By Steve McLinden
The retail real estate business is going back to school, not just to tweak its own skills, but also to scout all of the up-and-coming talent already seated in the classrooms. Growing numbers of universities are both fine-tuning their master’s and undergraduate commercial real estate programs and creating new ones, as ICSC pitches in with new scholarships and enhanced training programs to encourage the next generation.
“In the mid-1990s there were five real estate master’s programs throughout the U.S.,” said Charles Tu, graduate program director for the University of San Diego’s Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate. “Now there are 20 or so. The landscape has changed dramatically.” Moreover, at least a dozen universities now offer masters in real estate development degrees, with Auburn University, New York University and the University of Utah introducing theirs within these past two years.
Lighter on theory and heavier in practice than in the past, graduate course work today has adapted to such trends as cyber competition, property repositioning, sustainability and mixed-use development. The University of Texas at Arlington, which offers an MSRE (master of science in real estate), created higher education’s first Property Repositioning and Turnaround Strategies certificate program. This 13-hour, graduate-level curriculum focuses on the current economic, demographic and social phenomena facing the industry, including environmental and rezoning challenges, code issues and energy retrofitting. “We had to look at where the opportunities were for the next few years,” said business professor Fred Forgey, who teaches the program with former Columbia University professor Michael Buckley. “We need to prepare students for what awaits them.”
Forgey also helped create a sustainability track for the school’s master of science in interdisciplinary studies program. “Besides the increased student interest in environmental concerns, we’re also seeing people going into the areas of commercial appraisals and distressed commercial loans,” he said. The students in UTA’s real estate master’s programs include graduates fresh out of college, young professionals augmenting their training and seasoned veterans who have been in the business a decade or longer. “Sometimes they enroll for a career change, and sometimes it’s just to learn new skills,” Forgey said.
Some colleges take an interdisciplinary approach. One such is Cornell University, whose real estate master’s program boasts 17 full-time real estate field faculty members from seven Cornell colleges. Salaries for graduates of Cornell’s master of real estate program start at about $95,000 a year, plus a $20,000 performance bonus, says David Funk, a senior lecturer and the director of Cornell’s real estate programs. “We enjoyed our best placement this past May,” Funk said.
Cornell offers a retail development course that includes market analysis, site selection, entitlement, leasing, acquisition, tenant-management, deal structuring and disposition. Among the guest instructors are Richard Baker, president and CEO of Lord & Taylor, Richard Dube, president of Tri-Land Properties, and other industry notables. The average age of the students in the Cornell real estate school is 29. “A lot of students come in here with some real estate experience,” Funk said.
Case in point is architect Christopher Haine, recipient of the 2008 graduate-level ICSC Foundation Scholarship. Haine worked for RTKL Associates, Callison Architecture and Icon Partners on a variety of retail and mixed-use projects before enrolling at Cornell. The award, a first for any Cornell student, “helped to build a bridge between the program and ICSC,” Funk said.
The university is home to the Cornell Real Estate Review, which is a hybrid of industry news and academic research, and the Cornell Real Estate Council, a network of industry leaders among whom are many Cornell graduates. David Shlomi, a first-year student in the master of professional studies in real estate program, is leaning toward retail real estate as a career and is using industry connections as a springboard. “One of the biggest benefits of the program here is the alumni network, which includes a number of strong and influential people throughout the industry who serve as mentors to us,” Shlomi said. In mid-December Baker gave Shlomi a tour of Lord & Taylor’s New York City operations center and flagship store. Shlomi, who plans to attend RECon this year, says Cornell’s program is flexible enough that he can apply the knowledge from several courses outside real estate. “It allows me to hone in on financial modeling skills, which is essential for my interests.”
Some real estate schools have ICSC members at the helm. Among these is Kogod School of Business, at American University, in Washington, which last year named Dawn Eisenberg, a former executive of GE Real Estate, Passco Cos. and Westfield Corp., director of its master of science in real estate program.
American University students are steered toward such industry resources as the Urban Land Institute and ICSC’s Next Generation program for an up-to-the-minute view of the business, Eisenberg says. One book, ICSC Shopping Center Leasing, is especially useful for retail-oriented students. “If they have no experience in retail, it’s the fastest way to get the terminology down,” she said. “If I sat down and took them through all the terms, it would make their heads spin, because it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle.”
Other topics are refinancing, sustainability, public-private partnership, loan default issues and new rules for capital markets. One message Eisenberg is careful to impart to retail aspirants: “Every single lease affects the bottom line,” she said. “[Bad] co-tenancy can destroy a shopping center.” Eisenberg also sees to it that students get a realistic picture of entitlement requirements, zoning-change nuances and the impact of community involvement. “We are taking them to local planning commission hearings to see that firsthand.”
Students at the Burnham-Moores Center examine mixed-use redevelopment opportunities around downtown San Diego and make project presentations and proposals to the board of San Diego’s Centre City Development Corp. at year-end. “It’s not an ’atta-boy type of thing — the government officials are very critical, and that only helps the student,” said Mark J. Riedy, the real estate school’s executive director.
Several of the school’s advisory board members have retail experience, such as Joe Tyson, former CFO of Pan Pacific Retail Properties. Riedy says the real estate program was not designed around development, as others were. “Since real estate is cyclical, we knew there’d be a time such as today when development would slow, so we created a broader curriculum,” he said. The school is more apt to focus on adaptive reuse, mixed-use in-fill projects and redevelopment, he says. Fittingly, the Burnham-Moores Center is housed inside a former open-air center adjacent to the campus.
ICSC has created an array of scholarship and professional-development programs to nurture real estate talent. Among these is the ICSC Foundation’s Charles Grossman Graduate Scholarship, which offers $10,000 graduate-level scholarships for students focusing on retail real estate and related curriculums. The foundation also provides 25 annual awards of $1,000 each to college juniors or seniors in undergraduate real estate programs. The ICSC CenterBuild Scholarship goes to an Arizona State University graduate or undergraduate student. The Schurgin Family Foundation Scholarship furnishes tuition assistance to undergraduates studying retail real estate or a related field.
The John T. Riordan Professional Education Scholarship, the Harold E. Eisenberg Foundation Scholarship and the Mary Lou Fiala Fellowship pay for students to attend professional-development programs around the country. A list of these ICSC scholarship programs is available at
At the ICSC Dealmaking Conference in December in New York City, industry leaders made time for 75 individual mentoring sessions with college students and young professionals. This mentoring program, launched in 2009 at RECon, is now part of other regional meetings as well as CenterBuild.
Students are realizing that general business training is no longer sufficient to gain them entry into commercial real estate, says Eisenberg. Cutting-edge training, an eye on the rapidly changing industry, real-world experience, and networking with alumni and trade organizations, she says, are all necessary to place even the most promising graduates into the business.