Vicky Schiff founded her first company at age of 30 but she didn’t stop there. Since 1996, she has started 5 companies in real estate investment, capital formation, fund of funds, distressed and lending businesses. In 2015, Ms. Schiff co-founded MREC Management and its co-mingled debt fund, Mosaic Real Estate Credit, which she has now successfully exited from.
Q.1. Tell us about your journey. What inspired you to enter the real estate industry?
A.1. I was raised in Las Vegas in the 1970s by my father, Jim Schiff. My dad moved to Las Vegas in the 1950s to participate in the growth of the town which was started as a get-away oasis in the desert. My father had a tremendous influence on my early life and I was born when he was 50 and just starting to experience success after years of struggling in a challenging but growing real estate market. He used to say “it took me 50 years to become an overnight success”.
When I was 3, my father started including me in job site visits. He was the general contractor for several significant casino properties in Las Vegas and I learned a lot from following him around for the next 15 years. Unfortunately, my dad passed during my freshman year at USC where I was a pre-med major. Despite earning an Exercise Science degree in 1988, which I studied out of a passion for training, I decided to embark on my real estate career to follow in my dad’s footsteps.
My first job was in commercial real estate brokerage. I later joined an opportunistic investment firm which focused on post Savings and Loan crisis distressed real estate. I discovered a knack for underwriting, due diligence, legal structures, and learning about different asset classes. The opportunity allowed for learning in a very entrepreneurial environment which gave me the confidence to start my first business at 30 in 1996. Despite my relative lack of experience, I saw an opportunity to buy an excess piece of land behind a free-standing grocery store and build a self-storage facility. In fact, I saw an industry that was in its beginning stages. I spent my nights and weekends researching and developing a business plan. I was fortunate to be introduced to a friend of a friend who worked at a family office about the opportunity. The family office backed a plan to launch StorAmerica. Since 1996, I have started 5 companies in real estate investment, capital formation, fund of funds, distressed and lending businesses.
Q.2. Congrats on your recent exit from Mosaic Real Estate Investors and Mosaic Real Estate Credit. What new projects or areas are you focusing on now?
A.2. I just finished law school (for fun!) and I will continue to serve on public and private company boards and work on ESG and impact investing.
Q.3. Due to the gender imbalance in the industry, women face challenges compared to their male counterparts. Since you’re an advocate for bringing more women into real estate, what would you advise them to stay at the top of their game?
A.3. I believe women have more opportunities now than they ever have before—especially in real estate investment and finance. Keeping that in mind, I would advise women never to stop learning and growing…. learn new skills, create new relationships and work with mentors. Everyone faces adversity and we are shaped by both good and difficult times. Strive to be wiser and more valuable in the industry as you move through a career path. I have never thought of being a woman as a barrier or as a hurdle I needed to overcome. Women should never be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes and that is key to growth. Fix mistakes and move on from them mentally. When criticized, focus on what you can learn and throw the rest away.
Q.4. In your opinion, what are some of the issues in the real estate industry, and what can be done to overcome them?
1) We are behind on big data and tech and need more standardization as an industry. Blockchain, for instance, is a foreign concept to our industry. We need to figure out how to implement these technologies to provide efficiency and protections.
2) Sustainability and community improvement is given a lot of lip service, but many investment managers, owners and developers are still unclear about measuring what matters. I was speaking at a conference recently and less than 10 people (out of hundreds) raised their hand when asked if they knew what “ESG” stood for. If I was speaking to a European audience, that number would have been 90%. Investors need to drive behavior, in a logical way, as I don’t think we can count on politics and policy to be consistent.
3) Affordable housing is a massive issue. Everyone knows this but institutional capital continues to flow to projects with high rents. There are 50,000+ homeless people in LA and many more that can barely afford to live in any major city. Apartment “Value Add” funds buy middle-class apartments with a plan to improve the units and raise rents which displace many people. There has to be a balance, or we are all going to pay the price. If people can’t have a decent place to live, we are all in trouble, and our cities will break down. We’ve seen this exasperated through CoVID.
Q.5. Having founded five companies, can you share some of your wisdom with entrepreneurial aspirants?
1) The right team becomes a family and should share successes with people that add value. Nothing is accomplished alone, and greed is NOT good.
2) Business is not only about trust and ethics but also good written agreements. Robust, transparent, and enforceable contracts prevent much wasted time and negative experiences.
3) Show up and be present at any critical time and be the person that gets stuff done.
4) Discover your unique strength and let people know about that….they will remember you. Were you a college athlete? Do you love to cook? Are you an avid traveler? Do you have a unique hobby? What are your interests? Everyone has something unique to share.
5) If you fall, get up, over and over. Practice resilience. Feel the fear but do it anyway, because life is short.
6) Be yourself and live by your code of ethics. Don’t go along with things if you disagree, even if you’re standing alone. Sometimes people won’t like you…be OK with that.
Q.6. What non-intuitive advice would you give to first-time real estate investors?
A.6. Do your due diligence and confirm, confirm, confirm assumptions in underwriting. There are a host of companies and individuals trying to sell something…. Funds, single investments, properties, and services. Check references and do your homework on people. Visit someone’s office and meet their co-workers, even on zoom, which will reveal a lot of information. Be observant and careful when dealing with people who are not transparent. Look people in the eye and observe how they treat those around them.
Q.7. Which asset classes and cities are you bullish on for real estate?
A.7. I see real estate as a barbell. Looking at the stats, affordable housing is still in short supply almost everywhere. The labor force needs to be where jobs are plentiful. On the other side of the spectrum, luxury real estate in mountain and resort areas has done well, and I believe it will continue to do well but watch interest rates. Be contrarian in certain markets. The distribution story should continue, given online growth but don’t rule out good retail. Much real estate is obsolete…big box retail, malls with ample parking fields, older hotels with no drivers and too much competition, older office buildings, etc. Repurposing obsolete real estate with good “bones” and favoring ground-up construction with energy-efficient wellness bells and whistles is a good strategy. The best tenants will go to the new product, and the older buildings will be orphans.
Q.8. Which quote or saying do you live by?
A.8. I love the quote in the movie Joe vs. The Volcano, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Meg, a spoiled daughter of a very successful man, says, “My father says almost the whole world is asleep…everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake, and they live in a state of constant, total amazement”.