Samantha Sannella, Senior Managing Director, Cushman & Wakefield

Ms. Samantha Sannella offers 30 years of experience in comprehensive real estate strategy including design management, workplace strategy, occupancy planning, project management, scenario development and holistic building/land solutions. Her combined background in architecture, urban design, interior design, construction, development, and project management helps provide clients with strategies that are well-grounded through all phases of the real estate cycle and across all building types. This includes residential, hospitality, office, manufacturing, education, and retail.

In 2006, Ms. Sannella was named one of the top 10 most inspiring women in Canada and in March 2011, she was named Woman of the Month by Women’s Post Magazine. In 2007, she was honoured by Toronto Metropolitan University for her work within the design community.  In 2022, she was named a ‘Woman of Influence’ and in 2024, she was named one of the top women business leaders in Toronto.

As part of her career, Ms. Sannella has been instrumental to organizations through fundraising, public relations, and community involvement.  Ms. Sannella is the editor of Ontario Design, a trade publication for professional architects, designers, and contractors and frequently writes for other industry publications. She is a frequent speaker at conferences, workshops and seminars and is passionate about ESG and DEI and teaches audiences about the critical connections between the built environment and the economy, environment, and quality of life.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Outlook Magazine, Ms. Sannella shared her professional trajectory, insights on the current trends and developments in the real estate sector, personal sources of inspiration, the secret sauce behind her success, future plans, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Samantha. Can you please provide a brief overview of your background and experience in the real estate sector?

I have been associated with the real estate sector for over 30 years in various capacities – practicing architecture and design with a focus on strategic planning.  Early in my career, I decided to specialize in ‘strategic thinking’ as it applies to real estate problems.  In essence, this skill set requires determining the right problem to solve – or ‘problem seeking’.  This has served me well over my career as I took the road less traveled:  consultant, professor, CEO, designer and builder. Through the years, I have had the privilege of working on projects across the world, across all industry sectors and building typologies.  Currently, I combine everything I have learned for a more holistic, integrated approach, incorporated with future trends, to align business objectives with real estate solutions.

What do you love the most about your current role?

I have a very entrepreneurial role which gives me the freedom to determine market direction and build business.  As well, we work on a variety of challenging problems for clients, which include determining how best to optimize their real estate, how to entice developers and occupiers, how to attract employees and advance company image, where to locate businesses or what type of building they should construct.  I love complex problems which allow me to utilize my creative skills – and I have a stellar team of experts which make work a true pleasure.

What are some of the current trends and developments you’ve observed in the real estate market recently?

The office market is struggling across the world and many major North American cities have record-high vacancies.  Cities that have long commutes and a large high-tech employee sector top the list.  Long-term vacancies de-value buildings, contribute to local economic decline and hurt the vibrancies of our cities. Overall, this is a significant problem for all of us.  Class A (or better) office buildings are performing well as there is an overall flight to quality.  Class B and C are not faring as well, and many are candidates for repositioning or conversion.  However, this is not solely a real estate problem or solution.  It takes an integrated, comprehensive solution to solve this issue, project the continued difficulties that we will have and find creative solutions to overcome these challenges.  The industrial sector is strong and continues to perform well – partly due to ‘on-shoring’ with lessons learned from supply chain issues during the pandemic.  Housing continues to dominate the headlines across North America with affordable housing and the ‘missing middle’ looming large in discussions.  Higher interest rates discourage multi-residential development and consumer purchasing so there is a slow-down within the last 2 years.  This will have a ripple effect for several years as the development cycle is long.  Unfortunately, high labour rates coupled with labour shortages and increased construction costs have further exacerbated this issue.  We must get creative here – more co-living solutions, co-ops and advanced manufacturing to drive down construction costs and increase speed to build.  Additionally, many cities have zoning regulations that are onerous for developers and slow down housing growth.  Ideally, we would practice ‘conscious capitalism’ in our housing industry and begin to examine how we can best solve this issue with a balanced solution.

What key lessons have you learned that contributed to your personal growth and success?

My mother and grandmothers taught me resilience, tenacity and service to others.  These characteristics have served me well.  Everyone has days where they feel like giving up – but the key to success is to keep trying and focus on the greater good.  Personally, I have faced quite a bit of grief in my life.  To overcome this, I have had to look for joy in the small things.  When you can find happiness in the sunrise, sunset, flowers and bird songs – you can discover light in your heart – and hopefully that light illuminates other people too.

What are your thoughts on gender equality and inclusion? Do you think there is a gender bias in your industry?

Equality and inclusion are topics near and dear to me.  I grew up in the rural south where discrimination (of all types) was embedded culturally for generations.  Early on, I observed the effect of this behavior and the trauma it inflicted upon people – therefore, inclusivity became very important to me personally.  The real estate industry is in transition, and this is a good thing!  At Cushman and Wakefield, we have numerous ERGs to promote inclusion and diversity, as well as a very large and active Women’s Integrated Network (WIN).  I have certainly experienced gender bias and earlier in my career – especially in architecture – sexual harassment.  However, since joining Cushman and Wakefield 6 years ago, I can honestly say it is the most respectful place I’ve worked.  Additionally, we have many women in leadership, including our CEO.  There is always room for improvement in everything we do – and currently I am working on initiatives for indigenous reconciliation and fundraising for youth related DEI programs with 4 different organizations.  Personally, I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure the younger generations don’t experience what previous generations endured– whether gender discrimination or discrimination due to colour, ability, preferences, etc.  We must all do our part to make the world a better, more inclusive place.

Is there a particular person you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

I am very grateful to my mother who was a model of intelligence, grace and kindness and who also had a stellar work ethic.  Professionally, I will always be grateful to Steve Parshall, who mentored me early in my career, was my leader at HOK Architects and the co-author of Problem Seeking, with Willie Pena.  Steve gave me opportunities by throwing me into the deep end of the pool and encouraging me from the sidelines.  He believed in my ability and led by example – and influenced more young people than he will ever take credit for.  He has integrity, determination and is a great example of a player-coach.

What does the term “authentic leadership” mean to you?

For the longest time, we were taught to separate our work-life and private life – so I held part of myself back.  Later in life, I realized that to be an authentic leader, I must bring my ‘whole’ self to the job.  Therefore, I am an architect, interior designer, artist, Mom, chef and coach – and a person who has faced enormous grief, loss, love and challenges.  All these things contribute to being authentic, becoming empathetic and encouraging people to do their best.  The world would be much better if we all saw each other as human ‘beings’, rather than humans ‘doing’.

What are some of your passions outside of work? What do you like to do in your time off?

I am a poet and a painter.  I work in both watercolour and acrylic, large and small scale.  Most recently, I had my first show, ‘Rabbit Pause’ a collection of large scale works of rabbits as self-portraits.  The show included 32 acrylic paintings and 1 enormous 10’ soft sculpture of a rabbit.  Each work is accompanied by a poem. A fellow artist, Paola Poletto, collaborated with me by adding commentary on my work and contributing large-scale photographs in response to the art.  I would be thrilled to have you view the work on  Additionally, my flower garden is very important to me and is often the inspiration behind many of my paintings.  I grew up on a farm, so this provides me with a connection to home.

What is your biggest goal? Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now?

First of all, I am very proud of my career and I love my job.  It is challenging and rewarding.  My overall goal is to grow our consulting services within Cushman and leverage best practices, expertise and data driven research to elevate our offering.  It is also important that we acknowledge the power of design to contribute to our economy, preserve our environment and enhance our quality of life.  Incorporating this thinking into our real estate solutions can be our competitive advantage.  In 5 years:  growth, growth, growth!

Personally, I would like to have more art shows and work toward the plan of owning a centre for healing emotional trauma through art  – preferably somewhere with a plethora of lavender and butterflies. This would also offer art residencies, classes, and special events.  I envision myself teaching writing and painting to release emotions.  Can I do both?  I hope so!

What advice would you give to somebody who is considering entering your field or has just entered the field?

Life is short – but seems long and the older you get the faster it goes.  That being said, appreciate every small moment as a lesson learned and live with gratitude.  Professionally speaking, for those entering the field or are fresh out of school – learn as much as you can, find opportunity in everything and take time to discover your unique perspective.  This is not easy; don’t give up!

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