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Origin Stories: Greg Ritchie From The Ivy League To The English Midlands

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

Greg Ritchie, left, with fellow Cole Waterhouse co-founders Rod Priestley and Damian Flood

From barns to residential buildings, and from the Ivy League to the English Midlands, Greg Ritchie has had an unusual property journey.

Yet the New Jersey-born Cornell (Class of '86) and Columbia (Class of '92) University alumnus has never swerved from the dream of getting into the property business, even if life has meant detours into mechanical engineering and agricultural buildings.

Today Ritchie is executive director at UK residential developer Cole Waterhouse, where he has a leading role in the firm’s growth in Birmingham and expansion into the complicated and demanding London market.

In the capital, energies are focused on the £100M football-and-student campus plans for Wembley, next to the national stadium. In Birmingham Cole Waterhouse has plans for a 5-acre mixed-use neighbourhood in the hipster district of Digbeth.

A specialist in capital markets and deal execution, Ritchie has prospered in a people-focused business despite confessing that networking is not one of his top skills.

Greg Ritchie

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?

Ritchie: For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be involved in property. I pursued a mechanical engineering degree at university as I loved maths but actually specialised in a sub-discipline, agricultural engineering (think barns instead of offices and tractors instead of cars). Graduating in 1986, I was happy to secure any offer in CRE though!

After several years as an engineer, I went to business school to pick up the financial elements of CRE. While I enjoyed sales and design work, I wanted to be involved in the big picture of underwriting projects and working with capital markets to finance and own property.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

Ritchie: My first position was as a sales engineer for United McGill Corporation. United McGill was ahead of its time as it manufactures spiral ductwork, which is energy efficient but more expensive to install. Virtually all ductwork at the time was manufactured by mechanical contractors in their own yards, and they were resistant to purchasing it. My job as an engineer was to work with the architects and general contractors designing the buildings and get my company into the plans and specs. At the same time, I bid on projects and then worked with the mechanical contractor to supply the product. Given the higher costs, a lot of the jobs I worked on were government related like hospitals and prisons.

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role? 

Ritchie: Education has always been critical to me in entering the CRE industry. My first position relied upon my engineering degree and when I wanted to move to the capital markets area of CRE my MBA opened the first door. I also earned my CFA, which rounded out my financial skills and gave me a better understanding of fiduciary responsibilities. This credential has been particularly helpful in my board roles.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

Ritchie: I would definitely say networking. CRE is driven by connections and relationships and an ability to manage and nurture these resources is highly beneficial. I’ve always wished I was better with names and staying in touch.

Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?

Ritchie: When I graduated from business school in 1992, CRE in the U.S. was in the doldrums. The saying was “stay alive till ‘95” (as in 1995). To the extent jobs were available, they were in the workout departments of the banks. I considered other options like investment banking or consulting, but it was CRE that I was really interested in. In the end, I was fortunate to secure an offer from Citi in their newly formed CRE securitisation group. We were purchasing distressed mortgages (primarily backed by apartment complexes and suburban offices) and restructuring the loans.

Greg Ritchie and his wife, Liz, enjoying a break

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

Ritchie: When I first joined as a sales engineer it was a dichotomy. When I was working with the architects and general contractors, it was highly technical and often theoretical. However, the mechanical contractors who were my clients were typically very old school and set in their ways. They were very resistant to change. Ironically, I enjoyed my interactions more with the mechanical contractors as they were a fun group as a whole.

However, as my career has progressed, I’ve seen CRE transform in many ways. While I’ve been focused on the capital markets, building practises, materials, SG&E and operations have all gone through innovation and change. While I feel CRE was slow in embracing things like technology and environmental concerns, it now feels like we’re racing to keep up with best practises and current approaches.

Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?

Ritchie: I’ve always been fortunate to have good mentoring and I believe it’s one of the biggest casualties of remote working. My first mentor was the shop foreman at our manufacturing facility in California. I could ask him anything, no matter how naïve or stupid it might have been. Tapping into his years of experience was like having a personal Google search bar before there was a useable internet. When I moved to finance, I again lucked out with a senior member of the department who took me under his wing. He explained everything including what he was thinking and why he would arrive at a decision. We were working on Citi’s first ever CRE securitisation and his patience and knowledge were invaluable as we were breaking new ground.

I’ve always tried to give back what I received from these two and take the time with junior members of the team. Many have now gone on to highly successful careers and it’s great to see the transformation of someone just entering the industry into a respected member of the community.

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

Ritchie: Without a doubt the hard way and the key lesson is to own your mistakes. Everyone will screw up at some point and the key is to take responsibility for it and help correct it. It’s very hard to admit an error, but once it’s out there you can draw on the resources of the entire team to rectify it. The key is to learn from your mistakes and not make them twice.

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

Ritchie: I warn them about the need to keep a steep learning curve and embrace change.

We’re in the midst of an extremely long-dated positive cycle in CRE and there will be tough times ahead for the industry. We’ve already seen it in sectors like retail, but generally speaking I expect volatility to increase in most asset classes going forward. However, change brings opportunity and the key is to navigate the process.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change? 

Ritchie: I would try much harder to live in the moment. A good portion of my career has revolved around investing in distressed assets. Having seen the myriad ways in which an asset can get into trouble, I’ve always struggled to enjoy the present as I’m looking for danger signals. The reality is that most assets perform to plan and distress is more often a case of leverage or poor positioning.

Related Topics: Origin Stories, Greg Richie