May 9, 2017

Real estate titans talk development in changing world

Dutta at Titans of Real Estate
Jesse Winter/Provided
Soumitra Dutta, dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, gives opening remarks at the Titans of Real Estate event April 28.

Students and real estate professionals got a refreshingly honest view of the competitive and contentious world of development April 28 at a New York City panel discussion sponsored by the School of Hotel Administration and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. The event was organized by the Center for Real Estate and Finance.

The second annual “Titans of Real Estate” event at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel featured Sandeep Mathrani, Steven Roth and David Simon.

Richard Baker ’88, who served as moderator, called the panelists “three of the very smartest real estate people in the United States, maybe the world.” Baker is governor and chief executive of Hudson’s Bay Co., the oldest company in North America.

All three described how they had built real estate empires by rescuing or buying failing companies, doing the math and taking risks, when others advised them to sit tight.

Mathrani, chief executive officer of General Growth Properties – valued at $33 billion – described how he came to the United States from India at the age of 16 on a Rotary scholarship. As a civil engineer working in construction in 1986, Mathrani said he sold his Nissan Sentra for $3,500 to help finance his first home in Alexandria, Virginia. He sold the $58,000 property a year later at a profit of nearly $20,000 and realized, “I really like this ... .”

Mathrani advised college students and young executives in the audience of nearly 350 to “follow your passion. Don’t be afraid. ... I’ve made many mistakes. I think you learn from mistakes.”

Simon, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Simon Property Group, said, “You have to keep changing your mindset, [and] you need to continue to have flexibility” to survive and continue to grow in the real estate development business.

“You’ve got to be fast on your feet today. You can’t be hamstrung,” Simon said.

Roth, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Vornado Realty Trust, agreed that the world is encountering unbelievable change, and developers must shift with it to thrive. “We try to stay out of the dangerous part of the change and stay in the positive flow of change,” he said.

All three business executives stressed the importance of mentoring.

Simon said the first time he asked his father for advice was when Bruce Wasserstein and Joseph Perella were founding their Wall Street investment firm, and Simon decided to follow in their footsteps. “Always learn at the feet of the masters,” was his father’s insight.

Mathrani said he has always learned from the masters: When he first met Baker in 1991, the pair differed over which shopping center developer should pay for a $25,000 traffic light. “We split it,” Baker said. “I'm sure I paid for it” was Mathrani’s recollection, triggering laughter in the audience.

Mathrani said he first met Roth in 1994 while trying to buy a company. He eventually served as president of retail at Roth’s realty company. He still addresses his 75-year-old mentor as “Papa.”

Roth joined the panelists in stressing the importance of attracting and retaining female executives.

“We’re just looking for talent,” Roth said, noting his company currently has hired more women in its sales, marketing and legal operations.

During opening remarks, Soumitra Dutta, dean of Cornell SC Johnson, said, “We look forward to putting Cornell on the map in terms of real estate.”

Jon Craig ’80 is a journalist based in New York City.