Origin Stories: Presidio Bay Ventures Founder And Managing Director Cyrus Sanandaji
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
On a flight from San Francisco to Germany, Sanandaji, then getting his postgraduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, met then-General Services Administration Project Manager Tom Hixson. After chatting for hours about subjects ranging from literature to Sanandaji's current studies, Hixson handed Sanandaji his business card, saying he had a job if he wanted it.
By that point, Sanandaji, who grew up in Dubai, had had an "unorthodox and informal" introduction to CRE in the form of a college internship with a family office. After about three years of work for the GSA on a variety of big lease transactions and projects for the FBI and other agencies, Sanandaji, then still just 27 years old, went on to start his own development company in 2012.
San Francisco-based Presidio Bay Ventures now has a project portfolio of about 3.2M SF of office and multifamily properties across several states.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Sanandaji: Spending the formative years of my childhood in Dubai exposed me to an ever-changing city that sprouted right out of the desert. While the unmitigated growth I witnessed could have benefited the city better with some restraint, I found the pace at which Dubai grew to be extremely fascinating. There was something so tangible about seeing the skyline physically change and roads and roundabouts emerge seemingly overnight. The developers, architects, engineers, consultants and general contractors around me were continually pushing the limits of innovation in design and construction techniques.
As a young boy, this was all akin to living in a real-life SimCity game. It wasn’t until much later in life when I was living in California and working at my first job that I started to appreciate the general workings of the commercial real estate industry. That was when I really started to understand how marrying a community’s needs, market/tenant demands, political priorities at various levels of local and state government, the ongoing push and pull of form and function and, most importantly, capital coming together to result in the successful development of a project.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Sanandaji: I had an unorthodox and informal entry into the world of commercial real estate during college interning for a family office that had multifamily buildings and office holdings. I was tasked with everything from the oversight of minor remodels to tenant lease renewals, coordinating due diligence for acquisitions and observing the architectural design process during larger renovations. This solidified my passion for the perceptible aspects of real estate, including the physical design and construction of space as well as the ongoing curation of activity within those spaces.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Sanandaji: My formal education in both undergraduate and graduate school was in political science and diplomacy, which on the face of it, is completely unrelated to commercial real estate. In hindsight, however, I find myself leveraging many of those skills in my day-to-day role running a development company. That educational background led to my interest in pursuing a job at the intersection of government and real estate, which resulted in my being recruited out of graduate school to the General Services Administration shortly after President Obama’s inauguration.
I was fortunate enough to have had a mentor in my first big role who valued professional development and encouraged me to pursue a variety of training programs including LEED AP, PMP, CCIM, certifications in construction management (from UC Berkeley) and facilities management (Penn State) as well as a series of advanced negotiations and leadership courses.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Sanandaji: I would have loved to be proficient in AutoCAD, Revit or ArchiCAD. There is something so inspiring about the design process, and, even now, I find myself getting the most gratification working through design challenges with our team for all the various product types we develop.
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?
Sanandaji: While there have certainly been frustrations throughout my career, I’ve never thought about quitting. Instead, I’ve learned to persevere and lean into the criticisms faced in this line of work that can sometimes feel very personal.
In this industry, there’s this stereotype of the "greedy developer who doesn’t care about the community or people and only cares about money." At various points in my journey, I’ve found myself thrown into this stereotype, usually due to miscommunication or misinformation campaigns from small though vocal opposition groups, and I feel unjustifiably accused.
I consider it harsh and unfair because it couldn’t be further from who we are and what we strive to build at Presidio Bay. The entire team strongly values our collective commitment to communities in which we’re developing and strive to take a thoughtful approach to the projects, the needs of the neighborhood and the environment. It can be disheartening at times but it makes me work that much harder to double down on our efforts to be the opposite of that stereotype. At the end of the day, I know that we’re trying to bring positive change by creating collaborative and innovative projects.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Sanandaji: Despite my early notions of this industry about it all coming down to money (which, yes, that too!), I’ve come to find that one of the keys to success in real estate is having the unique ability to easily connect with other people. You can recruit the right analysts, advisers, management team, etc. But if you want to really go far as a developer, you have to create strong and lasting relationships with every stakeholder.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Sanandaji: Tom Hixson really shaped my career, first by recruiting me and then by providing me with incredible opportunities to learn how to put deals together and build out complex projects across multiple states during a time when very few people were building (2009-2012) due to the Great Recession (or global financial crisis).
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Sanandaji: A few key lessons I’ve learned over the past 15 years:
An idea alone doesn’t get anywhere without a champion and wide support base; conviction alone is also not enough. Relationships, honesty, integrity and commitment to carrying out business plans, recognizing shortcomings and addressing them head-on rather than making excuses are the keys to success.
Good things happen to good people. Success in our industry, as with many others, comes from the recognition that we are ultimately in a relationship business trading on our reputation over the long term. Short-term gain at the expense of doing the right thing never yields the highest return on investment in the long run.
Without access to capital, you won’t get far. I learned this the hard way but it’s driven me every day to appreciate my capital relationships and continue to cultivate and expand those relationships to build trust and long-lasting partnerships.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Sanandaji: Patience and perseverance. If you’re looking for the quick wins, development is not the right career for you. Entitlement efforts can become extremely politicized and emotional because the idea of growth is so often associated with the negativity that can come with it, including gentrification and displacement. In order to succeed, we must all come to the table with open minds and curiosity to understand every stakeholder’s perspective. Success is the ability to navigate these tough situations with empathy and to synthesize a project that has attempted to address reasonable concerns.