Morris Davis is no stranger to New Jersey, having grown up in Philadelphia and spent summers at the Jersey Shore. But that couldn't have prepared him for what he learned about the state last year, once he showed up to help build a new real estate program at Rutgers University.
Namely, that northern New Jersey is not simply an extension of Manhattan, but a commercial real estate market unto itself — one that’s teeming with a network of developers and industry professionals.
“I didn’t realize how fertile the ground was here,” said Davis, the academic director for the Center for Real Estate at Rutgers Business School. “I think it’s because Rutgers hasn’t done anything for decades (in the real estate sector). And it’s the flagship institution of the state of New Jersey, and people said, ‘You know what? It’s time for Rutgers to do something, and we’re going to help.’”
It’s one thing to have a high-profile advisory board, but Morris Davis relies on an in-house team to help develop the Center for Real Estate at Rutgers Business School.
The program this summer announced that it had hired David Frame as an assistant professor of professional practice. Davis said the former Baruch College professor will spearhead everything from industry research to curriculum-building to ensuring that the center “(trains) great students that are ready to hit the workforce from Day One.”
“David is considered one of the more senior guys in academic real estate circles, and we’re stunningly lucky to have him here,” Davis said. “Our philosophy is that real estate centers exist to make the industry more productive, and that can assume many different forms.”
Davis’ team also includes Lorri Layton, the center’s director of outreach and marketing.
“You could ask: ‘Why does an educational institution have one of those?’ Our interaction with our industry is so important to us, it’s so vital and central to our mission, that basically we need somebody full-time managing that.”
Of Ron Shapiro, the center’s director of student services, Davis noted that “real estate hiring is very decentralized,” which is contrary to most campus career centers. Shapiro’s job is to help close that gap.
“This idea that (real estate firms) are going to hire sort of randomly or blind based on 85 resumes that they receive — it’s just not the right model for real estate,” Davis said, later adding: “Think of it as a supplement to a traditional career services position. And the reason we need that is most real estate jobs are not cookie-cutter jobs.”
Davis is well on his way to tapping into that “human capital” in New Jersey, following nearly a decade helming the real estate program at the University of Wisconsin and eight years as an economist with the Federal Reserve Board. He was hired by Rutgers in July 2014 after Paul V. Profeta, a West Orange-based real estate investor, donated $1.5 million to the state university to help establish a chair in the field.
In his new post, Davis has a bold but rather simple goal: Push Rutgers ahead of Columbia University, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and any others standing in its way.
“Here, we’ve got fresh capital,” Davis said. “We can build a real estate program the way it should be built. And I’m just certain that if we just stick to our plan, we’re going to be in the conversation.”
NJBIZ sat down with Davis recently to discuss those plans and the progress in building the Center for Real Estate, armed with a high-profile advisory committee.
NJBIZ: It sounds like you had a bit of an eye-opening experience in the beginning, so let’s start there. What were your expectations coming in, and how quickly did those change?
Morris Davis: I’ve been surprised a few times — weirdly surprised. When I first got here, I thought, OK, the way I’m going to build this connection with industry is I’m going to find all of the Rutgers grads that work in Manhattan that are at senior levels, and they’ll help me. And I was thinking about Manhattan because we’re in Newark — we’re just so close — and there will be this whole Rutgers thing: Rutgers grads, high positions, a real estate program and then Manhattan.
And almost immediately when I got here, I recognized that the river is a huge barrier. For a lot of the folks that are significant players in Rutgers, I could have reached out to them — and I will eventually — but people said, ‘Northern New Jersey is not Manhattan.’ And people said Columbia and NYU don’t want anything to do with us. So I recognized there was tremendous amount of human capital and expertise that was completely untapped in northern New Jersey. So when I gave them the vision, everyone I talked to, said yes. And it was just great.
As part of an effort to separate it from other real estate programs, administrators with Rutgers University’s Center for Real Estate are looking to take advantage of the university’s other offerings.
For instance, partnering with the Center for Supply Chain Management at Rutgers Business School to create a master’s degree in industrial real estate.
“One of the things we really wanted to do to differentiate is to look more at cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary (programs),” said David Frame, assistant professor of professional practice. “Most of the focus in real estate is either pure finance — commercial banking, investment banking — and on the other side is development. We want to find other ways where we can partner with other institutions and other academic pieces here at Rutgers to figure out, say, how do the supply chain and real estate interact?”
Morris Davis, the center’s academic director, said the center is also weighing a partnership with the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy for a degree in urban redevelopment, which he said “makes an enormous amount of sense” in New Jersey.
And perhaps, not so coincidentally, both industrial real estate and urban redevelopment tie directly to the Center for Real Estate’s two co-chairmen.
“Think of Jimmy Hanson as industrial real estate. Think of Carl Goldberg as urban redevelopment,” Davis said. “There are reasons they’re so important in the state. This is what the state’s real estate is rich in. and if you think about how we could be No. 1, we have to leverage the comparative advantage of the people and the real estate in the state.”
NJBIZ: One of the first things we noticed was that you assembled this high-powered advisory board and executive committee, starting with your co-chairs Jimmy Hanson and Carl Goldberg. How did that come to be?
MD: The first people I met, of course, were Paul (Profeta), Gil Medina and George Jacobs. And I said, ‘OK, based on my experiences at Wisconsin, the way you really get a center operating is you have a chairman that’s very influential. … This is a person that, whenever they make a phone call, it’s returned. There have to be people like that in the state — let’s find them and ask them to be chairman.’
So they said, ‘You know what? There’s probably two.’ And of course I met with both, and we expected to be turned down at least once, so we made the offer to both — and they both accepted.
That’s how we wound up with two co-chairmen. And honestly, I’m on cloud nine right now, because Carl and Jimmy are very complementary people in terms of the types of real estate that they develop and hold, the types of investor bases that they attract for their projects and also in terms, to be blunt, of their political connections. My goal was for Rutgers to be completely apolitical. It helps that we have a well-known Republican and well-known Democrat as co-chairmen. I think that advances our mission. These were things I didn’t know ahead of time, and I just lucked into that, to be honest about it.
What has been accomplished at the Center for Real Estate at Rutgers Business School
Recruited an executive committee.
Finalized a list of degrees to launch in the next two years, including master’s degrees in industrial real estate and supply chain and in urban redevelopment and public policy, plus an MBA concentration in real estate.
Recruited nearly 70 advisory board members.
Hosted the CRE’s first conference in Short Hills.
Hire a director of curriculum and industry research.
NJBIZ: OK, so you’ve been here for a year and a half now and you’ve started to tap into that human capital. Talk about where you are with the center and what you want to do from here.
MD: When most people think about a program, they think about it just in terms of the education or what courses you’re teaching. And we have a much bigger goal and broader view: Our goal is to be the top real estate program in the country.
Obviously it depends on who you ask and who’s doing the ranking, but if we’re even in that conversation, that’s a win for Rutgers. And I think we can be in that conversation in a very short amount of time, partly because there’s not that many players. There’s six, seven in the tristate area, and frankly they’re all kind of doing the same thing the same way. There has not been much innovation.
NJBIZ: If that’s the case, what aren’t those other programs doing that you’d like to do here at Rutgers?
MD: They’re not thinking, ‘What do I have to do to make the industry more productive?’ A few examples: industry standards for software. There’s not a single real estate center that’s thinking about what a standard software package — that everyone in this industry is trained on — should look like. There are software packages that people use and have been developed by the private sector, but there hasn’t been any input from any real estate centers. So we’ve started talking to people about, ‘What does an ideal software package look like?’ I think the private sector ultimately can create this package, but the question is: What are the standards?
Another example: None of the real estate centers out there are producing industry research. Go around and ask, talk to anyone that’s on Wharton’s board or NYU’s board or Columbia’s board: ‘Have you read anything that has come out of these programs?’ They’re going to say no.
The other thing is conferences. Everyone kind of does conferences. A lot of them are good — they all serve different purposes. I think our point of view is that, as part of an academic institution, we have to add value related to not just what’s going on in New Jersey, but what’s going on nationwide and in the world.
NJBIZ: Is there another sector of academia that fits that definition, that does all of those things well when it comes to making the industry more productive?
MD: Medicine. I think we have in mind that the new model is the medical school (model). There’s just a much closer connection to industry. Of course, there are some professors in medical schools that just work on curing cancer and then there are some professors that are the clinical professors, but there is this sense that the medical school is not just teaching and not just doing peer-reviewed research, but is also working with industry on things that are useful to industry.
NJBIZ: The industry is certainly involved — you said recruiting the advisory board is ‘the single biggest thing’ the program has accomplished since you came on board. What has been your pitch to them and what do you feel like they’re getting by being part of this program?
MD: I think our advisory board members have gotten a lot out of this, frankly. Partly, they know that they’re engaging in philanthropy to help Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Partly, they know that our goal is to make the industry more productive. They also believe, rightfully so, that they’re going to get access to our top students.
What is a $30 million gift worth: Your name on the school
Curriculum building, conferences and research are all top priorities in building the Center for Real Estate, but Morris Davis hasn’t forgotten about fundraising.
Far from it. In fact, he is thinking far bigger than the typical $5 million or so that he says is the typical gift for naming a program or center, which usually funds administrative salaries.
How much bigger? $30 million.
“You shouldn’t get your name on the door because you helped fund an executive director,” Davis said. “That’s not a transformative gift. A transformative gift is a gift that alters lives, so I thought, a gift that can truly alter lives is scholarships.
“It’s not a secret college is expensive, so let’s find somebody that’s willing to put their name on the door, who wants to permanently alter lives.”
Davis said a $30 million gift would go almost entirely to scholarships, which he estimated could support more than a hundred students every year.
“Can you imagine going to school and somebody says, ‘If you minor in real estate, this year is taken care of.’ That’s four courses and we’ll cover your tuition for the year. They’d graduate college with 25 percent less debt. So imagine a donor giving that money and saying, ‘OK, you’re going to get 130 thank-you letters a year.’”
“It would be the single largest gift ever at Rutgers, and I think we’re going to get it done. I don’t know when, but who wouldn’t want to have their name on the top real estate program in the country, especially when you’re not funding my salary?” Davis quipped. “What you’re doing is you’re permanently altering the lives of over a hundred people every year. And you get to watch their careers. So I’m hopeful that we can get it done. And it will immediately propel us to the top.”
The most important part of this is the intrinsic linkages of the advisory board in everything that we’re doing. We’ve put together these subcommittees on the advisory board: there’s a subcommittee on curricula. So what are they going to do? They’re going to interface with (David Frame, director of curriculum and industry research). And ask around — there’s not a single academic program that I know of in the country that partners with industry to talk about the ideal curriculum. Typically, there are these bright lines that are drawn (as if to say) ‘We’ll take your advice if you have it, but you’re not really partnering with us.’
And the reason I think this is so important: We’re going to launch a minor, and it’s not fully approved yet, but we’re on that path for the undergraduates. Think about a minor as four courses. That’s about 160 contact hours. The question we asked the advisory board is: If you only have 160 hours of contact with an undergraduate before they have something that says real estate on their degree, what should they know? So, what (the team) and I have been doing is sketching out curricula … and then it goes to the advisory board subcommittee on curricula (to find out) what we’re missing.
Ask around — when a person hires a graduate from NYU or Wharton, ask the employer, ‘Do they know what they’re getting?’ … With a posted curriculum of learning outcomes that all the professors adhere to, you know what it means to be a Rutgers graduate. You want to allow flavors to reflect the individual strengths of the instructor, but the core content, the core learning objectives should be the same.
NJBIZ: It’s obvious that these committees are critical to building the program, but you are in fact dealing with a lot of big egos and big personalities. What’s it like to manage all of that?
MD: There’s reputation and then there’s what I’ve seen. Not a single person has had a larger-than-life reputation with me. I don’t know how they act when I’m not around, but people forget I’m from Philadelphia, so they think — in Paul Profeta’s words — that I ‘parachuted in from the farm in Wisconsin.’ I think people just think I’m naturally some quiet Midwesterner and they act that way around me.
And there are two things that are amazing. First, the people that didn’t know each other that well on the executive committee are now kind of friendly with each other.
And as for managing egos, I’ve never seen it. Nobody goes there to impress anyone. Everyone there is just on mission. There’s been nothing really controversial that has come up. And, frankly, Jimmy and Carl have enough clout where, if they say something, it’s going to be thoughtful. It works incredibly smoothly.
We’re on our way, and I can’t tell you the last time I’ve had this amount of fun. I don’t know that Paul really knew what he was getting into, but Paul is very active, we consult with him all the time, and we’re very, very fortunate that he started this process.
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