Owen D. Thomas, chief executive officer of Boston Properties, one of the nation’s largest real estate companies, has been elected ULI’s global chairman. A ULI governing trustee, a ULI Foundation governor, and a ULI member for more than 30 years, Thomas will serve a two-year term that ends June 30, 2021.
As ULI’s global chairman, Thomas will guide the Institute’s delivery of member value and mission-oriented work, with an overarching goal of positioning ULI as the leading global real estate organization that attracts and retains top industry leaders; the leading authority on real estate and the go-to place for industry information and expertise; and the provider of solutions to the most complex real estate and urban development problems faced by cities around the world.
“ULI is the leading organization for curating and disseminating industry knowledge and best practices in community building,” Thomas says. “No other organization comes close to ULI in terms of sharing expertise and celebrating success stories that can benefit land use decision-making in communities around the globe. The potential of our organization to make a meaningful, lasting difference through the work of our members is inspiring.”
Thomas has served on the leadership teams of five ULI global chairmen: J. Ronald Terwilliger, whose term lasted from 1999–2001; the late Joseph W. O’Connor, whose chairmanship spanned 2001–2003; Lynn Thurber, 2013–2015; Randall K. Rowe, 2015–2017; and Thomas W. Toomey, whose 2017-2019 term ended June 30.
“We are very fortunate to have Owen taking the helm. He is dedicated, decisive, and he believes in ULI as a member-driven, mission-focused organization,” Toomey says. “He will keep ULI’s momentum going strong.”
In addition to serving as a governing trustee and a ULI Foundation governor, Thomas is a member of the Technology and Real Estate Council. From 2013 to 2016, he chaired and was a member of the Global Strategy Committee, which helped guide ULI’s global governance restructuring initiative, and he was a co-chair for the 2018 ULI Fall Meeting in Boston.
“Owen’s deep commitment to ULI and his thoughtful approach to business management will be invaluable assets as our organization continues its efforts to improve the member experience,” says W. Edward Walter, ULI global chief executive officer. “We are excited about the Institute’s future under Owen’s leadership. His wisdom, experience, and innovative thinking will help drive ULI to new levels of excellence.”
As the chief executive officer and a director of Boston Properties, a real estate investment trust, Thomas oversees the largest publicly traded owner, manager, and developer of class A office properties in the United States, with a significant presence in five markets—Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Thomas is also a director of Lehman Brothers Holdings and served as its first chairman, from 2012 to March 2013.
Before working at Lehman, Thomas held various leadership positions at Morgan Stanley for 24 years, including 2008 through 2011 as chief executive officer of Morgan Stanley Asia, based in Hong Kong. While in Asia, he was instrumental in helping raise ULI’s visibility and increase the Institute’s membership in the Asia Pacific region, and he served on the Advisory Services panel convened by the Institute to advise the government of Hong Kong on repurposing the Kai Tak airport. Thomas was also was president of Morgan Stanley Investment Management, head of Morgan Stanley Real Estate, and chairman of Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities. He was on Morgan Stanley’s Management Committee from 2005 to 2011.
He is an officer of the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts and a member of its executive board, a director of the Real Estate Roundtable, and a former chairman of the Pension Real Estate Association.
Thomas recently spoke with Urban Land about his priorities as global chairman and what drives his involvement in the organization.
What led you to join ULI?
I became a member of ULI shortly after joining Morgan Stanley in 1987. There was a rich tradition of ULI-supportive leadership within Morgan Stanley that included [ULI Life Trustee] Buzz McCoy and [former ULI global chairman] Lynn Thurber, both of whom have long been involved in ULI. At Morgan Stanley, being a ULI member was encouraged as a place to learn, meet people, and get plugged into the real estate business. As a banker and financial adviser at the time, those types of opportunities were important me. I eventually got involved in the Product Council network, which led to further engagement with ULI and strengthened my desire to do more with the organization.
During your career with ULI, where do you think you have made the greatest impact?
I have certainly received many great benefits from ULI over the years in terms of learning and relationships, and I have tried to give back whenever possible. Probably the most significant area of contribution has been in ULI’s global expansion. During my time at Morgan Stanley, the company was one of the first significant institutional investors to pursue a global strategy, and I was often asked about strategy and best practices for such an expansion for ULI. This culminated in my living in Hong Kong and engaging with ULI Asia Pacific directly, and with Lynn [Thurber] subsequently asking me to chair the Global Strategy Committee, which was a precursor to ULI’s current Global Board.
What makes membership in ULI different than other organizations in which you are involved?
The big difference with ULI is the scale and diversity of members and disciplines. ULI is the ultimate “big tent” of real estate: we have owners, developers, bankers, investors, architects, builders, planners, public officials, and students as members. And it is global. Other organizations have non-U.S. members, but ULI has much more of a global footprint. In addition, it’s a philanthropic organization. For many real estate organizations, the primary focus is to lobby legislators, or network with peers, or attain customers and/or investors. That’s not the primary purpose of ULI. The purpose is to make cities better. And through the ULI Foundation, members have made contributions toward that purpose. Most other real estate organizations don’t have that philanthropic component.
The successful implementation of the Global Strategic Plan is one of your priorities. What do you believe are the most significant benefits for the membership resulting from the plan?
First, the plan emphasizes that ULI is for its members. Its content comes from its members, and its value is generated by active member involvement. That is the underpinning of what we’re trying to accomplish.
Second, the plan represents an investment in ULI’s future. It provides resources to accommodate more members on product councils, and to improve district council programming and connections between district councils and other networks. It is allowing ULI to continue to grow internationally, host more Advisory Services panels, conduct more mission-focused research, and expand its education initiatives.
Each of the investments will ultimately pay back by improving ULI for the members. Our technology platform to better connect members is one example. The breadth of the activities within ULI’s centers, product councils, district councils, and within each region is amazing. Getting members more connected and sharing knowledge on a more consistent basis is really important. Technology will help us do that.
Working with ULI’s leadership to ensure we are fulfilling the goals of the Strategic Plan—to increase member engagement and impact—is a top priority. And we will constantly monitor the process and make adjustments that are required to execute the plan successfully.
What are your other priorities for the organization?
The first priority is, again, to fulfill the goals of the Global Strategic Plan. As mentioned before, the multiyear strategy is intended to strengthen ULI and broaden its appeal for the future of the organization.
Another priority is to highlight the philanthropic aspect of ULI. A lot of people use ULI to network and others use it as an educational opportunity, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what people tend to overlook is that ULI is also a philanthropic, mission-driven organization. We don’t have business goals; we have ambitions. We are planning to raise significant money for the ULI Foundation to support ULI’s work, and having a larger endowment resource will absolutely make ULI a more powerful organization with greater reach and impact. I want to emphasize ULI’s philanthropic initiatives to expand our ability to create better communities, including education initiatives to broaden diversity within the industry and programs to create more sustainable performance in the built environment.
Finally, I want to continue to expand ULI’s global footprint by increasing connectivity and idea sharing across the Americas, Europe, and Asia. It is important to continue to integrate our ULI mission, programs, and research into all of our global locations. A global footprint is one of the key distinctive features of ULI. This will be a top priority during my time as global chairman.
Is there a program or initiative that you feel particularly passionate about?
I am most fearful of the future impacts of climate change—for our planet and for our children. It is a difficult issue for our society to solve because the impacts are long term and the need for action is short term—or, frankly, immediate. For this reason, I am passionate about sustainability and excited about the work of ULI in this field. At Boston Properties, we are a globally recognized leader in sustainable business practices and have public goals for reductions in energy intensity and emissions, water recycling, and waste diversion. The built environment generates 40 percent of total carbon emissions, and the real estate industry and ULI have an important role to play in fixing the problem.
Often, other ULI leaders have said that in this time of great change for the industry, including climate change and other factors, ULI’s thought leadership is more necessary than ever. In your view, how does ULI enrich discussions around the challenges that are facing so many urban areas?
The answer is member expertise. As I mentioned, ULI has members that are industry leaders in all relevant areas concerning urban land use. Further, our members are doers; they are not theorists. They build things, and they have the resources to make things happen. That’s the big difference. They are very experienced, practical, and pragmatic in their approach to solving problems.
Do you think the field of real estate is still as interesting to enter today as when you started in the industry?
I think it’s more interesting now. Many young people, including me way back when, have an interest in working on things that are tangible. With real estate, you can do well while doing good by improving the built environment and your community. Further, today I meet many young people who are seeing traditional industries be disrupted by technology. They see the importance of creativity and personal relationships in real estate, as well as the difficulty in commoditizing real estate assets and business processes. Technology has improved and will continue to improve outcomes and economics in the real estate industry, but human creativity, relationships, and entrepreneurship will remain important.
What are your thoughts on the outlook for urban development in general?
I’m very optimistic for the future. The world is urbanizing at a steady rate as skilled workers seek to co-locate in major cities around the globe. As a result, leading innovative companies are seeking to locate in these cities to tap into all the resident talent and to co-locate with each other to spur innovation. Cities are struggling to keep pace, particularly in the areas of transportation, infrastructure, and affordable housing, and changing climate adds to the pressure. The need for the expertise and talent resident in ULI has never been greater.
How do you balance work and family, and what do you like to do in your spare time?
I am married with three children, and family is my priority. I like to try and stay fit primarily through distance running. And with whatever time is left, I enjoy hiking, skiing, golf, and a good book.