At the desk of: Onay Payne

The Clarion executive on sipping tequila as her firm unwinds in Mexico, her 45-second bond with Michelle Obama and her rugby tackling skills
By Kathryn Brenzel | June 01, 2018 10:00AM

Onay Payne (Photos by Emily Assiran)

Onay Payne, 42, is a managing director and equity holder at the New York-based real estate investment manager Clarion Partners, which oversees $45.6 billion in assets. The firm is active in several major cities and emerging markets around the world. In New York, Clarion co-owns 180 Maiden Lane and is overseeing the redevelopment of 390 Madison Avenue, among other projects and properties. Payne runs a $6-billion-plus portfolio in the U.S. and Mexico — primarily office and retail properties, with some multifamily and industrial buildings in the mix. In April, she was appointed to Clarion’s investment committee, a role that allows her to weigh in on new investment and disposition opportunities for the firm. Payne was born in Jamaica, but her family moved to Hempstead, Long Island, when she was four years old. She majored in history and literature at Harvard College in the 1990s and went on to receive her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2003. After four years as an investment banker at JPMorgan Chase, Payne joined Clarion as an associate in 2003. Though she still owns a co-op in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, she primarily lives in a house she bought with her ex-husband in New Rochelle. Her tidy Midtown office is on the 12th floor of the Helmsley Building at 230 Park Avenue. The Beaux-Arts tower’s H-shape gives Payne a view of Dave Kutayiah, Clarion’s head of human resources, on clear mornings, so they’ll wave to each other from their desks. Near the entrance to her office, a photo of an unnamed boxer taken by the artist Tom Marks hangs on the wall. “For me it’s this concept of resilience,” she said. “He’s in the corner of the ring, head is down, but you know, do not count that man out. It’s the same with me. I may need to take a moment, but I’m going to come out swinging if I need to.”

Dancer statue

Payne’s love for dance runs deep. She performed in an African ensemble when she lived in Dallas from 2006 to 2015. Although she no longer performs with a team, Payne said she still makes time two to three days a week for dance classes in a variety of genres, including modern, African, Latin and jazz. An ex-boyfriend’s mother gave her this ballerina statue about a decade ago, and she looks to it during particularly challenging days at work. “My creative release, my catharsis, is dance, so she’s a little reminder of the joy I look forward to when things are not always where I’d like them to be,” Payne said.

Poker trophy

Payne recently won a poker championship, and she has a trophy to prove it. King & Spalding, a law firm that Clarion works with, held the event at its Midtown office in February. The tournament, sponsored by the women’s team-building group Poker Prima Divas, was Payne’s first time playing, but she said she prides herself on being a quick learner. She hopes to continue playing, she noted, since poker involves skills that she can use in her day-to-day work: reading body language, strategizing and taking acquired information and applying it to new situations. “I think there are a lot of life lessons that are applicable,” she said.

Don Julio 1942

Payne is in the process of unwinding Clarion’s portfolio in Mexico because “the risks associated with investing in Mexico today far outweigh the potential returns,” she said. The past few years in the country have been a bumpy ride for her firm, which is pursuing a $223 million fraud claim against the Mexican government for allegedly voiding debt owed to funds controlled by Clarion. A colleague gave Payne this bottle of tequila a few years after Clarion launched a joint venture with a local firm there. “When there’s a win to celebrate in Mexico specifically, I take a sip of that,” Payne said. “I’m hopeful in the next couple of years that I’ll finish that bottle.”

Steel bolt 

Clarion and L&L Holding are leading the redevelopment of 390 Madison Avenue on behalf of the building’s owner, the New York State Common Retirement Fund. Clarion is serving as the fund’s investment adviser, while L&L is the project’s fee developer and leasing agent. The revamp is adding eight floors to the 24-story office tower and will span a total of 850,000 square feet. Payne received this steel bolt — which was part of the original structure — when the project topped out at 373 feet in October 2017. The building comprises 20 percent of Payne’s portfolio.

Picture with Michelle

Last June, Payne got the chance to meet Michelle Obama at the Toigo Foundation’s annual gala at Cipriani Wall Street. The Clarion executive is an alumnus of the nonprofit’s fellowship program, which is open exclusively to minority pre-MBA students and helps promote diversity in academia and business. Payne was awarded the opportunity to meet and take a picture with Obama, the event’s keynote speaker. “It’s literally like 45 seconds that you get to spend with her, as you’re taking this picture,” she said. “But even in that little time, she has this ability to make what feels like a very personal connection with you.”

Construction boots 

When Payne first started at Clarion, she visited a construction site in “a cute dress and kitten heels,” not realizing that she’d have to climb to the building’s roof. Since then, she keeps a pair of work boots in her office, along with a pair of Chanel pumps. She said the boots and heels reflect the fact that she’s a “person of contrasts.”  “There’s this assertive, aggressive, refuse-to-be-held-back side. When I was a kid, my uncle used to call me ‘little fighter’ because I was ready to fight for what I thought was important,” Payne said, noting that she played rugby in college and “was a pretty good tackler.”  “On the other side, I have this more feminine energy,” she added.