Sister act

How did Barbara Emmons and Darla Longo get to the top of the male-dominated commercial real estate world?

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Magazine, May/June 2014

After graduating from UCLA in 1989, Barbara Emmons decided to follow her sister Darla Longo's lead and enter the field of commercial real estate. Although she didn't know it at the time, there were few other women in that industry. When Emmons was interviewing for the company that the two sisters now practically run, a manager tried to set her straight.

"He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to be an industrial real estate broker," Emmons recalls. "And he said, 'That's not a profession for women. You should be a residential broker.'"

Emmons came out of that interview and called her sister right away. "You're not going to believe what he just told me," she told her. "He said I shouldn't do what I want to do because I'm a woman." For Emmons, his remark proved inspirational. "It was like, 'I now want to prove you wrong,'" she says.

Even today there aren't many women in commercial real estate, and even fewer work in industrial real estate, an industry that the sisters have excelled in as vice chairs of Downtown Los Angeles-based CBRE. Working as an unusual kind of corporate sister act, they've carved out a space for themselves in a business that is exceedingly male-dominated--succeeding in part because they went into it with no idea that they had chosen an obstacle-strewn path. Their father, Phil Vessadini, had always told them they could do and be anything they wanted. When he passed away at the young age of sixty-seven, Emmons was just about to start her career, and it brought the two sisters together professionally.

Their father, Longo says, had always wanted them to work together. "Being sisters, we were kind of like, 'No, we don't want to have any conflicts,'" Longo says. "But we are very complementary, and in our seventeen years we've never really had any issues. It's been pretty amazing."

Their method has been described as good cop/bad cop: Emmons warms the client up, and Longo is the closer.

"It's more that we have different skills and talents, so we play different roles on the team," Emmons says.

The La Canada natives have been involved in tens of billions of dollars' worth of sales. Longo and Emmons take a holistic approach to investment sales and land sales. They take an industrial property, value it, and bring in a capital market buyer. Sometimes they'll even get involved in leasing and developing the properties.

Both agree that facing stereotypes was something they had to overcome when they were first starting out.

"It wasn't like, 'I am woman and I'm going to burn the bra and go forward,'" Longo says. "It's more that Barbara and I do a really good job and we care about our clients and, yes, when we started we had to work harder and smarter and longer hours. I mean that was the truth. But if we hit a brick wall, we'd back up and figure out how to go around it."

As for how they've managed to climb so high--according to Longo, it's because "we check our ego at the door. We're not trying to prove anything to anyone," Longo says. "We're really just trying to do the best possible job that we can. That's why clients keep coming back to us, because they can trust us, they know we're fair. The fact that we're women makes it interesting, because what we find in the real world is men like to chat with women, and if you're smart and good there is no barrier."