Is Life a Roulette Wheel or a Military Campaign? Career Lessons from a Double DAFRE Alumnus.

By any measure, Bill Fitzpatrick is a success in the world of business. He recently finished a twenty-year stint at Mack-Cali Realty Corporation, the largest owner of office buildings in New Jersey, ending his service as Vice President-Finance and Treasurer. It seems as though every career choice Bill made before becoming Senior VP was plotted out with this last job in mind. Fitzpatrick, 61, developed financial forecasts, worked on mixed-use development projects, and evaluated real estate portfolios for Prudential Insurance. As Mack-Cali’s “money guy,” it was equally important for Bill to know about corporate finance outside of land and buildings. Fortunately, a previous job rating bonds and other securities proved useful in his early years at Mack-Cali, when the company was just entering the capital markets in a big way.

So was Bill’s path to corporate treasurer of a real estate giant the result of some grand master plan that he developed when he was 24? 

Not even close. As a young man, Bill watched family members thrive in the banking sector and decided to move in that general direction. His career goal at the time amounted to this: I will work hard, apply myself, and progress in this industry as far as I can.

William P. Fitzpatrick earned his bachelor’s degree in environmental and business economics from DAFRE in 1978. He then joined our graduate program, earning a master’s degree in applied economics and econometrics in 1981. 

Here are Mr. Fitzpatrick’s lessons for today’s students at DAFRE:

Have a strong initial skill set—but keep building it up
Bill recognized early on that the M.S. degree would set him apart in the job market as a kind of data wizard. Without it, he believes he would not have landed his first two jobs, both of which involved significant number crunching. After only a few years in the labor force, he recalls, “I heard about the value of real estate appraisal and valuation skills for understanding banking and real estate.” Enrollment in an appraisal course followed. Today, Bill’s resume lists eight separate professional credentials, most in the fields of real estate and insurance.

Prove yourself in each position
A solid list of credentials means nothing if you leave your desk every day at 4:30 p.m. Bill had it right when he was 24: work hard and apply yourself so you can progress as far as you can. It wouldn’t hurt, he adds, to be a “low maintenance, likable employee.” 

Adversity can be your friend
In the early 1990’s, Prudential was shedding its real estate portfolio, leaving employees like Bill with less to do. The company’s decision to relocate its loan workout operations to Atlanta presented Bill with a choice. He decided to take a buyout package so he could keep his family in New Jersey. 

Fortunately, he was prepared. A few years earlier, Bill had completed his training for the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation, Wall Street’s most sought-after professional certification. Within four months of leaving Prudential he landed safely at Standard and Poor’s, adding yet another type of business to his career portfolio.

You make your own luck
When Bill first joined Prudential in 1984, the real estate division was recruiting most of their staff from Ivy League schools. “Why aren’t we hiring more Rutgers grads?” mused one of the company’s vice presidents. It turns out that the VP with the final say on Bill’s application had a son who graduated from Rutgers in 1978, the same year as Bill. Another VP involved in the hiring process came up through Prudential’s Ag Real Estate Division, and had much in common with the young New Jersey Aggie. And so, Bill was “in” at Prudential.

Dumb luck? Not entirely. Bill’s specialized master’s degree and his appraisal courses weighed heavily in the company’s decision to hire him. “Networking also leads to luck,” Bill says, because “people are the only source of new opportunities.” What attitude should you bring to a networking meeting? “Invest in being interested and listening,” and “be generous.” People enjoy helping you, especially when you are young: You want to have an opportunity to return the favor. “The lifeblood of business,” Bill concludes, “is trust within long-term relationships.”

Conclusion: Don’t just let life happen to you
If Bill Fitzpatrick was vague about his goals at the age of 24, that sentiment did not last long. Once he realized how a career works, Bill started to proactively manage his own. “A lot of people just sit in the same job day after day, and when they look up, fifteen years have passed—the new opportunities are all going to the younger folks. You don’t have to map your career all the way out to the end, but don’t be passive either. Think about the next step. Ideally it will be upward, but if it is lateral, make sure you will learn something.”

That may be Bill Fitzpatrick’s most important lesson. A person who enjoys learning new things is truly the lucky one, because this particular pleasure is also the key to a successful future.

SIDEBAR
A 20/20 hindsight look at Bill Fitzpatrick’s resume
He may not have had a set of Google Maps for his career, but a hunger for new business settings and new skills gave Bill the 360⁰ perspective that is always required for upper management positions. 
This streamlined graphical resume shows how lifelong learning can contribute to upward mobility.

Life Lesson Diagram