Karen Barry is renovating a hundred year old property minutes from downtown Calgary – the soon-to-be new home of her boutique investment brokerage firm.
“I've been swinging a paintbrush for the last few weeks,” says the president of Barry Commercial Real Estate and Barry Realty Advisors , and the most recent Past Chair of the Canadian Commercial Council of Realtors.
She calls the converted house a “non-office office”, a space in keeping with the non-conformist approach that has propelled Barry to the top levels of recognition and accomplishment within Canadian commercial real estate.
On the eve of her 47th birthday, success looks like this: a new office; two terms as committee chair with the Canadian Real Estate Association; a book in the works; and the highest international designation one can attain as a property evaluator.
“Success is creating the edge and riding it,” she says. “That's truly the essence of me.”
One Determined Women
Despite 21 years in commercial real estate, Barry remains apart from the crowd – a woman among men.
“I went to a proposal call last week, and there were 18 brokers and I was the only chick in the crowd.”
An appraiser by trade, Barry was employed by major real estate companies beginning in 1992, earning multi-year titles as one of Canada's top 30 sales producers and recognition as the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Agent of the Year.
But Barry soon realized her successes were under-appreciated. After winning yet another national top achiever award in 2006, she requested her employers remove the 'associate' designation from her vice-presidency title. Shortly after, Barry says she was let go.
“The industry has told women that leasing is OK. But when you get into the sale of buildings – the big dollars – you still can't count more than five women across Canada who do that successfully.”
Undaunted, she began K.J Barry Commercial Real Estate.
In the last ten years, Barry Commercial and Barry Realty have chalked up more than $300-million of Western Canadian investment sale transactions.
“Here we are now – very successful, ” laughs Barry. “But how crazy was I, as a woman, to start a commercial brokerage company?”
Credentials? Hell Yes
Barry is a fully accredited appraiser with the Appraisal Institute of Canada, achieving her AACI designation in 2002.
In 2008, she received the prestigious M-RICS designation with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) in England , an independent body which regulates property professionals in more than 146 countries.
This week, Barry expects to be named a Fellow with RICS – the highest international designation given to property evaluators. Barry believes fewer than 50 Canadians have received the F-RICS designation.
Barry has served on the board of the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) since 2007. On CREA's
federal affairs committee, she lobbied Ottawa for changes to the Capital Cost Allowance (CCA), recommending that CCA be pooled for each property owner rather than assessed on individual properties, allowing owners to defer the recapture of CCA.
As Past Chair of CREA's Canadian Commercial Council, Barry served two terms laying the groundwork for a national Commercial Information Exchange (CIE).
“Basically the large shops have the information,” says Barry, because they have the resources to collect and aggregate data on buildings and sales. A national CIE would give all 6,500 commercial realtors in Canada access to the same information.
“In the leasing world, landlords want their space leased. They don't care that much who is bringing in the deal as long as that space is leased and adding value to their building.”
Barry says a number of CIEs operate in the United States, based on the cooperative exchange of information.
“We are still in the preliminary investigation stages. It won't be delivered in my time as Chair, but I can say I have put my fingerprint on what I believe to be the future changes of commercial real estate.”
Bigger, Harder, Faster, Stronger
With a background in acting, public speaking and stand-up comedy, it should come as no surprise that Barry is chronicling her experiences in a book, entitled Bigger, Harder, Faster, Stronger.
“It's every woman's story of shattering the glass ceiling,” she says. “Some pretty funny stories in there.”
Barry explains the title sums up the attitude prevalent in the male-dominated world of commercial real estate where success – theirs and hers – comes through hard work.
“The guys all live bigger, stronger, harder faster,” says Barry. “I was constantly on this treadmill. And when you get to that elite level, it doesn't matter if you are blue, purple, green, whatever. That's not a gender thing, that's a work thing.”
Barry is currently “doing a ninth rewrite” of her book, planning to launch this fall.
“I had one fellow who read the book,” she recalls, “and said that It sounds a bit bias. I said that is the reality. It is not easy for women. There is disparity and it remains.”
But she remains pragmatic. “Put your head down and be aggressive but fair,” says Barry, “and understand there will be curve balls.”