Steve Elias Goes From Trading Stocks to Trading Spaces

Steve Elias of Citizens Bank uses the skills he honed in his financial background in his current role as vice president of real estate planning and design

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(Portrait: Mark Finkenstaedt)
Steve Elias’ résumé looks quite different than most other senior corporate real estate leaders. He spent the first 12 years of his career in finance, serving as finance director for both Fidelity Investments and Citizens Bank.

Elias got his start in finance during a pivotal time—his last day of training to become a licensed trader was September 11, 2001. The markets tanked just as he was stepping onto the trading floor for the first time.

“It was a very interesting time, but a great experience,” he says. “Really learning how to interact with people, how to empathize with them, and talk them off a ledge was a good experience and I think it helped me in my career as I went along.”

The skills honed during his time working in finance at Fidelity Investments have served Elias well in his role as vice president for real estate planning and design for Citizens Bank.

“My personal style plays well into dealing with real estate since space is a highly emotional topic,” he says. “So I think [that by] having that calm demeanor, and [remaining] a bit humble in my approach, people tend to trust a little more and are willing to work with us a little more.”

Elias spent roughly a decade with Fidelity in a range of financial and business support roles. He liked to help drive the business forward, a function he has continued since his move to Citizens Bank in 2011. While working in finance and corporate services, he developed a good working relationship with the person who later became head of corporate services and had reached out to Elias about a role in property.

“By having that finance background and an analytical mindset, I was able to gain some credibility with the head of that group, which ultimately made him feel comfortable offering an opportunity,” he says.

The real estate role offered a chance to turn around an underperforming team, bring in top talent, and work on initiatives to consolidate space and reduce the vacancy rate from 28 percent to 10 percent.

“Moving forward, our goal is to deliver a workspace that improves colleague productivity and engagement, and I believe a few of the projects we are working on will accomplish that goal.”

Steve Elias, VP, Real Estate Planning & Design

“It was a really good opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and be in a more visible role,” he says.

On a daily basis, Elias manages the company’s space planning and occupancy teams. The planning team ensures the company adheres to its office standards in new build-outs and renovations, works directly with the business to understand its space-related needs, and works closely with the project management team to deliver on property projects. The occupancy team, meanwhile, ensures data is accurate and produces analysis for the planning team and business lines.

His financial experience comes in handy as it allows Elias to analyze and present data in a way that helps business line leaders understand what his team is trying to accomplish and how it benefits the company.

Effective storytelling is crucial in getting key stakeholders on board with a project rather than resisting it, he says. It’s also critical to network with business line leaders and provide value to the relationship by bringing them helpful information and facilitating discussion.

“I think one of my strong suits is bringing people together to solve problems, and not letting the ego get in the way or trying to talk over someone,” he says. “Empathizing with their issues, coming up with solutions that will work, and really understanding that they have a perspective too . . . if you do have to take on a difficult project or ask something that’s going to be challenging of them, they’re more willing to help you.”

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New Citizens Bank facilities feature offices along the interior core to give everyone access to natural light.

That played out in 2015 when the company consolidated a significant amount of real estate in Rhode Island, resulting in about 6,000 moves in a four-month period. It meant a lot of changes for employees who went from cubicles or offices to open-plan workstations, and it also signaled changes for their commutes, daycare needs, and other issues.

Citizens Bank has changed the way it looks at space. It’s moved away from traditional office layouts to a more open concept with a mix of collaborative spaces to support the way people work and interact on a daily basis. Newer facilities feature prefabricated wall systems with a lot of glass and offices on the interior core so everyone has access to natural light.

“We have done a good job working with the business through a challenging portfolio consolidation, and managing through all of the change that comes with it,” he says. “Moving forward, our goal is to deliver a workspace that improves colleague productivity and engagement, and I believe a few of the projects we are working on will accomplish that goal.”


NEW OFFICE SPACE FOR CITIZENS BANK

Canton, MA:

20,000-square-foot open-concept office opened in mid-2015

Plans to add 7,000-8,000 square feet in 2016

Medford, MA:

Repurpose unused processing operations space into 15,000 square feet of open-concept office space

Expected to open in February 2016 as of press time

Satellite locations:

Built new satellite offices in Atlanta, Charlotte, and elsewhere for uses including commercial banking and commercial real estate

Class A offices range from 2,500-10,000 square feet