To succeed in the commercial real estate industry takes hard work, determination and ambition. Any battle-tested developer would likely add this sage advice: learn to take a blow and pick yourself up off the mat.
"If someone asks me my definition of success, I say it’s a person who can stand 22 punches in his life and only gets 21," said Lawrence Fielder, New York University professor and owner of JRM Development Enterprises in New York. "Tenacity is a major component of success. I think you start with tenacity, add some intelligence, add some direction, then you add effort—that’s where you come up with a successful person."
To gain more insight into the next generation of finance and development experts about to enter the field, NREI interviewed five recent graduates of NYU’s Real Estate Institute and Columbia University’s School of Architecture. Both schools offer a master’s degree in real estate and are highly regarded for their academic excellence and diversity of graduates.
Undoubtedly, the new guard needs to be resilient in the short term. Challenges include an economic slowdown and some hiring freezes or delayed hiring decisions, said Michael Buckley, director of the real estate development program at Columbia University.
Regardless, after completing an intensive study of the real estate industry at Columbia University, these students are ready to contribute to the field, Buckley said.
"They do have an amazingly effective boot camp. Just like marine recruits, they come out the other side with fire in their belly and a consuming desire to excel," he said. "Our hope is that this is the kind of resourcefulness that you can’t find anywhere else."
Words of wisdom
As this new crop of grads enters the industry, the world is full of possibilities. Today’s real estate companies operate locally and think globally. Technology has transformed virtually every discipline, from title insurance to property management. Commercial-mortgage-backed securities (CMBS), relatively unknown 10 years ago, have emerged as a dominant player in adding liquidity to the marketplace.
According to Jack Cohen, CEO of Chicago-based Cohen Financial, a mortgage banking firm, now is a good time to enter the field. Cohen recalled that during the bleak years of the early 1990s, virtually no one entered the industry, consequently "they [students] have a tremendous opportunity to fill the positions left behind."
NYU professor Rob Blumenthal, who also serves as a managing director of Deutsche Banc Alex Brown, an investment banking and brokerage firm, said that the NYU master’s program bridges the academic world with practical know-how.
"The real estate industry is a much more disciplined industry today," Blumenthal explained. "People have to be much more technically skilled in terms of how they analyze the project. They have to be able not only to create the financial models but understand how they’re applied."
Armed with knowledge, experience and a willingness to pursue their dreams, the five graduates profiled here don’t place limits on what they can accomplish. They’re poised to achieve success on their own terms.
Itien Ko: Gaining global perspective
Itien Ko journeyed from her homeland of Taiwan to New York, the financial center of the world, to glean all the knowledge she could about commercial real estate securitization. In Taiwan and China, real estate securities do not yet exist. However, Ko, 29, is optimistic that in a few years this new real estate trend will explode in Asia as it has in the United States.
Ko wants to be ahead of the curve when real estate securities do materialize in China and Taiwan. That’s why she decided to travel approximately 7,800 miles, to attend NYU’s Real Estate Institute, as a graduate student in the Master of Science in Real Estate program. During her final semester, she interned at New York-based Lehman Brothers, an investment-banking firm, to gain field experience as an associate in the CMBS department.
Wall Street speak
"I think securitization brings the real estate market a totally different world," Ko said. Although Ko doesn’t yet know where she will be working, she is positive that her job will include dealing with investment vehicles such as CMBS and REITs. "The next step for me is to work in the CMBS field at rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s."
Ko, who graduated in May, plans to spend between three and five years in the U.S., absorbing information about the real estate securitizations. Then she will head back to China with a more global perspective and real estate investment knowledge in tow. "I see the whole of Asia as my market, because I think everybody is waiting to see what China will become in the future."
Moving to New York from Taiwan posed some extra challenges for Ko. She had studied English at school, but she wasn’t a fluent speaker. She had to learn to speak English more proficiently while living here and adjusting to a new culture.
Also, when she came to New York she didn’t have a support network. "As a foreigner, I had no friends before I moved," she said. Now, she has plenty of friends in the industry that she met through the NYU master’s program.
The pull of the land
Real estate is a well-respected profession in Asia, according to Ko. Land is a precious commodity in Taiwan and populous China. Also, the Chinese feel a binding connection to the land. "Real estate is a very important investment for the Chinese and everybody in the world," Ko said.
For these reasons, Ko chose to major in real estate as an undergraduate in the department of land management at Feng Chia University in Taichung, Taiwan. After graduation in 1994, she went to work as a real estate appraiser for a large appraisal firm — China Union Real Estate Appraisal Co. in Taipei, Taiwan. "When I worked in appraisal, I saw the difficulty in finding capital for real estate," Ko said. Her desire to learn more about alternative methods of capital investment spurred her to become a full-time student at the NYU Real Estate Institute.
Ko’s primary focus was to learn about the process of financing real estate. "Real estate is local," she said. "Capital is global, and lots of real estate companies want to invest in Asia." Ko wanted to learn more about securitization in preparation for its expected entrance into China. Japan already has a CMBS market and Thailand also has some securitization, according to Ko.
She chose NYU for its focus on real estate finance, and for the professors who teach and also work in the industry. She said that all of her learning came together in her investment capstone course, where students engaged in transactions.
NYU also featured non-credit courses, real estate conferences and the Real Estate Club for students. Ko said these non-classroom learning experiences provided networking opportunities. Ko’s involvement in the Real Estate Club enabled her to make on-site visits to major properties such as 4 Times Square. Ko is confident that she will achieve her goals and find a job that will allow her to continue her studies in real estate securitization.
So, after she spends a few years working in New York, Ko will be ready to return to Asia, where she might have the opportunity to be a pioneer when real estate securities become a reality in China. Regardless, she said, "Everything I’ve learned here, I’ll take back and apply in Asia."
Kenya Smith: Changing people’s lives
Buildings mean more to Kenya Smith, 32, than the average person. He sees the structures as places designed to accommodate the living and working needs of people.
"What drew me first to architecture — what draws most people into architecture — is the desire to help build communities," Smith explained. "People want to build something that will stand the test of time."
His knowledge of buildings is a requirement for his current career as an architect. Smith can decipher blueprints and quickly identify the materials that should be used in the construction of buildings, whether the materials are concrete, steel, bricks or glass. However, his passion for building extends further than design. For that reason he’s preparing for a career shift to real estate development, which will allow him to do more than just design buildings for clients.
To gain more practical real estate experience, Smith chose to continue his education at Columbia University, which offers a Master of Science in Real Estate Development through the School of Architecture.
He wanted to learn the language of real estate finance in order to pursue his own development projects.
Smith said that while studying to be an architect at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he found a role model in John Portman, the architect of well-known structures such as the Marriott Marquis hotel in New York and the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel in Atlanta. This inspired him to make his own mark.
"I’ve been very fortunate as a young architect to do a lot in a short period of time," Smith said. During his seven years working as an architect, he has challenged himself in all aspects of the field — ranging from the public sector to the private sector, to owning a small firm and working for a large one.
He is currently completing a two-year stint on a project at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry at 33 West 42nd St. for Hillier Group Architects, a large New York firm. He serves as the architect on site for the project, which is a complete renovation of 18 floors. The project is in the final stages as workers finish the last two floors, one housing a laboratory and another housing executive offices.
In this role, Smith interprets the renovation blueprints for the building management, school officials and the construction workers. He also had to revise the drawings as necessary.
He’s proud that he owned a small business, and said that the experience taught him a lot about himself. Smith also believes that his work in the public sector with the U.S. Department of Defense helped turn an institutional office building into a more workable and image-conscious space.
"One of the more defining moments for me was giving a whole new look to an agency — a new thumbprint," Smith said. This process of helping a public agency realize the importance of the image it portrayed to its customers was a triumph as Smith and another architect came up with a master plan for the compound and added the finishing touches.
Investing in communities
Despite these varied experiences, Smith still felt somewhat limited in what he could accomplish. "Architects have a special niche. They don’t develop," Smith said. "You’re not taught in architectural school how to bring money to the table."
His ultimate goal is to be in charge of developing and designing buildings in urban communities where there is a need for housing and retail stores, especially those neighborhoods populated by African-Americans. "Property has been deemed valuable, but no developers or investors will go in these areas," he said.
He found the Columbia program to be enlightening in the language of finance. He learned that development wasn’t the only route he could take to invest or build in urban communities. He discovered that he could work for a pension fund, or as a pension fund advisor, to direct where the funds are invested.
Most of all, Smith envisions leaving future generations meaningful housing and retail structures that he either helped develop or design. "I think it’s important," Smith said. "You’re here to help and change people’s lives."
Doron Sabag: A winding journey
Hauling more than 12,000 bricks in buckets up six flights of stairs might not seem like the realization of a dream. However, for Doron Sabag this necessary part of the renovation of his Manhattan apartment at 454 West 23rd St. signifies the determination and desire that’s necessary to pursue a completely new vocation.
"In the back of your mind there is something that you would love to do," Sabag said. For Sabag, that dream job is real estate development, and he plans to pursue his passion with his newly formed company, which is called Monumental Realty Partners Ltd.
"I’ve always been obsessed with real estate—I just never thought I should be doing it," he explained. Part of Sabag’s reluctance to make real estate a career stemmed from his background. More than 13 years ago, he moved from Israel to New York and became a U.S. citizen. Sabag said that in Israel a career in real estate doesn’t hold the opportunity or prestige that it does in the United States. After arriving in New York, he began to start thinking about the possibility of a real estate career.
Back to school
Sabag felt the pull of renovating and creating reborn buildings. To gain knowledge about the field and make contacts in the industry he enrolled in the master’s program at NYU’s Real Estate Institute.
"I couldn’t justify starting a development company without having real estate experience," Sabag said. "I took the NYU program to make me more credible in the eyes of lenders."
Sabag said that at the beginning he didn’t find the course work difficult, but he appreciated the expertise of his professors, who are well-versed in the industry. One class in particular, analytical reasoning, taught him the method to evaluate properties from an owner’s perspective. Eventually, he became the teaching assistant for the class. He also was challenged by the capstone course, where students work in their chosen concentration.
"The program, besides offering basic information, was a tremendous networking opportunity," Sabag said. The alumni of the school number more than 1,000. Also, the program continues to gain recognition and respect in the industry as its graduates continue to fill the ranks of professional real estate firms.
The meandering path
Sabag, 36, didn’t take a direct route into real estate. He found his way into banking, which offered an occasional glimpse into the real estate world, but no direct involvement. He also previously worked as an attorney. His last position was vice president of the financial institutions group at Shmitomo, a Japanese bank with offices in New York.
When Shmitomo announced a merger with another bank, which became SMBC Banking Corp. effective April 1, Sabag volunteered to leave with a one-year severance package. He was ready to take the plunge and start a real estate development company after proving that he could renovate a living space into something unexpected.
Labor of love
Completing the renovation of his apartment was Sabag’s final step in the pursuit of his dream. To start his apartment project, he purchased the top-floor apartments in his building. Then he began a total gut renovation of the space, making it into a single, two-story apartment. The renovation included dismantling the hallway, stairs and beams under the floor. Sabag said that it left behind "completely nothing, except pipes and ugliness."
The bricks that he and his friends and workers carried up the stairs were laid to build the north and south rooftop decks, and to build up the chimney, according to building specifications established by the Landmark Commission of New York.
"It was a small job with the complexities of a big project," Sabag said. He handled all the details, from hiring contractors to dealing with building codes. During the height of the four-month renovation, he took off a semester from the NYU program.
After the renovation was finished, the apartment was completely unrecognizable from its original form. It was transformed into a place with ample space, light and a staircase leading up to the top floor. Now, Sabag has a structure that demonstrates his natural ability and tenacity to turn existing buildings into more livable spaces, which prepared him to tackle larger projects. His company recently bid on a West Village brownstone for its first project.
Sabag is excited and anxious about his new career. His primary real estate development target is Manhattan, where he knows that the key to success is to discover up-and-coming neighborhoods.
Joseph Koehler: Finding the right niche
Knowing what you want to do in life is the first step toward finding engaging work. Joseph Koehler, now in his mid-30s, got the opportunity to experience many different types of industries in Europe, Asia and the United States while working at Andersen Consulting. He found the most interesting assignments to be those involving real estate. After working for a few years, he realized it was time to pursue what he really wanted to do.
"As a consultant, you work with so many different industries with so many different functions. I didn’t really have a passion for any of those, and I got sick of not developing any depth in a particular area," Koehler said. "I have a passion for real estate, and I wanted to focus on and develop that passion."
Although Koehler already had gained exposure to real estate and earned an MBA in international business, he felt the best way to learn an industry was through a targeted educational program. He chose Columbia University due to its location in New York, and its access to alumni.
Now that the master’s program has drawn to a close, Koehler doesn’t know if he’ll remain in New York. He relocated to the city for the year-long program, while his wife remained in Minnesota to continue working in her present job. "The geographic location is secondary. The organization and the opportunity is primary," he said. "But let’s face it, one of the primary reasons I chose Columbia over other programs is that it’s in New York. It’s a $1.50 subway ride to so many of the decision-makers in the industry."
Koehler praised the multi-disciplinary approach of Columbia’s program. With this approach, he learned about finance, law, design, site planning and construction management. "The program offered a very comprehensive study of the industry, and how you can best fit into it," he explained.
During the program, Koehler sought out an internship at New York-based AIG Global Real Estate Investment Corp., a real estate investment firm. He enjoyed learning more about the company’s investment strategies and getting a glimpse into the inner workings of a real estate firm.
Koehler said he would like to be able to apply his international background in his real estate career, but he emphasized that it’s more important for him to find a firm that fits his vision.
"If there’s a real dynamic, youthful company that’s versatile, team-orientated, has opportunities without boundaries and is in brownfield development, I would feel very close to pursuing that as opposed to joining a company because of my international background," he said.
Real estate state of mind
Koehler has been passionate for real estate since grade school. "Even as a little kid, I used to sit in our dining room and take my Dad’s bureau pad and draw floor plans all day," he said.
On vacation, he travels to old architectural sites that are tucked away. Koehler said he tries to comprehend how a building suits its occupants. Questions such as the following pop into his mind: "How do people use the place? Does it make sense for people?"
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Koehler couldn’t wait to escape, but he has come to appreciate the Windy City’s architectural beauty, which adds to its vibrancy.
Koehler discovered the importance of pursuing a passion after he joined a chemical company as an internal consultant. "The company sold glue," he recalled. "At no time in my life will I ever be passionate about glue."
At that moment, Koehler knew that his decision to pursue real estate would stick.
Jason Birnboim: Creative deals inspire him
The real estate business continues to be a family affair. Jason Birnboim, who has followed in his father’s footsteps, is proof positive. For Birnboim, who has been exposed to real estate all his life, it runs deep in his blood.
Birnboim, 29, didn’t jump directly into real estate. After finishing college, he could have remained in Toronto and worked for the family real estate business, Beaux Properties International, which owns and manages a portfolio of multifamily units.
Instead he chose to continue his education. "I wanted to bring more to the table than what I had," he said. Four degrees later, including an undergraduate degree in urban geography, an undergraduate and a graduate law degree, and finally a master’s degree from New York University’s Real Estate Institute, he’s prepared to begin his career in real estate finance.
Real estate transactions
Birnboim remembers that as a 7-year-old he crawled around a boiler room in one of his father’s residential properties. As a teenager, Birnboim spent summers doing maintenance repair work on these same properties. In his college years, Birnboim was promoted to the property management office. Today, he still scouts properties for his father, but he isn’t employed in the business. Instead he wants to carve out his own niche in the real estate industry.
His foray into the industry was through law. After completing law school, he worked a few years as a real estate associate at the law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft in New York.
"I was encouraged by my family to get a professional degree," Birnboim explained. "That was part of my upbringing." His parents wanted him to earn a degree that he could fall back on in case the real estate business, or another industry, didn’t pan out.
After learning the legal side of transactions, he wanted to be back on the negotiating side of the table, and that’s what brought him to the NYU program. Birnboim said that he enrolled primarily to gain more formal finance training and to cultivate New York real estate contacts. The program offered an outlet to evaluate deals, which wasn’t a new concept to Birnboim, who often evaluates investment properties for his father.
His intent was to land a real estate executive position in New York after completing the NYU program. Also, he explored real estate career opportunities back in Toronto, but he didn’t expect to find a way back to Canada immediately after completing his degree. He was in for a pleasant surprise.
Forging his own path
Birnboim interviewed with Toronto-based Morrison Financial Mortgage Corp. and received an offer to start working with the company in June on the heels of his May graduation. The opportunity to work for a small, enterprising firm appealed to Birnboim. "This position blended my goal of real estate business, finance, entrepreneurial and equity," he said. "I wouldn’t be able to find a ground-floor opportunity like this in New York."
At Morrison, Birnboim joins as president of the two-man operation. The company’s tenet is to finance properties that previously didn’t have a venue in Canada’s more constrained capital marketplace.
Birnboim’s first "exotic deal" involves the purchase of a partly contaminated piece of land in an area outside of Toronto. In this deal, Morrison is partnered with an environmental cleanup company. Morrison provides the financing and the environmental company provides the cleanup. Once the property is cleaned up and marketable, it will be ready to sell or develop.
Birnboim candidly admits that his primary motivation is to make money, but he does believe in the importance of scruples and ethics in the process. "I want to make a lot of money in real estate in a fair way, while being involved in challenging, creative deals."
Real estate schools and programs of note
Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
Degree: Master of Science in Real Estate Development
Georgia State University
Robinson College of Business (Department of Real Estate)
Degree: Master of Science in Real Estate
Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) Center for Real Estate
Degree: Master of Science in Real Estate Development
New York University, Real Estate Institute
Degree: Master of Science in Real Estate
Bachelor of Science in Real Estate
Ohio State University
Fisher College of Business
Degrees: Bachelor of Science, Master of Business Administration
University of Cincinnati
College of Business Administration
Degree: Bachelor of Science, Master of Business Administration
University of California, Berkeley
Haas Real Estate Group
Degree: Bachelor of Science, Master of Business Administration
University of Georgia, Terry College of Business, Real Estate Program
Degree: Bachelor of Business Administration in Real Estate and Real Estate MBA
University of Michigan
Business School-Real Estate
Degrees: Bachelor of Business Administration, Master of Business Administration
University of Southern California
Lusk Center for Real Estate
Degree: Master of Real Estate Development, Master of Business Administration (real estate concentration)
University of Texas A&M
Lowry Mays College & Graduate School of Business
Degree: Master of Land Economics and Real Estate
University of Wisconsin-Madison
School of Business
Degree: Master of Science in Real Estate and Urban Land Economics
The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Real Estate Department
Degree: Bachelor of Science and a Master of Business Administration (real estate concentration)