Distinguished Alumni Interview: Julie Wong '03
By Jodie Zhang ’19
Julie Wong is a Partner of GreenOak, where is responsible for global capital raising. Julie has over 17 years of experience in the real estate industry as an investor, advisor and operator. Previously, Julie was at Morgan Stanley in the real estate division and played a key role in the formation and fundraising of Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund VII Global (MSREF VII), a $5 billion opportunistic fund. Following the formation of MSREF VII, where she served as the fund’s deputy portfolio manager, focused on all fund-level issues involving investments, credit facilities, corporate finance legal issues and investor coverage. During her career at Morgan Stanley, Julie served in various roles in Morgan Stanley’s Fixed Income division, Real Estate Investment Banking division and Real Estate Investing business. Julie began her career in real estate in 1997 with Sunterra Resorts focusing on acquisitions that helped create a portfolio of over 110 properties worldwide.
Julie graduated from Harvard University with a Bachelor of Arts degree and from Columbia University with a Master of Business Administration in 2003.
What was your favorite experience at CBS?
It’s hard to pick a favorite moment because I had such a great experience at the school. I was looking for a few things from business school, which I think Columbia delivered. Foremost, I wanted to be at an institution that attracted world-class professors who are practitioners and thought leaders. During my time at Columbia, I had the opportunity to hear from a variety of people: from the CEO of Coach to young entrepreneurs. The second highlight was my travel abroad. My advice for everyone at business school is to take advantage of traveling to a region, most often organized by a student from that area and put together really interesting itinerary based on their own knowledge of the country and with Columbia Business School can open so many doors. When we went to Thailand, our classmates had meetings arranged with amazing dignitaries and business leaders, including the Prime Minister, and our trip photo was on the cover of the local paper.
What influenced your decision to pursue real estate after graduating?
I graduated in 2003, at a time of retrenchment of the financial sector after the collapse of several large telecom and technology companies. The economy was in a recession, and opportunities were not abundant. I had worked at a real estate development company prior to business school, so I already knew the sector from a corporate transaction perspective through acquiring operating businesses. I was keen to also gain experience in finance, so I joined Morgan Stanley’s CMBS lending group.
I find the real estate industry infinitely interesting and personally rewarding for many reasons, not least of which, it attracts a great group of people—a testament to the relationship-based nature of the business. To me, real estate is a culminating reflection of the entire economy. How are companies growing? Are they hiring? Are people buying homes or renting? What cities are people moving to? Moving from? How are millennials choosing to shop, work, live? At the end of the day, everything we do is within the confines of real estate, and it touches all aspects of our lives. Real estate investment decisions can be extremely complex and infinitely fascinating. To be successful in real estate, one must understand both broad market drivers, and operational strategies of each asset type among the many crucial factors.
You've had successful career in real estate since then. What is an achievement you are most proud of?
For me, what GreenOak has achieved ties closely to what I am most proud of. I have been with the firm since its formation in 2010 and led all our capital raising efforts globally. We have raised approximately $10 billion across 15 funds. When I take a step back and look at those figures, I am really proud of what we have achieved. I’m also excited about our path ahead. We’ve set a strong foundation for future growth, and to me, that is fulfilling. A friend who works in a non-real estate field once came to me for professional advice. She said that out of everyone she knows, I seem happiest in my job. Despite hearing only the day-to-day aspects of my job in our conversations, as opposed to reflective comments about what I’m particularly proud of, she was still able to pick up the fact that I am fulfilled. That’s a deep sense of personal achievement to me.
Could you share your experience working in Morgan Stanley's Real Estate Funds group and how it has prepared you for your current role at GreenOak?
My time at the Morgan Stanley’s Real Estate Funds group was a wonderful foundation for my career. Being at one of the earliest and largest global real estate platforms—I had the benefit of gaining a broad perspective. I was exposed to different asset types and geographies early on in my career, which is a valuable advantage. Having already worked on investments in the US and Latin America, I understood and was able to speak to a breadth of markets, strategies, deal considerations before coming to GreenOak. There is no substitute for the firsthand experience I gained in those transactions at Morgan Stanley.
When the capital market seized during the financial crisis, many of my colleagues were focused on asset management and corporate workouts. I was working on Morgan Stanley’s first global fund. That fundraising experience gave me a deeper understanding of how to articulate our strategy to various stakeholders. Sonny, John, and Fred are the founding partners of GreenOak and three colleagues I respect tremendously. My biggest personal and professional investment was deciding to join a start-up, but I believed in GreenOak’s strategy, which was to deploy capital in attractive markets coming out of the financial crisis: major cities in the US, Asia and Europe. I was already familiar with the Japanese market through my time at Morgan Stanley. I shared and still share the same conviction as my fellow partners and knew we had the right team to execute this strategy.
GreenOak just raised a $1.55b third U.S. fund earlier this year, exceeding its original hard cap at $1.5b. What was your experience like fundraising for this fund and have you seen any shifts in investors' market sentiment?
Our fund had a really good reception. Ultimately, there is no crystal ball or consensus on when capital value will peak. Having said that, we’re both buyers and sellers of assets in the market and we have a real-time sense of values. This market insight informs us of where the winds are shifting. For US Fund III, there was a sense seller expectations in major markets were beginning to capitulate. In light of potential headwinds, we structured our strategy accordingly; we extended our investment period by one year, allowing us to be patient and deliberate with our investment selections. We’ve demonstrated this discretion in our track record. Having capital on hand now puts us in a good position when opportunity arises.
The US is an important real estate market and will continue to be so. It is stable, liquid, and attractive for long-term investments. In the last fundraise, we had an impressive re-up rate along with an influx of investors new to fund investing, which I recognize and appreciate as a vote of confidence in us as managers.
What is required to be a successful capital raiser in today’s private real estate market?
To be a successful capital raiser, I believe it is important to communicate strategies with investors. It doesn’t work if you do it as a pitch. It would be ineffective for me to give a one-hour distillation of my investment ideas, and the client is only listening to me. An effective conversation goes both ways, and I have to understand the clients’ objectives. Institutions have different risk tolerances, investment objectives, and histories. A conversation where you can tailor your conversation to be relevant to their focus allow you to arrive at a mutual opportunity. With that said, we’re not here to be all things for all people—we have a point of view and will pursue specific strategies. It’s my job to explain the thinking behind those strategies and demonstrate our capacity to execute.
Global demand for warehouses and distribution centers is at an all-time high since 2000. What are your thoughts on investing in industrial real estate?
There is a lot of capital dedicated to the domestic logistics sector. As a result, this has driven values to the point where returns are quite narrow in the US. Logistics as an asset class in Europe is more interesting to us and we’ve been one of the larger value-add investors in this space. We’ve invested in five European countries and acquired over 23 million square feet in our last two funds. There is a lot more opportunity there and strong growth in demand, as opposed to in the US. This reminds me of a great piece of advice I received as a young associate at Morgan Stanley. We’re always told to work on our weaknesses, but really, we should lean on our strengths. Do more of what you’re good at and do it consistently.
Last April, you participated in Columbia Business School’s Women in Real Estate Leadership panel. As an accomplished female leader in a male-dominated industry, what advice would you offer to women starting their careers in real estate?
I have been in male-dominated industries since the beginning of my career, from Wall Street to real estate private equity. This issue is a constant for women in most industries. How our careers in finance and real estate is evidenced in deal opportunities, compensation, promotion, networking, and professional development. I have female friends from other industries who wrestle with this as well. It becomes more relevant as you become more senior, and I am more aware of this issue in the last 3-5 years than I was earlier in my career.
For women starting in their careers, there are some things I learned that can be helpful. The number one thing is to be curious and ask questions. I have found that true understanding of something comes from not being afraid to ask for clarification. If something is unclear to you, chances are it is unclear to others as well. Asking questions empowers you to gain knowledge and be better at your job. The second, is to choose your team thoughtfully. So much of what we do is collaborative in this industry. Selecting an organization and an environment that is conducive for you is therefore very important. I encourage you to do as much research as you can—by asking questions—to figure out if a firm is the right fit for you.
Jodie Zhang ’19 graduated from George Washington University with a BBA in International Business. Prior to business school, Jodie worked at a Chinese real estate development company focused on developing and managing senior homes. Later, she worked at CBRE’s transaction management group in New York, helping clients develop real estate strategies. After graduation, Jodie will return to her family business office in New York.