Mathew Scott

In 2004, when Pierrette Tierney was studying journalism at the University of Southern California, she had visions of producing long-form, cutting-edge stories for television. Now, 10 years later, she’s running all land and home building operations for a public builder in one of the most challenging real estate markets in the country.

How did Tierney go from working at CNN and producing for Christiane Amanpour to becoming Taylor Morrison’s vice president of operations in the Bay Area, which is a semi-independent operation in the builder’s Northern California division?

It started with helping out a friend.

As Tierney was working on her master’s, she also helped a recruiter friend set up interviews for Pulte. “At the time I had no interest in real estate, or so I thought,” she says.

Soon enough, Tierney’s friend turned took aim at the aspiring journalist. “I listened to the recruiting pitch and I decided to interview,” Tierney says. “I got the job and moved to Las Vegas a couple of weeks later.”

Things didn’t start off especially well. On Tierney’s first day in the sales department in 2004, Pulte started to cut its prices. “I stepped into new-home sales during the first day of the crash,” she recalls.

Though it wasn’t the easiest time to start in home building, Tierney learned a lot—particularly how to work with buyers and navigate through issues to close a deal. Her success brought more opportunities as she quickly ascended up the chain to general sales manager in Vegas. “We were big and there were a lot of growth opportunities,” she says. “Having just graduated from school, I was very opportunistic and entrepreneurial and driven to create a career path.”

Tierney’s division president, Steve Wethor (currently president of the west region for Taylor Morrison), eventually moved to Phoenix, and she went along as a vice president of sales and marketing. There, she quickly distinguished herself to Charlie Enochs, who replaced Wethor as president of the company’s Phoenix operations.

“When Pierrette was in sales leadership, she always took a ‘business first’ approach to her decision making,” Enochs says. “When I say ‘business first,’ I mean that she looked beyond the sales function and evaluated the impact of her decisions on all parts of the business. This is a rare quality to find in sales leadership and it made her transition much easier as she moved in to operations.”

Despite a challenging market in Phoenix, it was a very collegial environment. For instance, when the land division was looking at a piece of dirt to acquire, it worked with the sales and construction departments. “I think it’s pretty telling that our construction team loved Pierrette as much as the sales team did,” Enochs says.

That kind of environment helped Tierney grow, and it assisted others as well.

“That Phoenix Taylor Morrison division spawned off five other division presidents,” Tierney says. “To be surrounded by those people was fantastic.”

In January 2013, Taylor Morrison gave Tierney the opportunity to move the Bay Area as vice president of sales and marketing for its Northern California division. With two children and family in the Bay Area and the company’s growth potential in that part of the state, making the move was a no-brainer.

Moving Into Operations

While Phoenix might have been a 101 course in home building operations, Tierney is getting her master’s in the challenging Bay Area division after taking over operations in January 2014. “Moving into this operations role has been the biggest challenge of my career,” she says. “I have so much to learn. The construction and land part of the business is far more complicated than I anticipated, particularly since I am new to the Bay Area market.”

To get up to speed, Tierney turned to her journalism training—networking and asking lots of questions about things, like land, to speed up her learning curve. “I think you need to go into it with a humble attitude and be reliant on your team of experts in those fields where you know you are weak,” she says.

In the land-constrained Bay Area, builders need as many solutions as they can find. Taylor Morrison bought good land positions during the downturn and continues to harvest those, doubling its business from 2013 to 2014. But to keep growing, the builder needs more dirt.

“It’s far more complicated [than Vegas and Phoenix],” Tierney says. “The majority of what we’re doing is infill. You’re not going out and buying a nice piece of clean land and grading it and it’s good to go. Every project here has to go through a thorough development process. Each site is so small and you’re trying to maximize what you put on the site.”

Buyers in the Bay Area are comfortable with smaller lots and attached homes, but they have a lot of preferences that separate them from the rest of the country. “We incorporate some technology and a lot of energy-efficient components to the home,” Tierney says. “Even little things go a long way, like USB ports in outlets in kitchens and electric car dedicated outlets.”

The buyer demographics also are different with international owners spilling into the Bay Area from all around the globe. “The way we have to educate sales team about working with different buyers and different cultures and how to best serve them is something we’ve put a lot of time, effort, research, and training into,” she says.

Future Plans

If Tierney can continue to grow the Bay Area operation, it soon could become its own division. That would be a career culmination of sorts for her. “My vision was always that I would be a division president,” she says. “But I don’t know that I have the feeling that I need to get there tomorrow. It’s not a bad thing to sit in a position, get comfortable, and have time under your belt before taking the next step.”

When she is ready to take the next step, Enochs thinks Tierney will be successful. “Pierrette has tremendous business acumen combined with a comfortable leadership style that, in turn, make people want to follow her,” he says.

At Taylor Morrison, Tierney currently works for Sheryl Palmer, one of the few female CEOs in home building.

“For a young female in this business, it’s inspiring to see someone like her at top of the company,” she says.

Would Tierney want to one day follow in her footsteps? The former journalist sidesteps the question for the time being. “I’m not in a huge hurry to be CEO tomorrow,” she says.