PERSON OF THE WEEK: After nearly four decades in Hawaii's real estate sector, appraiser and broker Stephany Sofos is something of a legend in the state's business community. Her new autobiography, ‘Untold Stories of a Real Estate Diva,’ offers an entertaining look back at the people and events that shaped her life. MortgageOrb spoke with Sofos about her colorful career and her view of Hawaii's distinctive real estate market.
Q: When did you first get into the real estate industry, and what inspired you to make this your career?
Sofos: In 1975, when I was 20 years old, I got my real estate salesman's license – I thought it would help with school. I wanted to be a professional surfer, and I was good, but not great…and in surfing, great is what it takes!
I didn't originally want to be in real estate because most of the people in the field at that time were older retired military men and bored wealthy women who had tired of lunching at the private clubs and needed something to do. But with a major in history and a minor in economics, there were no jobs for me. My brother Steven majored in real estate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and he said to come work with him at the then-No. 1 company in Hawaii, Aaron M. Chaney Inc.
At first, I hated the business – there were so many inflated egos – but within a year, I realized that I could be my own person in sales. And being entrepreneurial was exciting – I could make my own destiny!
I moved into property management because I needed a more stable income, and commercial management was both interesting and exciting – especially retail, because you get see the new stores, trends and fads open up before the rest of the world sees them. As time has gone on, I still love the commercial side of real estate because it is always renewing itself to remain fresh, and that inspires me.
Q: Your book deals with issues relating to sexism in commercial real estate. What level of prejudice did you encounter during your career, and is sexism still a problem in today's industry?
Sofos: Sexism is in every aspect of business today as it was then, particularly in a ‘man's world’ of commercial real estate. The difference is that it is quieter than when I began. Laws that protect women in the workplace have helped tremendously – people today would be fired and sued for the way they treated or spoke to me back then, but that was a different era – women were thought of more like chattel than humans. So much has changed in 35 years!
What I see in today's world is a new type of sexism, both for men and women. Businesses want ‘pretty’ people for their imaging, and there is a great pressure for both sexes to ‘look good, look fit, look young,’ as well as to be knowledgeable and talented.
Also, because real estate is so much about networking, today's industry is as much about ‘being in the right place at the right time’ rather than knowing your product.
Q: How has Hawaii's commercial real estate business evolved over the years? And how would you categorize the state's market today?
Sofos: Real estate is local, but human behavior is global. The commercial business in Hawaii is the same as anywhere, except that we have more palm trees and ocean water.
However, because the main state businesses are tourism, the military and the government, retail is doing well because we have a captive market of 1 million residents. In this captive market, about 35% works for some aspect of government and military and another 25% work in some aspect of tourism, and there is a revolving market of 7 million tourists per year.
The hotel business is thriving. However, the warehouse market is only now coming back after several years, and the office market is still down. It is my belief that the office market will remain down for a long time because more and more businesses are going to virtual situations and do not need the large spaces any longer. The only tenants requiring spaces here these days are government-related – and, of course, landlords love this because of the steady rental checks. But, eventually, the government will need to shrink, so it's only a matter of time before this situation kicks in and affects us.
Q: One of the more intriguing sections of the book involves ‘The Most Beautiful Man.’ Can you please provide us with an overview of that story?
Sofos: When I grew up, I was raised as a Greek Orthodox or an Eastern Catholic – we were very conservative and righteous in our beliefs, and were raised to be very black and white. When I met Terry Sousa in the building that I managed, he was our resident transvestite and I was appalled by his lifestyle. I disrespected and made fun of him and all gay people.
But then, I saw how he was treated and humiliated by others, and when he was badly beaten up by two Marines for no reason other than for who he was, my heart broke for him. I asked him to forgive me for my injustices to him and he gladly did.
He taught me that it takes all kinds of people to make up this world, and who am I to judge? He forgave me, and I don't know if I would have been so generous if I had been in his position. He taught me that life is not black and white, but in many situations it is often gray. I now see that, and I am gray in my beliefs. In many ways, he saved me from growing into a bigoted and disrespectful person, and I am truly indebted and grateful to the most beautiful man in the world.
Q: What has been the reaction within the industry to your book, and are you planning to write additional books?
Sofos: Sales have been brisk. Everyone so far has loved the book, both people in and out of the business. I thought some people would be embarrassed by some of the stories, but many have had similar experiences, which actually surprised me.
So all and all, it's been a very good experience. And, yes, I am working on a sequel. The working title is ‘For Members Only … the Private Lives of Private Clubs.’ It's about the networking of the business and about three murders which happened here in the 1970s, complete with real estate people and attorneys. Sounds interesting, huh?