Every six weeks, a group of up-and-coming real estate professionals meet in New York City to learn from one another and make the contacts they need to expand their business. And, every time they meet, they get a pep talk on the opportunities available in Michigan from Bloomfield Hills native Justin Stewart.
Justin Stewart, 29, moved to New York six years ago and built a successful career in real estate and venture capital, but his heart never left Detroit. Three years ago, he founded the Specialized Real Estate Investment Group in New York as a free networking group, tailored for the needs of younger professionals in the real estate industry.
At first, Stewart was struck by the attitude many of the group members had about Michigan. “They had no insight into what a beautiful place it is to live or the real estate opportunities it had to offer,” he said. “I set out to change that. Every time we meet, I tell people good things about Michigan.”
SREIG also gave other transplanted Michiganders working in New York’s real estate scene the chance to learn from one another. Many of the earliest members, such as Daniel Matz, who went to Andover High School with Stewart, also double as ambassadors.
“If it weren’t for what they learn about Michigan from our group, these people would have no idea about the potential opportunities there,” Matz said.
Bloomfield Hills native Ethan Orley also has been a member of SREIG since its inception. “Regardless of whether we return to our hometown, the experience we get in the nation’s most dynamic city will eventually filter back to Detroit in the form of ideas, support and potential projects,” he said.
Since an Indiana University internship at the Late Show with David Letterman brought him to Manhattan, Stewart knew it was the place he wanted to be. Although first interested in the entertainment industry, he soon realized that business was his passion.
He started his first real estate company — helping college students find apartments in the city — back in 2005, then earned a master’s degree in real estate from New York University and began work at a real estate commercial debt fund.
After several years living in the nation’s financial capital, he’s built up a number of contacts and resources. And, last November, Stewart took a job with Farmington, Mich.-based venture capital firm Envy Capital, where he can capitalize on his dual city citizenship.
According to Sanford Aaron, an Envy Capital principal, the firm’s deal flow, or the rate at which new proposals are flowing to the underwriters of an investment bank, required them to look outside the neighborhood for funding.
Aaron had met Stewart several years earlier on a real estate project and liked his work ethic. He brought him on to help with several projects, including a joint venture with Windham China, which brings Chinese investors to the United States to purchase real estate.
“We educate the team in China about real estate opportunities and then set up investment tours in cities such as New York, L.A., Miami, Seattle, San Francisco and Las Vegas,” Stewart said. “Eventually we hope to incorporate Michigan tours as well.”
The tours were thought to be a loss leader, Aaron said, but Stewart has managed to turn a profit on them and provide a higher-quality product for tour participants to see.
Stewart also is working on raising capital for Royal Oak, Mich.-based digital media company Pixofactor Entertainment, which is developing a video game and other digital media based on American golfer Ben Hogan.
“Justin has played an integral role with his New York connections to raise funds for the development,” Aaron said. “He has played a similar role with Envy’s Watercolors Project, an adult autism campus.”
Although the first Watercolors Project will be located in Atlanta, the second will be developed in suburban Detroit, Aaron said. “Clearly the resources in New York are plenty, and Justin has proven his ability to tap them,” Aaron added.
Working for a Michigan-based company is another way Stewart says he maintains his Michigan roots. “I love using my New York resources to benefit the state, and I love to educate people about Michigan,” he said. “I’m eager to convince people to invest in the state to build it up even more.”