Ryan Elazari | Senior Director | Empire Management | The future of CRE from a Proptech adopter, teacher & entrepreneur


DA: Welcome to TEN, the Tenant Experience Network. I’m your host, David Abrams. In this episode, we are connecting with Ryan Elazari, Senior Director, Empire Management. In this episode, we learn about Ryan’s journey to commercial real estate, and his early stopover in the banking industry. Ryan is all in on CRE, from his work experience, to teaching real estate entrepreneurship and from investing in PropTech to his endless reading and listening of industry related content, including the writing of Dror Poleg, and in particular, his book, “Rethinking Real Estate”. Building operators need to accept the fact that we are now living in a new normal, and what that means for the industry. Ryan believes strongly in the connection between healthy buildings and tenant productivity and retention. Office buildings take a hospitality approach to engaging with tenants, to improve communications, ensure that everyone is aware of all activities going on in the building, and provide a way for them to feel connected to their entire building community. All of this led to Empire Management to adopt HILO’s workplace engagement platform across two of their properties in Midtown Manhattan. With the CRE industry’s current focus on sustainability, Ryan is closely watching the impact of climate tech and the ways in which tenants are driving some of the developments and advances. During the speed round of the conversation, Ryan shared some of his personal perspectives about adaptability, visiting with family in Los Angeles, and his love of tennis. We’re excited to share this podcast with you, so be sure to subscribe to Ten, so you never miss an episode of the Tenant Experience Network. Now I’d like to welcome Ryan to the show, I’m really glad you could be with us today. How are you?

RE: I’m great, thank you. How are you?

DA: I’m awesome and I’m really looking forward to our conversation, and an opportunity for us, although we continue to work together to get to know each other even better. So tell us about your journey to your current position, role, you know, how you got into commercial real estate, give us the real scoop.

RE: Well, growing up in New York’s tight-knit Persian community where many professionals are involved in industry, real estate was a frequent topic of conversation. Being raised in Manhattan, I really enjoyed living and working in one of the greatest business centres in the world.

DA: Right.

RE: Particularly as it relates to real estate. So whether you are a developer, designer, contractor, hotelier, or broker, there’s so many opportunities in the Five Boroughs. So following my graduation from George Washington University I pursued various positions in the field and out. I initially worked as a compliance analyst at Bank of New York Mellon. The experience afforded me with knowledge and perspective that allowed me to appreciate the banking world, but ultimately I realized that real estate was my real passion. I was soon hired at Empire Management as an associate. The company’s a prided real estate firm, based in New York City that oversees over 2000 multifamily apartments and over 1 million square feet of office retail and industrial. I began to understand the work there and was inspired to go back to school where I received my Masters at Baruch College, and learned more about real estate in a structural way. After graduating from the program, I was fortunate enough to be promoted as Senior Director of the firm, as an asset manager, and began working directly with the executives of the firm to collaborate on future acquisitions and development to build of our portfolio. I’ve also pursued other opportunities, more specifically in PropTech, where I’ve invested in multiple startups as well as teaching a real estate entrepreneurship course at Baruch College, focusing on real estate technology. I’ve also been lucky enough to speak at panels discussing the future of real estate, and the adoption of PropTech across office, retail, multifamily, and industrial assets.

DA: Amazing, great story and you know, I so appreciate your interest in PropTech and your appreciation for technology and real estate. So, I think this is going to be a great conversation, I’m looking forward to delving deeper. Why do you think you were so uniquely suited for the opportunity? So again, started out with more of a banking sort of direction, and then, you know, yes, you grew up in one of the most amazing, you know, real estate centers of the world, but you know, why do you think you gravitated towards real estate? Why do you think you were so uniquely suited for the opportunity, you know? And what skills or mentors, colleagues, books, sort of influenced your trajectory in the space?

RE: You know, I always felt that I have a more forward thinker and with the competitive nature of the field, I thought it was important to understand the latest trends, which is why my main focus has recently been on PropTech.

DA: Right.

RE: And I feel like we are in the early adoption stage of real estate technology, the wild, wild west, as I like to call it. So real estate lags most asset classes in digitization and adoption of technology, so I strongly feel that once it’s fully integrated you know, across all companies, real estate will be able to maximize their ROI, and send PropTech skyrocketing. I mean, just this quarter, you have $4 billion in VC funding, so you’re really seeing the attraction level and the importance of real estate technology right now. My success can really be attributed to the real estate veterans that work in my company, they definitely set the foundation for me to understand the ins and outs of the industry, and also working with my dynamic team has been invaluable each and every day.

DA: Right.

RE: You know, my time at Baruch College allowed me to strengthen my skills and gain exposure to New York’s real estate communities. You know, Baruch has such a wide network, and provided me with such an opportunity to connect with brilliant minds in industry and I am forever grateful for that. I also read articles from publications such as The Real Deal and The Commercial Observer. I also like to listen to a wide range of podcasts, so I can learn this ever changing market, you know, that we see everyday.

DA: Yeah.

RE: Some books that I’ve loved reading has been, “The Real Estate Game”. Also a book called, “Buy, Rehab, Rent, Refinance, and Repeat”, that’s just really enhanced my knowledge on real estate investments, but a book that I’ve truly loved reading is, “Rethinking Real Estate”, it’s by Dror Poleg.

DA: Right.

RE: And he examines the latest tech, business models and funding methods that are transforming the industry, I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

DA: Yeah. Of course, well, you are all in and I love that, you are covering all the bases and are truly invested in the industry. And I’m assuming when you talk about podcasts that, you know, the Tenant Experience Network is, you know, one of those that you follow. I mean, I’m sure that’s a given.

RE: Yes, of course.

DA: I’m not going to ask you to confirm that, but… So listen, you know, New York being the epicenter of the work world perhaps, there’s a lot of commentary around the return to workplace and what that’s going to look like. And obviously some extreme opinions being expressed, some quite confrontational, some quite polarizing. Our team believes that everyone needs to live and work in the world as it is right now. And I think the industry and employers, you know, we can’t continue projecting to a date in the future. Perhaps the new normal is now. And so, living in a world with COVID is our new normal. And I’m just curious as to what you’re thinking is what your perspective is and what that means for the commercial real estate industry, and how can buildings continue to be important to businesses and people today?

RE: I completely agree with you that we now live in the new normal, and landlords just need to accept this as fact, in order to adjust.

DA: Right.

RE: To the current market. I think with office space, the question is what will the hybrid work environment look like?

DA: Right.

RE: And what will the multiverse of work mean for office space? Will there be less demand for office space per worker? I think there will be, and that will shrink demand. But at the same time, when you look at the record number of new businesses and startups and economic growth.

DA: Right.

RE: You’ll see new demand.

DA: Right.

RE: So, you know, at the end of the day, we still don’t know how much new office demand these startups can generate, while some of those businesses will likely need office space, many will just be these one person shops where they could work from home or at coworking spaces.

DA: You know, I’ve heard the notion of the flight to quality that, you know, as we re-examine our real estate needs, certainly, you know buildings that offer the newest and greatest, you know, might be even more attractive. You know, Empire has some unique buildings, can offer probably a more personalized experience, how can your buildings help employers attract the best talent, retain the best talent, and really show that, you know, helping to bring people back for opportunities to create, to collaborate, to inspire, to build culture, you know, is ultimately part of the mix? It’s not a hundred percent, but what can, you know, at Empire Management do, to help its tenants, do you think?

RE: Well, I mean, office buildings have to include a variety of different spaces, optimized for different tasks and work styles of various teams, so you need to have systems in place to make it easy and book these spaces. I also feel that you need to create better amenities such as a fitness studio, multipurpose collaboration areas, a game room, open green space either by enhancing your rooftop or incorporating plants in common areas, you know, another thing that we’ve really focused on at Empire is showing the visibility of cleanliness. I think, you know, this time that we live in.

DA: Right.

RE: You know, cleanliness is such an important factor, and it’s also important to the tenants, you know, and I also strongly believe in the idea of healthy buildings, productivity and wellness and health leads to employee retention and attraction. You know, mental health was a crisis before the pandemic and has only increased since then, so providing good ventilation, air quality, sunlight, temperature, and low noise levels, are all major factors to mental health.

DA: Agreed. So Ryan, the pandemic has re-calibrated the market to now recognize that buildings are really places for people. You’ve touched on a lot of elements around why that is true. You know, that people are the real asset, not the building. So we believe that tenant experience or now workplace experience, both for what the building can do as well as what the employers can do, is fast becoming a new differentiator, and is really driving real estate decisions and perhaps even more than the historical determinants such as location and class. So if now, it is truly about delivering the best customer experience, can you share your thoughts on how you think we will define tenant experience, customer experience, now and in the future?

RE: You know, this goes back to what I said before that office buildings now need to take a hospitality approach.

DA: Right.

RE: You know, during the pandemic, my team and I began to discuss the pain points felt by the company, and we identified the old processes that prevented our growth. So as a result, we adopted numerous platforms across our portfolio, including high, low.

DA: Right.

RE: Which we launched in two of our office buildings in Midtown Manhattan. We realized that we needed a better way for our tenants to communicate with our property management team and also for tenants to interface with other workers in the building. It was important for us to show that we care about our tenants and make sure that they have knowledge of everything that is going on in the building. And more importantly, feel that they are part of a community.

DA: Right. Well, I think if we’ve learned nothing other than this, it’s, you know, working through the pandemic and yes, we’ve made remote work work, but it’s been very isolating. And I think that, you know, creating that community and you know, we are collaborating together as you’ve mentioned with your buildings, it’s important to recognize that that community is not necessarily confined within four walls of your building, that people will continue to work from anywhere, and you know, it’s really incumbent upon the building, if it wants to ensure that the built world is seen as important, that it stays in constant connection, constant contact, with all of your tenants, no matter where they are. So I’m excited about, you know, that opportunity and I think that’s an exciting direction where, you know, we can continue to work a way out.

RE: Right, a hundred percent. I feel that now we’re in a day and age where you have to start thinking that you’re not selling a product,

DA: Right.

RE: You’re actually selling a service to a customer, and that customer might not need that service, because they could work from home, so you need to have the customer to feel that they need this space.

DA: Yeah.

RE: That’s really the key right now.

DA: I think you’re bang on, I think that’s actually the bullseye that we’ve all got to be working to hit. Let’s take a short break and we will be right back.

Commercial Break

DA: We’re back with Ryan Elazari, Senior Director, Empire Management. So, living through a pandemic has been really challenging for so many people, but it’s also provided an opportunity to, what I like to say, be better, do better and build something better. So I’m just curious if you can share any details about any aspect of your business that you are currently really drilling down on, addressing, perhaps even being re-imagined to reflect the reality of the world we live in today?

RE: Sustainability has been a major topic during the pandemic more specifically to climate tech.

DA: Right.

RE: Michael Beckerman, who is the CEO of CREtech believes that climate tech will be the single largest venture opportunity in history. He thinks that’ll be bigger than Amazon, Microsoft and Google combined. And I strongly believe that. So my team and I have been leading the initiative to reduce the carbon footprint of Empire’s portfolio, with cutting edge technology and design. These sustainable changes have been cost effective and easy to implement. Currently we’re exploring the idea of installing heat pumps in our properties, which are energy efficient technology that replaces the highly inefficient boilers and the windowed AC units, by using these systems that will heat and cool the buildings all year round.

DA: Great, very interesting. And certainly we, you know, I follow CREtech as well and certainly seeing the trend, not only there, but in so many other places around sustainability, around, you know, startups in the climate control world and a lot of opportunity. And as, you know, we continue to collaborate and look at, you know, again, that tenant experience, I think that the tenants are going to be demanding, you know, more solutions that address those same issues because they are important to them as well. And that I think can drive, you know, a positive customer experience as well.

RE: Right, a hundred percent. I feel that tenants are going to start asking for it and we need to deliver it to them. And you know, in New York we have these Local Law 97 initiatives where we have to reduce our carbon footprint by 35%, in 2024, I believe, so they’re really pushing these initiatives. And, you know, before you know it, you know, you’re going to have to do it, you know, in 5, 10, 20, 30 years.

DA: Right. You know, interestingly, when I first developed the concept behind HILO it was very much driven actually by sustainability, because at the time, many years ago, and before the birth of PropTech, buildings were going for their lead certification, right? And they were thinking more sustainable, they were thinking more green, they were thinking about reducing, you know, the amount that they print and distribute. And we envision high, low, just from the perspective of being a better way in which to connect and communicate and rely less on, you know, print consumption, as a way to, you know, also recognize the desire both for the building as well as the tenant to think about sustainability. So, you know, I don’t know that we’re coming full circle but clearly the sustainability issues are just as prevalent today as they were before.

RE: Definitely. I hundred percent agree with that.

DA: Cool. So our closing speed round Ryan, an opportunity for us to get to know you a little bit better on a personal level, can you share one way in which the pandemic has changed your outlook on life?

RE: You know, living through the lockdown taught me the value of adaptability. You know, things happen outside of control where we have to adapt to various circumstances. For example, I was planning to teach my class in person, but instead I had to start teaching it in Zoom. I was able to use resources I would’ve never imagined, inviting guest speakers virtually broadened the options for people to invite, you know, including yourself.

DA: Yep. And I enjoyed that and you’re right, that certainly did create an opportunity that might not have existed before. So, I had a lot of fun connecting with your students. What travel destination do you miss most?

RE: I really miss visiting Los Angeles. I have been visiting there since I was a child, my aunts, uncles, cousins and my grandmother all live there.

DA: Right.

RE: I haven’t been back since the pandemic. Not only do I want to go back to visit, but my wife and I welcomed our daughter in 2020.

DA: Right.

RE: And we want to take her to meet everyone too, especially my grandmother.

DA: Right, for sure, excellent. Anything new on your bucket list that you’d like to experience?

RE: So I’m a huge tennis fan and would love to attend.

DA: Okay.

RE: The French Open.

DA: Oh.

RE: At Roland-Garros.

DA: Right.

RE: I’m also a huge Rafael Nadal fan and I definitely want to watch him there before he retires.

DA: Great.

RE: Yeah, it would be great to watch him play in the finals beating Djokovic who I’m not a big fan of.

DA: You’ve already planned out who’s in the final as well. What is your favorite technology that is relatively new to your life?

RE: The Price is Right, on Alexa. Just kidding, it’s a really fun game if you have the device, but what I’m really into right now is a technology called, Balcony DAO, out it’s a Web3 investment bank. So they provide crypto financing for real estate assets. They are basically trying to transform the way that you can buy a real estate investment property.

DA: Right.

RE: It’s really interesting.

DA: Very cool, very cool. What is your personal choice for days spent in person with your colleagues, versus working from anywhere?

RE: You know, I definitely prefer working in the office versus working from anywhere. I feel that I am more productive when I can interface with my colleagues face to face, than through a screen. I truly understand why some people prefer to work from home.

DA: Right.

RE: It allows them to see their family more and provides them with flexibility. But I personally enjoy the structure of a traditional workday.

DA: Right.

RE: And being able to separate my home life and my work life, it’s just much better for me.

DA: Yeah, listen, I think it’s not one size fits all. And I think the key is flexibility. And I think if both employers and employees continue to approach, you know, these challenges with flexibility, I think we’re going to actually end up at a great place, and have the best of all worlds. And so I think it’s exciting still for commercial real estate. I think it’s still exciting for the individual to find new and different ways to work and where they work and at the end of the day, continue to help build great companies. So I’m very bullish on real estate and the place that it plays in the work ecosystem, but I recognize it’s never going to be the same, and I think it’s going to continue to emerge, and I love being a part of that journey, and Ryan, I just want to again thank you for being a guest on our show, always insightful and I look forward to continuing to collaborate with you and as I spend more time in New York, continuing to connect.

RE: Likewise, thank you so much for having me, this was a lot of fun.

DA: All right, take care.

RE: All right, thank you.

DA: I want to thank Ryan Elazari for joining me on this episode of Ten, and for contributing to the global conversation around buildings being part of a robust ecosystem that could help to build great companies, and that they are vital in the effort to cultivate and support great people and teams. The future of the workplace will likely take many forms, and we will continue to explore what that looks like together. Subscribe to Ten for more conversations with leading CRE industry professionals, and experts who all have something to say about tenant experience and the future of the workplace. We love hearing from you, so if you enjoyed this episode of Ten, please share, add your rating, and review us through your preferred podcast provider. If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly at david@hiloapp.com. And until our next episode, I wish you all continued success in building community where you work and live. Thank you.