Ron Pressman has been at the helm of Norwalk, CT-based GE Real Estate for roughly nine months now, and it’s clear that he knows the ropes. As reported at the time, Pressman took over in June from Michael Pralle, the man who oversaw the growth of what was essentially a US-focused debt operation into a $79-billion global business. But the framework and foundation for that strategy was the creation of Pressman and his team when Pressman headed GE Capital Real Estate in the late 1990s. A 28-year veteran of General Electric, Pressman actually saw duty heading a number of company profit centers over the years, most recently as head of asset management. Now he returns to real estate to parlay the business into new markets and tap into new client bases. In his first in-depth interview since taking over, Pressman talked exclusively to about a variety of issues, including GE’s venture with the Clinton Climate Initiative and the search for new global opportunities. But that’s for the second part of this two-part feature. This week, Pressman talks about the changing of the guard at GE. Give us a brief run-down of your career at GE.

Pressman: I’ve been at General Electric for 28 years. If you look at my career simply, I spent roughly 12 years in various financial roles in the early part of my career. For the past 16 years, I’ve been running different businesses, essentially as CEO, starting with energy businesses in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Southwest Asia and here in the US. I was asked to run the real estate business, which I did from ’97 to 2000 and then I went to our re-insurance operation in Kansas City, which eventually led to me taking responsibility for all of GE’s insurance operations. That lasted about six years, after which I took the CEO role in asset management. You had some notable shoes to fill. What were the challenges and what changes do you see making to the operation?

Pressman: The return to real estate was relatively smooth. I think that was the intent of [GE chairman and CEO] Jeff Immelt in asking me to rejoin the business. He knew that back in the ’97-2000 time frame the team I was leading put in place a strategy to reinvent and expand the business. We chose three key strategies to accomplish this. One was to go global. The second was to become an equity trader–a value-creation and trading operation. The third was to create a real estate capital-markets organization.

Fundamentally, that’s what we’ve been doing since, and Mike Pralle and the team did a fantastic job. It certainly grew to be a larger business than I ever imagined. Nonetheless, as a board member since 2000, I was pretty much up to speed with what was happening in the business and the major transactions that were being approved at the board level.

Now the fundamental question is who else can we do this for. We have a great platform and have become a huge business in General Electric in terms of assets and income, and there’s a great opportunity now to tap global investors interested in the real estate space and offer our expertise to a broader range of investors. So now it’s all about broadening who we invest for. Is there a target, either by geography or performance?Pressman: We don’t have any set targets for either where we’d go or absolute NAV totals. We’re searching for opportunities and trying to invest where we can have confidence in the fundamental infrastructure of the economies. It’s our goal to then establish a billion-dollar-plus platform in those domains, which is getting to the critical mass that we like to achieve in a market. What about management styles? How is yours different from Pralle’s?

Pressman: I’m not going to compare myself to Michael, but I can talk about my own role, and it is as an empowering growth leader. I do that by energizing teams to think about what the vision of the business can be, working with them to screen for the best ideas and then allocating the human and dollar capital to them to pursue the mission. Are you hands off?

Pressman: I would say I’m more of a balance leader from the standpoint of wanting to understand what people are doing and be supportive and knowledgeable enough to help them achieve their goal. But I’m hands off sufficiently so they can control their own destiny and drive growth. My job is to give them the tools they need to succeed. When I interviewed Michael, he indicated what he termed ambivalence on the part of senior management about real estate’s future at GE. How do you see it?

Pressman: Perhaps it’s more of a mystery than it needs to be, but when you look at what we define as great General Electric businesses, they’re businesses that play in big spaces, spaces and marketplaces that have large profit pools available to the participants competing in them, spaces that are fundamentally global in nature, spaces where domain expertise makes a difference. What does that mean?

Pressman: In the case of real estate, that you have people who know how to create value and can execute lease-up, construction or capital-expenditure programs. Whether its aircraft engines, energy, healthcare, entertainment or real estate, we deal in businesses where domain expertise makes a big difference, industries that are critical to the global economy and social structure of the year 2025 and beyond. We want to be part of businesses that can generate consistent earnings at 20% return on capital or higher. And real estate fits every single criterion. It’s a business that General Electric views as a perfect fit.

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