Ajit Ketkar

Commercial Real Estate Investor

Ajit Ketkar was born and brought up in Mumbai, India in a middle-class household as the youngest of three boys. Despite money being scarce, Ajit had a happy childhood. He had lots of friends and participated in a diverse array of sports and extracurricular activities. Both of his parents were well-educated, and they emphasized the importance of education to Ajit and his brothers at an early age. As a result, all three excelled in academics and obtained professional degrees with distinction from elite institutions in India, as well as abroad that set them up well for their future careers.

Ajit earned his Bachelor of Engineering degree in Computer Science from the University of Bombay, ranking in the top ten of his graduating class. He went on to earn his Post-Graduate Diploma in Management from the prestigious and highly competitive Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. He was immediately hired by the country’s largest private sector bank to help establish their business consulting division and advise large and family-driven Indian businesses.

A consummate professional, Ajit has always aspired to compete with the best in the world. In that spirit, he accepted international consulting work, moving first to Europe, where he advised large multinational companies on operational issues, and then to America to earn his MBA degree with Honors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

Over the course of the last twenty plus years, Ajit Ketkar has worked with marquee firms across such diverse fields as strategy consulting, corporate management, and investment management. Some of his more highly regarded accomplishments include acting as an advisor to corporate and private equity clients on core strategic and operational issues, turning around the branch channel for a fast-growing retail bank, and delivering top-quintile investment performance as a fiduciary officer managing money from high-value pension plans and endowments.

These days, Ajit Ketkar is an executive and an investor in the commercial real estate arena. He currently lives in the United States of America, proud of his heritage as an Indian American. In his spare time, Ajit enjoys running, playing tennis, and taking weekend road trips.

What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?

Some of the things I spend time throughout a typical workday include keeping informed about business and market news in order to understand the most up-to-the-minute trends in real estate, conducting data-driven and information-based analyses to prove or disprove theses, and speaking to owners, investors, and experts in the real estate space. At the beginning of the week, I always come in prepared with some notion of what I want to get done. At the beginning of each day, I zero in on three or four of those tasks and strive to get those done.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I think about things in terms of hypotheses that I want to prove or disprove, and I do that by analyzing the data, speaking with people, and using an answer-first approach. For example, if I were to say that one should invest in residential real estate, that would be a thesis. That’s the answer which hasn’t been proven. From there, I do a triage of sorts and speak with some key people to better understand the trends, then I make a ‘go’ or ‘no-go’ decision on whether to spend more time on the idea or not. If the information I received from the triage tells me to ‘go,’ then I do more formal and detailed work. If it’s a ‘no-go,’ I think that’s just as valuable—if not more valuable—because then I’m able to spend my time on something more productive.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Information and technology have become much cheaper and more accessible to almost everyone. There was a time about 50 years ago when, if you were close to New York City, you would have better access to the market than someone located elsewhere. That’s not the case anymore. Now, you can be based out of anywhere and glean those same insights because quality information is so widely available. These days, because of the availability of information and accessibility of technology, the sky’s the limit for someone to grow personally and professionally.

What is one habit that helps you be productive?

I find the hypothesis-driven approach is very beneficial when conducting business because it makes one put a figurative stake in the ground first. It’s almost like telling yourself, “There’s your answer, now you have to prove it.” I think this approach also makes one very open-minded to the idea of being wrong.

What advice would you give your younger self?

When I was younger, I tended to persevere a bit too much in proving that I could be world-class in domains that were not ultimately going to pay off. The advice I would give my younger self is that there’s no upside to swimming against the current. It’s better to swim with the current. That will help you to be as successful as you can possibly be in the future.

Tell us something you believe almost nobody agrees with you on?

Most people tend to judge successful decisions based on the outcome. If it was a success, then the right decision was made. What I try to do instead is follow and evaluate the process by which people come to their decisions, even if it ultimately turns out to be the wrong one.

What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?

There’s an old saying: “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” That means, if someone else has already figured out how to do something well, you don’t need to try to reinvent what they’ve done or drastically alter a successful and established methodology. It’s much better to learn from someone who’s already encountered a problem and solved it than it is to waste time trying to develop a new approach to the same issue. Time is the most important resource for everyone, and optimizing that time is what can determine success or failure.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

Typically, I go running. I try to run 20 miles per week, so if I get stuck with something, then I get on the treadmill and focus on the physical activity of running. When I’m done, I go back to whatever I was stuck on and I’m able to look at it from a different perspective.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?

I treat time as a key resource. Putting aside ideas and approaches that are not going to lead to something meaningful early has been a huge positive for me because I’m able to save that time and instead apply myself to something more productive.

What is one failure in your career,  how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?

I’ve failed more times than I can remember, but I’ve always learned from those failures. One moment that stands out happened fairly early in my career when I was independently consulting in Europe. My mentor and partner passed away suddenly, and I was left to complete a certain task on my own. I was also left with the very open question of what to do next. It was a very big discontinuity in my professional life, and it felt like the end of the world at the time. But I learned from that episode that nothing is the end of the world unless you allow it to be.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

While I don’t have a specific business in mind, it seems to me that the renewable energy sector is poised for both short-term and long-term success. I think any would-be or novice entrepreneur would do well to start some sort of business connected to that industry.

What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

I’ve used Microsoft Excel every day for the past 20 years. It’s great for number crunching, and I watch tutorials and take refresher courses online every few months to keep myself updated on the latest developments with that software.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast you’ve gotten a ton of value from and why?

There’s a book that I highly recommend called The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success by William Thorndyke. It’s about eight CEOs who, over the last 50 years, followed their own judgment—however unorthodox—without concern for the market consensus or what other people expected of them. These CEOs focused on doing what they thought was the right thing, always with an eye to the long-term, and they delivered tremendous success for their investors. There’s also a weekly magazine called The Economist that I like. It’s published out of London every week on Thursday, but the issues are also available online to listen to in podcast form, so that’s usually what I’m doing when I’m on the treadmill.

What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?

Recently, I rewatched the first season of Designated Survivor. It’s about a government official who becomes President of the United States because everyone else in the line of succession has been killed in an attack. The show has some great themes. The main character always has this doubt about whether he was just elevated to the office by chance, and whether people don’t trust him from the start because of that. But the thing I most enjoyed about the show was that the President really believed that doing the right thing was ultimately going to be good for the country and everyone in it. In the current environment, I think that’s a message each of us can take to heart.

Key learnings:

  • Time is a key resource and it’s important to optimize it as much as possible.
  • Operating based on proving or disproving a hypothesis is an effective way to conduct business.
  • Failing occasionally is an inevitable consequence of business. It’s important to learn from those failures and push forward, rather than submit to them and give up.