Clelia Peters’ office overlooking Madison Avenue has all the polish — but none of the stuffiness — of an Upper East Side real estate firm. Along with velvet throw pillows perched on a wood-framed settee, there are photographs the Warburg Realty president took in Southeast Asia, where she did humanitarian work before changing careers and jumping into real estate. A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Business School, Peters is the daughter of Warburg CEO Frederick Peters. But she took a circuitous path to working at the 120-year-old brokerage, which her father bought and renamed in 1991. After earning her MBA, she worked in private equity and later spent four years at Boston Consulting Group before joining Warburg in 2014 as an adviser. With a change-agent mentality, Peters, 38, pushed for an overhaul of the firm’s marketing and technology strategies, an effort that sometimes put her at odds with her dad. “It was an education for both of us,” said Peters, who was named the firm’s president in 2016. Outside of Warburg — which has 125 agents and generated $1 billion in gross commissions last year — Peters is a co-founder of MetaProp, a real estate tech incubator that invests in startups. As technology changes the brokerage world, Peters said, Warburg and other “quality, not quantity” players have a strong hold on their customers. “In high-value, high-volume, high-complexity markets like New York, people who can afford it are always going to want human systems,” she said.
Gerard & Kelly photograph
As a literature major at Yale, Peters thought she’d work in a museum or gallery. A six-month internship in Sweden at the Wanås Art Park convinced her otherwise, but she’s kept a hand in the art world as chair of a nonprofit founded by two of her close friends, performance artists Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly. A photograph of their performance at the Schindler House in Los Angeles “keeps me connected to that world.”
Portraits from Southeast Asia
Peters lived in Southeast Asia for 18 months starting in 2000. She worked with HIV/AIDS-affected children and later did humanitarian relief. While working for the International Rescue Committee in conflict-affected counties like Congo and Nepal, she was struck by the economic underpinnings of conflict and grew interested in finance. “Weirdly, I became the girl with the calculator,” said Peters, who returned to New York to head to Columbia for her MBA.
When she was living in Southeast Asia, Peters studied with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose calligraphy adorns her home and office. “No mud no lotus” speaks to the idea that good things emerge from challenging times. “It’s a good reminder in our industry,” she said.
Peters’ bookshelf is lined with works on interior design, startups and female leadership. After stints in private equity and at BCG, Peters collaborated on a short-lived business focused on creating opportunities for highly skilled women in business. “Most women come into structures of power and find that no chair there was built for them,” she said. “Women leave careers [that are demanding] not just because it’s hard to juggle but because at a deep cultural level, in order to be very successful, you basically have to act like a man.”
Sledding in Central Park
There’s a snapshot of Peters and her father in Central Park from her childhood. She said working under her dad is both rewarding and challenging. Early on when they butted heads over, say, Warburg’s marketing budget, “it was hard not to be like, ‘You always do this, like that time I wanted that prom dress!’” she said. “At this point, we’ve figured out how to do it.”
Peters has two to three cups of Earl Grey daily, a ritual she picked up from her father and grandmother. Palais des Thés and Dammann Frères are her favorites, and she nurses one pot every day — never coffee, which she calls “too much of a caffeine download for me.” The tea “starts hot, but by the afternoon it might be the same pot that I pour over ice.”
Peters and her husband, Hugh Malone, are raising their son, Felix, who was born last year, to be bilingual with the help of a French-speaking nanny. “Neurologically, it opens up pathways for empathy, because you have to tune into the fact that there are differences,” she said.
In 2015, Peters co-founded MetaProp, which to date has invested in 30 startups, including Spruce, which provides title insurance, and Eave, a tech-driven mortgage provider. The firm is in the midst of a $25 million fundraising round that’s expected to close toward the end of this year.
A self-described introvert, Peters initially had a desk among Warburg’s brokers, but she realized she needed an office — however small — for one-one-one conversations. Those chats often take place on her couch. “I’m never sitting behind a desk when I’m meeting with someone. I’m not interested in having that be the terms of which I’m engaging with someone.”