Nadine Watt, president of Watt Companies and granddaughter of company founder Ray Watt, originally had no intention of joining the family business. Like many offspring of entrepreneurs, she wanted to make her own way in the world, to explore and find her passion. Through this search, she became inspired to carry on the family legacy in her own way. She has gone on to make her mark on the city as the first-ever female chairperson of the Los Angeles Business Council.
Watt’s journey began when she moved to Europe with her family as a youngster. It inspired her to pursue a career in the foreign service as a diplomat or politician, so she became fluent in French, Greek, and Italian, and completed a degree at Georgetown. But after spending time in politics, she decided to switch careers to pursue her love of filmmaking. She returned to LA and earned a degree from USC’s film school and went on to work in the entertainment business for seven years. There she combined her language skills and her filmmaking business savvy working for a distributor pre-selling film rights in foreign territories.
“I wanted to be Sherry Lansing,” she tells CSQ. “I wanted to run a studio and I definitely thought I would end up in the entertainment business.” But the 24/7 nature of the business was unappealing, so when the distributor went bankrupt in 1999, she found herself again doing some soul searching. Her father, Scott Watt (now CEO of Watt Companies) suggested she come back to the family business – not as an employee, but just to soak in what she could.
Nadine had worked at Watt Companies every summer as a youth, running switchboards and doing filing. “[As a kid] I thought it was boring. I had to go to all the sites with my dad and I just didn’t get the global picture of what real estate was,” she tells us. As an adult with real-world business experience, however, she saw things differently and eventually asked to be put on a project, just to keep busy. Then a second project came along, and another, until she was hooked. ”Now I could see where my skills applied from the film and development business, so I took that decision and ran with it.”
In 2001 her decision crystallized in a profound way. Ray Watt was being honored at a City of Hope banquet as a real estate icon and visionary. Not only was the entire family there, the room was a veritable Who’s Who of industry power players. “In my grandfather’s acceptance speech, he said ‘…and my granddaughter Nadine is here and she’s going to take over the business someday.’ He didn’t single anybody else out, and I was in the room with the Dick Zimans and the Rick Carusos of the world. And I thought, ‘Okay, he thinks I can do it; he’s announced to everybody I can do it … I bet I can do it.’ And I decided ‘This is where I want to be; I’m going to step up.’ Then I got really excited and passionate about it and I started to embrace it and I said, ‘This is me now.’”
Nadine has been in real estate for seventeen years. As President she oversees Watt’s commercial division with a core portfolio containing about 50 anchored retail centers. She keeps an eye on the company’s office and industrial portfolio – about a million square feet of office between Watt Plaza, their headquarters in Santa Monica, and a recently acquired office in Culver City. She also oversees the company’s debt and acquisitions business.
“I was in the room with the Dick Zimans and the Rick Carusos of the world. And I thought, ‘Okay, he thinks I can do it; he’s announced to everybody I can do it … I bet I can do it.”
Historically the company started out in the areas where Ray Watt built homes in the 1940s. “My grandfather, Ray, started the company 70 years ago for GIs returning from the war. He knew returning soldiers were going to need places to live, so he started building homes and communities where people could live and work.” Many of the company’s retail centers still cater to mom and pop shops. To this day, Watt sees a lot of the future in multi-family. “Retail’s going to change a lot, but people will always need a place to live.”
The decision to invest in multi-family is part of a strategic restructuring the company went through in 2011 – one that required careful decision-making at the executive level. “The impetus was really the downturn in 2008. If the company was to continue to grow, we realized we would have to revisit our strategy.” The decision was made to outsource their property management business and concentrate on real estate. It was a difficult decision, but one Nadine believes was the right move. “It’s paid off. We’re doing very well because of the decisions we made at that time.”
Watt has taken that success and worked to pay it forward. “What inspires me is that I think I can make a difference. I can mentor and educate and get women and minorities to the table in the real estate world.” This forward-thinking attitude is especially crucial to her work as Chair of the LA Business Council (LABC).
The opportunity to join the LABC came in 2002, when real estate icon Dick Ziman (Rexford Industries) invited her grandfather to join. Ray Watt had worked as Undersecretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the 1960s, so it seemed a natural fit. Instead, Ray recommended Nadine take his place. “It was a sink-or-swim moment,” she recalls. “But honestly, I feel like, without my knowing it, they had been grooming me for the past twelve-plus years.” In July 2015, Nadine became the first female chairperson of the LABC.
The LABC currently focuses on four major policy areas: housing, transportation, sustainability, and workforce development. And, Watt would add; “I couldn’t end this conversation without talking about homelessness. My family has a tradition now on Christmas Eve to go to the mission and feed the homeless. The USC School of Social Work is doing a big project on how to end homelessness, the Mayor is working on it, and the VA is talking about veteran homelessness, so it’s something LA really needs to concentrate on.”
Watt dreams of a future LA that is a business-friendly, viable, and sustainable place to live and work. “I have two small children,” she points out. “I want to be a role model for them – a mom who works, who’s productive, and who’s trying to make a difference in the world.” That’s quite a high standard, but if Watt’s record has proven anything, it’s that she excels at rising to the challenge.