Real estate titans discuss the importance of mentorship

By: Katelyn Godoy
Photo of the panelists on stage
Panel members, from left: Howard Milstein ’73 (A&S), Michael Milstein ’11 (A&S), Samantha Rudin Earls, Michael Rudin, and William Rudin

Real estate developers Howard Milstein ’73 (A&S) and William Rudin inherited impressive business portfolios from their fathers and grandfathers, and their children will one day lead their holdings into the future. Those children—Michael Milstein ’11 (A&S), Samantha Rudin Earls, and Michael Rudin—shared the stage with their fathers at the third-annual Titans of Real Estate event, held in April 2018 at Cipriani in New York City. Moderated by Richard Baker ’88, the CEO of NRDC Equity Partners and governor and executive chairman of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the discussion was hosted by Cornell’s Center for Real Estate and Finance (CREF) and Baker Program in Real Estate and attended by several hundred students and members of the New York real estate community. The Titans event is one of more than a dozen events on CREF’s annual calendar that offer students high-level exposure to the industry.

Howard Milstein told his audience that he got his first taste of the real estate business at age 14 by working with his grandfather, an immigrant who had arrived in this country with nothing and worked his way up. Milstein recounted that his grandfather would invite him into his office every day at noon to listen to the stock market results over lunch. At the end of the week, the old man would deduct the cost of those lunches from his grandson’s paycheck. “My grandfather taught me the value of a dollar very quickly,” he said. “I learned to be frugal early on.”

Photo of Richard at the podium
Richard Baker ’88

Milstein’s grandfather also taught him that real estate is always a good investment, as long as you don’t take irresponsible risks. Milstein concluded, “We’re successful because of the generations that came before us. We’ve gotten these opportunities because of them, so we have to be persistent and avoid taking risks that could jeopardize the whole enterprise.”

Michael Milstein has inherited that same level of respect for his family legacy. “I realized very early on that one of my responsibilities as someone who inherits this successful business is to not lose it. That’s a profound realization to have at a young age,” he said. But respecting tradition doesn’t mean getting stuck in the past. As technological, societal, and economic forces drive change in the real estate industry, it’s crucial for younger generations to take their family legacies into the future. “The key is to get to know yourself, your strengths, and the platform well enough to gain the trust and confidence of the person who came before you, and then innovate,” he said.

It’s not all in the family

Though the real estate industry is uniquely suited for generational leadership, mentorship and guidance don’t always have to come from within a family unit. For example, though Rudin Earls received a great deal of support from her father, she also sought advice early in her career from commercial real estate broker Mary Ann Tighe, the CEO of CBRE’s New York Tri-State Region. Tighe started a mentorship program for women in the space, and for Rudin Earls, who hadn’t always known that she wanted to go into the family business, the program was an opportunity to find her footing.

Photo of a woman seating at a table in the audience
Sage Magee, MRP ’18, listens to the panel

For women working to break into the space, learning about the unique experiences of women who have been successful in what has historically been a male-dominated profession can help them shape their careers. “Women have been here the whole time, but now our presence is changing. Across industries, there’s finally a major shift in the roles that women play, and a large part of it comes down to mentorship and empowerment,” Rudin Earls said. Still, for the trend to continue, “there need to be more women mentoring women,” her father added. “We’ve made strides, but there’s more work to do,” he said.

Photo of Richard and the panel on stage
Richard Baker puts a question to the panel

Finding the right mentors can be tough when you don’t come from a family of real estate titans, but it can be done through effective networking. “Keep coming to events like this and look for opportunities to build connections. That’s one way to get started,” William Rudin advised his audience. His words resonated with students in attendance, as many have become keenly aware of the role that networks and relationships play in the real estate space.

“The Milsteins and Rudins reinforced the idea that building a network of industry professionals is critical to success,” said Peter Romano, MPS-RE ’19, M Arch ’19. “They provided students with an opportunity to meet and build that network with the vast number of alumni that attended the event.”

Prepare for the future by looking back

Patriarchs Milstein and Rudin agreed that the industry is changing more rapidly than ever before. “In New York alone, there’s a tremendous amount of capital being poured into the city right now. There’s new construction happening in Hudson Yards, Midtown East, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Long Island City,” Rudin said. “The last time we had as great an influx of office space as we will with Hudson Yards was when the World Trade Center was built back in 1972,” Milstein added.

While office construction booms, however, Milstein sees the potential for advances in technology to have a negative effect on demand in this sector of the real estate market. “We can’t predict whether the concentrations of office space that we’re familiar with right now will remain a permanent fixture, or whether that will change as technology makes it easier for people to work remotely. There’s more risk now than ever,” he said.

Photo of a packed ballroom with tables
The scene at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York

Despite the challenges of working in commercial real estate—and with one’s family—the panelists professed their genuine passion for coming to work every day. “Find the niche that’s going to make you wake up every morning and feel energized,” William Rudin urged his student listeners.

As for those listeners, “The event was a great opportunity for students to hear industry professionals speak about their experiences, give advice, and offer insights,” said Steven Post ’19. “Many of the students in attendance are interested in pursuing a career within the real estate sector, and there is no better way to gain a competitive advantage than interacting with industry leaders themselves.” Added Romano, “The event was inspiring and educational.”

—Written by Maria Minsker, a freelance writer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business;
Photos by Jesse Winter