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Andrea Olshan ‘04 serves as Chief Executive Officer of Olshan Properties and is responsible for the strategic direction of the company, its investment activity and capital partnerships. Prior to the position of Chief Executive Officer of Olshan Properties, Ms. Olshan served as the Chief Operating Officer and was responsible for the day-to-day functions of the Olshan Properties operating divisions: leasing, property management, asset management, development, and construction. Her strategic accomplishments include consistent double-digit revenue and net asset value growth. During her tenure at Olshan Properties, the company has developed or acquired over 7 million square feet of income-producing real estate including retail, residential, hotel, and office assets.
In addition to her real estate career, Ms. Olshan is actively involved in numerous civic and social service organizations. She serves on the council of conservators for the New York Public Library, as President of the Graduate Board of the Hasty Pudding Club—Institute of 1770, as Trustee of the Horace Mann School, and on the board of the 92Y. Ms. Olshan graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard and received her M.B.A. from Columbia Business School, where she is a member of the Real Estate Circle.
Driven, Deliberate, Diligent Leadership: An Interview with Andrea Olshan
By Morgan Mann ‘17
The headquarters of Olshan Properties is in an unassuming building on Madison Avenue, where lobby renovations are well underway and a friendly guard directs me to the 14th floor for a meeting with Ms. Andrea Olshan, the Chief Executive Officer of the fifty-five year old acquirer, developer and manager of commercial real estate, Olshan Properties. In the elevator on the way up I notice a woman with a friendly smile who is diligently checking her emails and her watch. She is heading to the same floor I am, and suddenly the interview with this Columbia Business School Distinguished Alumna has already begun. We moved from the elevator to her conference room, which was filled with tile samples, architectural renderings, and layout options, a small reminder of just how hands-on Ms. Olshan, as the CEO, is in the development process as well as with the investment committee and corporate strategy.
Our conversation began with her thoughts about the state of the market today, headed into what it has been like to join and lead a family business, then touched on Olshan Properties’ strategy for its portfolio moving forward, and ended with some thoughts on the value of a Columbia Business School MBA, and a few pieces of advice that she has for current MBA students.
Market Trend: Focus on Areas of Disruption
Ms. Olshan noted that the commercial real estate industry is ripe for disruption, but that the current conversation seems stuck on crowdfunding, a disruptor that will not “get legs” as long as deals in real estate need to happen in such short order with such a lag to returns. She indicated that there may be some space for crowdfunding to fill a gap in development situations where the time to close on the land is longer (i.e. a company has an existing holding they want to develop, or areas where there is less competition for the parcel). As long as speed is required from the offering to close, crowdfunding will remain difficult, and she believes that it will not be the disruptor to commercial real estate that it is currently being touted as.
An area that is easier to disrupt is the energy sector, and its relationship to commercial real estate. “I spend a lot of time on planes, and I see miles and miles of flat empty roof area facing the sun, but until the government subsidies are in place to support placing solar panels on these roofs, there remains a barrier to entry on placing the panels because of the cost to install them.” She also commented on structuring new leases with the ability to provide tenants directly with site-produced energy, so that in large multi-tenant retail centers, the energy production from alternative energy sources doesn’t have to go back to the grid and can be shared by the tenants, requiring a change to the triple net (NNN) language in traditional lease agreements.
Joining the Family Business: From Tense Times to Family Harmony
Ms. Olshan was the heir apparent for Olshan Properties prior to her tenure at Columbia Business School, and she wishes that the formal Family Business Management (FBM) coursework had been available when she attended. Ms. Olshan is now a regular speaker for the FBM program. As part of our interview, she noted for many of the families in business, there can sometimes be a reverence towards academia from the parents or families who are sponsoring their children, and that by including family members more in the academic discussion, students might be better equipped to utilize the organizational tools they develop in business school and have an easier time with implementation when they return to the family business post-graduation. She even suggested that it might be worthwhile to encourage and allow family members to sit in on a class.
Ms. Olshan’s relationship with her father and her family (as it relates to Olshan Properties) has gone through many different iterations since she joined the company in 2004. She walked into a daunting situation as a new MBA, since all of the company’s investments were stabilized or being actively developed, and as she noted, real estate is a slow game. Leases don’t roll over for a number of years, there are limited acquisitions, and strategies are being executed, not newly hatched every day. Her first few years with the company were spent learning about the development process and making improvements on the margins, producing small gains and becoming more accustomed to the industry and the inner workings of the company.
In 2008 and 2009 Ms. Olshan’s opportunity to prove herself came when the market was tougher than ever, there was more tenant roll than ever before and the company was finding its way in this uncertain landscape. The relationship with her father was tense, but her track record was good, and slowly but surely Ms. Olshan was able to create a relationship with her father that allowed her to take on day-to-day leadership of the business, while her father was able to distance himself and elevate into a more traditional Chairman role. During this time Ms. Olshan’s husband had also joined the business in a Capital Markets role, and she credits many of the positive improvements in her relationship with her father to the fact that she and her husband were such a strong and productive team, and her father’s immense personal and professional respect for her husband. As a team, they all worked to prioritize family harmony and pushed to resolve issues with both the family and the business in mind. Her husband’s role in formalizing the investment committee process and building out the Capital Markets business unit was critical to building Olshan Properties into the company that it is today.
A Strategy for the Future: Build a Great Team, Keep a Diverse Portfolio
As a leader Ms. Olshan is focused on building and growing a profitable business, as well as creating a working environment which supports Olshan Properties as an entrepreneurial entity. “There is a lot of competition in the retail sector, lots of big players, but we are a small company, so we must run a lean operation.” She is laser focused on having the right people in the right positions, which has led to some people thinking of her as a tough boss, and she is comfortable with that label. “At our size we don’t need twenty managers. In every department we only have room for the top few, so if people find a place that is a better fit for them, we are fine with that. I need people to wear multiple hats, to think like entrepreneurs, to build out their own parts of the business.” When asked what advice she has for MBA students, she encouraged each of us to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, recommending that recent grads focus on how they can develop their own departments or their own teams, to try and find themselves in diverse geographic locations, working in small shops where the opportunities will be wide ranging, and where they will be forced to be more resourceful and creative.
Olshan Properties has been on a growth trajectory since Ms. Olshan took the reins, and she is looking at what further advances the future may hold. She is primarily focused on having a strong New York/New Jersey portfolio that is complemented by a very diverse portfolio in markets across the United States, though this geographically dispersed portfolio also creates a management challenge. She has addressed this challenge by developing a large office in Columbus, Ohio, where most of the company’s hotel and retail management teams reside. She said that this not only makes it easier for her managers to travel to the assets, but also provides an access point for herself and the rest of the management team to stay in touch with the retail, hotel culture, and price points, outside of the tri-state area.
Ms. Olshan approached her time at CBS with a strong focus on Real Estate Finance, crediting Professor Emerita Lynne Sagalyn with providing a practical, technical and “real world” real estate education that was bar none. Through a focus on cases that crossed geographies and asset classes, she feels that she was prepared to lead the company that she runs today. One regret that Ms. Olshan still has? Missing those study trips! She wishes that she had made more time to travel and learn how business was done in other corners of the world, citing the increased global landscape of real estate and the lack of opportunity to take such special trips once you have re-entered the workforce. She also wishes that the Family Business Management program had been more formal during her time at CBS, and she encourages anyone with ties to a family business to take the classes and bond with the other family business members while they have the time. She appreciated advice from other family business leaders, especially during the transition she made into her role as CEO.
Ms. Olshan is an incredible business leader and a dedicated member of the Columbia Business School Alumni Community. Her efforts to support the Paul Milstein Center, the Real Estate Association and the Family Business Club are incredibly valuable, and appreciated by the students and faculty and to those of us who are lucky enough to interview her, we are incredibly grateful.
Morgan Mann ’17 is a second year MBA candidate focused on Real Estate Finance and Development. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture and a Bachelor of Science in Construction management from the University of Washington. Prior to business school she worked as a Preconstruction Manager for a commercial General Contractor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently she was a Summer Associate with Allianz Real Estate of America in the commercial mortgage lending group, valuing current portfolio assets, sizing and underwriting new loans in addition to assisting the portfolio management and equity investment teams.