Integrating ESG Into CRE Business Goals with Kelsey Duffey of Walker & Dunlop

February 22, 2024

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Kelsey Duffey, Senior Vice President of Investor Relations, joined Walker & Dunlop in August 2012. Her primary responsibility is managing all communications between Walker & Dunlop and the investment community. She spearheads the company’s ESG efforts and leads a group of senior executives in driving towards W&D’s Drive to ’25 ESG goals.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast, I’m John Shegerian. I’m so excited to have with us today Kelsey Duffey, she’s a senior vice president at Walker and Dunlop. Welcome to the Impact podcast, Kelsey.

Kelsey Duffey: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

John: You know, Kelsey, before we get talking about all the important work in ESG and sustainability that you’re doing with your colleagues at Walter Dunlop, can you please share a little bit about your story, where’d you grow up and how did you get on this fascinating and wonderful and important journey?

Kelsey: Yes. Thank you. I’m originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, but I have not lived there for many years. I went to boarding school for high school, kind of in the northeast, and I went to Philly for college, so further northeast, and I got my first job out of college as a marketing job in Washington, DC, and I quickly realized marketing wasn’t for me, and I landed, I will say landed because it was kind of through a friend, which is how many jobs I know come about at a commercial real estate firm, Walker and Dunlop, in 2012.

I kind of fell into the industry, which is something I hope to touch on a little bit today, how it’s a little bit of an unknown industry for many, especially women and minorities today, so I lucked into this role. I would say, and I joined the investor relations team in 2015 and have been in that role for eight years now or so. The ESG, or sustainability portion of my role came about somewhat organically, I would say, over the past five years.

About Walker and Dunlop, what struck me and why I’ve stayed there for 12 years is just the commitment to the people that we have, and the company as a whole is definitely fully invested in making meaningful impact in the industry, but I will say when I first joined in for several years, we weren’t really doing a great job communicating that, and as ESG in general just became a more important topic and a lot of our shareholders were asking about it and we didn’t have the right disclosures and communications in place, but we were doing everything right. That’s kind of how my role started getting shaped on the ESG side of investor relations. We’re a publicly traded company, but we’re a little bit unique, I would say, in today’s world, because we’re kind of a family-owned public company, if that makes sense. Our CEO is Willie Walker, so Walker and Dunlop, his grandfather started the company in 1937.

John: Wow.

Kelsey: Yes. I know. Very… And it shapes our culture that we’re a family-owned but public company that just speaks to kind of how people are. Family-owned companies just kind of tend to feel like a family, and that’s how Walker and Delop is, and that’s what has struck me is just the investment in our people, and that has been at the core of our ESG program. Hopefully, we’ll get to talk more about it, but that’s kind of how our ESG program started, was really with our people and better communicating that, and I’ve really enjoyed building out the formality of our ESG program, I guess, over the past five years, from what we were already doing for I would say, decades.

John: Were you very familiar with that acronym and with sustainability work prior to 2015?

Kelsey: No. To be honest, ESG, a lot of companies are moving away from it, as you well know, because not just because it’s becoming politicized, but because employees don’t connect with it as easily as they do if you say impact or sustainability or corporate responsibility, so I find even internally in presentations, I’m writing ESG [environmental, social, governance].

I want everyone to understand what it is. No, it’s taken a while, and I will say from an employee perspective, the governance part always is a little, it’s not as important to our employees, but it is important to our shareholders as a public company. ESG, I would say in 2015, it was a new concept, but what has been interesting to me is that it’s ever changing, so every year, while I feel like I know more, I feel like I’m still drinking out of a fire hose because there’s just so much that goes into the simple acronym. It’s so…

John: Sure.

Kelsey: … So big.

John: It’s also ever changing. Now is where it’s changing so much.

Kelsey: Yes. Exactly. It’s a full time job just keeping up with that, and then we have the various stakeholders of the public company with our shareholders, which is a large part of my job, obviously, but then your employees, your vendors, your partners and everything else.

John: I love how you termed it, it’s a family run company, but it’s publicly traded, but the culture is family, which just is wonderful, and especially to have a family name member as a CEO still shows tremendous continuity and cultural continuity, et cetera. Before we get talking about all the great work you and your colleagues are doing in the ESG at Walker and Dunlop, can you share a little bit about Walker and Dunlop, how big is it and how many people are there, and what exactly is the main core of your business?

Kelsey: Sure. Yes. That’s a great question because it’s not a household name. We are a commercial real estate finance company, we are one of the largest providers of capital, I would say, to the commercial real estate industry, meaning we finance apartment buildings, office buildings, retail centers, anything like that. Though primarily our focus is on multifamily, and we like to say that we are building communities, so our capital is going towards financing where people live, where they work, where they shop, and that puts our business in every aspect of the community across the United States.

We have about 1500 employees, 50 or so offices throughout the country. We’re headquartered in DC, though I’m in Dallas as we discussed. It’s grown, though. When I joined in 2012, we probably had 250 employees. We’ve had pretty dramatic growth and done very well from a stock price appreciation perspective and all those things. We’re a growth driven company, but also a people driven company, so I think that combination has worked well for us.

John: Historically, the commercial real estate industry hasn’t been well known for all their work in ESG, can you explain why you’ve taken, why Walker and Dunlop has taken and how you’ve taken a leadership position with regards to commercial real estate and the implementation and execution of good ESG work?

Kelsey: Yes. Definitely. Like I said, we’re one of the largest multifamily and commercial real estate lenders in the country, and we are using that leadership position to, like I said, we’re not a household name, but if you’re in the industry, you know who we are, and that speaks a lot because it’s a huge industry, and we have been very focused on certain internal efforts, but also efforts throughout the industry. Internally, we have set goals on increasing diversity and among our leadership, among our entry-level, kind of throughout the organization, but then across the industry, we have established a partnership, it’s called CRE United, so Commercial Real Estate united with various stakeholders in the industry.

Some household names for sure, like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, KKR, Kate Anderson, big names, and really, the goal is to just open channels for minorities and women in the industry because our company has done a great job diversifying. I think we’re 35% women, 65% men, and that’s probably in line with the industry, but when you look at the ownership level of commercial real estate, where the real wealth is really, if you want to own commercial real estate properties and run a business, it’s only 4% or 5%, I think, women and minorities.

The goal is to really open doors, it’s hard to break in, right? I don’t want to say it’s an old voice club, but it’s an industry that has been around for a long time, and breaking in can be tough, so the goal of Sierra United is to break down those barriers and build networking opportunities, connections, but also access to capital. There’s real capital coming to these minority owned and women owned businesses through the partnership, and it’s been super successful so far, but more exciting to see what’s to come because it’s still relatively new.

John: Historically, you’re saying historically, as an industry as a whole, as a CRE industry goes, minorities and women have been marginalized, and now you’re trying to create a bigger tent and bring more in, into the industry.

Kelsey: Correct. Yes. That’s the goal. Yes.

John: That’s wonderful. Explain a little bit… Kelsey, and for our listeners and viewers, we’ve got Kelsey Duffey with us, she’s a senior vice president of Walker and Dunlop. To find Kelsey and her colleagues at Walker Dunlop, you could go to www.walkerdunlop D-U-N-L-O-P .com. Talk a little bit about know ESG. ESG is fascinating, as you say, as an acronym, not only because of the ever changing nature of it and the velocity that has picked up just in the last five or so years in North America and around the world, frankly speaking, but it could be this narrow or this wide, depending on who is interpreting it and who needs to execute on it. How do you look at ESG, at Walker Dunlop, both internally and externally, in terms of how you like to go about executing and making a successful ESG program?

Kelsey: Yeah. That’s a great question because I agree it’s different for every company.

John: Sure.

Kelsey: Like I said, we are focused on our people, they’re at the core of everything we do, they’re how we are successful. We also look at our operations as part of our ESG because we’re financing communities and I think that gives our employees a purpose, so that is important to us as well, and then, like I said, we’re also using our leadership position to create change in the industry. I think those three pillars are very important to us, but it all goes back to the people, and what I’ve noticed about companies and looking at so many companies ESG programs is that ESG programs and what companies stand for happen very organically.

For us, when I started looking at, if you just wrote down what is Walker and Dunlop doing back in 2012, that could be classified as ESG, it was centered around our people and retention and training and leadership opportunities and wellness benefits and everything that went into creating a happy, healthy, productive employee, so that’s been our focus. I think for the financial services industry, that is kind of human capital is a big, important pillar of your ESG program, but it’s true for many companies, when you start to look at what they stand for, you’re like, oh, that makes sense, it’s not a rich, you know, while we do have a very robust, and I would say impressive environmental program for a company of our size and in our industry, that was almost a secondary kind of portion of our, it came after, I think after the people, and we’ve been working hard on that, but that’s something that we’ve invested more time and resources and it didn’t happen as naturally for us. I don’t know if that fully answered your question.

John: [inaudible] Your focus on the people, your focus on the human capital aspect of it, obviously, environmental is part of it, but your focus is on human. I do so many of these interviews and get to meet so many cool people like you, Kelsey, that are doing important things like Walker Dunlop, and like you said, it’s a fascinating fine line and balancing act, and culturally speaking, different companies choose different elements and aspects, but still, if everyone’s making an impact, we’re all trying to just be better.

Kelsey: Right. Exactly. No, that’s right. Like you said, every company finds their niche and does the best they can in that space, and so, yeah, I agree with what you said.

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John: On the human capital side, how do you go about it? Like, do you have a certain way that you go about creating a bigger tent and overtly creating a bigger tent to really make an impact inside of Walker Dunlop?

Kelsey: Yeah. We’ve invested a lot of resources in that. I think employee engagement is super important to us and our HR team has done a lot of work, especially since in the post-Covid era we have, like I said, 50 offices and then with remote work, it’s how do you keep everyone connected and feel like they’re part of this… As we’ve grown, we still wanted to feel like that family company that I joined when there were 200 employees. We have listening sessions, we have amazing ERG, I think we have eleven at this point, and their participation in them for 1500 person company, that’s pretty great. Great participation and a lot of engagement, and that gives people a space at Walker and Dunlop just to feel, to connect with people and a safe space to connect with others, I would know, outside of your normal workday. Then from the DEI perspective, I think we’ve really been a leader there.

We have a full DEI team and we’re focused on, I would say primarily we do have quantitative goals around bringing up women and minorities in management positions and among the top earners at the company, our CEO thought that was important. We want to get women and minorities at those levels making the most money, not just even out the workforce, if you will, but it takes a while to kind of have that movement through your workforce. We’re focused on entry level, we have a lot of partnerships with historically black colleges and universities, we have intern programs that start as young as high school, and I’ve had several interns come through my department.

Then the hope is that we hire them and they move up from analysts to just like I did, really. I started as assistant and here I am today. I think the company is great for that, and we’re working kind of at the bottom levels and up, but we have goals across the space, but I think engagement since 2020 has been a huge focus for us, and look, it takes a lot of resources and effort in a dispersed environment like we have, but it pays off because you want people to feel connected or else they’re not going to feel like they want to stay. I think that’s what we’ve done a great job with here at Walker and Dunlop.

John: How do you overcome the woman issue? Like, my wife was a commercial real estate broker way I want to say…

Kelsey: Wow.

John: Yeah. 30 years ago. That was very different back then in Los Angeles on the west side of Los Angeles. On that part of it, how do you get more women involved what has historically been a male dominated industry?

Kelsey: Yeah. Yes. That is a great question, and that’s with our recruiting efforts. I mean, we’re always looking for top talent that are women, but like you said, there are a few. So yes, you can hire the best female teams that are established, but it’s really about creating that lower level of entry level. They start in our underwriting analyst program and move up, and I have several friends who are now the brokers themselves and women friends at Walker and Dunlop who had that exact path, and they are taking it upon themselves to mentor and sponsor other women because it’s important to women in the industry to bring more women in.

One thing that’s interesting is that it’s not, commercial real estate, very few colleges have a major of commercial real estate for just their normal, unless you’re in business school. It’s a lot of educating people about the profession and what the opportunities are in the industry of which there are so many, and I think sponsorship and mentorship among women. We at Walker Dunlop have a great, we have a great women’s group, but within that we have sponsorship and mentorship programs that have been great.

I’ve participated in, and building those connections is helpful, and then also just building an environment, and this is upon every company, especially in commercial real estate, building an environment where women want to stay. I have two kids and look, I’m not a broker myself, but I’m in a male dominated kind of finance area of the industry, and I feel like Halloween was yesterday, right? I wasn’t at work the whole day yesterday because it was that space where not just women, but all parents and a caregiver role can feel like they have that flexibility, and that makes women want to stay. Your wife doing it 30 years ago was a completely different environment. I think most companies have adapted, but it’s still a tough industry, so we’re getting there, but we have work to do.

John: Every year, do you create and put together an impact report?

Kelsey: We do, yes, we have a very robust. We do. We do that. We also have a task force on climate related financial disclosures. You might know that TCFD, it’s more of an environmental focus report. We’re proud of that as well, but we work very hard on our ESG report.

John: [inaudible] Did that come out, what part of it?

Kelsey: We just released, not just, we released it pretty much every summer [inaudible] for 2022. We release it in the summer, we’ll do the same in summer 2023, and, yeah, it’s a great document.

John: That lives on in purpose.

Kelsey: It does.

John: Got it. You’re publicly traded, so I know you’re limited in what you could say, but what projects and initiatives are you really excited about in the coming years ahead?

Kelsey: That is a good question, because we are actually meeting with our board of directors next week about our strategy for all things, including ESG. ESG has a place in that discussion, and this is a struggle for many companies, or not a struggle, just part of the ESG journey is getting ESG to be completely integrated into our business operations. Like I said, our business itself is very ESG-oriented. We have an incredible affordable housing platform. We, in fact, have equity ownership in affordable housing properties, and a whole arm of our business dedicating to preserving and developing affordable housing, so that’s amazing.

We’re the top Green Fannie Mae lender, so we help finance properties that are making green upgrades and becoming more sustainable, so we’re proud of that, but integrating ESG into kind of every area of our business has taken time, and that’s for the next two to three years, I would say, just to ensure that ESG is part of our business decision making process across the board will be important, and always just thinking back to our people and our mission of financing communities, but also creating change in the industry. I think if we keep going back to that, as we integrated into our business development processes and even some of our business travel processes, we haven’t quite gotten there yet, but things like that, that’s the longer term goal. I would say keyword is integration and getting more fully integrated.

John: As we know, ESG and sustainability, there’s no finish line, it’s a journey.

Kelsey: 100%.

John: The journey just continues, and that’s wonderful, and it’s just so great to hear what you’re doing and how you’re really evolving an industry as a whole in a leadership role on an industry that really needed to be evolved in a better way.

Kelsey: Yes. Agreed. I think we’re getting there, and I think while I do believe our company is a leader, we have great partners, and a lot of other larger peers like ourselves are equally focused on everything we’ve discussed, so I think we’re getting there, and that’s very exciting. You just said, I want to see it through to the end, but there is no end, it’s just always going to hopefully be getting better and better, and that’s exciting in itself.

John: Kelsey, for inspiration, since benchmarking your own industry would be sort of not that exciting at this point, historically speaking, let’s just say, where do you look for inspiration and benchmarking on ESG and who’s doing it right and what other things that they’re doing that you could bring into both Walker and Dunlop and into your initiatives and industry as a whole?

Kelsey: Yes. Oh my God, I love to do that. Listening to some of the speakers you’ve had on your podcast, and I look at a lot of our bigger competitors, JLL, for example, that’s more of a household name, I would say.

John: True.

Kelsey: They’re doing a great job on their environmental piece of their business, like for an example of full integration is they offer advisory services on environmental issues for property owners, which look, that’s something like we aspire to as a company. They have like, I think 50,000 employees compared to our 1500, but I look at them and I recently listened to the head of sustainability at Clorox speak and that was incredibly inspiring. They have just complete integration with all of the development of their packaging, all the way down to how a consumer views and handles the product and what they do with it, so just the complete integration in their business was incredible to see.

Obviously completely different industry, but it’s great to look at companies like that and just see what they’re doing, and it’s inspiring to see, and I just love seeing that across every industry, the focus on ESG and like we discussed earlier in different facets, right. Like for Clorox, it’s largely environmental and I’m sure they have a great human capital management program as well, but just seeing every company kind of make a difference in its own unique way is very, you know, I take little tidbits back and try to incorporate them where I can into Walker and Dunlop.

John: Well, that’s wonderful. Kelsey, thank you so much for your time today, for your wisdom and for your vision on what you’re doing with your colleagues at Walker and Dunlop. For our listeners and viewers to find Kelsey and her colleagues and find Walker Dunlop’s ESG report, please go to www.walkerdunlop D-U-N-L-O-P .com. Kelsey Duffey, thanks for spending time with us today and thank you for making the world a better place.

Kelsey: Thank you for having me. This has been great.

John: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs and business leaders, Engage is the go to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit