C-Suite Spotlight: Veris Residential CEO Mahbod Nia
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.
Just last week Mack-Cali, the Jersey City-based REIT with a background in suburban offices, announced a new name and a full strategic pivot. The company was rebranded as Veris Residential, and having sold a $1B portfolio of suburban offices, Veris is becoming a pure-play multifamily REIT, with a focus on ESG and a portfolio of 22 assets totaling nearly 6,000 apartments.
The pivot happened on the leadership watch of Mahbod Nia, the chief executive who joined in March. Born in Iran and raised in the UK, Nia has previously run pan-European listed company NorthStar Realty Trust, as well as working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.
In his first full interview since the rebrand and announcement of the company’s future strategy, Nia told Bisnow how moving to a new country at a young age taught him grit, why ESG is central to the company’s strategy, what has changed about the role of CEO and why hybrid work is here to stay.
Nia also spoke of what the movie Rocky 2 taught him about perseverance and being an underdog, and how it inspired him to always get up after being knocked down in his journey to professional and personal success.
Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?
Nia: While leading a publicly traded company was never a specific goal that entered my mind when I was younger, starting a business certainly was. I guess you could say that leading a company has always been a goal of mine. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I like to create things, fix them and solve problems. So yes, in an "indirect way," I’ve always had the natural desire to be a leader.
Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way.
Nia: The foundations of my leadership philosophy are rooted in organization, teamwork and meritocratic empowerment. I believe in identifying people with the necessary competence and work ethic and giving them clear direction and the autonomy necessary to succeed. People are typically happiest and most productive when they feel valued and part of a team with a shared goal that they can contribute to and benefit from.
Teamwork is key. It’s similar in sports. History has shown many times how a motivated and highly organized team can outperform a less organized or "hungry" team of individual all-stars. Clear communication is essential. Each member of the team must have a clear understanding of the goal(s), the strategy, their specific role within the strategy to help achieve those goals, and there must be accountability.
Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now?
Nia: Going back to what I just said about my leadership philosophy, I think historically, leadership philosophies were much more hierarchical and often less team-oriented. A CEO was often sitting in a closed-door office and disconnected from much of the organization, perhaps with the exception of the senior executives. In my opinion, that’s quite dangerous because not only do employees need to feel like their CEO is accessible, but as CEO, you need to be able to connect with your employees to truly understand what makes your organization tick. There’s a huge difference between being told what’s going on in your company and witnessing it for yourself firsthand. What you learn is invaluable input that helps to inform the important decisions you have to make.
Today, I have found that more CEOs, myself included, are running “flatter” organizational structures, and I believe that yields better results in modern corporate culture. Employees naturally want to feel included, heard, and able to contribute their thoughts and ideas. That’s reasonable. They are stakeholders in the business, too, and often see things from a different perspective. The more traditional approach to management requires employees to have attained a certain level of seniority, title or age to access management and be heard. I think this approach leads to the loss of valuable information that can help management in their decision-making.
Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?
Nia: Over the past two years, we have learned that it is, in fact, possible to work productively and efficiently while remote. We recognize full remote working probably isn’t the ideal solution as a physical environment tends to be more optimal for team building and collaborative idea generation. But these can be catered to within a hybrid working structure; you don’t need to be in the office 100% of the time. I expect that different companies in different sectors will have different views on this question, but my view is that a hybrid work model will become much more common.
That’s our strategy at Veris Residential. It started with my appointment by the board of directors, and it will be even more relevant as we transition to becoming a multifamily-focused company. We believe the implementation of a hybrid structure helps to ensure that we can continue to attract and retain experienced, curious and passionate team members with the right attitude and approach, who are focused on getting their work done on time and up to the expected standard to help us continue to achieve success. Those values matter to us more than where an individual is located.
I also think that as technology continues to evolve, the difference between remote and in-person work will become more marginal over time. Think about how quickly we all got accustomed to Zoom during the pandemic. In my opinion, we are not too far away from that type of technology being even more optimal for remote work. Soon we’ll be able to put on a virtual reality headset from home and feel like we’re in a meeting room together. It will be a highly immersive experience. All in all, it’s not one or the other — we need to be flexible and evolve with the times.
Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?
Nia: I believe CEOs will need to continue to have incredible foresight and strategic vision in an increasingly dynamic environment. The ability to see the risks and opportunities from the cumulative impact of economic trends, capital flows, migration trends, changing consumer habits, technological trends, climate change and other external factors, all of which are evolving simultaneously at a rapid pace, is becoming increasingly challenging. History shows us that those who can identify the risks and opportunities that come with change, adapt, and position their companies accordingly, tend to succeed. You can’t afford to be static in a highly dynamic environment.
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?
Nia: Focusing on sustainability and climate change is hugely important for the real estate industry — the built sector alone contributes 40% of global carbon emissions. Climate change is a current and real reality, not a future threat. That may be an inconvenient reality for current real estate managers who are solely incentivized by financial returns, but we believe that we can better position ourselves to generate long-term shareholder value by identifying the risks and opportunities presented by ESG considerations and weaving these into the fabric of our company, using them as a compass for current and future decision-making. This includes our efforts to become a more sustainable company. We’ve made significant strides in the right direction during these past 17 months, but we know we still have a long way to go, and we remain highly focused on the path ahead. On the public side, investors are increasingly requiring that C-suite compensation be linked to ESG-related goals. We adopted this approach in 2021, and as such, I and the other executives have an ESG goal linked to compensation. Our plan is to build on this approach and expand it to a wider group in 2022.
Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?
Nia: I make mistakes just like anyone else, of course. In my opinion, it’s how we learn and grow from our mistakes that makes us better leaders. But if I had to pick one, I think it would be the times when I didn’t trust my gut.
As a CEO, you are being hired to make decisions. These decisions are rarely black or white — it’s usually a case of multiple shades of gray. My approach to decision-making is to get all the data I can possibly acquire at that time, dig in, understand it, and make the best call I can with the information I have. I am very comfortable making decisions that way. With the benefit of hindsight, I also know that there will be occasions where I make the wrong call. That’s OK. What matters then is the ability to adapt and formulate a new plan, continue moving forward, and never give up.
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?
Nia: Enhancing support for diverse and all-inclusive communities is core to our corporate values. As a reconstituted board of directors as of June 2020, we really began evaluating how we could do more in this regard. We established an ESG committee, on which I sit, that summer, which has begun to develop and implement a number of initiatives throughout our organization. Such initiatives include establishing employee affinity groups, growing gender and ethnic diversity within the company so our team better reflects the communities we serve, and introducing company-wide diversity training including unconscious bias training.
In addition, I have signed the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion Pledge, committing to continue promoting and helping to create more diversity within our organization. I have also signed the UN Women Empowerment Pledge, which commits us to adhering to equal rights and standards for women.
We firmly believe that diverse teams produce better results. Working to bring more racial and gender diversity to our organization is an effort that’s center of focus for our board of directors and I, so we’re going to continue to focus on becoming more diverse as an organization beyond the initial steps we have undertaken.
Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong in your eyes?
Nia: As a sector, I think there is often a resistance to change and a bit of a herd mentality in CRE in terms of the prevailing views and perspectives on the approach to operating and investing. In my opinion, this can stifle creativity, which I believe is invaluable for the evolution of the sector.
Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?
Nia: As you may expect based on the recent repositioning of our company, we continue to see tremendous opportunity in the multifamily sector.
In contrast to other asset classes that are facing varying degrees of uncertainty, the demand drivers for multifamily are clear: We know that people will always need beds to sleep in. In fact, in a post-Covid world, many people place even greater importance on their home. We also know that the population is growing, so more homes will be needed. High-quality properties, such as the ones we own at Veris Residential, with the extensive range of amenities they offer and their focus on health and well-being — all of our properties have been awarded the WELL Health & Safety Certification — will continue to cater to the growing demand for high-end, clean, safe and sustainability-conscious homes.
Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?
Nia: I have to go with a movie instead, if that’s all right. Rocky 2, which I certainly hope people have seen, was one of my favorite films growing up. It’s about grit, determination, perseverance and the underdog prevailing.
I relate to that story because, in a way, I’ve always felt like the underdog. I came to the UK at age 7 after leaving Iran with my family. I didn’t know anybody and couldn’t speak a word of English when I arrived. It was a tough transition, to be honest. My parents had modest financial means with which to start a new life from scratch. I witnessed firsthand how hard they worked and the sacrifices they made to claw us out of a difficult situation over several years. The odds are really against you in that situation, and very few people manage to break out of it.
I worked extremely hard and am acutely aware of how fortunate I have been. I appreciate the value of opportunity when it is presented, and always aim to make the most of every opportunity I am given. I am grateful to everyone who has ever given me an opportunity and have grabbed each of them with both hands. It’s great to now be in a position where I can make a difference in other people’s lives, and give them the opportunity to grow and realize their ambitions. So, going back to Rocky 2, the movie resonated with me, like I expect it did for most people who enjoyed it, because it was a story about the underdog getting knocked down, getting back up, refusing to give up and ultimately succeeding.
Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?
Nia: There’s a great Ted Talk, Why Aren’t We Awesomer by Michael Neil, which was really eye-opening for me. He talks about how we tend to think of our minds as recorders that faithfully transcribe events as they happen, but in reality, our minds are actually more like projectors. What matters most is the lens through which you recall and ultimately perceive your experiences. It’s a fascinating presentation and worth checking out.
Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?
Nia: I like to wake up early and start the day with a workout. Then I let the dog out, and typically make pancakes for my kids. After that, it’s about quality time with family — often including my parents — or friends.