Friday, May 11, 2018

A friend who has made a difference in the commercial real estate: Ed LaGrassa

Ed LaGrassa has had senior positions at major financial companies and global corporations in the fields of Asset Management and Corporate Real Estate for several decades. Ed is currently president of Chilton Realty Inc., a real estate investment and brokerage company that raises equity and structures joint ventures for investors and developers. Chilton also invests as a principal in real estate ventures. Ed advises and represents Hong-Kong based private equity clients overseeing their New York City portfolios.

At Citigroup he was co-head of their Asset Management workout group overseeing a portfolio of 80 large troubled properties. He was later the Director of Global Real Estate and involved in the strategic overview of the banks largest assets.  Prior to Citicorp, Ed ran a large diversified portfolio of investment-grade properties at Merrill Lynch Hubbard.
At the real estate investment firm of Emmes he headed Asset Management, where he oversaw an extensive portfolio of office buildings, shopping centers and industrial properties. Emmes specialized in repositioning undervalued assets. At Arrow Electronics he headed their entire real estate organization directing strategy and transactions for Arrow's 300 global locations.

Mr. LaGrassa is a licensed real estate broker and architect. He is an active member of The Urban Land Institute (ULI) and their Urban Plan teaching program and The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).  Ed has been chairing two industry organizations; the Asset Management Roundtable and the International Real Estate Group for about 20 years.

Ed is an adjunct Professor at New York University’s graduate degree program and teaches the capstone course in real estate Asset Management. He is often called “The Mayor of New York City’s Asset Management community.”

Mr. LaGrassa is a director on several not-for-profit boards and is also a frequent speaker at industry events. He collects lots of “stuff” as he calls it including vintage Jaguars, wine, corkscrews, fountain pens and walking sticks. 

How Ed and I met:
It was the late 1970’s and I was in my first Manhattan-based real estate jobs.  The ones before that were based in New Jersey.  I was working for a fellow who had started out as a commercial real estate mortgage broker and had morphed, with the times, to doing workouts and turnarounds of problem / foreclosed retail properties for some of the banks and insurance companies with which he had mortgage origination relationships. During that time, Ed was at Allied Stores and at some industry meeting he and I met – we’ve stayed in touch all these years. Ed and I have had an ongoing friendly debate about who the greatest networker in the industry is – him or me.  Ed knows a lot of people and has always been generous with his time as both a mentor and sponsor for commercial real estate industry folks.  He has helped numerous people find positions.  His connectivity is second to none – except me that is (but that debate will continue for the next 30 years!).  Ed has been a great professional friend, a generous soul and a consigliore for me during some challenging times in my career and personal life. 

Q. How did you get your start in the commercial real estate industry?

A.  After getting out of the Army, my first job was working for an architectural firm that designed regional shopping centers for such notable developers as Ralph Birnbaum.  That’s where I became familiar with department and retail stores, strip malls and regional shopping centers. That was my first introduction to real estate.

Following that I went to work for a developer who was building Dutchess Mall in Fishkill, NY. I worked on that project until the bank foreclosed on the property. After that I answered an ad in the New York Times for a position in the Design & Construction Department of Allied Stores (now Macys) and became the chief of staff for the head of that department for the next 5 years. During my tenure there I acted as a developer, tenant and landlord for their retail properties and shopping centers and represented such store chains as Brooks Brothers, Ann Taylor and Jordan Marsh. I was working on the regional malls that Allied was developing and also on those where one of Allied’ department stores was going to be an anchor. While at Allied, I received my architecture degree and I practiced as an architect for while.  I am still a licensed architect and take my continuing education courses to maintain that license.  Sometimes I wonder why, as I won’t be a practicing architect again. Then I realize  - it’s a matter of pride given that it took so long to get it.

Q.  What advice would you give to someone who has been in the industry a short time or a student looking to get her or his start?

A. Go to as many industry events as possible – especially if they’re free.  A tip about what I do at those type events: I stand near the door and see everybody coming in. It gives me a chance to read their nametag and, when it’s someone I’d like to meet, I go up and introduce myself. Of course, I’m not shy, but this is something I’ve done that has proven to be very valuable.  Next: begin building your network, very early.  You do this by meeting people at industry events, getting their business card and then setting up networking situations – meetings, coffees, etc.  Maintaining and expanding your network is very important – not just when you’re looking for a job. Remember that the most important part after meeting someone is to follow up. In terms of your first job, I’d recommend starting with a larger company rather than a small firm.  The reason: when people look at your background you don’t have to explain who the big company is – everybody knows them. Having the imprimatur and the seal of approval from a major company, which you’ve worked for, can be important when you’re starting out in a career. 

Follow-on question on building your network and relationships.
A.  It started when I was looking for a job.  I got to meet lots of people and I started to develop a network and I would then follow up. For example, when I saw an interesting article, I would send them the article and I would do that every 90 days or so.  This way you’re not forgotten and you’re not a burden by sending them unwanted emails.  If there’s something that’s pertinent, send it to them. Also, young people could start to get advisors and mentors early on in their career this could be of tremendous help because they can help guide you and also make introductions. 

I teach in the graduate real estate program at New York University (NYU) as an Adjunct Professor and have been doing so for about 15 semesters. I remember getting a call from a student of who was attending Baruch College. He met me at a conference, while I was standing at a door. He reached out to me and we had breakfast. As result of very active networking he got a job at Midwest based REIT. I encourage people to do as much networking and staying in touch with people as possible.  Maintain those relationships.  That’s still very important. And, it takes work.

Today, LinkedIn is a good way to see how people are moving around in their careers.  When I see that someone has taken a new job or gotten a promotion, I tend to call or send him or her an email. I also send hand-written notes congratulating them since I collect fountain pens. People have commented to me that my hand-written note, written with a fountain pen, is something they save. Even with all the connectivity technology available, a hand-written note has never gone out of favor and people have told me that they appreciate it. Btw, I still maintain a Rolodex.  I find it faster than using my digital databases.  

Q.  As you look back on your career is there something that you wish you had done differently?  If so, what?

A.  The first is, getting my MBA early in my career.  I was going to school full time, working full time then studying for my architect’s exam. My wife and I talked about the possibility of me going to graduate school, after work, for three or four years.  I think that would have seriously jeopardized my marriage and so I didn’t do it.  That was one of the tradeoffs in my life.  One consequence of that was it took me longer to learn, to gain the knowledge and learn the terminology. The imprimatur of a graduate degree was important then and still is now.  The other thing I wish I had done earlier in my career is to find mentors and advisors.  They could have helped point me in the right direction. I might have moved up the food chain a little faster. For years, I’ve acted in the capacity of mentor and advisor to people – knowing how important it is.

Q.  Who have been the major influences on your career?  How? Why?

A.  The four people are Tom Brown at Merrill Lynch, Pat Goldstein at Citibank, Dan Rose at Rose Associates (RA) and Andy Davidoff at Emmes.

For several years when I worked at RA, Dan Rose and I used to meet in the Partners Room every Monday afternoon from 1:30 - 2:30pm. Dan would talk about the visions he had for the firm and what he personally would like to do. He was dealing with complex situations.  One of things he taught me was the importance of industry and community services.  He liked to say, “I make it before 5pm and I give it away after 5pm.” That resonated with me and as a result I became much more active in community service.

Pat Goldstein: I never met anyone who worked harder. She was one of the smartest people that I’ve ever met.  Pat would know more about every deal in her vast portfolio than the RM (Relationship Manager) who was supposed to know everything about it.  What she taught me was to focus on the details and to know the numbers.  She was a wizard at that and I still try to emulate her – know the details, and know the numbers.

Andy Davidoff: Emmes Asset Management. He had one of the widest breadths of knowledge in the real estate business. He knew real estate from the boiler room to the capital markets.  He taught me to cover as many bases as possible. I got to know more operational things from him as well as finance, promotes, waterfalls – the structure of the private equity world. 

Tom Brown was my boss at Merrill Lynch Hubbard.  He had the ability to simplify and integrate some of the most complex concepts and put them in terms that everyone could understand.  We would throw all these things at him and he would say, “It’s this.” And then he would be able to help and guide us. When he left Merrill Lynch he still knew more about parts of their operation than many people who were still there.  Their lawyers and accounts would still call him – and they still do today – because he had a better grasp on things than many of Merrill’s own lawyers and accountants.  

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