PGIM Real Estate promotes Mulford to oversee PRISA fund

The newly promoted senior portfolio manager of the $37bn fund is part of the Madison, New Jersey-based firm’s long-term plan to foster an environment for women to thrive in senior investment roles.

PGIM Real Estate has promoted Joanna Mulford to senior portfolio manager of its core, open-ended PRISA fund.

Mulford steps into the role after 25 years at PGIM Real Estate. Her promotion comes as part of PGIM’s long-term succession planning, which has placed Mulford in line for the role since 2014, Cathy Marcus, PGIM’s global chief operating officer and head of US equity, told PERE in an exclusive interview. Mulford replaces senior portfolio manager Frank Garcia, who is leaving the firm for a role in the real estate industry, a press release noted.

Mulford will be the PRISA fund’s third senior portfolio manager since 1998 and the second woman. Marcus served as portfolio manager from 1998 to 2012 and was replaced by Garcia. PGIM Real Estate’s commitment to investing in women is a long-standing strategy. The Madison, New Jersey-based firm has implemented both formal and informal processes to include, promote and foster female talent for the last decade.

PGIM Real Estate now has more women than men running its US equity business, Marcus said. In fact, 66 percent of the firm’s $65 billion in US equity capital is being managed by women. Alongside Mulford, PGIM Real Estate’s US value-add fund series and impact fund, Impact Value Partners, are overseen by senior portfolio manager Soultana Reigle. Around 57 percent of senior positions in the overall US equity business are held by women.

Marcus wants to make sure the firm avoids what she referred to as the “pink ghetto” in real estate, the idea that firms are quick to mention that they hire women into senior positions of a certain type.

“People often will talk about their gender diversity, but when you really look behind it, they’re in marketing. They’re in law. They’re in other support functions that are not investment functions,” Marcus said.

Marcus, global COO, says PGIM is working hard to promote women in senior investment roles, not senior roles more traditionally held for women, like marketing and law.

In terms of formal processes, PGIM Real Estate instituted flexible working hours for those in need of it. This has become more common place post-pandemic but was something the firm has instituted for a while, Marcus said. PGIM Real Estate also runs diversity training programs and a practice Marcus called “skip-step interviews.” That’s where an employee speaks to people above their manager about promotion opportunities to allow people to speak more freely about career development, she said.

On the informal side, the firm is trying to remove the stigma from big life events like pregnancy, right down to everyday microaggressions that can occur. Marcus talked about her own experience surrounding pregnancy, noting that when she put her work life on hold to do that, she was able to return without feeling like she had lost a step on her own track.

“Having the ability that if you need to take a little break, or step aside for a little while, that it’s not a death sentence for your career, you’re not counted out,” Marcus said. “As soon as you say, ‘I’m ready to get back in full force,’ you’re back in.”

Marcus was the first to admit that beyond gender diversity, the firm isn’t as strong in other diversity metrics but is working on it. Across its business, the firm is around 30 percent people of color, with 15 percent in senior positions. An example Marcus gave is allowing support groups to organically form to promote this part of its business. This has happened with some of PGIM Real Estate’s black professionals, allowing for mentorship to occur with some of the formal structures and training it has already set up, she said.

Career progression

Mulford has worked on the $37 billion PRISA fund for 14 of her 25 years at PGIM Real Estate. In the last 10 years, she has been part of $21 billion of acquisitions in the fund and $8 billion worth of dispositions. Mulford will oversee a senior team of three, with James Glen, Kaya Murray and Lexi Woolf reporting into her as portfolio managers.

Mulford was a part of the team when the PRISA fund converted from an insurance company separate account to a real estate investment trust. That pivot allowed the firm to take in capital from investors outside of the US, helping facilitate the growth of the fund to its size today.

Mulford is another woman with a high-profile investment role at PGIM.

Mulford has also had a hand in the fund’s pivot to alternatives. While the ODCE has guidelines around which property types can be invested in – at least three-quarters of every fund must be invested in the core four property types: multifamily, office, industrial and retail – PGIM Real Estate has been investing in the alternative property types since Marcus was in charge.

“In in my day, we were criticized for having self-storage, data centers and life science, which now are among the most popular asset types,” Marcus said.

Mulford worked on self-storage investments as early as 1998. In 2005, she helped facilitate a deal for Extra Space Storage in 2005, a self-storage platform still in the fund today. She also was part of a life sciences campus purchase in the Bay Area the firm has owned and maintained for the last 20 years, Marcus said.

The firm declined to comment on the specific allocation it has to alternatives currently but views alternatives as good core investments because of their cash flow component. Marcus said an increasing part of the investible universe in the US is in those sectors. Marcus said the assets perform well in good and bad markets, which is of extra importance given the ongoing volatility.

“There’s not an unlimited number of people in senior positions in the real estate industry who have that length of experience in the alternative property types,” Marcus said. “A lot of the large, diversified funds have only been investing in the alternative sector for a couple of years.”

Marcus said she has not looked at the fund’s succession planning beyond Mulford yet but will likely need to look in the next few months as part of its bi-annual discussions on succession planning.

The combination of experience and focus on promoting capable senior women has led to Mulford’s promotion. The deliberate focus on promoting a diverse leadership has worked so far.

“Building a professional of Joanna’s caliber doesn’t happen by accident,” Marcus said. “Nobody’s born that way.”