By Amy Spooner
In real estate development, there are two sides to every story: the great idea and raising the capital to make it happen. As an urban planner who now is an executive at one of the world’s largest real estate investment firms, Thanh Bui has lived both sides.
Bui, M.U.P ’97, is an equity owner and managing director at Clarion Partners LLC, based in New York. The firm manages real estate assets through private equity-style funds for clients worldwide, including numerous pension funds. As portfolio manager of subordinate debt investments, Bui is responsible for the origination and structuring of complex real estate investments and also raises capital. So why has Bui — who didn’t major in business as an undergrad and doesn’t have an MBA — devoted her career to helping buyers acquire real estate and investors make money in the process? Because as an urban planner, she saw how challenging it could be for developers in under-the-radar places to access financing.
“I came into this work in an untraditional way. The entry point was not my study of financial modeling or financial analysis but rather understanding how to analyze markets,” Bui says.
As an urban planning student, Bui did community redevelopment work and design analysis for Detroit’s New Center Council, a nonprofit that later merged with Midtown Detroit Inc. She enjoyed the work and thought she would continue in a similar vein after graduation. “I wanted to work with reinvestment in challenged communities,” she says. “What I learned, though, is that it can be difficult to get financing for the things we want to do for those communities.”
So after earning her M.U.P. degree, Bui moved to New York and joined Boston Financial, an investment bank whose clients included developers looking for financing in what Bui calls difficult-to-finance places. When she launched her career in the late 1990s, Brooklyn was at the top of the list. Although property values in the borough have risen almost 200 percent since 2000, it was a different story when Bui began. “On paper, Brooklyn didn’t look great. But if you dug deeper, there was a different story.”
Bui credits her urban planning education with helping her to see it: “At Michigan, I learned to roll up my sleeves and look at a situation, a place, and place-making, in general, in a different way than just the numbers.”
“Planners work with a lot of different constituents, so I got a good education in how to connect with people and boil down their situation to find the essence of what they want.”
— Thanh Bui, M.U.P. ’97
Ironically, as a psychology major at U-M, Bui thought numbers were a path-changer. She fled Vietnam with her family in 1975 and landed in Holland, Michigan. Her parents emphasized the importance of education, and Bui delivered: She was valedictorian. But at Michigan, her confidence was shaken by Economics, her first-ever C. “I thought that was a sign I couldn’t pursue business; I wasn’t smart enough,” Bui says. “I see now the huge difference in how male and female students approach learning and how part of my assumption that I wouldn’t succeed in business after that setback was my social conditioning as a girl. But the great thing about Michigan is I was able to find my path and gain confidence.” Deciding to play on her strengths in analytical thinking, and with a nudge from a mentor, Bui enrolled in the M.U.P. program. Now she has a career that many who earned As in Economics can only dream of.
In her work at Clarion, Bui talks to a lot of clients and potential investors, and she credits her planning degree with giving her the skills to understand their needs: “Planners work with a lot of different constituents, so I got a good education in how to connect with people and boil down their situation to find the essence of what they want. You can be the best trader in the world, but if you don’t have the skills to work with your clients to make them happy, you aren’t going to be successful.”
Through the Great Recession and amid recent market volatility, the opportunity to drill down to solve problems keeps her energized. “I love putting a deal together, meeting a client’s needs, and finding solutions to the problems that cross my desk. I didn’t understand what my path was when I was in school, but my advice is to just keep going and keep your options wide open.”