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Real Estate Grads Schooled in the Art of the Deal


Article from Mississippi Business Journal

The School of Hard Knocks produced many of Mississippi’s commercial real estate professionals. They started as small investors in a retail center or office building only to learn that bad timing – or just bad luck – came with the territory. Those who could rebound from such blows with more savvy about deal making eventually would find success.

However, hanging on the office wall of today’s Mississippi real estate pro is likely to be a diploma from the University of Mississippi’s School of Real Estate or one in Real Estate Finance from Mississippi State University.

Just reaching Dr. Matthew Hill’s real estate program at Ole Miss or Dr. Mike Highfield’s real estate finance program at Mississippi State is an achievement, with prospective students having survived such core business courses as upper level economics, fundamentals of accounting, actuarial statistics and other courses relating to the fundamentals of business.

“There’s a bit of a filtering process,” says Hill, an assistant professor of finance who serves as the J. Ed Turner Chair of Real Estate.

Hill says he spends much of his classroom time on “quantitative things” that put a premium on calculation skills. But the student doesn’t have to be locked into numbers entirely, he adds. “The way we market it specifically to the 18 year-old who is a senior in high school or even a freshman or sophomore is that the program provides so much more flexibility. Say, if you don’t want to focus on the quantitative side there is a huge opportunity for you on the marketing side” or in the back office of a real estate operation.

“There is something for everyone,” Hill says.

At Mississippi State, the real estate emphasis prepares students for the finance end of real estate, says Highfield, head of the Department of Finance & Economics and Warren Chair of Real Estate Finance.

“We did have a major in real estate but now have a major in finance with an emphasis in real estate. We went away from that because most of our grads still go to work in the financial services field,” he says. “We place students in loan underwriting, loan origination, loan processing and the like. It’s kind of where” finance and real estate meet.

“We have redesigned our major to focus on that intersection.”

The five real estate core courses MSU offers qualify students to sit for the Mississippi broker’s exam, where the university’s Real Estate Finance program’s training in real estate law, appraisals, real estate investments and mortgage financing can be valuable.

Likewise, Ole Miss Real Estate graduates are eligible for the exam. J. Walter Michel, principal of the J. Walter Michel Agency in Jackson, went straight to the broker’s exam after graduating as one of four members of the first Ole Miss Real Estate class in 1983.

“I went to work for the family business instead of doing sales for a year,” Michel says of the opportunity that came with passing the broker’s exam and soon after the Certified Commercial Investment Members (CCIM) exam.

Michel, a former longtime Mississippi state senator, figures he may have been the youngest broker in the state at the time. As an Ole Miss sophomore in 1980, he heard the university was starting a real estate school under the guidance of professor Dennis Tosh, who went on to become a co-founder of real estate appraisal software firm FNC Inc. in Oxford. “I told him I wanted to register,” Michel recalls. “He said, ‘Good, you are the first person to sign up.’”

Today, Michel serves on the Real Estate School’s Advisory Board. Members mentor students on everything from job interviewing to social skills essential to successful business networking and deal making.

It’s in these sessions, Michel says, that he learns who the go-getters are likely to be. “You can tell the ones who are really interested – and really have ‘it’.”

Blake Tartt III, a Class of 1984 Ole Miss marketing major and Houston, Texas, real estate developer, is president of the Real Estate Advisory Board. Today’s curriculum carries a strong amount of reality-based instruction, he says.

“I think Matt (Dr. Hill) has done a real good job at that,” Tart says. “That has been a big part of our deal. I think our students today want a real world experience.”

That real experience, courtesy of the Advisory Board, includes a session every October at which board members detail emerging trends in real estate and how to prepare resumes that reflect the potential to meet the challenges of the current market.

Knowing how to entertain clients in the real world also is emphasized, according to Tartt, who builds shopping centers and small office properties in Texas and has real estate holdings in Oxford, including a home.

“We do a wine tasting. We bring senior students together with the Advisory Board and the faculty. We are trying to accomplish several things,” he says. “One is to teach the kids how to interact with adults in an informal cocktail setting. We try to teach them a little something about wines” so they have knowledge of wines to order when they go out for a job interview or entertain clients.

“Then, in the spring before graduation, we bring them together and have a luncheon,” Tart says. “We talk to them about what to expect in the real word and what is happening in the business.”

Trends in the real estate sector have influenced the directions students in the programs at Ole Miss and Mississippi State have taken, Hill and Highfield say.

At the time of the real estate bust in 2008, Ole Miss had a ton of majors still clinging to the idea of careers on the residential side, Hill says. “After the bust our numbers dropped but now we are seeing an uptick again, mostly in commercial real estate.”

At MSU, some of the emphasis reflects changes in the financing end of the real estate industry, according to Highfield.

“The whole industry has become so heavily regulated and so technical,” he says, and notes that “some of the ways we use to teach our stuff was not as technical.

“What we are trying to teach today is that real estate at the commercial level and the lending level is a much more technical sport.”

Regardless of the trends that with changing times, Highfield says, successful graduates “have to go out and show their stuff.”

Ross Reily, Mississippi Business Journal

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