Suzanne Abair: ‘It is incredibly important to be who you are, comfortably’
Boston Business Journal
December 9, 2020
By Catherine Carlock
In her last year before moving to Boston, Suzanne Abair billed nearly 3,000 hours for the Wall Street law firm Fried Frank. The Massachusetts native then joined Mintz Levin, where she made partner and worked with Newton-based Northland as a client. The real estate private equity firm brought Abair on as general counsel in 2004, and she was named chief operating officer in 2016. Abair, who was named one of this year’s Women Who Mean Business, spoke to Business Journal Real Estate Editor Catherine Carlock recently from her office in Newton.
The Boston Business Journal will honor the 2020 Women Who Mean Business at an online event on the morning of Thursday, Dec. 10.
“My grandmother was a huge influence on me. She and her husband owned a pharmacy, and he died unexpectedly at age 42. She made the decision, against everyone telling her otherwise, that she was not going to sell the business. It was 1955. She had to get permission from the state to run the business. I actually have the letter in my office. It basically says, ‘We’re granting you permission to run your late husband’s drugstore under widow’s rights.’ I leave that as a reminder of: Women don’t need permission to be strong business leaders. The only people we need to give permission to is ourselves. We need to give ourselves permission to be our best selves, and to seize the opportunity we have in front of us.
“When I joined Northland, Larry (Gottesdiener, Northland’s chair and CEO) knew I was a member of the LGBTQ community. He and my spouse are friends. My kids love Larry. If you want to bring out the best in people, encourage your people to be their authentic selves. We are at our best when everyone is bringing their best self to work, and not spending a lot of energy worried about, how am I going to fit in, how am I supposed to be dressing, what is my hair supposed to do? When I was at law firms in New York in the mid-90s, it was not A-OK to be out and talking about those things. It is incredibly important being able to be who you are, comfortably.
“Our goal continues to be to be an employer of choice. If you’re an owner-operator like we are, and have over 660 employees across the country, your employees have to know that you believe that your human assets are equally as important — if not more important — than the real estate assets. When I became COO, I went out and visited every single property. The first couple times, people were prepared with their financials. I said, I really appreciate you being prepared, but I really just want to talk to you, meet the maintenance staff, hear about your challenges and what we can be doing better. There was initially a little bit of reticence. And so I said, we need to make changes immediately, so that people understand we’re not just out talking. We essentially rewrote our entire employee handbook. We added parental leave. We changed our tuition reimbursement program to also cover industry certification.
“I have always had the support of my family. Prior to adopting (now 16-year-old) Jacob, (Abair’s wife) Kat was working at Boston Medical Center. We made the decision for our family that we wanted to have someone at home. That was financially feasible. Kat is a CPA and is a treasurer of a couple of nonprofits. It works for us and allows us to be able to support nonprofit organizations that are very near and dear to our heart. I think it’s been a great example for our sons Jacob and Alex that there’s more than one way to contribute to the family. I’m incredibly grateful that my family has always been incredibly supportive. Their constant support and understanding is really important to me.
“We had spent four years, me and the Northland leadership team, trying to create a culture that was one company. It didn’t matter whether you’re in Corpus Christi or Amherst or the corporate office. And in the pandemic, we suddenly had 600 essential workers who needed to be on-site under very difficult circumstances. We needed to protect our employees. There’s a reason I’m in my office. We need to make sure that we’re modeling to our on-site employees that we get it, and we’re with you and we’re not asking you to do something that we’re not doing ourselves. We know you’re out there, and we’ve got your back. And I think that really has made a difference.