Samm Miller (Architecture ’86) Navigates Real Estate with Resilience

The White Ruffin Byron Center for Real Estate Advisory Board member's unconventional path from the UVA Architecture School to a leadership role in real estate private equity and investment management has provided her with a unique perspective.

Samm Miller

To be a successful leader in commercial real estate is to work hard, persevere, develop an adaptable skill set, foster relationships, and make the most of opportunities to stay ahead of the industry’s ever-evolving market trends.  Sharon Ann M. Miller—Samm, as she’s better known—Co-Chief Executive Officer, Managing Partner, and Head of Portfolio Management of Hillcrest Finance, and a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE®), reflects on her 35-plus-year journey through the industry, one shaped by her upbringing, her UVA education, and the experiences through multiple market cycles that have defined her career.

Miller will be the first to tell you that while there are many skills necessary to be an accomplished CEO as she is, there isn’t a formula for it.  And in her case, she can trace back a part of who she is and what she has achieved based on the role models she had in her parents and her maternal grandmother (a woman who lived to be two months shy of 106).

Reflecting on her upbringing, Miller acknowledges the influence of her parents, each contributing distinct qualities. Her father’s ingenuity and ability to connect with people equipped her with the interpersonal skills vital in the real estate private equity investment industry, while her mother’s organizational skills, dedication, and work ethic instilled in her a structured approach to problem-solving and executing a plan.

“My father was creative; he could figure out things and find a solution to make things work,” Miller says. “In addition to that, I have his personality; his ability to connect with people.  I use these skills to analyze my investors’ needs to come up with solutions for them and their investment goals as well as to build goodwill. The tricky thing is, once you’ve come up with a solution, to be honest with yourself about whether or not you’re the right person or the right team to fulfill that solution,” Miller notes.  “That affects my relationship building not only with my investors, but also with my peers.  I am known for referring clients to peer organizations.  The worst thing one can do is commit to executing a strategy that they do not have the experience or skills to do.  It’s all about trust and respect.”

When she finds herself solving problems or, in some instances, creating new organizations or platforms within organizations, Miller draws upon her mother’s influences and takes a strategic approach, stepping back to take in the big picture to fully understand what she and her team are attempting to accomplish and what capabilities and resources they need to get there. She says that ability can be attributed to “the strong, hard-working women in my life, including my daughter Morgan, a 2018 UVA grad.”

“My grandmother’s motto was ‘Keep it Moving,’” she says.  “There was a consistent theme in her work ethic:  always be present, always try to get things done, and always be open to adjusting in adverse situations.”  Miller embraces this resilience, attributing her ability to navigate challenges and build a successful career to the strength inherited from her grandmother.  “Her approach gave me the resilience and steadfastness to succeed in a male-dominated industry.”

A Solid Foundation in Architecture

When people discover that Miller pursued an Architecture degree in her University studies, there’s often a bit of confusion, considering her work in finance.  Miller’s unconventional path from the UVA Architecture School to a leadership role in real estate private equity and investment management has provided her with a unique perspective.  Contrary to the perceived mismatch between her architectural roots and her current career in finance, she sees her education as a cornerstone of her success.

“I get a perplexed look a lot, but architecture really gave me the foundation for problem-solving; you are presented with a set of circumstances and have to develop a solution that satisfies a particular need.  It also gave me the ability to advocate for my solutions and to clearly articulate concepts, ideas, and results. That’s extraordinarily important,” Miller explains.  “It’s not just about the skills of being in finance, but the skills of communicating, advocating, and being a good team member and manager.”  She says that many of her skills such as strategic thinking, with the ability to focus on long-term goals, to employ the right tools, to assemble the right team, and to maintain the discipline required to provide valuable investment solutions for her investors, come from her training on Grounds.  “I give a lot of credit to how I show up every day in my career as a team member, as a manager, as an investment partner to my time at UVA and the A-School in particular.”

Real Estate = Relationship Building

Discussing the role of mentors, Miller challenges the conventional concept about their central importance for career advancement.  While she believes mentors are important for guidance, it’s her purview that a sponsor or a champion is most significant yet often omitted from the prevailing conversations as essential for progress and reaching the proverbial “next level” for individuals at all stages of one’s career.

Carol D. Nichols, a pivotal figure who served as both her mentor and sponsor during the early years of her career, recognized Miller’s potential.  Nichols advocated for her and facilitated her transition to the investment side of the real estate business, with a role on the Mortgage & Real Estate Division’s Northeast team at TIAA-CREF.

“Carol spoke up for me in the meetings where the important decisions were being made,” Miller recalls. “She was my sponsor, my champion.  When expanding the team, Carol said I was the person she wanted.  Others were wary, because I didn’t have a financial background, but she told them that she knew I was more than capable and brought me over to her team.  So, it’s not only about someone spending time giving you advice, it’s also the person who is going to stand up for you and your abilities and potential, the person who will say your name and advocate for you in that room who is really important.”

Having those people in your corner makes all the difference.  As such, Miller is keen to emphasize an often forgotten aspect of real estate private equity — the human element.  In an industry often perceived as solely asset- and/or numbers-focused, she underscores the vital role of people and authentic connections.

“Relationships are probably the most overlooked aspect of real estate investment,” she says.  “I’m sure this may be applied to other asset classes in the investment management or private equity worlds, but in the real estate sector, in particular, that’s the single most important thing.  It is a relationship business.”  Miller clarifies the enormity of many of the transactions being pursued and the implications of those decisions.  “I am not asking somebody to buy a box of pencils; I’m asking them to give me, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars.  Respectful and trustworthy relationships have to be established to allow those kinds of allocations to move forward and long-term investment partnerships to form and remain in place, which often add up to billions of investments over time.  That is critical to this business,” she says.

She remembers the fallout of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) and how that event exposed not only the need for good practitioners in real estate, but also the importance of portfolios managed by trustworthy organizations composed of forthright people whose interests are aligned with the portfolios they manage as fiduciaries for their investors.  In Miller’s experience, “No matter how good the real estate assets are, if the investor does not have confidence in the investment team, they are not going to allocate their money to that firm.  It’s about experience through cycles, alignment of interests, and trust.”

Being Ready for Change

Those longstanding truths about the people in commercial real estate have stood the test of time, despite the fact that the industry continues to undergo continual transformation.  Specifically, Miller points to the impact of technology on property sectors and market dynamics and the shift in workforce dynamics influenced by the pandemic.

“We can look at change in so many ways.  Not a surprise, technology is, however, the crux of the evolution and changes that I have seen over time across property sectors.  It ranges from ‘new’ property sectors like data centers, to the evolution of ‘core’ or ‘traditional’ property sectors like industrial.  Let’s dig a little deeper. Customers are demanding faster, more efficient delivery.  Just think about what Amazon and what their same-day, next-day delivery represent to us and what they have done to meet these demands and how that has affected the industrial market,” she says, pointing to the prevalence of last-mile facilities and the modifications demanded of new contemporary industrial spaces to meet the demands.  “These warehouse distribution buildings used to be concrete tilt-up and 26-foot-high ceilings, so you can stack multiple palettes, but now it’s about distribution centers, cold-storage facilities, and how close these centers/facilities are to major roadways (interstates and highways) in order to support the needs and growth of e-commerce.”

Considering the lingering impact of the global pandemic on the job market and the spaces where work happens, Miller believes that the road ahead is a long one.  “We’re nowhere near figuring out what the long-term effects on real estate, particularly office, are going to be, as we need to understand how companies/corporations are going to right-size their businesses,” she says, pondering the future of office space and the decisions made and to be made by the companies that rent those buildings.  Emphasizing the difficulties in determining the appropriate balance between remote work and in-office presence, she feels that the workforce, and younger talent pool in particular, will continue to impact the use and location of the work environment in the years ahead.

While the future of those spaces remains unclear, Miller’s life in commercial real estate reflects a thorough understanding of the industry built upon market-cycle-tested investment experience and skills, strong relationships, adaptability, and a people-centric approach that has served as a valuable guide for navigating the complexities of whatever arises.  She hopes to share that perspective with the next generation of professionals, despite the difficulties she sometimes encounters in attempting to do so with the “to office” or “not to office” conundrum.

“The next generation is going to lose out on the knowledge we got by just overhearing what the more seasoned members of our team were talking about in the office or conference room next door.  They’re going to miss the benefits of that ‘over the watercooler’ discussion.  I have tried to convey that to students and newer members of the workforce, and I often feel like I sound like someone from my grandparents’ era, shaking my fist and saying, ‘How come you kids can’t go into the office?’  It is, therefore, really important to establish some kind of hybrid or balanced approach to time together in the office because what they will get is invaluable, ” she says, insisting that the industry needs to quickly figure out what hybrid work model will work best to provide teams with the best chance to learn from and succeed with one another.

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