75_logoWhen ULI was founded in 1936, New York City’s Benenson Capital Partners LLC (BCP) already had been in the real estate business for 31 years. The Benenson family’s real estate business—founded by Benjamin Benenson—had grown into an industry leader, and in 1938, Benjamin’s son, Charles B. Benenson, took over, guiding the firm for the next seven decades. Today, BCP remains a leader among privately held real estate investment, development, and asset management operating firms.

“Real estate companies have become more sophisticated and require different organizational and leadership structures,” says Richard A. Kessler, chief operating officer of BCP and chair of ULI New York. “Under Charles Benenson, the structure was like a wagon wheel, with Mr. Benenson the hub and a number of people—generalists who did everything including leasing, managing, acquisitions, and financial reporting—the spokes, all reporting to him. It wasn’t a vertical, integrated, diversified real estate company like today. Leaders saw the business as an art form and ran it on instinct and intuition.”

In the 1990s, that changed, Kessler says, and real estate leadership became more scientific, with technology and computer modeling based on mathematical calculations taking over. “The optimal is somewhere in middle,” Kessler says. “You still need intuition and vision, but it needs to be coupled with good analytics and projections and models.”

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Rockefeller Center, in the heart of Manhattan,
was about half complete in 1936.  It was
one of the largest projects ever undertaken
by private enterprise employing nearly
75,000 workers.

BCP has survived numerous economic downturns, natural calamities and rapid market changes because its leaders had a long-term perspective and operated on a slow and steady course. “BCP isn’t in this for the short haul but the long term,” says Kessler. “Our leaders have always reflected that focus.”

Today’s real estate firms are generally larger and more diversified, agrees Peter Hall, managing director of Equinox Search LLC of San Francisco. “And in the 1930s and 1940s, executives were mostly male. Back then, the CEO could hire his brother-in-law who knew nothing about real estate and it didn’t matter because the CEO oversaw the entire company. That’s changed. Real estate companies have become more complex and executives have had to adjust.”

The once exclusively male, old-boy real estate network has also evolved. Over the past 75 years, a number of women have entered the executive suite, Hall adds, bringing needed change to a stodgy industry. Today’s leaders of real estate firms are more diverse, which is good for the company and the real estate industry because diversity brings a new focus to the industry.

Because the real estate market is changing rapidly, today’s leaders must be in top form, not only supervising day-to-day operations, but also handling emergencies as well as dealing with unforeseen changes in the industry. “Everything moves much more quickly now for real estate leaders,” says Hall. “You have to be on your game. In the 1930s and 1940s, if you owned an office building, that was good for 50 years.”