Commercial Real Estate Conference

Forging Connections at Booth’s Annual Real Estate Conference

Speakers noted a consensus for ‘cautious optimism’ at the 12th annual conference in Chicago.


For Rebecca Thomson, a current student in Chicago Booth’s Executive MBA Program, Booth’s annual commercial real estate conference was something of a revelation.

“The people in that room had a pulse on the market and were looking for new opportunities,” said Thompson, principal of the Thomson Group, a Chicago-based real estate training and advisory firm. “There were definitely some deals getting done. The connections alone made the conference worthwhile.”

That kind of commentary is music to the ears of Joseph L. Pagliari, clinical professor of real estate and the moderator of the two-day event, which was held from November 12 to 13 in Chicago.

“The conference has several goals,” he said. “One is to drive the interchange of ideas, data, and theories. Two, it’s an opportunity for alumni to come back to campus and network with colleagues. And three, it’s an opportunity to introduce alumni to students and hopefully generate job and/or mentoring opportunities.”

The conference—now in its 12th year—is planned and presented by Booth’s Real Estate Alumni Group and is the university’s largest annual real estate event. The 2018 conference—the theme of which was “Valuations Reach New Highs: Justified or Not?”—attracted about 220 attendees, including alumni, students, and outside industry professionals.

“Most real estate conferences are just agglomerations of talking heads,” said Pagliari. “We try to be more rigorous and academic in terms of delivering what we think are important ideas.”

Eteri Zaslavsky, AB ’99, MBA ’04, managing director of Skokie, Illinois-based Next Realty and a member of the Real Estate Alumni Group, commented that the goal of the conference is “networking and gaining valuable and timely market insights.”

The program began with a reception on the evening of November 12. Attendees gathered at the American Airlines Conference Center adjacent to Wrigley Field on the North Side of Chicago. The reception included a presentation on the redevelopment of the historic ballpark and the surrounding neighborhood by Eric Nordness, ’05, senior vice president and CFO of Hickory Street Capital, the real estate development arm of the Ricketts family, owners of the stadium and its primary tenant, the Chicago Cubs. (The team’s executive chairman is fellow alumnus Tom Ricketts, AB ’88, MBA ’93).

The conference resumed the next morning at Gleacher Center with a real estate market overview by Kenneth P. Riggs Jr., ’94, president and global head of Situs RERC, an international real estate valuation advisory firm. It continued with a workshop on negotiation strategies by Linda E. Ginzel, clinical professor of managerial psychology.

Over the years, the conference’s keynote speakers have included such noted real estate figures as Debra Cafaro of Ventas, John Schreiber of Blackstone Real Estate Advisors, David Simon of the Simon Property Group, and Sam Zell of Equity Group Investments. This year’s keynote speaker was former United States Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. She is also the founder and chairman of PSP Partners, a real estate investment firm.

Pritzker—who was introduced by Madhav V. Rajan, dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Accounting— gave a wide-ranging talk that veered between remarks about the current national political environment and trends in the current real estate market. She advocated for finding ways to keep highly skilled immigrants in the United States and contributing to the economy after they complete advanced degrees at US universities. On the topic of real estate she highlighted her firm’s focus on multifamily and industrial projects in several key markets but said that high construction costs and low returns are still making multifamily projects difficult to get off the ground.

The conference concluded with an afternoon capital markets panel discussion moderated by Bruce Cohen, ’89, senior managing partner of Cortland, an Atlanta-based multifamily real estate firm, and a final wrap-up by Professor Pagliari.

“The general consensus is for cautious optimism,” said Pagliari, noting that the current commercial real estate market—with a couple of exceptions—is “reasonably well moderated.” Other positive signs, he said, are the continuing low interest rates and the fact that  “significant amounts” of new equity capital are currently flooding the market.

The response from alumni was upbeat. “What I like about the Booth conference is that it’s a nice mix of academics and practitioners,” said Jesse Ostrow, ’06, managing principal of Springmill, a real estate investment and advisory firm in Chicago. “It’s not just panel after panel after panel.”

“It’s a very high-powered crowd,” said Alison Buckley, ’15, chief financial officer at Monroe Investment Partners, a Chicago-based real estate investment firm. “And I like coming back to campus and hearing the latest from Professor Pagliari.”

“I appreciated how intimate it was,” said Rebecca Thomson. “A lot of real estate conferences are just overwhelming in scope. Here you were up close and personal not only to the attendees but also to the speakers. I appreciated those opportunities.”

—By Robert Sharoff
December 18, 2018