Working in real estate is something that you either love or hate. Either you catch the real estate bug or you get out of the industry as fast as you can. Maria Manley-Dutton, deputy general counsel of real estate and leasing at SITE Centers, was just seventeen years old when she started out in real estate. “And I loved it,” Manley-Dutton says simply. “It got in my blood, and I’ve stayed in the industry ever since.”
Manley-Dutton found herself in real estate by a twist of fate, she says, “graduating from high school on a Sunday and going to work full-time as a secretary at a real estate company on Monday.” But while it wasn’t her originally planned career path, Manley-Dutton very intentionally chose to remain a part of the real estate industry in the ensuing years.
During her three years in the JD program at the University of Akron School of Law, Manley-Dutton continued to expand her knowledge of real estate. And after graduating from law school, she started working for a local developer before moving on to Developers Diversified, which later became DDR and is now SITE Centers.
SITE Centers is an Ohio-based real estate investment trust that focuses primarily on shopping centers such as the Winter Garden Village in Orlando, Florida, and the Nassau Park Pavilion in Princeton, New Jersey, though the company continues to branch out into new areas. In the years since Manley-Dutton joined SITE Centers’ legal team, the company has naturally seen many changes and periods of growth. But one key aspect has remained largely the same.
“I recognize I am only as successful as the team I keep,” Manley-Dutton explains. “The majority of my team has been with me from day one. We’ve been on this road together, and we’ve really just become a family. And when you’re doing work that you love and working alongside people that you love, why would you choose to go anywhere else?”
Manley-Dutton and her team oversee all of the commercial leasing matters for the company’s various shopping centers, work that ranges from liaising with tenants to preparing ancillary documents to finding ways to introduce broad-ranging language supporting SITE Centers’ sustainability measures into each and every one of the company’s lease documents.
“Sustainability is something that the company, and our property management team in particular, is very passionate about,” Manley-Dutton notes. “It’s very near and dear to our hearts, so it’s just a matter of making sure that we can provide the legal support and flexibility to create and sustain those initiatives at the property level.”
Of course, that work is not always as straightforward as it may seem, Manley-Dutton notes. Some tenants are much more inclined than others to embrace these initiatives. But no matter what challenges her team members face, the deputy general counsel is determined to allow everyone room to make mistakes.
“I tell my team all the time, we’re not saving lives here,” Manley-Dutton points out. “Let’s just figure out what you’re doing great and what you need to improve so that we can keep from repeating the mistake.
“But then you really do have to move on from the issue,” she continues. If you’re creating an atmosphere where your team members are constantly reminded of their mistakes, “it’s like putting an athlete on a field when that athlete can think of nothing but how afraid they are to make a mistake. It’s just not going to work.”
“To me, that’s the golden rule. I’m never going to ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.”
But to Manley-Dutton’s mind, the most critical—and most frequently overlooked—component is making sure that your team knows that they’re not taking risks that you wouldn’t take yourself.
“To me, that’s the golden rule. I’m never going to ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself,” she says. “Right now, given the situation with the coronavirus, we have to work very quickly to respond to all of our tenants as they are complying with government mandates. We are also complying with government mandates as it pertains to our shopping centers. And I’m out there with my team trying to get that done, because we have a lot of shopping centers in our portfolio and I’m not going to shy away from helping, especially now.
“You can’t lead from the front,” Manley-Dutton adds. “You can’t just sit in your office and say, ‘Do this and do that.’ I sit among my team so that we can talk about how we’re going to accomplish this together.”
Without a doubt, Manley-Dutton’s team knows that they have her unreserved support. In recent years, the deputy general counsel has hired back two members of her team who had previously been laid off. “We had had a change in management and needed to cut overhead,” Manley-Dutton recalls of the decision to let go of her team members. “We had to make some really tough decisions—and everyone on my team was really high performing, which made it even tougher.
“But after these two people left, I kept in contact with them,” she continues. “They told me that, given the opportunity, they would come back to work for me again.” Within a couple years, there was an opportunity to bring those individuals back on board.
“It was a wonderful thing to be able to do, and it’s been great for the people who stayed to see those individuals coming back,” Manley-Dutton says. “We really do support each other, no matter what.”
Rudolph Fields LLP:
“I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from Maria for more than fifteen years. She is the epitome of what it means to be a leader, and it is an honor to be part of her team.”
–Adam Hirschfeld, Partner
Sonkin & Koberna:
“Maria possesses a rare combination of legal expertise and practicality. She fosters strong relationships with outside counsel and tenants, and she has successfully navigated the changing retail landscape. We appreciate the opportunity to partner with her.”
–Lori M. Ambriola, Partner, and Rick D. Sonkin, Esq., Managing Member
Walter | Haverfield:
“I first met Maria more than fifteen years ago as a young lawyer fresh out of law school. She has always taken the time to assist in my professional development, and her counsel has proven to be invaluable. Maria is a selfless leader, an incredible mentor, and a true friend.”
–Kevin Murphy, Partner and Head of the Business Services Group