By Audrey Sapunarich
Michael Berman returned to Harpur College on Oct. 7 for the first time since his graduation in ‘79 to talk with students.
Berman, who received his bachelor’s degree in history, advised students gathered in the Harpur Edge office for a Lunch & Learn session to “never burn any bridges” and “never give up.”
Today, Berman is the chief financial officer and executive vice president of the second-largest commercial real estate investment trust in the country. He is also one of the founding donors of the Harpur Edge program, which connects Harpur students with resources outside the classroom to succeed.
Berman has been with General Growth Properties Inc., a Standard and Poor’s 500 company located in Chicago, since 2011 and he has more than 25 years of experience in real estate and finance.
Previously, he held the same position at Equity Lifestyle Properties. He was also an associate professor at the New York University Real Estate Institute and the managing director in the investment banking department of Merrill Lynch and Co. from 1997 to 2002.
“Having a historical perspective on solving problems is very helpful. You understand there’s a bigger picture,” Berman said. “I use the history-major training a lot.”
Berman applied to four SUNY schools because of their affordability and decided to come to Binghamton because of its academic reputation.
At that time, Binghamton University had a much smaller student population and was not yet a Division I school, still “Binghamton was the best school academically,” Berman said.
After getting his bachelor’s degree at Binghamton, he attended Boston University School of Law, where he earned a J.D. Despite his educational background, Berman ran into one problem: He couldn’t get a job prior to getting his master’s degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Business.
Berman said he was unaware of the attitude and tone he had until he took an interviewing skills class, which he advises all students to take.
“I had no idea how I was coming off,” he said. “It took me a long time to understand how I spoke and the tone that I spoke in was just as, if not more, important than the words that I said. You could be the smartest person in the world, but if they can’t hear you because of how you are communicating, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.”
He said that aside from interviewing skills, the most critical skills to possess are basic math, reading and writing. Being a history major, he said, put these things into perspective.
Berman always intended to go into law after getting his history degree from Harpur but said he realized quickly that a law firm is where he didn’t want to be.
“I lasted a couple of years,” Berman said. “It was at the second law firm I realized I didn’t like it.”
Berman left law and went into real estate, which began at a summer job with Penn Central Corporation in the development group. Berman said he liked the problems he was given to solve and found he liked real estate.
While working for Merrill Lynch and Co. he took on Sam Zell’s account. Through working with Zell, billionaire and owner of three of the biggest public real estate companies, he became very good friends with “one of the smartest, richest men in the world.” Berman also met his wife Sarah, Zell’s assistant, through Zell.
Berman emphasized the importance of contacts and advised students not to be embarrassed to ask parents and friends for contacts. He said to always maintain a rapport with them.
“You always want to have a pristine reputation,” Berman said.
Husband and father of four, Berman also advised students to worry less about work-life balance.
“I don’t think I would’ve been as successful with true work-life balance,” Berman said. “If you’re happy in your work life and you’re happy in your home life, then you have work-life balance. It’s not about the number of hours that you spend in the various places.”
Last Updated: 3/1/17