Weekend Interview: AmTrust Realty President Jonathan Bennett
This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.
AmTrust Realty President Jonathan Bennett said he believes in the power of being contrarian.
His mindset of bucking expectations was formed by The Catcher in the Rye — he used to keep a copy on his nightstand — and it carries over into his real estate investment strategy. Bennett said commercial real estate is too quick to blow short-term trends out of proportion and to invest as a herd.
Questioning or even betting against the prevailing opinion has led him to success.
AmTrust owns 12M SF of mixed-use, office and multifamily properties primarily in New York City and Chicago.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way.
Bennett: I believe that true leadership involves empowering and enabling each member of a team to maximize their potential and succeed at their respective jobs. As president of AmTrust Realty, I strive to achieve this optimal form of leadership by guiding our entire staff as we execute our vision of rethinking real estate and creating iconic commercial and residential destinations that anchor key U.S. markets.
It sounds trite to say that my father was my mentor — and it also sounds particularly odd because he didn’t work in real estate — but there are few people who have played as significant a role in shaping the leader I am today. My father was a doctor with an incredible work ethic, and he always exuded satisfaction because of how he was able to help people — both in his medical practice and through nonprofit communal work he was involved in. While I’m not saving lives as a real estate investor, I do believe that the best-in-class office and residential properties we create have a positive impact, and I try to emulate my father’s humanitarian approach in the office, as well.
In terms of advice for other leaders, I think it's really important to have a personal narrative: an idea that you’re on a mission every day and are looking to achieve certain goals. Whether work-related or not, having something to latch onto that gives you confidence and a sense of purpose can be really inspiring. I personally start every day with exercise, study and prayer; before I even start thinking about work, I already have a sense of accomplishment that I can then take into the office with me.
Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now?
Bennett: In the early days of my career, most companies had a fairly centralized leadership structure, where there was a lot of tight control at the top and the leaders were, on a certain level, in an “ivory tower.” Now, we’re seeing a flatter organizational structure, where CEOs and other senior executives are doing less directing and more enabling — delegating more, and giving capable midlevel and junior staff the authority to make decisions.
Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?
Bennett: With respect to leadership and decision-making structure, I don’t expect dramatic changes in the next 10 years, although the trend toward flatter organizations will likely continue. But I do think there is going to be a larger emphasis placed on the fact that business leaders are in the public spotlight. Through access to information, our society is more informed than they ever have been, and business leaders have to expect their comments and actions to be scrutinized. Stakeholders want to know that those at the top are practicing what they preach; if CEOs are making promises about reducing energy use — or one of a thousand other examples — it's crucial to remember that Google and social media will keep them accountable.
Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?
Bennett: Not really. I wanted to be in business, and I wanted to be successful, but my goals weren’t leadership-oriented at that point. Now that I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years, I’ve come to appreciate the ability to lead people down the road to success and to enjoy the ancillary benefits of leading a company.
A few years ago, a friend reached out asking if I was able to help find a job for a friend of his who had fallen on hard times and was about to relocate himself and his family because he wasn’t able to find work. My company at the time had an opening that I realized could be a fit for his skill set, and I was able to offer him a good position that meant he didn’t need to uproot his whole family and move. Five years later, he’s still in that position, and I find it incredibly rewarding to think about how I was able to help him out. It’s the opportunity to make that kind of impact on someone’s life that motivates me to remain in a leadership position.
Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?
Bennett: My biggest mistake as a leader used to be doubting myself; over the years, I have learned that I have a pretty good first instinct and my gut reaction is probably the right decision. I’m not going to be right 100% of the time, and I obviously always try to educate myself before making a final decision — but in the back of my mind, I remember that I have frequently regretted doubting my gut.
All that said, perhaps my biggest career mistake was one in which I trusted my gut. Before I was in real estate, I was involved in Blackberry app development. When the iPhone hit the market, I was presented with the opportunity to switch gears and shift toward iPhones. I trusted my gut feeling — that iPhones would never take off — to avoid going down that path and look at where iPhones are today ...
Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?
Bennett: As a real estate company that specializes in office space, we’re always thinking about and looking at the ways in which this asset class is changing. A lot of ink has been spilled about working from home, and you’d have to be a fool to not recognize the allure that has to certain people even in a post-Covid environment. That said, there are a lot of companies and employees who feel that they’ve been missing out from the lack of an office experience — and even many companies who consider office space a powerful tool for attracting and retaining talent.
Personally, I’ve been back in the office five days a week since I got my third shot, and it’s had an impact. I’m able to get face time with so many more colleagues than I would otherwise — often for five or 10 minutes between meetings — and, to me, that’s a very important intangible benefit.
More broadly, major tech companies like Google led the way with the broadened definition of what an office is, including hospitality-level finishes and amenities. Tech companies have been capitalizing on the concept for more than a decade, but it started to become more of a mainstream strategy throughout the U.S. around five years ago. Has Covid changed the standard to being in the office three or four days a week instead of five? Very possibly. But the trend toward offering workers an inviting, collaborative workspace took hold for a good reason, and we don’t see it going away any time soon.
Bisnow: There is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?
Bennett: At AmTrust, we want to hire the best people possible, and we do so based fully on merit. In fact, while the industry as a whole may have to improve with regard to diversifying the C-suite, we consider ourselves an exemplar in this regard, as over 50% of AmTrust’s senior executives (VP level and above) are female.
Bisnow: What do you think about the recent focus on sustainability and climate change? Is it overblown? Insufficient? Is your company tackling climate change in any way or taking it under consideration in your planning?
Bennett: I think the focus on sustainability and climate change is incredibly important; it's just good business to be cognizant of these issues. Besides the purely ecological concerns, there are two significant reasons. One, reducing energy usage also reduces energy spend. And two, stakeholders care. We were recently in talks with an insurance company on a sizable lease, and they wouldn’t even consider a space in a property that is an energy-guzzler.
We’re currently doing a major facade renovation at one of our buildings in New York. Rather than just moving forward with replacing the exterior panels, I had the team engage with world-class architects and designers to see if there was an opportunity to do something special from both a design and energy perspective. As it turned out, there was. By integrating aspects such as solar panels into the new facade, we can not only create a more environmentally friendly building, but also reduce our energy costs in the long run.
Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong in your eyes?
Bennett: I think that short-term trends are often blown out of proportion in the commercial real estate industry. For example, there’s been an idea circulating that retail and office are both over because of the pandemic. While I understand the challenges facing those sectors, I’ve been around real estate for long enough to know that whatever’s being written off right now usually has value in five years.
I remember where Miami was in 2010 and 2011 — despite claims that the city was overbuilt and vacancies would never be filled, it caught up and then some — right now, it’s hotter than ever. For people like me, who invested in property there despite what others were saying, we’re seeing positive return and success from our actions.
As an industry, I think it's important for us to lean away from a herd-like mentality and instead question the status quo. The tech industry is very good at doing that, and we have a lot to learn from them.
Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?
Bennett: I’m bullish on the office sector.
Office has been discounted since the start of the pandemic, so there’s dramatically more room for upside than other asset classes, such as multifamily.
In terms of stability, multifamily and industrial certainly lead the pack, but there’s an incredible amount of competition for those deals, and pricing keeps climbing.
Most firms — especially those that value culture and collaboration — derive significant value from their office space and will continue to come back into work. Investors willing to bet on office will be able to reap significant returns.
Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?
Bennett: I used to keep a copy of Catcher in the Rye on my nightstand, as it was really formative for me when I was younger. It helped me become a contrarian thinker and learn to do things differently than what might be expected, which has been an important ingredient in any success I’ve had.
Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?
Bennett: The Wire is probably the best television show ever made. It was a first-of-its-kind show in a sense, too, having come out before there was Netflix or Hulu, before companies poured tons of money into producing content, and before it was “in vogue” to address its subject matter in a mainstream television show.
Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?
Bennett: I’m an observant Jew, and I spend my Saturdays with my family and friends. I go to services, enjoy hearty meals and take a much-needed full-day break from all forms of technology. It's a time that I cherish and a great reset before the start of another week.