There’s a saying about pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, meaning the way to success is achieved solely through one’s own efforts. In reality, there are many people on each leg of the journey that offer support—family members, colleagues and mentors.
This is true for Leslie Hale’s own success story. Today, she is the first African-American female president/CEO of one of the largest publicly traded real estate investment trusts—RLJ Lodging Trust. However, her beginnings were vastly different.
The granddaughter of a sharecropper, whose parents raised her in South Central Los Angeles, Hale first fell in love with finance as a student at Howard University in Washington, DC. After graduation, she worked in real estate. She joined RLJ in 2005, working her way up to the CEO role.
“What I like about our industry is it’s ever-evolving,” Hale said. “It’s a business that runs in cycles, and no two cycles are the same. From 2005-2008, we had a big run-up in the stock market and real estate, and then we had the crash, and later we had a slow-growth environment. There’s twists and turns, so being able to operate at a high level and produce great returns at different parts of the cycle is interesting to me.”
For her part, Hale says she never had aspirations of becoming CEO. Always looking for the next big challenge, it was a matter of the right place and the right time. This summer, an opportunity presented itself with the retirement of the REIT’s former president/CEO Ross H. Bierkan.
“I was ready to take on this new challenge,” she said. “We have a great team here. While I’m excited, I take it as a serious responsibility.”
When asked what it means to be the first African-American female CEO for a large, publicly traded lodging REIT, Hale said she’s grateful to the people who helped groom her for success.
“There were so many people along my journey, from beginning to end,” she said. “One of the people who had an impact was Alan Braxton [former managing director of Presidio Partners, a U.S.-based specialist real estate private capital raising and advisory business], who passed away a few years ago. I met Alan through Toigo, a fellowship program for MBAs [from the Robert Toigo Foundation,]and he asked me a profound question: Who are your peers?”
She continued, “I said, ‘My classmates.’ He stopped me: ‘Your peers aren’t people who went to the same business school as you or have the same job; your peers are doing what you want to do.’ What he was saying was, don’t look left or right. Look up and strive to be in that peer group. It was a pivotal moment in my career and changed how I viewed myself and the world.
“I have no interest in being the ‘only,’” she said. “I’m excited not for myself, but for all of the people who invested in me. As a person of color and as a woman, I’m happy my story can be an inspiration to young ladies who can also aspire to this level.”
Hale firmly believes that the industry is ripe with talented women and, given the opportunity, they too can ascend.
“When I think about the lodging industry, I acknowledge there needs to be more diversity,” she said. “I’m encouraged that there are many entry points—ownership, brands, management, etc.—and there are opportunities for women to take on leadership roles.”
On the business front, Hale has her sights set on executing the benefits of the company’s merger with FelCor Lodging Trust Inc., which took place at the end of 2017.
“It’s been going very well. We’re on solid ground with our strategy,” she said. “We have curated a portfolio of high-quality, high-margin, growth-oriented hotels; we think all of this is propelling us to be a top player in the REIT space. We’ve been focused on selling non-core assets, which is central to our strategy. But, what I’m most excited about is that we are keeping tremendous embedded value in our combined profit, whether it is ROI projects, investments, pure-play real estate. In 2019, I’ll spend time unlocking that value.”
RLJ Lodging Trust sold off four hotels for approximately $340 million and exceeded its 2018 debt reduction objective of $500 million, according to the third quarter earnings results. In aggregate, the REIT sold five assets for approximately $415 million since the end of the first quarter, exceeding the company’s original goal of generating an incremental $200 million to $400 million of proceeds from asset sales by year end.
Hale acknowledged the third quarter was noisy. “With the shift in holidays and Hurricane Florence, it’s a real tough time to do a read through. We will continue to have a noisy fourth quarter,” she said.
Hale noted that the sell-off of slow-growth assets will continue, enabling the company to perform at a higher trajectory than where it is now.
The company is also investing in its portfolio. “We’ve got 22 Embassy Suites undergoing a renovation, and we believe in that brand and the return we get,” she said. “We have opportunities to convert hotels into Curios. Executing on conversions are among the key components of 2019.” HB