Colleen Wenke Talks Taconic: The CRE Heavy Hitter With an Entrepreneurial Spirit

Colleen Wenke once had a career in medicine in her sights.

But, she didn’t anticipate her head would be turned quite so dramatically by a temp job at one of New York City’s leading development and investment firms: Taconic Partners. Twenty years later, she’s not only still there,  she’s holding the reins.

In March, she and Chris Balestra were named co-presidents of Taconic. Wenke describes their dynamic as “exceptionally complementary,” with Balestra focusing on investments and finance, while Wenke leads development and construction for the firm.

As a firm, Taconic has always been especially bullish on New York City, and the two transitioned into their new roles at an exciting time for the industry, and for the recovery of their home base. Taconic’s diverse portfolio — which includes a significant head start and footprint in New York City’s life sciences sector — was well-positioned for a fast-moving crisis. Now, as an “opportunity firm” with an entrepreneurial spirit, it’s ready for all of the action that the rebound will bring.

Wenke — who was recently awarded the Excellence in Field Award for Development & Construction at Commercial Observer’s “Innovations Powered By Women: Celebrating the Women Rebuilding Our National Workforce” forum — discussed her path to Taconic and why there’s never a dull moment in real estate development.

Commercial Observer: You were promoted to co-president three months ago. How have those first few months been, and what are the biggest changes in terms of your day-to-day role?

Colleen Wenke: The promotion was announced a handful of months ago, but I’m in my 20th year here at Taconic and the conversation started many years ago. I’ve worn several different hats here over my tenure, and so this felt like an organic, natural progression because of my legacy, curiosity, personality and the evolution of Taconic’s timeline.

Taconic was started by two partners [Charles Bendit and Paul Pariser]. They recognized that there’s a very strong executive team that has been here for many years, and broadening the breadth of that team and allowing a bit more collaboration and control over what’s happening, positions us well for the future. So, it’s an exciting time and also certainly challenging trying to balance a lot of different responsibilities. I continue to oversee our development business and our development advisory business — which is a third-party business I started a handful of years ago —as well as overseeing corporate operations, and also forward-looking new business. So, it’s diverse, and I’m looking toward the future.

Let’s rewind to the very beginning. Where did you grow up?

I’m a native New Yorker from Queens and I grew up in a town called Floral Park, all the way adjacent to the Long Island border. My father was a firefighter and an ironworker, and at the time he joined [the FDNY], you had to live within the five boroughs of New York City.

Are you the first in your family to go into the real estate business?

Yes. Ironworkers certainly touch real estate through the buildings, but I always had a natural curiosity for creativity and design. And being a native New Yorker, I was always looking around and fascinated by our city. But it wasn’t until I actually landed at a real estate firm that I started peeling back the layers of what it means to be in real estate.

When I was in school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor and I was focused on the medical field. But, I took a little bit of time off, was exposed to the real estate industry, and the rest is history.

What was your first role?

It was right here — I was a temp at Taconic! I was here for a handful of months, and basically said [to management]: “I think something fantastic and really exciting is happening here, and I think I can add value.” We were a small firm at that moment, and I was just persistent. At the time, we had projects not only in New York, but in Atlanta and in Chicago. There were only a handful of people, but they were traveling during the week to those different projects. And so, I’d like to think that I helped to hold down the fort during those times of travel and other things.

I was really curious. I was always reading and listening, so I was learning. And then, I just built and built from there.

How would you describe the evolution of your role since those early days?

I realized very early on that because I didn’t have a finance background, and because I wasn’t an architect, I didn’t have the education to support some of the dialogue that was happening in these conference rooms and on conference calls. So, I went back and I got my master’s degree early in my career. I think that provided the building blocks to really accelerate the learning curve.

In the early days, I was supporting whatever needed to get done. And then, through the years, there was an evolution from being asked to do something and it being task-focused, to me leading the conversation forward on a project. So, through the years, I’ve done everything from basic project management work through asset management work, marketing, leasing, PR — whatever it took to get something accomplished. I wore all those different hats as the project life cycle demanded them.

I’d imagine experiencing all these different buckets only makes you a stronger leader, because you understand exactly what goes into each part of a project’s process?

Exactly, and I think one of the things that I like most about my new role is building teams and people. I think it’s fascinating to figure out the chemistry of people working together toward a common goal. In development, it’s such a grind. And so, if you can figure out how people are fulfilled and empowered to do what they’re being asked to do toward fulfilling a business plan or project, they start to take ownership over it. I think that’s how people basically rise through the ranks; they start to really have opinions and are more forward facing.

Getting your master’s while working must have been tough.

It was absolute chaos [laughs]. I would get the evening coursework, and often debate what I was being instructed, because I’d say, “Well, actually, it wouldn’t go that way in the real world!” It took me about three years, and I’m happy that I did it. It was a different point in my life. I was doing it simultaneously while working on one of our buildings at 401 West 14th Street. It’s only three blocks from where our offices are. And so, I’d work, grab a bite, go to class, come back, walk past the project, come back to the office, and then go home, wake up and start over again.

Was there a career-defining moment when you knew you were in real estate development for the long term?

Definitely. Despite having to be a generalist in development, you also align with certain parts of the tasks at hand more closely. So, for me, our 401 West 14th Street project — which is now leased by Apple and a few high-profile tenants — was really when the transition occurred. It shifted from me being asked to do certain things to me leading them, and starting to have instincts about how you get ahead of what you need to block and tackle on a daily basis. So, that was pivotal for me.

Then, when we were awarded Essex Crossing and the Seward Park project on the Lower East Side. We’re nine years into that project now, and just getting in a room and working with our partners, figuring out how we were going to execute on the project and bring the images to life, then going through that process and getting our first TCOs, lease-up and the first sales completed.

We’re now completing the second phase of that project, and the fact that seven buildings on the Lower East Side have been developed over the past handful of years is really fulfilling, and I’m really proud. There are so many hands involved in a project; it’s really not a one-person type of work. So, when you can work toward a common purpose, and then sign off on it, it’s an exceptional feeling.

How did the Essex Crossing project first come together?

One of the last big pushes of the Bloomberg administration was to rezone that area of the Lower East Side. They rezoned it and then went out to RFP to the private developer community. In the past, we hadn’t responded to [requests for proposals] — it wasn’t really our wheelhouse. But, it’s such a relationship business, and folks who had previously worked together here with some of our now-partners, called up and said, “Can we work together? Because this is a massive undertaking.” We flipped through and thought, “Yes. This is exceptional.” I mean, when do you ever get the opportunity to touch such a large piece of New York City in your career?

The team’s worked exceptionally hard on it, and one of the amazing attributes of Essex Crossing is the Market Line, this subgrade marketplace that’s connected by three city blocks. And that was really where the value-add aspect of our team came forward, because you could start to assign value to subgrade space, where it’s more traditionally mechanical and back-of-house uses. And so, it’s a market-making project, and it’s really exceptional today — you can walk in the park, we have rentals, we have Trader Joe’s, and we have 350,000 square feet of Class A office space.

Is Essex Crossing top of your priority list today?

So, certainly, Essex Crossing takes up a big chunk of time. The office space is just launching, and we also launched condo sales at One Essex Crossing during the pandemic. We’re also embarking on a large project up in Inwood and just into our planning phase up there. We’re active in that community, and looking for new opportunities up there. I also have a multifamily building on 43rd Street, where we’re demolishing an existing asset and will be in foundations hopefully by year-end. So, we’re busy on the project front.

And, then, we’re thinking about our people and the return to office, and what will be the new driving forces of the company.

And, then, there’s our life sciences initiative, which is a massive undertaking. We have our project at 125 West End Avenue, as well as our Hudson Research Center. There’s very little supply of lab space within New York City. We had been in that market for a handful of years prior to COVID, and, certainly, it’s been a bright light in the real estate market in terms of the response to COVID. So, there’s lots going on and we’re trying to balance the priorities of all of those initiatives so that they can continue on.

Do you think you’re going to be even more active in the life sciences space, post-COVID?

There’s so much capital being injected into the life science market right now. Being early adapters, and having delivered lab space successfully to the marketplace, allows us to execute on a life science plan when the right opportunities come up. But not every asset and not every repositioning is appropriate for a life science undertaking.

One of the things that has resonated with me throughout my years at Taconic is responsible underwriting, responsible investment, and making sure that you can actually execute on what’s being underwritten — not getting caught up in the wave of what the market is doing. So, we’re out looking, and we have just shy of $2 billion underway already invested in the life science sector. When the right opportunities come up that fit with our disciplined investment structure, we’ll be happy to execute on them.

Has the pandemic made you view any asset classes differently?

We’re an opportunity firm. Despite being larger than we were when I first started, we’re entrepreneurial in spirit. So, we’re studying the markets and certainly always looking for new opportunities. Our platform was well-diversified prior to the pandemic, in terms of the balance between residential and commercial and life science.

I — and we — still very strongly believe in New York City, and, despite some of the negative headlines during the COVID era, we remain focused on it. We’ve expanded our geographic area a little bit, but what comes of that is to be determined. We’ve certainly looked at more industrial-type properties and other things as we pivot some of our focus. But, again, I think it just boils down to our culture and that entrepreneurial, opportunistic lens that we bring to the table.

How was your personal experience of working remotely?

I have to say, I’m really proud of our team. We weren’t the most forward-facing technology-focused company in terms of Zoom and virtual meetings, but we proceeded almost without interruption. Some of the early doom-and-gloom thoughts and downside scenarios that we were running both on our investments and our Taconic platform didn’t come to fruition, and I think it’s because people adapted and they did what was necessary.

I personally prefer to work in the office. I have two young children at home and it just complicates matters. Additionally, I have never claimed to be a teacher. And so, virtual schooling was very challenging. So, for some of the things that have returned, both from a school perspective and a return to office, I’m very thankful.

Any surprises within Taconic’s portfolio through the pandemic?

At the beginning of the pandemic, the world was so uncertain and it felt like the rug had been pulled out from everything. So, we certainly spent a responsible amount of time on a weekly basis going through each and every investment, and analyzing the downside and upside potential. We certainly had to adjust for the market, on the multifamily side with increased concessions, but we got ahead of it. There was a lot of dialogue, there were a lot of conversations, and some of them are still ongoing. But, we fared well in the storm.

And, I think, again, that’s why I’m feeling so optimistic about what the future holds. Because, if you look back a year ago, from where we stand today, it’s night and day.

Any key takeaways from this crisis?

This is a people business. It’s also an investment business, a building business, a marketing business, and lots of other things. But, when you boil it down, it’s about people. And so, we focused heavily on our internal teams, we focused heavily on making sure our partners were well, making sure investments were sound, and making sure that we almost over-communicated to make sure that nothing was brewing in the background that may come out and catch us.

And so, we just made sure that we had an open dialogue on a consistent basis, as we analyzed and figured things out. It’s something that we’ve done here for many, many years — with lenders, partners and tenants. And it’s something that we did successfully during COVID — probably at a heightened level —and something that we will continue to do. It’s really one of the key ingredients of our industry.

Another key aspect of the crisis was an overdue, increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in our industry. What are your thoughts on how far we’ve come, and how far we’ve still to go?

I’m happy to see that the conversation is happening. And, we’re at a point where progressive change can be made for more inclusion. I think diversity is not only about recruiting new talent, but it’s also developing talent internally and providing similar opportunities to others who are here, whether it’s a female or whether it’s somebody in the Black and brown communities. So, I’m excited by the dialogue that is happening. I think it’s incredibly important, but I also think that it shouldn’t [supplant] some of the hard work and effort that it takes to accomplish what needs to get done. I’m glad it’s a topic that is being discussed, but I think there is still a fair amount of work to do.

Have you had any key mentors throughout your career?

Paul and Charlie here at Taconic were absolutely inspirational throughout my career here. I started my early days at Taconic under the mentorship of a woman named Caroline Vary, who just was a fantastic leader and teacher, and who helped to provide opportunities and answer all of the questions that I had in the early days.

What’s your favorite part of the job today?

The diversity of tasks. It’s something that I think turned me on to real estate development in the early days. You can go from being in a meeting with a group of subcontractors, to sitting with a partner in a creative meeting, to talking about a new underwriting, and so many other things.

And that dynamic is a daily occurrence. I can say with certainty that every day that I try to plan out never happens as intended. There’s always something that comes up, that causes a blip. And so, being able to have a clear head, respond to the challenges, and persevere comes fairly naturally to me. And I enjoy that challenge.

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