Tony Ciochetti's Tireless Mission to Take MIT/CRE to the World
March 18, 2009
A couple days after Thanksgiving last November, MIT/CRE Chairman Tony Ciochetti met Kier Riemersma for breakfast in Dubai. They couldn't have asked for a better morning. With a cloudless blue sky and temps in the low 80s, it was the kind of day that puts a smiles on the face of people like Riemersma, who is engaged in tourism-driven real estate development in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Nor could Riemersma have chosen a better spot to offer Ciochetti his take on what's happening in the UAE's real estate market, which – despite the gathering clouds of worldwide recession – was continuing to sizzle. They met on a deck at the world's largest man-made marina. "In the one-mile radius surrounding us," Riemersma said, "there are perhaps 100 high rise towers, averaging 35 floors, that have been completed or started in the past 36 months. Within a couple of blocks, near the marina, there are eight buildings with over 90 floors."
For the past four years, Riemersma, who earned his Master of City Planning degree at MIT, has been director of client services for Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), a large tourism-focused real estate company in Abu Dhabi. He was introduced to Ciochetti at the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) fall meeting and Urban Land Expo in Miami in September by Gayle Berens, Vice President of Real Estate Development Practice at the ULI. Berens and Ciochetti are old friends who have known each other since Ciochetti taught classes for the ULI in the early 1990s.
"Gayle knew about our company and she knew I went to MIT," says Riemersma. "She thought Tony and I would have a lot in common. As it turned out, we did."
Ciochetti, who has been on a frenetic mission to expand the Center's global influence ever since he arrived at MIT in 2004, was particularly interested in the perspective of a man whose company is actively involved in the development of golf resorts, hotels, and museums, including the new Louvre expected to open on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyaat Island, just offshore, in 2012. The museum, an unexpected outpost for the great French institution, will join a new Guggenheim Museum scheduled to open at about the same time on Saadiyaat. They are key components of some $100 billion in mixed commercial, residential, and leisure products construction transforming the island into what's expected to become Abu Dhabi's cultural center.
Riemersma, in turn, is enthusiastic about Ciochetti's global mission. "I think it's great that Tony's helping the Center establish international relationships," he says. "Those relationships open opportunities for research and for introducing students to markets all over the world."
A Role in the Persian Gulf
The two men had previously spent an hour comparing notes in Miami, and when Ciochetti subsequently traveled to the United Arab Emirates in November, he contacted Riemersma and arranged to get together with him again. The dizzying pace of that trip turned out to resemble one of the dust devils that sometimes race across the sands of the Emirates, but Ciochetti has grown accustomed to the frenzy. An inveterate traveler, regularly representing the Center abroad when he can schedule trips around his full time teaching responsibilities, he began 2008 with a January trip to India, where he taught several one-day classes in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. Over the next 12 months he crisscrossed the planet.
His November trip to the Middle East meant missing Thanksgiving for the second year in a row. But for Ciochetti, who has helped the Center build strong, ongoing relationships with both leading educational institutions and prominent real estate companies in Europe and Asia, it was an opportunity to reinforce a foothold in a region where the real estate market is especially strong and where the MIT Center for Real Estate is not as well known as in Europe and Asia. In England and China, Ciochetti has been building relationships with Cambridge University and Beijing's Tsinghua University for several years.
"Roughly three quarters of the world's development activity is occurring outside the United States," he notes. "MIT has had global connections since its inception. Our commitment to expanding the Center's global influence doesn't mean we've lost our focus on the United States, of course. The domestic market is still very large and it remains important. But if we're going to have an impact on the way real estate is developed around the world – and we really must – then we have to develop opportunities for our students, faculty, and alumni to become engaged in shaping development in these growing markets."
Ciochetti's trip commenced on Wednesday, November 26, when he boarded a plane in Boston. The following morning, red-eyed, he touched down in Dubai. It was 10:00 AM, Thanksgiving morning, and he had just enough time to rush to his hotel and freshen up before heading to the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT), the United Arab Emirates' largest higher educational institution, to fulfill a speaking obligation.
The presentation turned out to be somewhat different than Ciochetti had expected. Upon arriving at the HCT, he learned that instead of a brief presentation on real estate development he was booked to speak to a group of 250 students, faculty members, and industry participants. Three more lectures, to students, were scheduled over the next couple of days.
That the agenda had been changed reflects how much demand there is for the scope of services that MIT/CRE offers. And it speaks volumes about the opportunities for productive collaboration between the Center and developers in the Middle East.
In fact, the presentation was a consequence of just such a collaboration, an evolving partnership between the Center and the prominent real estate development company Sorouh. Established four years ago, Sorouh's goal is not unlike TDIC's, developing real estate projects in Abu Dhabi aimed at turning the emirate into a regional leisure, business, and lifestyle destination. The company's flagship development, Shams Abu Dhabi, is a massive, 50 million square foot mixed-use development occupying some 25 percent of Al Reem Island just off the Abu Dhabi coast.
In addition to his presentations at the HCT, Ciochetti also spent an entire afternoon talking with senior Sorouh management about the credit crisis. And he managed to squeeze in not only his brunch with Riemersma, but dinner with representatives of Mubadala Development Company, which is creating Masddar, the world's first zero-carbon clean energy-powered city, which is being built near the Abu Dhabi International Airport.
On Sunday, November 30 he headed back to the United States. He had classes to teach on Monday. International obligations notwithstanding, he is still teaching a full course load and, last July, assumed the responsibilities of Academic Director for the Center. And even though his focus has been intensely on the development of the Center's international presence, his interest in and academic work with respect to the domestic markets has not waned.
When he's not abroad or teaching at the Center, Ciochetti still finds time to remain engaged with the Center's domestic partners and to speak at educational forums here in the United States, such as the TIAA-CREF program he spoke at in New York last September, a few weeks before the Urban Land Institute conference.
"TIAA/CREF has been a partner of the Center for the past three years," notes Ciochetti. "They're involved in real estate internationally, and our collaboration with them has generated a wide range of opportunities for programs, research, student projects, and theses. It has been an especially productive partnership."
"Tony brings to the table both real world and academic experience," says Martha Peyton, managing director of Research and Strategy for Global Real Estate Business at TIAA-CREF, in New York, "His style is to draw people into provocative discussions and his perspective on globalization and real estate investment, which is enriched by his extensive travel abroad, also enriches his presentations."
That style was in evidence in December when, back from his foray into the United Arab Emirates for a scant week, he flew to Zurich on December 3 and then traveled to Liechtenstein. At an international symposium on responsible property development and sustainable real estate, at the Hochschule Liechtenstein, he made presentations on sustainability and why it's important for architects to understand the development process. Ciochetti's philosophy of real estate development is constantly tempered by the realities of international economics, ballooning populations, and finite natural resources in markets across the globe. And the Liechtenstein forum presented an ideal opportunity to expound on that philosophy.
Organized by the UrbanSCAPE Institute for Architecture, the three-day symposium was supported by the Boston-based Lorenz and Laura Reibling Family Foundation, which has endowed a chair at the Hochschule Liechtenstein. "Professor Ciochetti clearly understands that the survival and competitiveness of academic centers depends on international exposure that goes far beyond local economies," says Lorenz Reibling, chairman of Taurus Investment Holdings LLC, a long-time global partner of the MIT Center for Real Estate. "The symposium attracted some of the world's leading educators, but of all the speakers I think Professor Ciochetti left the most indelible impression. Participants were impressed by both the clarity of his ideas and his high energy. I'm sure people who attended will be interested in the Center and its work."
By Monday, December 8, Ciochetti was back in Boston for three days of class presentations and meetings wrapping up the fall semester. But once again it was a brief respite from travel. That Thursday he flew to London for a board meeting of Deutsche Land. An AIM-listed property investment and management company that concentrates on German real estate, Deutsche Land was founded by David Maxwell, one of Ciochetti's first students at Cambridge University.
"Professor Ciochetti has been on the board of Deutsche Land since the IPO in 2006," says Maxwell. "He's a true globe trotter and he brings a huge amount of international perspective to the board's discussions."
It was Ciochetti's last trip in a year spent ranging the globe, restlessly visiting the many fronts where the future of real estate and of MIT/CRE is being determined. Back from Europe, he settled in for a few weeks of richly deserved R&R.
He would need it. Ahead lay a new year – with trips to London, India, China, and the Middle East already on the schedule – and new opportunities to build productive relationships bridging the planet.
Read recent interview with Tony Ciochetti for MIT School of Architecture + Planning.