Susan MacDonald has made some bold career choices during her three decades in property. What advice does Mirvac’s head of retail have for those kick-starting their careers?
MacDonald always knew she wanted “an interesting career” – and her father, who had worked with Lendlease’s construction arm Civil and Civic, for many years, encouraged her to pursue a career in property.
Joining Lendlease in 1987 as a graduate, MacDonald was to stay with the company for 16 years, spending the last five-and-a-half years in London. During this time, she established the retail asset and property management division for Lendlease Europe, initially for the billion-dollar Bluewater development in South East England. Working on this project and in London “was a dream come true,” she says.
After working on an “amazing asset”, in 2002 MacDonald was approached to take on the role of managing director of AMP Shopping Centres.
“I’d been at Lendlease for 16 years, and I thought that it was time to move on. I thought it was a great opportunity to come home, but in a new role with a new organisation.”
MacDonald says the move was “challenging at first”.
“When you’re in one organisation for a long time, you take for granted your internal networks. I had started with the graduate program, had moved around a lot, and was exposed to a large network of people. I took this for granted. Then, when I moved to AMP, I had to work out how to navigate through a large and diverse organisation.”
After 18 months with AMP, in 2003 MacDonald made the decision to move on again, something she said was a “brave decision”. She had worked with property doyen Neil Werrett at AMP, and he was looking for a small team to help establish a boutique property funds management business.
“Seeking counsel again from my father, he challenged me as to what I wanted to do to grow my experience. I felt I hadn’t had exposure to the capital markets and funding in Australia, and so I joined Neil.
“It was a start-up and a risk. The stakes were high. There were six of us who literally survived or not based on our decisions. Given it was a start-up, the deal was I didn’t get paid until we successfully listed, which was about six months from when I started. But I was at the stage of my life when I was ready for a change. I’d had an amazing career at Lendlease and that gave me confidence to back myself.”
Establishing Galileo Funds Management, MacDonald became the fund manager of the Galileo Shopping America Trust (GSA), a listed Australian Real Estate Investment Trust. “It was a gruelling yet fascinating experience. I enjoyed every moment and it set me up for what I’m doing now,” she says.
MacDonald now has her “perfect job”, combining “everything from the capital side through to how you create a great urban environment, working alongside some amazing and talented people”.
What are MacDonald’s top three career tips?
- Seek good counsel. “Find and nurture good working relationships and build as many contacts within your business as you can. That’s the nexus for establishing a great external network, and if you are lucky they will turn into great friendships.”
- Look for sponsors. “I probably wouldn’t have chosen property if my father hadn’t suggested it, but he was very encouraging, suggesting I utilise my experience in retailing and bring it into retail property. When you start, you need someone backing you – I think that helps.”
- Build your own brand. “Your own personal brand and integrity are often worth more than the business you have worked for sometimes – and that’s what people remember.”
Susan MacDonald is one of 20 women in property featured in Grow the Talent Pool, a report developed by the Property Council and EY in 2018 to continue the conversation on gender representation, diversity and inclusion in the property industry.