The ICSC Blog

The Winding Academic Paths to a Career in Retail Real Estate

By: Sarah Ritchie
Over the last several years, there has been a rapid expansion in academic degrees focused specifically on the real estate discipline.  The curricula and programs vary and include undergraduate and graduate degrees, interdisciplinary real estate development programs (often in schools of planning or architecture), and finance-driven majors, located in business schools.  While it is natural that students interested in jobs in real estate (and retail real estate specifically) would gravitate to these degree-granting programs, I hope this posting will serve as a reminder to young people engaged in other areas of study:  they, too, should consider this field as a career option.  This point was made—by both Michael Kercheval, President & CEO of ICSC, and Jason Greenstone, a member of the retail services team at Cushman & Wakefield—to a recent group of University of Oklahoma MBA students visiting ICSC during their winter break.  Like so many other business students in America, the students are matriculating with general business coursework, containing little emphasis (comparatively speaking) on real estate.  As an OU alumn, I am most certainly prejudiced, but I believe our industry would welcome them with open arms. 

The small group of students are the “cream of the crop,” if you will, from the OU Price School of Business.  These “Price Scholars” enjoy full financial scholarships to underwrite their MBA studies, in addition to other educational opportunities.  For example, this summer they will be in New York, taking classes at the NYU Stern School of Business and working at internship positions around Manhattan. The intellectual history of the OU Business School, coupled with its location in an oil and natural gas rich state, leads the university to focus on energy related classes, in conjunction with general business courses.  The study of retailing and real estate is nominally included in a variety of classes during the two-year program. Yet, we all encouraged these young people to join ICSC’s student membership program and learn more about the field.

Over the lifetime of the ICSC student membership program, we have embraced student participants from a vast array of academic disciplines:  architecture, law, economics, marketing, fashion/art, and the social sciences, among others, standing side-by-side with general business students and those specializing in real estate and development.  These young people attend all sorts of schools—large universities with free-standing real estate programs, but also smaller schools and liberal arts colleges that do not have such academic opportunities.  ALL are welcome.

As I make this argument, I need only draw from the experiences of top-leaders in the industry to show that not all industry leaders studied retailing and real estate during their university days.  While some “grew up” in the family-owned shopping center businesses and others set out on an academic program in real estate, many did not.  These personal stories of serendipitous opportunities in retail real estate have become a familiar theme in many of our presentations and seminars, organized for young people.

Consider, for example, the story of Michael E. McCarty, now an Executive Vice President for Simon Properties, the world’s largest owner of shopping centers.  Having been raised in a family of modest means, McCarty admits that he didn’t enjoy the prospect of attending college.  Rather, after graduating high school, he worked in restaurant management.  Through some twists and turns of fate, he eventually took a very low-level position in shopping center management and has literally worked his way up the Simon corporate ladder, obviously with lots of innate “smarts,” creativity, grit and determination.  Or take the case of Mary Lou Fiala, the recently retired President and COO of Regency Centers, a REIT based in Jacksonville, Florida.  After completing a college degree in retailing at Miami University in Ohio (a degree she earned while raising a young family), she had a long career working for a number of large retailers like Macy’s Federated.  Only later in her career, was she recruited by Regency—and subsequently trained by the company, to learn the nuances of leading a REIT from a retailer’s perspective.  Fiala demonstrated such success that she was eventually elected to serve as the global board chair of ICSC.  She was only the third woman to hold that position in ICSC’s 50+ year history.  Finally, the career path of Sandeep Mathrani has a similar theme.  Mathrani, now the President & CEO of GGP, the behemoth shopping center company based in Chicago, was trained as an engineer (he earned his undergraduate degree in engineering and a master’s in management science at Stevens Institute of Technology).  His real estate education was personal—as he says, he “flipped a house” as a young professional.  With money in his pocket from the transaction, the rest, as they say, was history.

Don’t get me wrong…there are obvious benefits of a real estate degree, from the perspective of students and employers, but that need not be the only path to entering this exciting field.  So, again we say welcome to student members of all academic interests.  Who knows where this industry may lead you.

See more about the Price Scholars visit in the video clip below.

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