Sonny Kalsi - Founder of GreenOak Real Estate

I really do believe in the 80/20 rule: only 20% of what we do delivers 80% of the bottom line value–and so we focus on that 20% relentlessly

The consummate real estate professional, Sonny Kalsi has over two decades of experience in international and domestic markets. Prior to founding his own investment firm, GreenOak Real Estate, Sonny spent 18 years at Morgan Stanley, where he rose through the ranks to become the Managing Director and Global Head of the Real Estate Investment Division.

In this capacity, Sonny played a pivotal role in building the division into a leading, world-class investment arm with an extensive, diverse portfolio. By the end of his tenure, Sonny oversaw a large staff of over 1,000 professionals managing $100 billion in assets across 33 countries. Sonny lived overseas for much of this time, spending a decade in the Asia-Pacific region–eight of which were spent in Japan.

His experiences abroad proved invaluable when Sonny, with the help of his two co-founders, established GreenOak as a leading international real estate investment firm with offices in London, Los Angeles, New York, Luxembourg, Madrid, Milan, Seoul, and Tokyo. Today, GreenOak manages an astounding $6.8 billion of assets, has raised an additional $5.1 billion of equity as of June 2016, and continues its strategic investments in world markets.

A graduate of Georgetown University, Sonny is passionate about a number of causes, including female education and empowerment, the arts, and literacy. As the proud father of two children, Sonny believes strongly in encouraging youth to live their lives fully, and to reach newer (and ever-greater) heights.

Towards that end, Sonny is a proud supporter of several charitable organizations, including PowHerFul, an organization which offers comprehensive college scholarships to disadvantaged young women; TeachingMatters, an educational nonprofit dedicated to developing, retaining, and advocating for excellent teachers; and Room to Read, a literacy NGO which has built 10,000 libraries and schools across Asia and Africa. Sonny is also a proud trustee of the Asia Society, the Spence School, and the Hirshhorn Museum.

Where did the idea for GreenOak Real Estate come from?

For almost 20 years, my partners and I specialized in real estate investment at a much larger firm. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we saw an opportunity to launch our own venture; as a result, we took the best parts of the business model (which we liked!) and started GreenOak. We also recruited the best people, taking the opportunity to start again with a clean slate.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

The days are pretty different, sort of depends on what needs to be done. I worked for a big financial firm for my entire career before starting GreenOak. As a result, I have often found that running an independent business is sort of like a family restaurant: you need to do a bit of everything, washing dishes, manning the register, really whatever it takes to make the business function.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Plenty of group brainstorming sessions. We try to focus on what might make sense given particular situations, and equally important, how we would pull it off. We spend a lot of time speaking with our investors: we try to understand their intentions a little better and assess whether there’s the possibility of collaboration.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

As of late, it seems that investors are looking to consolidate more of their capital with fewer investors, which is a good thing in our view. We believe we will outperform in that sort of environment given our global platform.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Don’t be shy–especially when it comes to new opportunities or cold calling people. Also, I’m not afraid to cut bait and back out, especially if things are not working. We often say that a quick no is the second best thing to a yes. After all, none of us have enough time, so all of us need to be spending our time effectively and efficiently.

What advice would you give your younger self?

There is more to life than work, specifically family, friends, and hobbies. Besides, it is important to be a complete person in order to be a happy person.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?

This may be controversial, but I feel that LUCK is a critical factor to success. So much of what we accomplish is affected by factors that are entirely outside our control.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

To me, it’s important to keep looking at what we are doing, and if necessary, be willing to cut bait and move on. I really do believe in the 80/20 rule: only 20% of what we do delivers 80% of the bottom line value–and so we focus on that 20% relentlessly.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

In my experience, it’s critical to be patient with investors. We knew it would take some of them time, but as long as we knew we had a shot, we spent the necessary time with them. In order to do that we needed to be capitalized in a way to pay our bills until we got to that point. Unfortunately, it was not easy to keep the business healthy while we waited for deals to come through.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In one situation, we thought that we had a few anchor investors up front, but only one really showed up. The others simply could not get there. It was nerve wracking, we were likely within months of running out of money, but then we got the lucky break.

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

Figure out how to take advantage of changing ways in which people invest their money. 401K plans are replacing traditional, defined benefit pensions and the people who truly figure that out will be at a big advantage.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Noise canceling headphones, because I travel frequently, and many people do not respect personal space…

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

Apple everything–I love how seamless iCloud is across devices–really seems like magic to a non-tech person like me!

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance. Descriptive, heartbreaking, and incredibly insightful, Vance explains the very divided, highly polarized country that we live in today.

What is your favorite quote?

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world” – Gandhi.

Key Learnings

  • There is more to life than work, specifically family, friends, and hobbies.
  • I really do believe in the 80/20 rule: only 20% of what we do delivers 80% of the bottom line value–and so we focus on that 20% relentlessly.
  • Don’t be shy–especially when it comes to new opportunities or cold calling people.

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