Joel Papo graduated from Columbia Business School in 2003, and is working for K. Backus and Associates, a real estate consulting firm that is currently advising Columbia University on its expansion project. Before school, Joel worked in the non-profit sector, at organizations such as the Advocacy Institute in Washington D.C., and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. While Joel didn’t enter Columbia with real estate specifically in mind, a few great Columbia classes, an amalgamation of his background and interests, and a little luck ultimately landed him a position at his current firm.
BL: When you entered Columbia, were you originally interested in Real Estate?
JP: I wasn’t interested in Real Estate until I took Lynne Sagalyn’s Real Estate Finance. Actually, it was that and a variety of things, and I’ve always been interested in architecture and urban planning. I started Columbia Business wanting to do environmental management, and when I attended the Net Impact conference, I saw a speaker who talked about all the great things you can do with green buildings. He spoke about how we can develop buildings that are good for the environment, that people feel good about working in. There’s also something sexy about real estate New York City, and Professor Sagalyn really brought that alive and showed how you can be a part of that.
BL: What do you do at K. Backus and Associates?
JP: I’m a project manager for real estate planning and development projects. Our clients are mostly university clients and non-profits. The few clients we have that are for-profit deal with the City of New York or public approvals. My work differs from project to project; for some projects, we’re more planning oriented. We figure out what we can do with a piece of property our client has, or even a hypothetical piece of property the client might be interested in securing. We put together lawyers, cost estimators, demand study consultants - basically get the client all the information they need so they can make real estate decisions. On the other hand, for the Manhattanville project for example, we manage a lot of different consultants and make sure the information is understandable, clear and concise for our client.
BL: How did you get this job?
JP: I got the offer in July after I graduated. I was looking to work for a developer, which was tough because most of them are small and I didn’t have a real estate background. I called a lot of firms but didn’t get a lot of interest. Then by luck, a friend at Wharton saw a consulting firm had posted a job opening on the Wharton site and thought it might suit my interests, and passed it along to me. For this firm, my nonprofit background fit in perfectly, because of the firm’s work with a lot of nonprofits. They weren’t looking for someone to come in to do heavy modeling, which although I had gotten a lot of exposure to in class, hadn’t done practically.
BL: Students here are curious to know if they can have input on this project. Any comments?
JP: There’s a website that explains the project: www.manhattanville.com. Students can absolutely get involved, and can do so through the Community Board. The Community Boards (9 and 12) play an important role in the process because they are the ones who vote anytime someone asks for a zoning variance. Students can attend those meetings; they’re open to the public. They will see that a lot of what we do is help clients manage the public approvals process, which is something you have to see first hand to understand fully. A lot of local politics is involved, and most people don’t think about that when they think about real estate, but you really need a lot of backing from the community.
So for example, with this project, the University understands that you have to respect your neighbors, especially since they will be here a long time. They know that there’s going to be some displacement, so they’ve put forth a good faith effort to accommodate members of the community that will have to move to new locations. Also, their vision for the area is not centered just on Columbia, rather, there’s going to be a public square, with a lot of public usage areas such as performance and gallery spaces. It’s meant to be an inviting area for people in the neighborhood, Harlem. There’s going to be new retail uses, and they foresee the creation of many new jobs. The School really sees it as a win-win for the both community and university.
BL: How do you like what you do and how well do you think CBS prepared you for it?
JP: I like what I do a lot - I really have a great job. It’s interesting, fun, I learn something new everyday, and work with great people. I see myself enjoying it for a long time. Certain classes prepared me well for it, while others really had no relevance. Since I didn’t know I wanted to do real estate until my third semester, I didn’t concentrate in real estate, so the only industry classes I took were Real Estate Finance and Advanced Seminar in Real Estate Finance. Corporate finance was also useful because it was my first chance to learn financial models.
Outside of classes, I also did a small business consulting project. Our client was an affordable housing developer in Harlem so it was great opportunity to get some real world experience. During the 70s, the City accumulated several parcels of land and then in the 80s they distributed it to developers with the requirement of developing the land for people with low incomes. He was one of the lucky ones who got some land, and was trying to get more. He realized that in a few years, the city will run out of land, so he was trying to determine other cities outside of NY he could export that business model to. I helped him on this, and did a market study of all the major cities around NY that he could look at like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, etc.
BL: What do you miss most about CBS?
JP: I miss a lot of things - I miss writing my Cluster Column (Cluster Z) and in general, the whole academic environment where you can hang out with friends. I miss sitting with my IP group and figuring out solutions to problems. I had a really good IP group - we had a lot of fun together and became pretty close. Our cluster gets together occasionally, but it’s hard to get everyone together once you graduate. I also miss some of the classes, like Greenwald’s Economics of Strategic Behavior.