A Real Estate Career: Lessons Learned (2010-2012)

The optics of business school are great because being a student gives you a halo – you appear to be “studying”, hard at work, transforming yourself.

Whereas if you took two years off to just actively look for, recruit, and interview for jobs in a new industry it would raise eyebrows, if you instead pay vast sums for the privilege of doing so, while paying even more in opportunity cost / lost income, it is more professionally accepted.  Ironic and backwards, but that is the imprimatur of business school.  That’s what people pay for.

Also, it’s a good two year break that looks good on a resume.

I entered Haas because I wanted a break.  I also wanted to be close to home, and the counties where Property Tax Advisors was appealing cases.  I wanted to be on the West Coast, because most of my consulting clients were in Asia – and I would have to fly there from time to time.  In case it wasn’t obvious, I still wanted to work part-time.  And also, to seal the deal, Haas gave me a scholarship, which combined with what Gary still owed me, made it an all-expenses paid, tax-free, two year vacation.

But I don’t want to make it seem like I didn’t take the whole experience seriously.  I did want to learn.  I wanted time to read books again.

The first thing I did when I arrived on campus was sign up for Mandarin classes, which I took with undergrads.  And then I signed up for some advanced real estate classes to try to figure out WTH had just happened in the world.

I took real estate classes every quarter.  And I read books on real estate history outside of it, outside of the classes.  At the end of it, I’m not sure I came very much closer to understanding the mechanics of what had happened, but I did gain an appreciation of how fragile things are in the world.

For our final project in a real estate financing class, we had to analyze a CMBS prospectus (commercial mortgage-based security), you know, those products that had helped bring down the global financial system.

I remember little about the product except that its supporting document was about two hundred pages.  Five of us pored through it for weeks.  All of us had come from real estate development, banking, or brokerage backgrounds.  One of us actually had a real estate lawyer for a father so we ended up asking him about the finer points.

But the prospectus was written so as not to be comprehended.  It was written in legalese, even though it was describing what should have been a fairly straightforward series of waterfalls in Excel.

And in the end, it couldn’t be modeled, because it was worded so ambiguously.  It was another lesson in what I had long suspected, which was that in business, maybe a small fraction of people know what they’re talking about, and the rest are just pretending.

I guarantee the bankers selling the junk we tried to model were in the latter camp.  Some of them were probably in business school at the same time as me.

Business school was also an opportunity to experiment.  I tried out different careers.  I interned for a hedge fund manager in San Francisco.  The first time I had a conversation with him, my mind almost exploded.

We began talking about a gold mining company, and his process of thinking out loud led the discussion into energy consumption requirements of the world, and caloric intake of Africans.  It all had a logic, but it was just beyond my grasp.  Just like, say, a college lecture that is beyond your head will make you fall asleep, this conversation had all the trails of making sense, but it was beyond my comprehension.  Struggling under the mental strain of it, I had to go home afterwards and just lay down for a few hours.

They say investing is the last liberal art.  It is the best cross-disciplinary, systems thinking training that anyone can get, I truly believe that.

In the summer, I interned for GE Capital Real Estate, the first big company I had ever worked for.  It also turned out to be a mistake.  Not the company or job itself.  As part of the Global Valuations Team, for the first time, I worked with people who were all exceedingly kind, competent, and able to regulate their emotions.  I had never worked with such nice people before.  I also had a boss that summer who was the best boss I had ever had up to then, and since.  She was patient and a great communicator.  I saw in all the ways what I had been missing by working only at small shops and with extreme people.

But at the same time, in order to take the job, I turned down offers from a resort development company (US-based), and a Mongolian conglomerate that wanted me to help them create a business plan for yurts, in Ulaanbataar.  There is no way I would have that kind of opportunity again.  It was a mistake to turn down adventure when I was still single and should have taken those kinds of “risks”.  It remains one of my regrets.

But the job was a revelation to me in other ways.  I came away from the internship and my classes at school with a more profound realization about the world.  Mostly, about the fragility of it.

You could see this clearly because GE Capital was such a high-level investor and manager.  By high-level, I mean that they invested in properties that were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and purchased portfolios that were in the billions of dollars.  When scale gets that large, numbers become abstract.  When you’re evaluating a portfolio of hundreds of properties, the individual properties themselves also just become pieces of paper holding different lease terms and cash flow logic, encumbered by loan contracts that are themselves just other pieces of paper.

I looked at the stack of hundreds of pages we were poring through, which represented the several billion dollar portfolio we were buying.  And that was it.  Although we weren’t buying the pieces of paper, the pieces of paper held the agreements that held this entire thing together, all the terms and clauses and logic that would be transferred, on other pieces of paper, from a different owner to us, moved like you would a large boulder, carefully, so that at the end, someone could print out another, similar stack of papers with our name on them instead, and magically all the obligations and claims would belong to someone else.

Yet what was contained on these stacks of paper allowed us to borrow more money against it, allowed us to engage service providers and managers to service it, and served as the basis for the valuation of our company.  All around the world, balance sheets were being rearranged, title was being rewritten, people were moving, getting hired, fired.

You might note that this is just a larger scale, of the same type of transaction you would undertake when buying a car or getting a loan.  It’s true, but just think about those transactions too.  Do you ever read every word in a contract?  Do you really know every implication of every clause in a contract?  I doubt 99% of the world does.  Similarly, there were things in the contracts of our portfolios, and the leases, that if you read them carefully were questionable, or ambiguous at best.

But the whole thing was wrapped together by a system of trust.  Trust that people down the channel, the title officers, the lenders, the managers, the agents, the lawyers, everyone, was doing their jobs correctly.  No one at GE Capital was going to have time to review every single line.  Internally we all had to depend on each other, and us as an organization also depended on our service providers, suppliers, the governments and cities in which the real estate was, etc, to do their jobs.

At a scale that enormous, no one person has the whole complete picture.  And if you telescope out to the national economy, the world, it’s the same thing.  No one person has the complete picture.  It’s held together by trust.  And when that trust breaks, the system breaks.

And that, I think, was the main lesson I learned at GE Capital, and probably the main lesson of the financial crisis for me.

After my summer in Connecticut, I moved again.  Business school offered a semester abroad.  And I was going to study abroad in Hong Kong.

Living and studying abroad has been the source of some of my deepest relationships and experiences.  After studying abroad in Hong Kong, I decided I would have to live there.

Also, one night while eating hot wings at a place that prided itself on the scoville (spiciness) levels of its food, I found myself dry heaving, tingling, and in tears after half a bite of their vaunted apocalypse wings.

I began rubbing my eyes, which was a mistake because for some reason the XXL-killer-apocalypse-suicide hot oil had spread to the back of my hand, and now I couldn’t feel my face anymore.

It was at that moment, with fluids draining out of my face, that a girl in a white and black dress walked in smelling of spring, and sat down with me and my friends.

A few years later, she would become my wife.