As part of our series, CRE Future Leaders, we caught up with MJ Zaring, vice president of acquisitions at CA Residential, the multifamily arm of CA Ventures. Zaring is responsible for the sourcing, underwriting, negotiating and closing of multifamily land sites in target markets throughout the U.S.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?
I grew up in Cincinnati, and always knew I wanted to go away to school and carve out my own path. I decided to attend Vanderbilt University and double majored in economics and human and organizational development. Following college, I moved to Washington, D.C., where I experienced a walkable, urban environment for the first time, which really energized me and changed the way that I came to view lifestyle choices and thus multifamily real estate.
When you were young, what did you aspire to be?
When I was young, I went through several phases of imagining what I wanted to be when I grew up. At one point, I thought about becoming an architect, but that wasn’t really an option at the liberal arts college I chose, so I started college with the intent to major in biology. I thought it would be interesting to learn about plants and animals, but unfortunately my freshman 8:00 a.m. chemistry lecture thwarted my science plans.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I had my start in the industry as a financial analyst at Jones Lang LaSalle, focusing on public-private partnerships. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, and it was a very meaningful role for me because I learned not only about real estate and finance, but also the public sector, including how politics and budgeting play into many practical decisions. I worked with the U.S. Air Force helping them privatize their family housing portfolio, and then I spent two years at the Pentagon advising the U.S. Army on privatizing its hotel operations. Ultimately, I chose to go back to business school to formalize my understanding of real estate finance with the goal of developing complex mixed-use projects in a way that advances public sector goals.
Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
There have been a number of impactful people in my professional life, but the one dependable adviser for me has always been my father. He knows enough about what I do to be able to relate and he always asks me challenging questions to help me consider things from a different perspective.
What does a day in the life of MJ Zaring look like?
An ideal day in the life of MJ Zaring involves a morning jog if I can swing it, followed by a full breakfast and iced coffee while watching Morning Joe, and then a walk to the office. My work day can be very dynamic, with some days packed with deal-related meetings and phone calls, and other days much lighter, leaving time to complete the real work of building CA’s pipeline of projects.
What do you like most about your job?
What I enjoy most about my job on the acquisitions side at CA Residential is the diversity in the work I do. Finding and underwriting development sites can be very challenging and requires a lot of project management and problem-solving skills. I have thought many times that I should have followed through on going to architecture school, as that would be very valuable in my role!
Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you haven’t already?
I started in this role in January 2018, so I would really like to complete the full cycle of development from negotiating the purchase of a site, through entitlements and financing, and ultimately closing on the land and starting construction. We have a number of interesting projects both locally in Chicago and in a number of target growth markets around the country, so I feel fortunate to be able to work on so many different transactions.
How do you spend your time away from the office?
I like to stay active and if it’s great weather, you can probably find me out on the Lakefront Trail or maybe on a bicycle heading to brunch. I enjoy adventure and cultural travel with friends, and I love to combine hiking or road races with wineries, when possible. I also relish undisturbed time to consume the full Sunday paper.
What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Where do you hope to go next?
I spent almost eight years in Washington, D.C., after college and it still holds a piece of my heart. Thankfully, I have a handful of close friends who still live there. I enjoy stopping in to visit a couple of times a year to catch up, explore new restaurants and renew my interest and intrigue with this dynamic city and the intellectually curious people who inhabit it. There are always a few ideas in mind for future travel and getting to know London is next on my list.
Who would you like to see answer these questions?