Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Innovator award recipient Michael Ashner shares career insights with students

As part of our Meet Our Current Students series, first-year real estate MBA student Jordan Denzer reports on the fall presentation of our Innovator Award.

Michael Ashner, Chairman and CEO of Winthrop Realty Trust received the Real Estate Club's Innovator Award at its first official meeting of the Fall 2011 semester on September 23rd at the Pyle Center. Truly an innovator in the real estate industry, Ashner was chosen for the award for founding the first ever group of tender offers for publically traded real estate companies.

Serving as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Winthrop Realty Trust since 2004, Ashner's company acquired over $12 billion of real estate, including 85,000 apartment units, 50 million square feet of office, retail, and industrial assets and 1,000 hotel rooms. Ashner also served as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Winthrop Realty Partners, L.P., a vertically integrated property management firm, since 1996. Winthrop Realty Partners has managed more than 500 limited partnerships, of which in excess of 50 were publicly reporting with over 100,000 investors, as well as five publicly traded REITs.

Graaskamp Center Executive Director Michael Brennan began the evening's discussion by citing Alexis de Tocqueville's statement, "we bear the mark of our origins" and asked Ashner to discuss his roots and his career progression to where he is today. Ashner began by saying that after he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Cornell, he quickly "realized a need to eat and to have shelter," so he decided to pursue his JD at the University of Miami.

Ashner initially worked as an attorney in corporate securities, where he learned about REITs and real estate syndication. This experience eventually led him to leave the legal professional and become a buyer of failing real estate syndications. He quickly learned how to value real estate and the nature of how markets ebb and flow. Ashner said he does not believe in efficient-market theory, "Value investing is a proposition in which the investor is betting against the generally held beliefs of other investors, as indicated by their actions in the market. If you think where you are is correct, and you've done the valuation, then make the bet."

He also discussed the difficulties in the valuation effort, stating that valuations will always be wrong because no one can accurately forecast value. Despite all number crunching and scenario analyses, "if a butterfly burps in China, then your Argus evaluation is going to be wrong."

Ashner's candor and insight was both captivating and instructional for students and staff alike. The Real Estate Club thoroughly enjoyed his visit and we are proud to have been able to present him with the Innovator Award.

The Innovator Series Award was conceived from the paper entitled "The Wisconsin Program in Real Estate and Urban Land Economics: A Century of Tradition and Innovation," written by Stephen Malpezzi, Chair of the Real Estate Department. The paper's central theme is that a rich history cannot be established without continually implementing innovation. Previous recipients of the award include Nicholas Billotti of Turner Construction, Laurence Geller of Strategic Hotels and Resorts, David Brain of Entertainment Properties Trust and Hersch Klaff of Klaff Realty.

Jordan Denzer is a first-year MBA student in the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate. Jordan arrived in Madison from Dallas, where he previously worked in the benefits administration field for CONEXIS. He obtained his BBA in International Business from Stephen F. Austin State University.

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