Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction
Molly North | Al. Neyer
An innovative redirection
Under Molly North’s leadership, commercial real estate developer Al. Neyer is transitioning from a family-run business to a modern model of employee ownership.
ver the course of her executive career, Molly North has developed a knack for getting things done. It’s a core tenet of her market‑leading commercial real estate strategy. But it doesn’t nearly capture her full story. North is an innovator who expertly steered Al. Neyer through the storms of recession and instituted a transformative business model, first as its CFO and, for more than four years since, as its CEO.
Based in Cincinnati, Al. Neyer is a 125-year-old commercial real estate development and design-build firm, with expertise in planning industrial buildings and corporate headquarters and restoring historic structures. Under North’s leadership, the company has expanded to Nashville and Raleigh, adding to its Cincinnati headquarters and an office in Pittsburgh. Growth is metered and methodical — and organic, applying lessons learned in individual markets to the company’s evolving business plan.
North was asked to step into the role of CEO in 2015. She agreed, with one caveat: ownership of the company would convert from the Neyer family, after five generations of family control, to the company’s employees.
“Development companies are made for entrepreneurs, because the developers will move on if they don’t have ownership,” she said. She remade the organization and implemented an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Al. Neyer recently held its fifth annual Owners’ Day, a daylong retreat celebrating the accomplishments of the organization and its people.
A change in course
The company is positioned to add new locations and become a $1 billion enterprise within the next 10 years. But building a regional real estate powerhouse into an organization with a broader national reach wasn’t a career course North originally envisioned. “No boy grows up wishing to be a businessman, and no girl does either,” she says.
What North wanted to be was a National Geographic photographer. But she excelled at math, and a University of Cincinnati guidance counselor encouraged her to pick up two finance and accounting courses toward the end of her undergraduate days to satisfy college graduation requirements.
“I told myself, ‘I am never going into accounting,’” she recalls with a laugh. But North signed on with Ernst & Young LLP just out of school. An assignment in Zurich opened her eyes to global markets and opportunities, and she returned from Europe with an interest in shifting careers. She moved to Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati and immersed herself in financial forecasting and the real estate lending business.
In 2007, she joined Al. Neyer, a Fifth Third client that had impressed her with its smart, strategic approach to commercial real estate. Among other top-line projects, North was entrusted with rehabilitating Cincinnati’s historic Vernon Manor Hotel for tenancy by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
The hotel, which had hosted US presidents and The Beatles, was shuttered and in disrepair. Financing was difficult to come by in 2009, but North crafted a creative financing and development solution that raised $37 million in capital through institutional loans, municipal development funds and tax credits. Children’s Hospital signed a 17-year lease in 2009.
“Vernon Manor was complex, unique. You’ve got to get in and give every day; you can’t relent or you lose,” she says. The deal mattered greatly to her on a personal level, having spent time over the years in the landmark. And it was an African-American-owned and -operated business, and North is fervently committed to incorporating diversity into the workplace.
At the same time, the Great Recession was taking a toll on Al. Neyer. Company headcount, once 75, fell to 37, and management was scrambling to pay bills and make payroll. The capital markets were in retreat, and real estate development opportunities were few and far between. When North was installed as CFO, she immediately went to work re-establishing relationships with investors, lenders and clients.
You’ve got to get in and give every day; you can’t relent or you lose.
A commitment to connections
Today, North has rebuilt old client connections and forged new ones. She oversees a team of more than 110, and loyalty and staff commitment are hallmarks of her tenure. In her four-plus years as CEO, only one direct report has left the organization. North believes in frequent face time with all her employees, saying it has helped create a greater sense of teamwork and camaraderie.
Her commitment to business excellence extends to her industry and community service. North is serving a two-year term as the Board Chair of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber Board of Directors. Additionally, she belongs to the Cincinnati chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization and the Cincinnati Women’s Executive Forum, among other community programs.
North also encourages leadership in the company’s new offices to engage in community service. “We’re building cities, and we have to be at the table to grow our networks,” she explains.
Al. Neyer, she believes, is on track with a boundless future. “We’ve got the wind at our backs,” she says.