Illustration by Greg Betza
In 1999, Chicago native Van Stults, ’78, cofounded London-based Orion Capital Managers, a real-estate private equity firm committed to sustainable, efficient building practices. The firm’s latest fund, with roughly 70 investors from around the world, has invested €1.5 billion in European green commercial and residential real-estate markets. He is currently a global trustee of the Urban Land Institute and chairs a program that brings real-estate planning and development teaching sessions into UK schools, primarily in underprivileged areas. Stults, who led canoe trips in the Canadian wilderness when he was young, is excited about the industry’s embrace of sustainability. At Booth, Stults supports scholarships for top students with financial need, and he is part of the Global Leadership Group and the Council on Chicago Booth.
What do you do—and what do you love about it?
We are building and investing in the real world around us with physical assets where people live, work, and play. So we are creating successful projects based not just on financial data, but on a large aesthetic element that is great fun to develop and also enhances the environment.
Real estate remains a strong human business where relationships and teamwork are essential. I find this enriching. My drivers have always been more about building relationships and trust and making a positive contribution through my efforts. And it is wonderful to see how the success of our investment funds contributes to the work done by our investor clients—foundations, endowments, charities, and pension funds—and their beneficiaries.
There is a lot of discussion these days about sustainability, land use, and equitable urban design. What is the role of the real-estate industry?
At Orion, we have always focused on creating sustainable, efficient buildings, but now the industry has leaped forward in a fantastic way, bringing ESG [environmental, social, and governance] and well-being to the forefront. There is a sincere, positive desire in the industry generally to push strongly forward in these areas. This is driven by a number of factors but is increasingly essential for attracting top tenants and investors to the properties. This is significantly changing property design and affecting where value will be created and lost over the coming years.
“Real estate remains a strong human business where relationships and teamwork are essential. I find this enriching. My drivers have always been more about building relationships and trust and making a positive contribution through my efforts.”
How has the pandemic influenced Orion’s strategy moving forward?
The pandemic has been called the “great accelerator”—trends that were occurring have now rapidly impacted various sectors in different ways, from logistics to brick-and-mortar retail to offices. At Orion, we are further strengthening our real-estate operating capabilities, both internally and through potential control of operating platforms in various sectors. We are putting even greater resources into incorporating top ESG standards. We are adjusting our investment strategies and design criteria to best anticipate postpandemic demand trends.
What have you enjoyed about creating and building a business in Europe?
Over the past 30 years here, I have thoroughly enjoyed working across incredibly different cultures and systems. This is one of the great joys of working in Europe. An important part of Orion’s success has been to become part of the fabric of the culture and use that in our approaches in our primary markets. The key is to have your own strong company culture—which has no relation to nationality—that you merge into the best practices of your markets.
How did your time at Booth influence your career?
After my first year at Chicago, I switched from the Full-Time MBA Program to the “190 Program” so I could participate in bank management training while in school. [Before the move to Gleacher in 1994, part-time programs were held at 190 East Delaware, resulting in the nickname.] All of the Evening MBA students were juggling the demands of work and school. The program had an excellent camaraderie between the students, and the faculty were extraordinary and demanding. The courses at Chicago built a solid foundation of understanding how markets perform overall and of rigorously analyzing data to form strategies and make decisions. My US experience and Chicago Booth education gave me the entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take a risk to start a business. The Chicago Approach also permeates Orion’s investment decision process: our judgments are made on the basis of extensive, in-depth quantitative analysis of data and scenarios.