Leslie Hale likes to say that her work ethic began at age 7, cleaning her parents’ day-care centers in Los Angeles: “But didn’t get paid until I was out of college.”
The 46-year-old math whiz, the granddaughter of a Tennessee sharecropper, has traveled a long way from those days, geographically and aspirationally.
Recently, Hale became the chief executive of RLJ Lodging Trust, a Bethesda hotel company with nearly 30,000 rooms at 153 properties across the United States. It has a market cap of $3.8 billion.
Hale’s promotion makes her the first African American woman to be chief executive of a publicly traded real estate investment trust. She is also on the board of Macy’s.
“I am humbled and honored to be the first, but I have no interest in being the only,” she said.
I am drawn to success stories like Hale’s. The product of Los Angeles public schools, she attended Howard University, where she is a trustee, and Harvard Business School.
How do you get from the streets of Los Angeles to the executive suite? The takeaways, to borrow a term from business school, are friends, family and mentors.
“I have been very thoughtful, throughout my career, to be in a position to be very successful,” said Hale, the mother of four children, who lives in Potomac, Md., with her husband of 20 years, Otis. “RLJ looked past race and gender and focused on talent and contribution.”
Family has been a huge part of her life. Hale came from a good family and had entrepreneurial, committed parents as role models. It created a backstop for taking risks.
“Every accomplishment I have ever had in my life has been a family affair,” she said.
“I have shared every moment of my success with my parents,” she said. “I knew I could take risks because if I failed, I could go home.”
Family also fueled a certain confidence and ambition.
“My grandfather hoboed from Tennessee to California,” Hale said. “My dad was the sixth of 12 children. As you can imagine, when I just compare that to where I am today, it’s very meaningful to my family.”
“Growing up in south-central Los Angeles in the 1980s, at the height of gang violence, I had a deep sense of determination and grit in terms of succeeding,” she said. “Getting out of Los Angeles and experiencing a different part of life was really important.”
Bob Johnson, executive chairman and co-founder of RLJ Lodging, said he promoted Hale and two others who have since left the company — former chief operating officer Lisa Wardell and former chief executive Tom Baltimore — because they earned it.
“But having said that, the one thing I am most proud of about Tom, Leslie and Lisa is that they all prove that, given an opportunity, African Americans have the talent and the ability to succeed at the highest levels of business competition,” said Johnson, who is best known as a founder of BET Entertainment, which he sold to Viacom for $3 billion in 2001.
Hale, who has served as RLJ’s chief financial officer for 11 years, wanted to perform on a grander stage.
She’s there — with all the pressures and scrutiny that go with — commanding a multibillion-dollar real estate investment trust (REIT) that must grow revenue and guard the healthy dividend, which is north of 6 percent. Dividends are the altar at which REIT shareholders worship.
Johnson sees Hale’s main mission as “making sure the hotels generate the revenue so we meet our obligations as a REIT, both in terms of dividends and growth.”
Hale’s responsibilities are two-pronged. She must oversee the managers who run the day-to-day operations of RLJ’s fleet of hotels, while also keeping a close eye on the company’s balance sheet.
She must “identify the debt we need to have to grow our business, and the management of that debt to make sure we can buy additional hotels or sell off hotels,” Johnson said. She must also “make sure we are investing in the right assets and utilizing our capital allocation to make sure we are maintaining the growth of the business.”
RLJ’s hotels are managed by Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt and are mostly in large cities that service business travelers.
“We are not into big hotels or luxury hotels,” Johnson said. RLJ doesn’t do big tourist hotels or destination spas or resorts.
Hale said she will continue to sell off the luxury hotels that came with a big acquisition the company made a year ago, while also paying down the $500 million debt that the company committed to erasing.
The Howard University finance major is one of those rare people who love digging down into numbers, balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements.
“I really fell in love with finance in college,” she said, adding that she did not understand it at first, so she began as a management major. “But I like the concept that you can take a dollar and turn it into two.”
She joined General Electric, then one of the world’s most respected corporations, after graduating from Howard in 1994.
She cut her teeth at General Electric Capital, where she worked on major transactions in mergers and acquisitions and in real estate.
“I loved the fact that real estate was so tangible,” she said. “We all stay in hotels. We shop in malls. We work in offices. It’s an asset that you can touch and feel and understand.”
GE is where she met one of her first mentors, a senior executive named Art Harper.
“Harper told me that I needed to earn my seat at the table every day,” she said.
Someone also advised that if she wanted to be at the table, head to the revenue side of the business.
“Women are often encouraged to take leadership roles on the support side of the business,” Hale said. “The most important piece of advice that I got was to stay on the revenue-generating side of the business because it can lead to roles that can influence the strategic direction of a company.”
After stops at Harvard and Goldman Sachs, she settled on RLJ in 2005.
One person who recommended her for the job was another mentor, Alan Braxton, a major figure in real estate and finance.
Braxton’s advice changed her life.
“He asked me a simple question: What are your peers doing? That one conversation changed not only the way I viewed the world but, more importantly, changed the ways I viewed myself in the world.
“I answered his question by saying, ‘Well, I’ve got peers from undergrad who are doing this, and peers from business school who are doing that, and people who worked at GE who are doing this.’
“Alan stopped me and said, ‘Your peers are not the individuals who come from the same background as you or who have the same job as you. Your peers are the individuals who are doing what you want to do.’
“What he was trying to get me to do was to not look left and right but to look forward and to strive higher and really have strong aspirations,” Hale said. “That was a pivotal conversation in my career.”