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Real Estate Entrepreneur Steven Witkoff Offers Students Career Advice

February 26, 2008
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Steven C. Witkoff, founder and president of the Witkoff Group, a New York City-based real estate investment and management firm, spoke on February 26, 2008 to nearly 200 School of Business students about careers in real estate. The program, which was hosted by the School’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Student Support Services, was held in the James W. McLamore Executive Education Center.

Witcoff has close ties with the School: This year, for the third year in a row, he is a judge in the Rothschild Entrepreneurship Competition, and his son, Andrew is a freshman. In addition, he is acting as a mentor to Josh Bergman, another freshman, who is interested in a career in real estate. Bergman introduced Witcoff at the event.

Witkoff began his career as an attorney, and he told the students how in the 1980s he left a lucrative practice at a top firm to buy his first building, a 25-unit walkup residential property. He recounted how he horrified his parents with his decision, then asked them for money to supplement his own savings so he could make the down payment.

But cutting his own living expenses — moving to a less-expensive apartment, taking no vacation for five years and learning to do his own repairs — helped make his first investment profitable. He parlayed the profits and the experience into a portfolio of multifamily residential properties. By the early 1990s, he had moved into commercial real estate, buying up distressed mortgages. Today, the Witkoff Group owns millions square feet of real estate in the select U.S. markets and overseas. In New York City alone, the company owns 20 buildings, including the Woolworth Building, the Daily News Building, the Federal Reserve Building and other commercial landmarks.

What, the students asked him, did he think about the falling values in today’s real estate market — especially in South Florida? “The real estate business today may be even worse than what you read in the papers,” Witkoff told them, “but the single greatest time to make it in real estate is when it’s most depressed. You just have to be prepared to wait it out. That’s when fortunes will be made.”

As for South Florida, he likes it: “There’s no income tax, there’s great weather, you have easy access from New York City, you have companies staging for business in Latin America here, and you have European money coming in.”

As a result, his company is looking to invest in residential properties in areas like Brickell Avenue. “The units aren’t large, so you can buy them and rent them to students at a reasonable rent that will cover your expenses,” he said. “Later you can sell them.” The Witcoff Group, he explained, looks for a 15 to 20 percent annual return on such investments.

Witkoff encouraged interested students to learn all they could about real estate. “The more sophisticated you are in this field, the less competition you have,” he explained.

Certainly real estate has served Witkoff well. “Other than being Tiger Woods or a rock star,” he said with a smile, “this is the only thing I’d want to do.”

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