On Thursday, November 7, 2019, the Cornell Baker Program in Real Estate welcomed Cornell alumna Lisa Colacurcio back to campus as a speaker in its Fall 2019 Distinguished Speaker Series. Colacurcio is the Head of Fund Management at Gemdale USA, a U.S.-based real estate development and investment firm whose Chinese parent company, Gemdale Corporation, has operations that span the globe. Colacurcio grew up locally in Ithaca, New York, and received her Bachelors of Arts as well as a Masters of Arts from Cornell. Colacurcio also studied at Peking University and at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received an MBA.
Over the course of her presentation, Colacurcio covered three main topics. First, she shared her personal and professional journey after Cornell and lessons learned along the way. Second, she gave an overview of Gemdale USA. Third, she highlighted projects to date undertaken by Gemdale USA’s fund and how these have impacted the future of the company.
On the personal front, Colacurcio moved to China to study Chinese literature and politics at Peking University in 1983 after graduating from Cornell. While sharing this background, Colacurcio reminisced how much China has changed in a short period of time and that in 1983 there was a single skyscraper near Haidian that was no more than about fifteen stories tall. Upon completing her studies Colacurcio relocated back to New York for a brief stint with a trading firm but was itching to get back to China, which she did in 1986. This time the move was permanent despite her having no employment in place at the time. Soon after her arrival, Colacurcio found employment with investment bank Jardine Fleming located in Hong Kong, which sponsored the first foreign fund to invest in diversified set of opportunities in China.
Despite her adventurous spirit and natural curiosity for the world, Colacurcio did not enjoy being a generalist on the professional front. Her desire to specialize led her to Wharton’s MBA program in early 1990’s. Faced with a recession upon graduation, Colacurcio echoed the then-sentiment of her cohort which was “stay alive ‘til 95.”
After Wharton Colacurcio lived in Paris, California, got married, and started a family before taking on a nine-year stint with UBS in Japan where she made significant investments across all real estate asset types around the world. Colacurcio’s time with UBS was significant because UBS at that time had a $20 billion dollar fund that allowed her to make significant investments and this is also where she first met and worked with the Gemdale team that led her to her current position.
Colacurcio has lived adventurously in her career and personal life by making choices that have taken her all over the world. But she acknowledges that this lifestyle is not for everyone. Before one can decide what is right for them, they must consider their personal goals, their risk tolerance, and their family situation. Colacurcio encouraged students who were in the right place in their life to not be afraid to take risks in their professional career. She continued that “it is best to take a risk and have remorse than a regret” meaning it is better to have tried and failed than to not try at all.
Colacurcio emphasized to students that they should not get too lost in their pursuit of the perfect first job after graduation and instead consider their career as a marathon instead of a sprint. She also encouraged students to remember the importance of winning over all of the stakeholders within the organization instead of relying on a single person. You never know when your champion may leave and you will be left without any support if you rely on a single manager to help you climb the corporate ladder. Finally, Colacurcio encouraged students to never say never despite where we are in the business cycle because you never really know when and how the next “black swan” will occur. You cannot be afraid and must keep pushing, according to Colacurcio.
In discussing Gemdale USA, Colacurcio shared that its parent firm, Gemdale Corporation, has a major presence in real estate development in China with annual contract sales in excess of $20 billion U.S. dollars. Operations in China span across 20 cities, employing approximately 25,000 people. In 2013, Gemdale decided to enter the United States with a subsidiary, Gemdale USA, as an effort to diversify its presence. In short time it has grown from a two-person team in New York to a sixty-five person team with five offices in major cities across the U.S., including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas and New York City.
In its first phase, Gemdale USA has been a capital allocator by investing in conjunction with other established developers and, most recently, in value-add projects. Gemdale USA has been investing strategically in a way that allows it to build a track record to attract new investors. Gemdale USA plans to raise additional investor capital in the coming years. As a result, Gemdale USA has largely invested in gateway cities because Colacurcio believes that it is easier for her target investors to understand and comfortable with these markets since they have heard of these cities and believe that any recession’s impact on such gateway markets is likely to be more subdued.
Lastly, Colacurcio gave the students an overview of Gemdale USA’s portfolio. Colacurcio shared with the students some of the challenges that come with being new to the market, especially for a foreign firm that does not have a track record. She noted that although there are some advantages in partnering with established and reputable firms, it does not sufficiently prove to potential investors that a company has the requisite know-how to go out on its own. Furthermore, Gemdale USA must be sensitive to US regulations that prevent foreign firms from investing in physical locations that are too close to sensitive U.S. government offices or infrastructure. For example, Gemdale USA cannot invest too close to the White House or an army base.
As the session came to close, Colacurcio answered questions from the students. She further reflected on some of the nuances when it comes to living and working abroad, encouraging learning the culture of a place, being curious, and working to establish relationships. She shared that when she moved to Japan, she tapped on her network from Wharton and met with attorneys to understand what the pitfalls were in the country and how best to avoid them.
The Baker Program thanks Colacurcio for her time and advice to students, especially for encouraging student to take a leap and not be afraid. The Baker Program looks forward to her next visit.