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Beyond The Bio: 16 Questions With Columbia Property Trust CEO Nelson Mills

This series profiles men and women in commercial real estate who have profoundly transformed our neighborhoods and reshaped our cities, businesses and lifestyles.

Nelson Mills is the president, CEO and director of Columbia Property Trust, a position he has held since 2010.

The company, listed on the New York Stock Exchange as CXP, owns Class-A office properties. Under Mills' leadership, the company, which reportedly received takeover interest last year, over a five-year period has sold more than 50 properties and is now leaving its 26th market. Following a string of major purchases, 80% of its portfolio is in New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., according to the company.

Mills and his boat, "The Columbia"

In New York, CXP owns properties like 249 West 17th St., where Twitter has its New York City headquarters, and is joining with Normandy Real Estate Partners to develop  boutique office buildings at 799 Broadway in Greenwich Village and 250 Church St. in Tribeca.

Its other assets include 1800 M St. in Washington, D.C., which it bought for $421M in partnership with Allianz Real Estate in 2017, and 650 California St. in San Francisco — which CXP acquired in 2014, then repositioned.

Here, Mills speaks about pouring asphalt for highways in Tennessee, buying Market Square on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. and learning to sail.

Bisnow: How do you describe your job to people who are not in the industry?

Mills: Our business is fairly straightforward but does involve large transactions, challenging leasing negotiations and intricate operations. I think the simplest explanation is that we supply companies with the office space their employees work in every day — including household names like Twitter, DocuSign, Oracle, United Health, Mastercard and Amazon Web Services.

Bisnow: If you weren’t in commercial real estate, what would you do?

Mills: Venture capital investing — I enjoy the challenge of connecting capital with opportunity. Commercial real estate is a great forum for that as well, but venture capital and startup investing would be very interesting to me.

Bisnow: What is the worst job you ever had?

Mills: During college, I worked a summer mixing and pouring asphalt for highways in my home state of Tennessee. It was a hot, messy job — but an important one. I never pass a road construction crew without remembering what goes into keeping our roads open and safe.

Bisnow: What was your first big deal?

Mills: Just after I joined Columbia Property Trust, we acquired Market Square in Washington, D.C., marking a bold move into that market with one of the most significant trophy assets in the city. That acquisition became our first major step in shifting our strategy away from suburban, single-tenant properties, to the multi-tenant CBD properties in gateway markets that make up Columbia’s portfolio today.

Bisnow: What deal do you consider to be your biggest failure?

Mills: We’ve closed billions of dollars of transactions over the last several years, and I don’t have any regrets about the properties we’ve selected for our portfolio, but there are a couple of acquisitions that, in hindsight, I wish we’d pushed a little harder to get.

Nelson Mills and his father, Estel

Bisnow: If you could change one thing about the commercial real estate industry, what would it be?

Mills: I believe our industry would greatly benefit from a more diverse mix of players, in terms of gender, race and background. That goes for many other industries as well, of course, but I feel that commercial real estate is lagging behind many others.

Bisnow: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Mills: The designated hitter.

Bisnow: Who is your greatest mentor?

Mills: My father. In addition to being a great dad, he has been a leader in the community and state where I grew up, and he is one of the most empathetic, service-minded people I’ve ever known.

Bisnow: What is the best and worst professional advice you've ever gotten?

Mills: I’ve learned over the years that you must have the courage and conviction to follow through, even when actions are costly and outcomes are uncertain. You of course have to be diligent and think things through, but once you have your path set, don’t be deterred or distracted by challenges. As wise King Solomon once alluded, “no manure, no milk.” The worst advice is probably “follow your dreams” or “stay true to yourself,” whatever those mean.

Bisnow: What is your greatest extravagance? 

Mills: We tend to go all in when it comes to travel with my family. We have an upcoming trip to Paris that started with a family challenge last summer. We really got into the World Cup and I offered a 2019 family trip to the winning country – when there were still 32 teams in competition. Fortunately, France prevailed!

Bisnow: What is your favorite restaurant in the world?

Mills: Eleven Madison Park. I’d heard about it for years and finally had the opportunity to dine there recently. I now see why it’s one of the top-rated restaurants in the world.

Bisnow: If you could sit down with President Donald Trump, what would you say?

Mills: I’d tell him that we’d really like to have Jared back in the New York real estate business. He’s been a bright and effective player in our market.

Nelson fishing with his son Austin

Bisnow: What's the biggest risk you have ever taken?

Twenty years ago, early in my career, I had enjoyed some success at one of the Big 4 public accounting firms and made partner. Just one year later, I chose to leave that behind to join a client, a very large real estate investment manager. That seemed like a big risk at the time, but I knew I wanted to be in the real estate advisory business, and it turned out to be a great decision. It led to many terrific opportunities, including my current role.

Bisnow: What is your favorite place to visit in your hometown?

Mills: My family’s farm in West Tennessee, where I grew up, and where my dad still lives today. Whenever we weren’t working together on the farm, I loved to explore the surrounding woods or fish along the nearby Tennessee River.

Bisnow: What keeps you up at night?

Mills: Who will win the Game of Thrones. (Editor's Note: This interview was conducted before the series finale)

Bisnow: Outside of your work, what are you most passionate about?

Mills: Finding new challenges. I really enjoy learning and experiencing new things, and strive to master them when I can. For example, I learned to sail 12 years ago, but racing sailboats has become a new challenge that I’m really enjoying.