Pam Kessler ’88 only expected to stay at UCI for one year, and then transfer. After graduating from high school in San Diego, she was diverted from her preferred UC campus to the system’s newest location in Southern California.
Three decades later, Kessler is the co-president and chief financial officer of a $2 billion publicly traded company and serves on the UCI School of Social Sciences’ Dean’s Leadership Society, where she gives back to the university that – unexpectedly – became her alma mater and helped transform her into a leader.
“UCI is where I blossomed. I came in as a very shy, introverted student, and I jumped in with both feet and got involved, and it just snowballed from there,” Kessler says. “One opportunity led to another and another. And that’s how life is, even after you graduate.”
Fun at the Backlot
Part of what kept Kessler at UCI was the social life she built for herself in her first months on campus. Greek life was booming at the time, and Kessler’s roommate brought her along to learn more about a new sorority being established on campus, with members from USC and UCLA recruiting founding members for the Irvine chapter. Kessler ended up becoming a founding member of UCI’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta, which she says was her first taste of leadership.
Kessler had so much fun her freshman year that she never transferred to another campus. Instead, she got more involved and took on additional leadership roles at UCI. She became a Panhellenic delegate, a vice president, and ultimately president of her sorority. She was also involved with student government, planning the Homecoming dance her first year, then becoming an assistant vice president, and eventually, vice president of student services.
“I had to campaign and engage in public speaking, which was way out of my comfort zone,” Kessler remembers. But she pushed herself to run for elected student government office anyway, and she recalls her campaign slogan, which defines the spirit of the campus in the ’80s: “Fun and free beer in the Backlot.” The Backlot, a restaurant with a patio beer garden where students would gather after class, was the focal point of campus social life.
In addition to Wayzgoose, Oktoberfest and the first annual Reggaefest, other highlights of Kessler’s tenure as vice president of student services include promoting concerts at the newly built Bren Events Center, which hosted performances including R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, and comedian Jay Leno. Kessler also actively lobbied along with fellow student government vice presidents to establish an Anteater football team, though that never came to fruition.
UCI wasn’t just about social life for Kessler. She found her academic passion in economics courses and also interned with a brokerage firm and later a real estate company – where she fell in love with the real estate industry. As her graduation approached, Kessler booked a full schedule of on-campus interviews with potential employers.
But that did not go as planned, either.
While nursing a bruised ego from a bank’s personality test that she “failed,” she got a call from the Ernst & Young recruiter: Kessler’s interview had been booked in error, and they were only hiring graduate students. But they would let her do a practice interview.
Kessler seriously considered blowing it off to go hang out with friends at the Backlot. “But a little voice inside said, ‘go and get out of your comfort zone,’” she says. The practice interview went so well that E&Y told her that if she completed all the accounting classes required to take the CPA exam, then she could have a job the following year.
“Once again, opportunities don’t always present themselves as you envision. You’ve got to get out of your comfort zone,” she says. “If I had not agreed to that interview, I don’t know where my career would be.”
A home in real estate
Kessler spent nearly four years at E&Y before leaving to work for a client, KB Home, where she met her husband, Steve. Although she enjoyed the fast-paced exciting environment of homebuilding, Kessler left KB Home when the opportunity arose to join the Irvine Company’s newly formed publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT), Irvine Apartment Communities, where she served as operations controller and director of financial reporting. A REIT, similar to a mutual fund, allows investors to pool their money to own various types of real estate or property, and earn dividends.
When she and her husband moved to Ventura County, where they had two children, Rindi and Cole, Kessler worked for a private real estate developer. Eventually, an old connection – a colleague from her CPA exam study group – called her about an opening at LTC Properties, a publicly traded company headquartered in Westlake Village, California. Although she was not really interested in leaving her current position, Kessler went to the interview, and was immediately impressed by the people, and the company’s corporate culture.
LTC is a health care REIT that invests in seniors housing and health care real estate. While publicly traded companies require added pressure of more stringent reporting deadlines and requirements, Kessler relishes those professional and intellectual challenges. She advanced from vice president and controller to co-president and chief financial officer of LTC.
Her professional expertise has made her a sought-after corporate board member, as well. She serves on the boards of Physicians Realty Trust, another publicly traded health care REIT, and Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center Foundation.
“The advice I would pass along is that the times I’ve learned the most and expanded the most were when I was making myself uncomfortable, pushing myself beyond what I thought I could achieve,” Kessler says. Beginning, of course, as a shy college student and growing into a UCI student leader.
Kessler urges current students to make the most of their time on campus by getting involved.
“Use this time in your life on campus because it will never be replicated,” Kessler says. “Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Get involved and try new things! If you’re feeling comfortable, you’re not doing it right.”
Years after moving out of Orange County, Kessler is thrilled to be reconnected with her alma mater, especially as a member of the School of Social Sciences’ Dean’s Leadership Society. What’s more, the rise in virtual Zoom events — from coffee chats with the dean to UCI Homecoming — have made it even easier for her to participate from home in Ventura County.
Because Kessler fully appreciates the unexpected outcomes in her life and career that came from embracing new opportunities, even when they were outside of her comfort zone, she now makes a point to offer up opportunities whenever possible, from recent college graduates to mid-career professionals who seek her out.
“I derive a great deal of joy and fulfillment helping and mentoring younger professionals at various stages of their careers,” says Kessler.
“I think it’s important to remember the doors that were opened for us throughout our career, and to pay it forward. Turn around and open doors for others,” she adds. “I’ve been trying to open as many doors for people as I can, whether that’s a conversation or an introduction to someone. You never know where that may lead.”
-Christine Byrd for UCI Social Sciences