John Sullivan ’04, principal of AspinWall Partners LLC in Brookline, Mass., could coin a new word — proactivist. It’s what his entrepreneurial real estate development firm is all about.
Some might think Sullivan was unfortunate to earn his master’s degree in real estate development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) just when the national economy bottomed out. But Sullivan saw opportunity. Along with two fellow MIT graduates, he created AspinWall Partners and hasn’t looked back.
“In this economy, we need to be innovative in the way we develop business opportunities,” he says. “Traditionally, it may have been enough to list our services on a web site and find someone willing to pay us for them. In a recession, there is less work and more people competing for it. What we’ve done to combat this is to come to people with not only a list of services we can offer, but also solutions to a problem they may have.”
The company has identified opportunities in real estate projects put on hold or canceled due to the economy.
“If we can come up with innovative solutions to address the current problems a developer has, then there’s an avenue for AspinWall to provide its services,” Sullivan says. “It’s all about being proactive.”
As noted in MIT’s web feature on the company, AspinWall did proforma modeling and analysis (predicting the results) of a residential project in Greater Boston and conducted an income-based valuation to acquire and reposition a 10,000-square-foot retail center. It’s working on acquisition and repositioning of a 100-room hotel in Vermont and seeking the rights to underwrite a $10 million real estate private equity fund.
Sullivan calls real estate development “one of the most multidisciplinary fields that exist.” The chance to combine engineering and the liberal arts was the reason he chose Lafayette, and his studies have been paying dividends ever since.
“I was able to take classes in many different departments, giving me a well-rounded education,” says the engineering studies and economics & business alum. “My graduate work and career are now focused on real estate development and investment. This field incorporates finance, economics, engineering, architecture, construction, and many other topics that mirror those covered during my time at Lafayette.”
The opportunity to work closely with faculty on research led Sullivan to a summer internship and eventually, the award for best master’s thesis at MIT’s Center for Real Estate. He worked with David Veshosky, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, on research related to the most expensive highway project in the U.S., The Big Dig, which rerouted Boston’s chief highway into a tunnel under the city. Veshosky put Sullivan in touch with Boston area alumni that led to three separate internships with Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction management company. The internships later turned into a full-time position with Bovis, which Sullivan held until returning to MIT.
His undergraduate honors thesis expanded the work he began with Veshosky, exploring how disputes are resolved on large construction projects. His master’s thesis, co-authored with Ben Bulloch, now an AspinWall consultant, took a step back from that concept, modeling the entire real estate development process in an innovative way and establishing a new management tool.
“As advertised, Lafayette gives undergraduates the opportunity to perform research with faculty,” he says. “My undergraduate thesis taught me the iterative process that occurs during research. In both undergraduate and graduate work, students are striving to research new topics in new ways. Because of the exploratory process, you often hit dead ends, or come up with results that are unexpected. I learned this at Lafayette, which better prepared me for undertaking another thesis at MIT.”
Those lessons also came full circle at AspinWall.
“As for starting our own business, we’ve experienced many dead ends and unexpected results. You need to learn from these experiences and keep evolving,” he says.