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Leading Women: Cynthia Shelton

by Dianna Kawell

Cynthia Shelton

Six years into her real estate career, Cynthia Shelton, CCIM, CIPS, CRE, GRI, made the switch from residential to commercial and never looked back. She currently specializes in the sale of investment properties, such as net leased retail, grocery-anchored shopping centers and office properties for Colliers International in Florida.

Shelton is one of just two women to serve as national president of the CCIM Institute, the largest network for commercial real estate professionals, in its more than 40-year history. She’s one of only five women in the 95-plus-year history of the Florida Association of REALTORS® (FAR) to serve as president. She is now the slated candidate for the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2011 Region 5 Regional Vice President position. 

So, how does this successful and influential woman stay on top of industry trends and keep building her business in a down market, even as she devotes her time to volunteer leadership in the industry? Here are a few tips for success from this straight-shooter and 35-year real estate veteran.

Work Hard. Like any great athlete or entrepreneurial success story, Shelton is a self-admitted workaholic. This is even though she initially made the switch from residential to commercial because, she says, her residential listings kept interrupting her family time at night and on the weekends. 

However, Shelton laughs when she describes her recent visits to Florida State University to see her 20-year-old daughter Alexandria (Alex). "When my husband, Mike, and I go there, I make sure I have several batteries with me for my phone and computer because I am constantly working during the four-hour drive."

It's a trend she sees not only for REALTORS® but also many different professions, as up-to-the-second, mobile technology has driven an expectation of immediacy in meeting consumer needs and requests. While she doesn't necessarily agree with the trend, Shelton accepts it as a modern professional reality and does her best to stay connected through all the social and business networks, video and mobile communications and whatever comes next. 

The main thing that REALTORS®, whether commercial or residential, need to realize is that they must treat real estate like it is "a regular job," Shelton says. 

"You can't come in at 10:00 and have an hour lunch and then leave to be with your kids at 4:00. To be successful, you must put in 50 to 60 hours a week, especially in this market. In commercial, the client contact is normally during 8:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday, but that means working all day and still planning to do paperwork, e-mails and follow-up on weekends and evenings—using your regular work hours to get in front of people as often as possible."

Find a Niche. Shelton is a big believer in specialization. A few years ago, she witnessed many residential REALTORS® handle one or two commercial deals because business was booming. However, this "dabbling" outside of specialization can have long-term legal consequences when contracts and projections on tenant credit, income stream, zoning, redevelopment and so on are mishandled, Shelton warns. 

It's also not a good strategic use of your valuable time, she believes. "I don't do residential, industrial, land, apartment and so on," Shelton said. "I get the referral calls for these, and I always say, 'I'm not the best one to help you. Let me recommend someone who would be better.'" If you take on areas outside of your niche or market, you spend more time trying to get up to speed, and you are doing your clients and yourself a disservice." Even though she could have saved money by representing herself, Shelton says she even elected to work with a residential specialist, Bob Caldwell, on her own home purchase in Lake Mary, FL.

However, geography can prevent a REALTOR® from exploring a commercial niche. This Nashville, TN, native knows this from experience, as she spent a few years in a small town in Washington State before finally settling in Florida. "If you are living and working in a smaller town, you will more than likely be a generalist," Shelton said.

Embrace the Tech Revolution. Shelton knows just from communicating with her daughter Alex how different generations view business relationships differently. Gen X and Y are fully invested in new technologies, and to say it affects their communication styles is a major understatement. "Clients want you to get back with them right now," Shelton said. "'Why didn’t you respond to something I sent 5 minutes ago?'"

However, tech advancements have also enhanced the services that REALTORS® can offer. Shelton views free Skype video conferencing as a major asset for her business and frequently uses it to communicate with her business partner, Mike Milano, in the Tampa Bay area, as well as many others in her business network. 

"Video conferencing is one of the best things that has hit," she said. "You can see, and sometimes get a better understanding of, the person by watching their eye contact and hand movement, as well as to see their office or surroundings. I just think it's changing the way we do things drastically."

Also, social networking gives you a background on clients before your first face-to-face meeting. "I recently found a new client on Facebook and LinkedIn," Shelton said, "and I knew his work history and hobbies before I even met him, which can be a good thing."

Be a Mentor. Shelton is always strategic about her business relationships, but she sees tremendous value in mentoring younger or new-in-the-business real estate professionals. "I believe it's not just about Cynthia," she says.

Being a leading woman in the commercial real estate industry, Shelton is often approached by up-and-coming professionals—both women and men—who are grateful for her presence as a leader, teacher and mentor. Most CCIM Institute members are men. Most commercial REALTORS® are men. Most students in the commercial courses that she teaches are men. "They say, 'I am so pleased to see a woman doing this,'" Shelton says. "It's rewarding when you help others see they can do it too and that seeing a woman up there is normal and that I'm just like everyone else" in the business. 

However, don't think that helping young REALTORS® is a one-sided relationship. Shelton sees tangible business value in partnering with young professionals. 

"I think the real estate professionals today who will be positioned best to get things done will be those who've had the long-term industry experience and knowledge and then bring on the right young people to mentor," Shelton said. "Show them how there are ways to make money, even in a bad market. Take that coupled with their experiences and tech knowledge, and we can show each other what we know, and then we will really shine. Then we can explode even in a down market."

Dianna Kawell is editor of Women's Council's eConnect newsletter.

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