Leslie Hale brings 13 years of experience with the company to her new role as president and CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust, which begins in August. As the first African-American female REIT CEO, she also takes on the role of inspiring more women to reach for the C-suite.
BETHESDA, Maryland—Executing on strategy is the name of the game at hotel real estate investment trust RLJ Lodging Trust, and incoming CEO Leslie Hale is confident that her ascension to the company’s top seat will keep the ship heading in the best possible direction for its stakeholders.
Hale will succeed Ross Bierkan as president and CEO of RLJ upon Bierkan’s retirement on 22 August. In an interview with Hotel News Now, Hale talked about RLJ’s goals, its culture and the role she takes on being the first female African-American CEO of a REIT.
‘Staying the course is critical’
Hale, who currently serves as EVP, COO and CFO, said her top priority is continuing down the strategic path RLJ’s executives laid out last year.
“The board and I believe we are on very solid ground—our strategy, the business model and the execution of that strategy are working,” she said. “Staying the course is critical.”
In the last year, RLJ completed its high-profile merger with FelCor Lodging Trust and laid out a plan to sell non-core assets, invest in renovations and further create value for the combined portfolio, which includes 155 hotels in the United States with approximately 30,200 guestrooms.
“One thing we pride ourselves on is delivering to our investors what we said we would do,” she said. “We said we would sell seven non-core assets and we definitely are on target.”
‘I’m optimistic about unlocking value in our portfolio’
Hale said the company’s stakeholders need to see a seamless transition from Bierkan to her, and her experience at the company, which she joined in 2005, makes her the perfect candidate.
“Deep institutional knowledge around our portfolio, our strategies and our initiatives will be the No. 1 thing I bring to the table,” she said. “I also believe I bring strong leadership acumen and strong communication acumen as well. I think it’s very important to be able to articulate to our investors what we’re doing and how we’re doing.”
The next few months will set the company up for further long-term success, she said.
“I’ll be spending a lot of time with investors over the next couple months, listening to understand their perspectives and observations they’ve had,” she said. “I’ll be communicating our progress, particularly in terms of why I’m optimistic about unlocking the value in our portfolio.
“My ‘right away’ priorities are clear—continue to execute on the priorities we’ve set, optimize the portfolio, pay down debt and do strategic investing into assets,” she said. “Long-term, we want to curate a portfolio that’s central to our investment thesis,” she said.
‘We’re a very collegial, collaborative organization’
Hale underlined that RLJ’s culture is one that supports thought leadership from all sources, and that environment makes her especially proud.
“RLJ is the closest thing to a meritocracy I’ve ever experienced in my career,” she said.
Before joining RLJ’s predecessor, RLJ Development, in 2005 as director of real estate and finance, Hale held several management positions within General Electric Capital Corporation and was an investment banker at Goldman, Sachs & Co. At RLJ she was promoted to VP in 2006. In 2007, she was named CFO and SVP and in 2013 she was named EVP. In 2016, she added the role of COO.
“This is a company that truly values diversity in background and experiences, and as a result, we look past gender and race and focus on talent and contribution,” she said. “This means RLJ represents the nexus of where hard work, preparation and opportunity can lead to tremendous accomplishment.”
Being part of what Hale calls “a very collegial, collaborative organization” meant that her voice was always heard.
“I have never felt that my perspective or opinion was undercut because I was a woman or a minority,” she said. “I’ve always been able to contribute.”
She credits Bierkan with excellent leadership.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” she said. “He felt good enough to step away because of where we were in terms of making progress, and because he felt he was handing it off to someone he felt was capable.”
Bierkan was with the company for nearly 20 years and was hired by founder and chairman Robert Johnson. Bierkan took over as president and CEO of the company when his predecessor Tom Baltimore left in 2016 to join Park Hotels & Resorts as CEO.
‘I’m honored and humbled to be the first’
Hale said she’s overwhelmed by the feedback she has received since being named to this position, which gives her the mantle of being the first African-American woman to lead a REIT as CEO.
“I’m honored and humbled to be the first, but I have no interest in being the only,” she said.
Hale credits her family background with preparing her to strive for the best. Her grandfather was a sharecropper from West Tennessee who “hoboed from West Tennessee to California,” she said.
“I’m really humbled in terms of what this means in my family,” Hale said. “And I will tell you as a person of color and a woman, to know that young ladies (might see this) and feel like they too can strive to be in the C-suite—that is probably the most gratifying component of this.
“I believe real estate and lodging in particular has many high-potential women, and if given the opportunity, they too can ascend.”