Investing in Buffalo real estate pays off for MBA grad

March 2007

After weighing his options, Sean O’Brien, MBA ’05, chose UB’s School of Management based on its reputation, value, and exceptional resources. When he became chief operating officer for The Woodlark Companies, a real estate investment firm, he used a comparable process to analyze the Buffalo real estate market.

During O’Brien’s tenure, Woodlark has purchased two rental properties in Western New York, the Colonie apartments in Amherst and The Sidway building in downtown Buffalo. “My decision to attend UB, and Woodlark’s decisions to invest in Buffalo, are both based on the recognition of value,” O’Brien says. “Comparing the resources available at the Jacobs School of Management to the cost of enrolling in the program, which is relieved by its inclusion in the SUNY system, I think it is a tremendous value. From an investing standpoint, I see similarities in the city of Buffalo. In both cases, I feel Buffalo is often overlooked.”

UB: the next step

A Syracuse native, O’Brien attended Cornell University for a degree in policy analysis and management. After graduating in 2001 he worked for the real estate investment banking arm of Nomura Securities International, Inc. in New York City. Despite the job’s long hours, O’Brien enjoyed learning all aspects of real estate analysis, from examining markets and financial statements to conducting on-site property inspections. After a few years he decided that pursuing an MBA would allow him to broaden his financial acumen. O’Brien decided on UB’s School of Management, which also awarded him a graduate assistantship. “You get all of the benefits of a smaller, private program with all of the resources and infrastructure that the SUNY system offers,” O’Brien says of Buffalo’s MBA program.

In addition to providing a framework of the macro finance world, O’Brien says that the program also “teaches you a disciplined approach to problem solving, and emphasizes the application of academic concepts in today’s dynamic financial marketplace.” O’Brien notes that Professor Frank Krzystofiak, who teaches statistics and data modeling, is one of the best professors that he has ever had. “He knows the material through and through, but what separates him from others is his ability to relate it to people,” the UB grad says. “He is an excellent public speaker. You could tell that he cared a lot about the students succeeding and never just went through the motions.”

Serendipity

As O’Brien finished his MBA, he received several offers to work in investment banking, as well as a serendipitous opportunity from Ari Rosenblum, a personal and professional acquaintance and owner of Woodlark, offered O’Brien the classic chance to get in on the ground floor. Rosenblum was expanding his business, which invests in off-campus student housing in growing markets. O’Brien says, “I leapt at the opportunity. I didn’t really see a downside for me, and looking back I couldn’t be happier with the decision. I am coming up on my second year with the company and the growth has been staggering–from 334 apartment units to over 3,100 since I started.”

Woodlark purchased its first Western New York property, Colonie apartments, in October 2005. The complex is located in Amherst, less than a mile from UB’s North Campus. It has been strong performer for Woodlark, who hired Buffalo-based Clover Management to oversee the day-to-day property operations. That relationship led to Woodlark’s most recent Buffalo acquisition, The Sidway in downtown Buffalo. Built in 1907, The Sidway served as a warehouse for many years. Clover purchased the property in 2002 and spent two years gut renovating it into 67 loft-style apartments. The building’s unique history and configuration, as well as its downtown location, appealed to Woodlark. O’Brien says that many businesses are expanding their downtown presence and the area is experiencing an economic renaissance. He explains, “A historical analysis of the Buffalo economy reveals exactly what you’d expect–a classic rust-belt town that has struggled, at times, transitioning away from its manufacturing roots. However, Woodlark is not looking backward; we are looking forward when we invest in Buffalo. From an economic and demographic standpoint, all of the trends in the Amherst and downtown markets are headed in the right direction.”

Forging his future

O’Brien’s business connections in Western New York have brought him back to the area several times since he graduated from UB. He still keeps in touch with Professor Krzystofiak, and recently took a tour of the School of Management’s new Alfiero Center, which he called a “gorgeous, impressive facility.” O’Brien immensely enjoys the entrepreneurial nature of his current position. “I like the idea of working in finance and real estate while simultaneously building something,” O’Brien says. “I feel like the company is making tremendous strides, and that my own future is entwined with that.”

Written by Jessica Dudek