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Camille Douglas is currently a Managing Director at LeFrak. Previously, Ms. Douglas specialized in international real estate investments and has been a key advisor to several prominent real estate companies spanning from the Canary Wharf development on the east side of London to a commercial development joint venture in Brazil. She is also a long-standing adjunct professor at Columbia Business School and teaches a course titled “Global Real Estate Investment.” Adjunct Professor Douglas’s class is known for bringing together students and top real estate industry leaders. In a recent interview with Alex Jugant ’16, she discussed her professional experience, her thoughts on the global economy, and her recommendations for aspiring real estate professionals.
You have a very established career with significant experience both in the United States and abroad. Could you share some experiences on how you got your career started and how it has progressed?
Throughout my career I have been lucky to have always been on “the cutting edge.” Perhaps this is a good fortune that I share with my entire generation, but it has definitely been true for me. My career started at Morgan Stanley in 1977 where I was one of only 15 people in their newly formed real estate department. Real estate wasn’t an industry that investment banking covered until that time. The process of blending the traditional functions of investment banking with our industry was really a fantastic opportunity and I was in on the ground floor. I was fortunate to have been able to play a role in many of the landmark transactions that took place during that time.
Subsequently, I went to work at Olympia & York, which at that time was the largest real estate development company in the world. I was in charge of arranging debt and equity financing for 24 buildings that we owned or were developing around the US, including the World Financial Center. It became clear early on that relying upon the traditional sources of financing from institutional lenders such as insurance companies wasn’t going to work because the value of the real estate, in this case large office towers, had far exceeded the lending capacity of any single institution. This problem was what, in effect, led us into debt securitization, which became the new, “new thing.” We began with a billion dollar private placement in 1984 and then launched the first and largest mortgage backed Eurobonds in 1985 and 1986. In 1988, we successfully financed one of the World Financial Center towers with a reverse dual currency yen/dollar mortgage backed bond that was sold in Japan. This was cutting edge work on the debt side. I was also intimately involved in the development and financing of Canary Wharf from 1987 forward, which was probably the most interesting and exciting work I have ever done.
After that, I left O&Y to establish Main Street Capital Partners, an advisory firm which provided strategic transactional advice to real estate companies around the world including Canary Wharf Group in the UK, Boston Properties and LeFrak in the US, Cadillac Fairview in Canada and Cyrela Commercial Properties (CCP) in Brazil. I joined Lefrak full time in 2010 because the company was looking for opportunities to invest during the downturn. My work at Lefrak has focused on creating a Miami platform for the company including the redevelopment of the former Gansevoort Hotel in South Beach into the newly opened 1 Hotel & Homes and the development of a 183 acre mixed-use site in North Miami.
Real Estate is often criticized as being a “Boy’s Club.” What has your experience been like as a successful businesswoman in the Industry?
This really hasn’t been an issue for me. In some ways it’s nice to be different and in the minority. I think when I was younger I might have had to work harder to gain the respect of the people in the room, but that was a long time ago! I look around and I wonder why I don’t see more women in real estate because this is a fabulous industry with lots of opportunity to be creative and entrepreneurial.
What do you enjoy about working in real estate?
I love the combination of creative and analytical work. Most days I encounter a new problem involving some fairly complex information to unravel analytically, and then find, communicate and execute a proposed solution. Each development project is like a start-up company with a unique set of variables and financial structure, so this business is by definition never boring. I also especially love the architectural, design and place making components of development. Lastly, I enjoy working in different cities because each city has a unique history, economy, demographic and geography. So to me, when I am working in a different city or country and with a new cast of characters, it’s a little bit like being on a “busman’s holiday.”
You have academic and professional expertise in international real estate investing. What is your current view on international opportunities?
I think there is significant risk in the global economy today. My favorite book on this topic is Breakout Nations by Ruchir Sharma. I think that the universal rise of BRICs and the rest of the emerging world from 2002 to 2007 during a period of unusual liquidity, a commodities supercycle and business friendly political reforms was a relatively unique phenomenon that is unlikely to repeat itself to the same degree anytime soon. However, I do believe that on a selected basis, countries will get their act together and growth in emerging markets will begin again. Every country has a story and its story is a mixture of macroeconomic factors and political leadership. Today is an interesting time to invest in certain emerging economies because there are real opportunities as a result of liquidity issues and public/private arbitrage.
News headlines constantly speculate about interest rates rising. What is your outlook on interest rates and how will the affect the real estate industry?
The economy is relatively stable in this country but not really growing yet. The Federal Reserve has been making a lot of noise about raising interest rates but they are painfully aware of the effect that might have not only on the US economy but also on the rest of the world. This is a very complex situation but I do believe interest rates will trend upwards over time.
If interest rates go up by, say, 100 basis points on the short end, I do not think that will have much of an effect on real estate, nor will it necessarily imply an increase in interest rates on the long end. Eventually higher interest rates will put a damper first on development and then on the industry as a whole unless fundamentals increase accordingly.
What skills do you recommend an MBA student should obtain while he/she is in school?
The most important long term skill to acquire in business school is communication, both written and oral. It is critical for students to learn to communicate clearly, concisely and effectively. Students need to hone their analytical capabilities in order to reach well thought out conclusions and make sound business decisions.
A great written communication skill, particularly for recent grads, is the “one-page memo.” The ability to synthesize complex information and a rigorous financial analysis into one page summary is a valuable decision making tool. Class participation and case or project presentations also provide an ideal opportunity for students to sharpen their communication skills.
While I think business school is a great time to get exposure to many different facets of business outside real estate, I also believe that specific real estate courses are also incredibly useful. The main point is to approach business school with a certain amount of passion and appreciation for the broad opportunity and then to work hard across the board. You only get out of business school what you put in.
Your class at the business school is renowned for bringing in the top industry professionals as guest speakers. What are your recommendations on establishing a strong professional network?
Our industry thrives on relationships amongst individuals. Buildings don’t do deals with each other, people do. Establishing a reputation for being fair, trustworthy, and capable is crucial. Longevity also helps! But seriously, creating a network of professional peers is the best way to successfully conduct business. In this industry, you shouldn’t be sitting in your office behind your computer all day. Computers are a great analytical tool but knowledge comes from being out in the marketplace and connecting with colleagues.
You have taught at several academic institutions. What makes Columbia unique for a real estate professional?
In my opinion, Columbia has the best real estate curriculum of all the business schools because we offer the opportunity to gain a broad understanding of the industry from many perspectives. Columbia gives its faculty a lot of freedom to impact our individual courses and that is very valuable to the students. Every year I rethink my curriculum from soup to nuts and re-read each case with a fresh and current perspective. As an adjunct professor, I bring my own experience into the classroom to enrich the basic principles.
How have you benefited from teaching at Columbia?
Teaching is always the best way to learn. It forces me to read constantly and think about the world outside of my daily business practice. Because I teach Global Real Estate Investment, I maintain an international perspective in everything I do. No matter what you are working on, it’s important to have a global, macro perspective because it’s an overlay on the relative pricing of any real estate asset, or any asset for that matter.
But the best part of teaching for me is always the students. I have been teaching at Columbia for 10 years and have had the pleasure of teaching extremely bright and talented students who have gone on to make an impact on the industry. It is a pure pleasure to feel that you may have added something to the equation that helped them succeed.
Alex Jugant ’16 is a 2010 graduate of Brigham Young University where he completed his B.S. in Business Management. Alex worked as a multifamily real estate developer in the San Francisco Bay Area for three years before coming to Columbia Business School to focus on real estate finance.