not to impose. I always have ideas, opinions and a plan, but I want people to challenge it, to poke holes in it. I like to build consensus, collaborate and build the best plan together and have everyone vested in the implementation. The collaborative approach is a windier road than you might find with traditional male leadership, and it has caught a few people by surprise, to have actual teamwork.
What skills do you need to be a great leader?
The same skills it takes to be a good person. You need to have empathy, an open mind and be able to listen. You also need to take ownership when good and bad things happen. Leaders need to be able to take time away, to study, ruminate and contemplate, to be able to think ahead about the competitive landscape and the future. It is a balancing act.
JLL has trained me for my role. I have taken courses at INSEAD, Stanford, I’ve had coaching, and I’ve learned so much by leading projects here at work. Fantastic people have mentored me along the way, I have many people I can turn to for advice. None of this has happened randomly, we are always doing succession planning at JLL.
How has the pandemic impacted your job?
Just like everybody else, it has been the biggest shock in my career, positively exacerbated by becoming a parent, really all just thrown in the pressure cooker! Everything from living remotely, to becoming a mom, and we had just gone through a merger with HFF (another large real estate capital markets advisor). I had also recently assumed the responsibilities of overseeing the Americas. We had the realities of decreased business, which in certain cases forced us to downsize, so I was dealing with the emotions of that as well. I got through it and I owe it to my support system, my family and my team at JLL. It was hard. I’ve never questioned every single thing about my job and my life like I have this past year, but I believe the worst is behind us and I am looking forward to what is next.