A New Lease on Corporate Life

Heidrick & Struggles’ Julie Creed redefined her career when she taught herself the guidelines of real estate. She encourages others to take similar risks—and find similar happiness.

If Julie Creed’s job was a reality show, it could be a program on HGTV combined with Shark Tank—an unconventional hybrid program where corporate business, bottom lines, real estate, and design converge.

That’s because on any given day at Heidrick & Struggles International Inc., Creed’s right brain and left brain are equally engaged to meet the demands of her dual, executive-level roles as vice president of investor relations and real estate. Both of these duties at the publicly traded company work toward its goal of being a premier provider of leadership consulting, culture shaping, and senior-level executive search for many of the world’s top companies. For her part, Creed oversees all aspects of Heidrick & Struggles’ financial communications, as well as its lease portfolio of 50 offices in 24 countries around the globe.

In just one day, Creed will touch on 12 of these offices. She will finalize furniture for an office under construction, negotiate an office lease, review two construction contracts, analyze a restoration proposal, and write a business case to expand one of the facilities. In between real estate projects, she has an introductory call with a potential new investor interested in the stock.

“My role is to make sure we have beautiful offices around the world for our consultants to work while continuing to reduce real estate expense,” Creed says. As she seamlessly shifts between the tasks of decorator, financial analyst, negotiator, communicator, and project manager—demanding roles that could easily overwhelm the most seasoned real estate executive—one would hardly guess that she is entirely self taught.

Creed graduated with an MBA from Northeastern University (Boston) in 1992 intent on a career in investor relations and quickly moved up the ranks. In 2005, she joined Heidrick & Struggles, working at the company’s headquarters in Chicago. As vice president investor relations, Creed is the primary contact for investors and equity analysts regarding the company’s strategy and results. In 2009, she parlayed the economic downturn into a second career in corporate real estate in an effort to remain relevant and employed at her firm.

“When the recession hit in late 2008,” Creed recalls, “I couldn’t give away shares of our stock to investors. The country was approaching a 30-year high unemployment rate, and our revenue was declining because CEOs and boards weren’t recruiting. Our own company was on a hiring freeze as well.”

Upon learning that the company’s then-head of real estate was leaving, Creed volunteered for the post, believing it would be a temporary role until Heidrick & Struggles lifted its hiring freeze and filled the position.

“Since executive recruiting had slowed, I was scared they would eliminate my job if I didn’t make myself busy and prove myself useful,” says Creed, who had zero commercial real estate experience when she offered to manage the company’s international office portfolio. “I didn’t know the difference between a usable square foot and rentable square foot. I taught myself real estate with a lot of help from our vendors who were patient and kind.”

There were a number of inefficiencies with the process Heidrick had been using to manage its global lease portfolio. To standardize lease negotiations and office build-outs, Creed assembled a vendor dream team that included brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield; Gensler, a global architecture and design firm; and Forward Space, a furniture dealer based in Chicago. In eight years, Creed and her team have built or renovated about 40 offices around the world.

“I completely rely on these people, 95 percent of whom have been with me since day one,” she says. “I value and respect their opinions and advice because they are experts in their fields. Although I required extra time to educate, they seem happy to have someone who relies on them and doesn’t question every recommendation.”

Creed took a series of classes to obtain the master of corporate real estate designation from CoreNet and plans to study for the certification of senior leader of corporate real estate. Travel is also a substantial part of her job. While she manages some projects remotely, others require her presence.

With two executive positions to balance at Heidrick & Struggles, Creed estimates she spends about 80 percent of her time focused on real estate and the remaining 20 percent working on investor relations, with the exception of the months when quarterly results are reported.

“Each year—in February, April, July, and October—I prepare our company’s release of quarterly results, as is required for publicly traded companies, messaging and writing the press release, conference call script, and other materials,” Creed says. “During those months, my time spent on real estate is greatly reduced.”

In addition, she does periodic road shows in the remaining months to meet with investors and analysts.

“My job is unusual for a business career because of the artsy component,” she says. “Design, project management, and customer service are all part of my role catering to the needs of 1,500 employees who feel very strongly about their work environment. Real estate and investor relations have a lot of similarities. Every real estate transaction is also a financial transaction that must be fully analyzed for its impact to the bottom line and then communicated to employees.

“I am so fortunate that I had the opportunity to reinvent my career after 20 years,” Creed continues. “I was able to start a second career because I saw an opening and I raised my hand, willing to learn something totally new.”

She also advises others looking for a career change or advancement to volunteer for everything.

“Say yes, even if it’s hard work or might be out of your comfort zone,” Creed says. “If I had stayed in status quo, I would’ve grown bored in my job. But instead, I discovered a whole new career that will take me into retirement.”