Progress made by Women in Real Estate Investment in SA

Thabang Mokopanele on behalf of SA Commercial Prop News speaks to Sharon Wapnick - chairman of Premium Properties and Octodec Investments, about the progress of women in real estate investment in South Africa.

Q: You and Dr Anna Mokgokong are the only two women chairing listed property companies on the JSE, what's your take on female representation in corporate SA? 
It is disappointing that despite the abundance of talent, women on balance have been slow to break into corporate SA. I do believe this will change in time.

Q: Your father started the company you are chairing what are some of the lessons you learned from him? 
I have learnt so much from him. He taught me to trust my instincts, the benefits of gearing, that what's expensive today is cheap tomorrow, to keep my eye on the cash flow and always deal on a current balance sheet. He also instilled in me a strong sense of duty and the need to give back to society and one's community in one way or another.

Q: You are also a lawyer, how do you balance chairing a listed property company and law? 
By working very hard! I love what I do. There is no doubt that my legal training has equipped me to discharge my duties as a director and handle myself in the boardroom.

Q: One of your brothers is the CEO of the company you are chairing any sibling rivalry from time to time?
I have an older brother and a younger sister. My brother is the CEO. My sister is not involved in the property business. I think it would be very unusual if there wasn't some sibling rivalry.  The way we deal with it is to have a division of duties so that we don't interfere in each other's work and are each responsible for things we are good at.

Q: What advice can you give to young women who are already in senior positions in commercial property?
As a generalization men seem to be better at self-promotion than women. Make yourself heard and have the confidence, self-belief and determination to push through to higher levels. Don't think that just because objectively you deserve the promotion it will spontaneously happen. You have to make it happen.

Q: What are some of the key duties of a chairperson of a listed property?
I don't think that the duties are any different to those of a chairman of any other listed company. They include guiding the strategy and future direction of the company, ensuring that the board is effective in implementing strategy and decisions, planning the agendas of board  meetings, ensuring that the board  receives timely and relevant information for board meetings, presiding at and running board meetings, doing the same for shareholder meetings, monitoring the performance and contribution of each board member, directing the nomination of directors and composition of the board and ensuring effective communication with stakeholders

Q: The companies you are chair while they have institutional investors are also family businesses, what's your vision for the company?
Because we are listed on the JSE with institutional investors we play according to the rules of that playing field. We regard our business as entrepreneur rather than family driven. We derive our rental income from residential, retail, office and industrial premises. We strive to constantly improve the quality of our properties and to provide good, clean, safe and affordable accommodation in well located areas whilst still delivering growth in distributions for our shareholders.

Q: What were your feelings when you became chairperson? 
It was daunting but very exciting! I got tremendous support from my fellow directors, which was very reassuring.

Q: Female board members are few on the JSE. Why is this so and what can be done?
There is no logical reason for this other than the lag caused by a history of discrimination. Women have excelled in business and in the various professions which are demanding and there is no real reason for them not to do the same on the directorate of companies listed on the JSE. If you think chauvinism is dead you are wrong! Women need to be assertive and to promote themselves more. 
The ability to resist being bullied also helps. David Ben Gurion used to call Golda Meir, Israel's first and the world's third female Prime Minister, the best man in the Government. My take on that is that the best man for the job is a woman.

Q: How do you describe your leadership qualities?
I like to have regard to the views of my directors. I see little point in going to the trouble and expense of having them on board if I don't. I also like to keep in touch with the views of our investors and other stakeholders. I prefer to achieve our objectives by consensus though I don't mind flexing my muscles when necessary.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring women leaders?
Create a support system that enables you to pursue your dreams. Set goals and don't let detractors or difficult situations along the way deter you.  Be prepared to work hard and to have to sometimes tough it out.

Q: What is the future of the listed property sector?
I'm a great believer in the future of the listed property sector underpinned as it is with bricks and mortar. As with any asset class there will be ups and downs. Property investment is for the long term, a marathon not a sprint. The introduction of REITS also brings a new dimension to property investment.

Q: What impact do you want to leave on the company?
I would like to continue to grow them and ensure that they are sustainable, with good growth prospects, built on sound ethical principles, with strong corporate governance and last but by no means least, strong balance sheets.

Q: What occupies your spare time?
Between my responsibilities as chairman of Octodec Investments and Premium Properties and my legal practice, which also entails a lot of reading and preparation, being a doting mom to my two gorgeous sons and running a home, I don't really have much spare time. I do gym daily and occasionally treat my family to an exotic home cooked meal. I also enjoy going to the theatre and the odd game of golf with my friends and family.


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