Features

Heather L. Houston – Empire State Realty Trust 

A historic icon and a leader in modernized, sustainable buildings and governance 

For over 90 years, the Empire State Building has stood above Midtown Manhattan as an American icon and the “World’s Most Famous Building.”

It is one of Manhattan’s oldest and most iconic buildings and one of the most forward-thinking, modernized and sustainable, a characteristic of all of Empire State Realty Trust’s buildings. The company distinguishes itself as a New York City-based portfolio of well-located office, retail and multifamily properties based on the deep retrofit work, technology and other methods it employs across its mostly pre-war properties to make the buildings modernized, amenitized, energy-efficient and healthy. 

A public company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, ESRT applies its forward-thinking mentality to its corporate governance as well, focusing on transparency and best practices. In a post-pandemic world where many NYC-based commercial landlords struggle under large debt loads and onerous environmental regulations like Local Law 97, ESRT has grown its relevance through building acquisitions and winning accolades for its sustainability leadership in environmental, social and governance categories.   

Heather L. Houston | Chief Counsel, Corporate & Secretary | Empire State Realty Trust 

Heather L. Houston | Chief Counsel, Corporate & Secretary | Empire State Realty Trust

Heather Houston is the company’s chief counsel, corporate and secretary, and partners closely with the company’s fellow senior vice president and director of sustainability, management and the board on compliance, disclosure and implementation of best practice policies and procedures to achieve and enhance the company’s leadership status.  

“I am proud to work for a company that values transparency and responsibility highly,” Houston says. “The board and the management team are extraordinarily receptive to my recommendations to be proactive and have a shareholder-first mentality. I give them the data, and they often exceed the ask.” 

Houston is co-head of the legal department and is responsible for all facets of corporate governance, public company reporting, securities law, corporate transactions, compliance, HR matters, IP matters and commercial contracts. She serves as board secretary, compliance officer and a legal partner to the Observatory business team and corporate groups, including the PR/marketing, finance and accounting, and human resource departments. 

Houston wears many hats in her role, but no matter the task, the goal is the same: to keep the company on its front foot and support its growth and sustainability leadership as a service partner to management, the board and ESRT’s business teams.  

Lighting it up 

As compliance officer, Houston works across all departments, and in her nearly four years with the company, she shares leadership in efficiency enhancement. A collaborative type and comfortable with technology, she has streamlined various compliance processes, including related party tracking, automation of compliance requests and SEC filings, in each case working with the IT team to develop solutions that use technologies already available to the company versus purchasing costly new software. She has also developed a contract management system to support over 300 contract requests yearly.  

Heather L. Houston | Chief Counsel, Corporate & Secretary | Empire State Realty Trust 

“It is key for our small legal team to create efficient systems and organization to service our company in a high-quality manner that allows us to support its modernization and growth,” Houston says. “We continually reassess and reinvent processes to keep up with the speed, volume and creativity of our business partners.” 

As an example, Houston says that ESRT has revamped its marketing and public relations strategy in recent years—the company partners with celebrities, well-known brands and social influencers for lightings and promotional events daily that keep its prized property, the Empire State Building, relevant in the digital age.  

High-volume work with big brands and novel campaigns like its Stranger Things light show requires the legal team to be creative, develop repeatable processes and forms, and work at high speeds to accommodate engagements. On top of that, Houston’s team aggressively protects the Empire State Building brand—she tackles thousands of trademark infringements each year domestically and internationally and executes on desired strategic licenses. 

Focusing on ESG 

As a public company legal advisor and board secretary, Houston focuses on transparency and best practice. Since joining the company in April 2020, Houston has seen the company through three annual shareholder meetings, and her work guides the board and management and helped the company go from a negative Say-on-Pay vote in 2020 to three subsequent 95 percent or above votes in favor of pay.  In 2023, ESRT won Governance Intelligence’s award for Best Proxy Statement (small cap) and a nomination for Best Shareholder Engagement (small to mid-cap). 

“I am especially proud of these recognitions,” says Houston. “They reflect an incredible amount of work and transformation in a short period of time that was only possible because we have an extremely engaged board and a responsive management team that leans in towards progress.”   

Heather L. Houston | Chief Counsel, Corporate & Secretary | Empire State Realty Trust 

For example, Houston says that in one year, proxy advisory firm Glass Lewis recommended against the company’s Nominating and Corporate Governance Chair due to its perceived lack of gender diversity on ESRT’s board. Houston guided the board through a supplemental proxy filing that disclosed one of its female directors had just left its board for the United States Department of Energy and that the ongoing search for a new director was committed to the appointment of a female candidate. Glass Lewis changed its recommendation, and ESRT followed through within three months of this filing with the appointment of not one but two female directors. 

Houston additionally focuses on the “S” (social) component of ESG, going above and beyond the responsibilities of her role. During her first year with the company, Houston led an Employee Manual Committee that recommended and ultimately secured improvements to the company’s employee benefit offerings, including increased time off and enhanced parental leave. She has continued to be involved in employee-led initiatives—serving as a founding member of the company’s Inclusion Committee. Houston pointed out that ESRT achieved Great Place to Work certification for the first time in 2023, reflecting how far the company has come with its culture. 

At home, in-house 

An in-house role was always in Houston’s plans, though she, like most young lawyers, had dues to pay in big law first. A graduate of Washington College and Washington and Lee University School of Law, she honed her skills from 2014 to 2018 at the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom—she then became senior counsel, corporate and securities at infotech and professional services giant Cognizant at its headquarters in New Jersey. She says it was a thriving company, but with over 300,000 employees globally, it was hard to stand out. 

“I had a niche role but wanted to grow my career to be a generalist,” Houston says. “I got recruited to ESRT, and it was a very attractive step up.” 

Since being hired as a senior corporate counsel and compliance officer, Houston has been promoted three times to her present role, where she shares the legal leadership with Susanne Lieu, who’s senior vice president and chief counsel for real estate. With broad, varying responsibilities handled by the legal team, the two women collaborate and remain well coordinated, playing off each other’s strengths. 

And as Houston’s fourth anniversary nears, she says it’s been a most eventful time, Houston arriving at COVID-19’s onset and the pandemic having such negative consequences for commercial real estate. With recent acquisitions and a strong balance sheet, she feels confident about ESRT’s foundation. 

It has also been a busy time in Houston’s personal life, as she recently returned to the job after she and her husband welcomed the birth of their first child, a daughter named Harper Lynn.  

Houston says commuting to her midtown Manhattan office from her New Jersey home takes some adjustment post-maternity leave, but she gets right back into the thick of things.  

“The first thing I see when I step out of Penn Station in the morning is the Empire State Building,” says Houston. “And that sight reminds me about the future of ESRT and New York City in general.”  

View this feature in the Vanguard Winter III 2024 Edition here.

Published on: February 16, 2024

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