Where Real Estate Is MBA Cool

David Hartzell heads up the real estate concentration at Kenan-Flagler

David Hartzell heads up the real estate concentration at Kenan-Flagler


The mandolin-playing professor threw himself into the job, helping to build a real estate concentration in the MBA program with four full-time faculty in finance and the equivalent of three and one-half staffers in the Wood Center for Real Estate Studies, where he also serves as director. Some 10% of Kenan-Flagler’s MBAs take the real estate concentration, with slighly more than 40% not having any experience in real estate before arriving on campus.

The curtain raiser on the curriculum is a first-year elective called “Real Estate Process,” a full 14-week semester class, enthusiastically taught by Hartzell. “It’s designed to let students hit the ground running for their internships,” he says. “It evolved from a course Miles taught and is mostly based on case studies. Our tagline for the course is Real World Real Estate, and it’s where we try to get students into the shoes of real estate people.”

All 12 cases in the 28-session course were written by Hartzell who brings a heavy dose of practical know-how into his teaching from his days at Solomon but also as long-time board member of Highwoods Properties, a publicly traded real estate investment trust. Last year, he had nearly 70 students in that first elective, with about 30 doing the school’s real estate concentration.


The second course in the program is called “The Development Process,” yet another full semester load in which students meet twice a week for three hours at a time and are required to go out and find a development deal. “The objective is to submit a letter of intent to buy land, have architects and engineers do a site analysis and see where it goes,” says Hartzell. “We provide $25,000 of a refundable deposit for each project. We have seven projects in this year’s class and three are extremely promising and can happen. It puts students in the shoes of decision makers with money at risk from us.”

There are also other courses in real estate law, real estate macroeconomics and securities markets, and financing real estate in today’s capital markets. Those who make the field a concentration on either a development track or a finance track are also taught how to use common industry software package–Argus Certification Training–to evaluate real estate investments.

And then there are the annual global immersions in real estate that have brought his students all over the world from Panama to Dubai. “Real estate is everywhere which makes it’s really cool,” Hartzell enthuses. Every two-week to 10-day trip is preceded by four three-hour classes of study and prep. “Now I’m going to get into real estate geek mode,” he warns. “The perfect trip is one where we’ll meet a market expert in Bogota who tells us everything about the market: residential, office and industrial. Then we would meet someone from a local authority who provides a vision for how the city will grow from a planning perspective. We’ll speak with local investors in that market, global investors, lenders, developers and investment banks. For me, it’s opened up a whole new world.”


When students return to Chapel Hill, they have to submit a paper and cultural assessment of the market that includes a deep dive into an often geeky real estate issue. One example: How leasing laws differ in the country from the U.S. This year, Hartzell will lead a student contingent to Cuba for the first time. Wherever the group goes or whatever the topic of the final paper for the course, Hartzell wants everyone full in. “I run them hard,” he says with a wide smile. “We go early and we end late. They are exhausted when they come back.”

Many of his students, he says, have an interest in the field before they arrive on campus. “A lot have some family exposure or just want to create things,” adds Hartzell, who is actively engaged in the the admissions process for real-estate interested applicants, recruiting by firms, and alumni development. Indeed, another extraordinary aspect of the real estate program is its alumni network. “We have alumni in almost every city. The depth, loyalty and engagement of our alumni is amazing.”

Hartnell says he has one significant goal left for the program: Raising more fellowship support for students. “One cool thing is that of the 30 students who are second years, about 10 are on fellowships. I want to play some kind of role in my remaining years to change that and create even more fellowship support for our students.”

As for those long ago years at Sally? “Liar’s Poker (the book written by Michael Lewis and made into a movie) made it sound like everybody at Salomon Brothers would get in a helicopter every day to go to Atlantic City to gamble,” laughs Hartzell. “About 99% of us busted our asses in the office every day.”

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