Board Q&A with President-Elect Ellen W. Smith

April 18, 2021

As a way to get to know the CREW Atlanta leadership better, we have been interviewing the board members on their thoughts on CREW Atlanta, the commercial real estate industry, workplace issues and life in general. This month, we caught up with CREW Atlanta President-Elect and Parker Poe Atlanta Office Relationship Partner Ellen Smith.

How did you decide on a career in commercial real estate law?
It was purely luck that introduced me to the commercial real estate industry. My first full-time job after law school was as a litigation associate at a commercial real estate boutique firm. I started the Monday after my law school graduation and stayed for more than 18 years, until I joined Parker Poe to lead its growing commercial real estate practice in Atlanta. Although there were not many women mentors in commercial real estate, I was fortunate that early in and throughout my career I was able to work with former CREW Atlanta President Lynne O’Brien, with The Coca-Cola Company, who was a role model for juggling an incredibly demanding job and family life in an amazing way.

How did you become involved with CREW Atlanta?
I must admit that the first time I joined CREW Atlanta, I was not at a point in my career where I could truly appreciate all the opportunities that the organization provides. I was still in litigation, and the level of involvement of the CREW Atlanta members was overwhelming to me at the time. However, about five years later, I was building my practice and was ready to network. After researching several commercial real estate organizations, I came to realize that CREW Atlanta was one of the few places – if not the only place – where the membership diversity allows me to complete a deal start to finish with its membership. Every discipline within commercial real estate is represented in CREW. I quickly learned and appreciated that CREW Atlanta members invest so much time in the organization because they get so much in return.

What has CREW done for you?
I came to CREW Atlanta purely for business purposes but have gained that and so much more. I definitely have a network of professionals nationwide (and, if needed, globally) who I can reach out to for help or connect with clients. And I grew tremendously as a professional through participation in the 2012 Leadership Class. But what was unexpected is that some of my best friends are folks that I met through CREW, who I otherwise likely would never have met. I suppose it should not be unexpected as this is a group of strong professional women and men who understand what you are facing day in and day out. They know your industry, and therefore there is no need to explain if something you said is awful or amazing – they get it. They also understand and respect the life you have outside your profession. Meetings start and end on time. Agendas are clear and direct. The reality is that saying “yes” to a lunch meeting or a coffee often means having to say “no” to something else – and in this organization I have felt extreme respect for my time because everyone is juggling responsibilities just like me. We are in an industry where relationships are key, and I can think of no better organization for building relationships that benefit you both professionally and personally.

As we are coming out of 2020, what do you see on the horizon for the Atlanta commercial real estate industry?
Across the board in 2020 there were extreme circumstances with the pendulum swinging from everything closing and a fear that offices and retail would die, to the need for more space for social distancing, outdoor spaces, curbside pickup, etc. But the Atlanta market is resilient and is currently ranked as one of the top five markets to relocate, which is a testament to the growing business environment (which I hope continues despite recent politics and a distressing uptick in crime). Just look at the skyline – there are cranes in the air, permits being signed and deals getting done. Atlanta continues to be strong for commercial real estate. As an added benefit, I believe many companies now have more robust remote options and flexible work arrangements, which will allow them to take advantage of a larger talent pool than they may have been able to previously.

What do you see for the future of CREW Atlanta?
I am super humbled and excited to be part of this team that is moving forward our strategic plan and planning for our 40th anniversary next year. We have been very purposeful and thorough in the manner in which we developed our strategy for going forward – drawing on our membership (past, present and targets), other chapters, and industry standards. An integral part of that strategy is diversity, equity and inclusion and what that really means to us as an organization. It is more than just the demographics of our membership, but also touches on our leadership, our programming and our mission as an organization that breaks barriers. As we prepare to celebrate 40 years of CREW Atlanta, we will use this milestone as an opportunity to look back at how we helped shape the Atlanta skyline, but also to look forward at all the opportunity that exists.