Monday, July 23, 2018

A friend who has made a difference in the commercial real estate industry: Marjorie Tsang

Marjorie Tsang is a Visiting Scholar with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies on issues relating to financing climate-resilient real assets projects worldwide, an initiative on behalf of the UN Secretary-General.  She is a board member of the USAA Real Estate Company and an active member of WX (New York Women Executives in Real Estate), having served on the WX, Inc., and WX Charitable Fund, Ltd. boards and serving on the Philanthropy Committee currently.  Marjorie is an instructor for the REAP-NY program.

Marjorie served as a senior investment officer at the New York State Common Retirement Fund, the third largest public pension fund in the United States.  From 1999-2011, she was the Assistant Comptroller for Real Estate Investments with investment and asset management responsibilities for the Fund’s $9 billion Real Estate portfolio.  From September 2011 through August 2012, she served as the Interim Chief Investment Officer. Until her retirement from the Fund in 2014, she covered strategic initiatives including the Real Assets portfolio, asset allocation and the Environmental Social Governance program.  Marjorie joined the Office of the New York State Comptroller in October 1993 as Assistant Counsel for Real Estate Investments and later assumed legal responsibility for the Fund in all asset classes.  She received her BA from Yale University and her JD from Columbia Law School. 

Marjorie and I met like a lot of us in the institutional real estate world via attending conferences such as PREA (Pension Real Estate Association).  We’d cross paths periodically and catch up on things.  As I got to know Marjorie better I learned what a great advocate she has been, throughout her entire career, for women and younger people in the real estate industry - such an admirable trait to be so giving of your time to others.

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

A.  My first employer encouraged rotating through different departments. That was an important criteria for me when evaluating law firms.  I thought I was headed to a banking law career but the work didn’t excite me. Tax, trusts & estates and corporate law didn’t fit well either. I found that I could learn and apply the law but the passion was missing.  In contrast, by the time I got through a month of my real estate rotation, everything clicked.  I loved my colleagues, the clients, the work, the responsibility that was given to me as a young professional and the sense of accomplishment after a workout or closing.  And as all real estate practitioners know, real estate provides something wonderfully tangible, as well as its connection to people. 

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

A.  We all have to take a certain amount of risk in our lives. That may involve taking on a project that you don’t want, working with someone who terrifies you or going back to school when there are so many demands on your life. In the end, it will enhance your options -- opening up different paths that you could never have imagined.  

My life example of this risk-taking issue comes from my first career transition. After practicing law in firms for several years, I answered a New York Times ad for a real estate lawyer and joined the New York Common Retirement Fund.   I spent a few years leading the real estate legal department, and then was promoted, against my will, to be Investments Counsel for all of the pension fund's asset classes. I didn't believe that I could learn beyond real estate, and I didn't want to; but the general counsel said I had no choice.  I surprised myself by absorbing new fields of business, different terminology, conflicting policies and meeting people from vastly different backgrounds.  It was great. Having been inspired by this shake-up, I felt a need to do something new but to return to real estate. I saw that an asset management position would be opening up. I wondered, “Can I do that job?  I have a JD, not an MBA.” After endless self-doubts and debates with myself, I thought, "OK, let's give it a shot." I threw my hat in the ring.  I had to persuade key decision-makers, including the Trustee, Carl McCall, that I could serve the pension fund, the retirees and beneficiaries -- as a business person, not a lawyer -- managing the real estate portfolio for, what was then, the second largest public pension fund in the country.  That career risk paid off in multiples.  Never in a million years -- when I was in junior high school, when I aspired to be a lawyer -- did I ever imagine that I would be the CIO of a huge pension fund. 

As I encourage everyone -- including myself -- you have no idea what 10 years may bring.  Take the meeting, read the article, accept the nightmare project, invite someone to join you for lunch, take on a pro bono assignment, speak up even if you are the contrarian (but be well-reasoned).  Try on something new for size before telling yourself it can't work for you.  

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

A.  For the most part I would do it all over again because I wouldn’t want to miss the people I met along the way.   I do wish I had taken my own advice -- to take more risk early in my career, visit different cities, volunteer for projects out of my comfort zone -- because every single task/assignment/trip reveals something new. This is my lesson even today: to do as much as I can, but not make myself crazy either.  

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

A.  I’m sure everyone tells you that’s a very hard question and I put a lot of thought into this.  There are just so many. Here are three people who stand out and I realize I'm clearly missing some very important folks.

My father Robert Tsang, who is a first generation Chinese–American, didn’t have a chance to go to college. He was an entrepreneur and got involved in different business ventures and community activities.  He dragged me and my siblings along everywhere.  From the earliest memories he said to me, "You are going to be working and you can do whatever you want. You better work hard and you just have to do the best you can.” He was the kind of parent who left a list of potential colleges on the kitchen table to review over breakfast. Or, he would hear me talking on the phone setting up an interview and after I’d hung up he’d bark, “Call them back and do that call over.”  He demanded high standards through tackling new challenges and never settling.

Another big influencer is a law firm partner, Steve Buchman, because he told me the truth. He told me when I messed up, missed an opportunity or dropped the ball. As hard as that was to hear, it was couched in how I could reach the next rung if I were more aware of my impact.  I needed to hear the critiques because it forced me to step up my game since I wanted to do a good job on behalf of our clients.  He supported me when I was treated unfairly by coaching me to stand up for myself.  I’m still grateful to him and try to celebrate his birthday with him every year. Steve was also a big booster and fan of our clients.  I got to watch - through him - how to be not only a lawyer, but a solid corporate citizen and worthy friend.

And, then there was the irrepressible Alice Connell - whom we all miss tremendously (Alice died of a brain tumor in early 2017 at age 70). Alice and her gritty/gracious attitude, her can-do spirit. She taught me by example and often invited me to programs to open my eyes to new business challenges.  There wasn't anything that Alice wouldn't tackle and persuade others to follow if it were a noble endeavor.  Alice-isms -- and the way she enunciated them - encourage me still, when things appear dire and I hope they will improve. "Dear, hope is not a strategy!"

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