ABOVE: Helen Lee, executive vice president of F&T Group, on the Flushing waterfront.
BY BENJAMIN FANG
Although Asian-Americans are the fastest growing demographic in the United States, they face the challenge of the “bamboo ceiling,” a set of barriers that exclude Asian-Americans from upper management positions in the workplace.
For Helen Lee, executive vice president of F&T Group, she also had to overcome the glass ceiling as a female executive in the real estate industry.
An immigrant from Taiwan, Lee said she proudly embraces her Asian-American “dual identity,” which she said allows her to see things through two different lenses.
“We’ve made great strides in breaking both barriers,” she said. “I’m continuously optimistic we can do that.”
Arguably the most prominent real estate company in Flushing, F&T Group’s portfolio includes properties like Flushing Mall, Queens Crossing, One Fulton Square and Flushing Commons.
Founded by chairman and CEO Michael Lee, the company was established as TAFA Development Corp, which was named after Lee’s family’s shipping company in his native Taiwan. In 1996, Lee and Sunny Chiu, the company’s vice chairman, partnered to form what is now F&T Group.
The company’s portfolio extends beyond Flushing, with projects in Manhattan, Brooklyn and even Nanjing, China. In addition to its headquarters in Flushing, F&T Group also has an office in Shanghai.
While Lee and Chiu have made a name for themselves in the real estate industry, the future of the company lies with Helen Lee, who joined her father’s company as executive vice president in February 2014.
Lee oversees the company’s day-to-day corporate and business functions, as well as the overall management and strategic direction of the firm alongside her father. She is responsible for the development, master planning, asset management, leasing, sales, as well as marketing and branding efforts for the company.
A graduate of Harvard University, the Barlett School of Architecture at University College London and New York University’s Stern School of Business, Lee was previously a director at Onex Real Estate Partners, the real estate arm of the private equity fund Onex, which has $30 billion of assets under management.
She also worked at the master planning firm Edaw, which is now AECOM, as well as the real estate advisory firm Gerald Eve in London. A mother of two kids, Lee said she knows how difficult it is to succeed in a “high-octane industry” like real estate.
“We have to give working mothers the tools to be successful,” she said, “but also balance work and home life.”
Lee helped lead F&T Group through the last six months, which she described as challenging. She said her company was ahead of the pandemic in comparison to the rest of the city and country, largely due to their cultural ties to Asia.
“We knew to wear masks,” she said. “On top of that, we were having to deal with a lot of racial discrimination from people for wearing masks.”
The company’s phones rang “off the hook” from tenants who were panicking, Lee said. When the state instituted the shelter-in-place policy that shut down New York, Lee said they were working around the clock with all their small business tenants to structure rent abatements and navigate city programs.
The silver lining, Lee said, was that the crisis showed how strong their relationships were with tenants, which she said was due to having been in the community for so long.
F&T Group also had to shut down construction and the hundreds of workers at Tangram, the company’s 1.2 million-square foot mixed-use development on 39th Avenue in Flushing.
“The whole supply chain was affected,” Lee said. “It sent us into a crazy tailspin.”
Forced to adapt quickly, F&T Group began doing closings on residences virtually, and shut down its construction sites. The company learned to stay calm, pivot quickly, be decisive and not make decisions based on fear.
One of the big projects that was put on hold was the Special Flushing Waterfront District (SFWD), a 29-acre, privately-owned site along the Flushing Creek that F&T Group, United Construction & Development Group and the Young Nian Group plan to develop.