CHICAGO-A few years ago, Wharton School of Business Professor Peter Linneman notes, companies such as Equity Office Properties Trust, Equity Residential Properties Trust and Vornado Realty Trust were considered “upside buyers” by a skeptical equities market. “All of us were chastised by the Street, analysts and investors, that we were deal junkies,” Equity Residential president and CEO Douglas Crocker II adds.

The three companies, the strongest survivors in a real estate market that has seen others acquired or struggle as the formerly “can’t lose” terrain became treacherous, were represented Thursday night at Roosevelt University’s Gerald Fogelson Forum on Real Estate.

Being a public company makes it difficult to stop acquiring, concedes Vornado Realty Trust president Michael Fascitelli. Nonetheless, he stresses discipline, a virtue his Paramus, NJ-based REIT forced itself to practice shortly after closing on the 3.5-million-sf Merchandise Mart here. “We seemed to finish second, third, fourth or fifth on every deal we bid on,” Fascitelli says. “We had the discipline to stop. People were starting to do things that we were wondering about.”

It’s difficult finishing second, Fascitelli adds, not only because of the inevitable disappointment at missing out of an acquisition, but the costs of pursuing it, such as the $5 million Vornado wrote off after losing out on the World Trade Center leasehold.

“We were close to doing it, but you have to be willing to walk away,” Fascitelli says. “We just saw a lot of bad things.” That vision was market related, he quickly adds. “We didn’t foresee two airplanes going into the building.”

Besides discipline, there’s something else lacking for those facing difficulty now, Fascitelli notices. “When I look at people who got into trouble in real estate, it’s people who didn’t have money,” he says.

Although his 124-million-sf office REIT certainly has the wherewithal, Equity Office chief investment officer David A. Helfand warns, “Capital is not going to be available at these attractive prices in the near term.”

Equity Residential’s early years were a time when private capital was unavailable to real estate while the capital markets’ spigot was turned on. Even Crocker admits he had a difficult time visualizing growing from 15,000 units to 225,000 units today. He had doubts about hitting a goal of 100,000 by 2000. However, buying properties is half the battle, he says, assimilating them into the REIT’s portfolio is another. “If you can’t assimilate, you’re going to have a train wreck,” he says.

Another lesson learned by all three survivors is stick with what you know, although Crocker has some words of caution on that. Fascitelli’s biggest regret was buying a cold-storage business, not exactly a REIT’s area of expertise. “Cold storage is clearly the turkey of our portfolio.” For chief investment officer David A. Helfand, Equity Office’s plunge into telecom and media investments have “been a dog.”

For Crocker, though, it was a furniture venture, a business he had experience in. Also, there were obvious synergies considering 25% of the REIT’s tenants also rent furniture. However, the venture did not work out as planned, and Equity Residential is hoping to sell it to CORT Furniture later this year.

“On a piece of paper, it made 100% sense,” Crocker says. “The best thing you can do when you make a mistake is to lock, load, and shoot it.”

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