Leslie Hale is the new CEO of RLJ Lodging Trust. Her promotion makes her the first African American woman to be chief executive of a publicly traded real estate investment trust.

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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.

Last month, Hale became the chief executive of RLJ Lodging Trust, a Bethesda, Maryland, 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.

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, Maryland, 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 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.”

Hale, who had served as RLJ’s chief financial officer for 11 years, is now commanding a multibillion-dollar real estate investment trust that must grow revenue and guard the healthy dividend, which is north of 6 percent. Dividends are the altar at which REIT shareholders worship.

Bob Johnson, executive chairman and co-founder of RLJ Lodging, 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.

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 direct of a company.”

After stops at Harvard and Goldman Sachs, she eventually settled on RLJ in 2005.

One person who recommended her for the job was another mentor, the late Alan Braxton, who was 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.”