Five Minutes With Adjunct Professor Juliane Kelly

The President at Strategic Development Partners discusses her background as a real estate developer and what she hopes to instill in her MPM students.

Juliane Kelly developed the curriculum for the Real Estate Development specialization in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Project Management program, and she continues to be a major contributor to the program.

The President at Strategic Development Partners teaches multiple MPM courses throughout the year, and she brings perspective from an accomplished career as a real estate developer.

Kelly took time to talk about her career, the industry, and what she hopes to teach her MPM students.

How would you describe what you do to someone with little or no knowledge of your background or expertise?

As a real estate developer, I identify market-supported investment opportunities that offer attractive returns and then harness the resources needed to create value, pursuant to the overall vision and development plan. This involves oversight of the entire arc of the investment, from the origination stage through project completion, at which point a development project will either be sold or held for a predetermined period.

A popular analogy is that a developer is much like a quarterback in that they envision the end goal (a successful development) and create an executable “winning” strategy which will best facilitate the team’s success in meeting the goal, namely, delivering a successful project. Basically, it’s the developer who has direct accountability for the profitability and performance of the built asset, and as a result, works to align each of the team members with the owner’s goals.

With such broad responsibility, a developer must have an appreciation for the complexities of the process and experience with managing the various disciplines — land-use, planning, design and construction (aka development managers), finance, legal, transactions and marketing — that need to be aligned to create a high-performing asset. Another way to think of it is to view the envisioned future project as a business enterprise that happens to be a product that needs to be manufactured. The developer is effectively the CEO of that product and needs to ensure that it meets market demand and investor returns. Personally, that’s a less inspiring description, but it’s one that anyone in a business environment might find relatable.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I’m entrepreneurial by nature and thrive in work that’s diverse and allows me to contribute to decisions that translate into tangible results. In my case, that means a development project that honors the vision while producing expected returns. I find it personally satisfying to work through a series of challenges and, in the end, bring it to a successful conclusion. It’s especially rewarding to work with so many talented people from many different fields, such as investors (or client companies), outside consultants with technical expertise, and partners, where everyone is contributing as part of the team.

What are the biggest challenges you face on a daily basis?

The challenges are many and always variable, mainly because of the breadth of the role and number of functional areas involved in the development process. Challenges are also directly tied to the phase of the project. Some project-specific issues are more prevalent during planning in the pre-development phase, such as entitlements and funding issues, as compared with challenges that arise during active construction, for example.

Then there are more general industry challenges that all come to bear on any project, such as the rising cost of resources in a highly active, competitive market, and persuading partners and lenders that returns are achievable against a backdrop of some unpredictability (evolving consumer/occupant preferences, economic cycles, interest rate hikes, political uncertainty or instability, etc.).

These broader challenges can contribute to perceived risk in achieving forecasted results. Much of the job is focused on risk mitigation, cultivating relationships, and appropriately managing expectations.

What led you to launch Strategic Development Partners?

There were a number of factors that led to the decision. I had worked in an executive capacity in the industry for many years and had always been working toward this as a goal. Having already established an area of specialization in managing large-scale complex projects while with a global consulting firm, the timing seemed right. I had also just completed two significant development projects on behalf of clients and was excited about leveraging other relationships I had that could help build my new business.

I saw a void in the market for my specialization and felt I could deliver an even higher level of service more cost-effectively than the majority of my competitors who carried far higher overhead. Personally, I also wanted more control over my schedule so I could be more present for my son.

What courses do you teach in MPM?

Having created the curriculum for the Commercial Real Estate Development track, I take a special interest in the success of the program and how well it serves the students' needs. I currently teach Commercial Land Use & the Regulatory Environment in the Fall, the Asset Management & Strategic Planning course in the Spring and I co-teach the Transaction Management & Risk Mitigation course in the Winter.

By having participation throughout the year, it enables me to see how the students progress from their entry into this track through the end point leading up to graduation. I like to think it can be helpful to serve as this thread of continuity for students, where I can then attest more fully to their areas of strength when called upon for a reference, for example. I’m hoping to launch a version of the Commercial Land Use course for the Executive Management for Design and Construction program very soon.

What do you enjoy most about teaching in the MPM program?

It’s a bit challenging for me to articulate because there are so many aspects of teaching that I find truly enjoyable. Having supervised and developed talent as a natural part of my role wherever I worked, I’ve now come to learn that I’m passionate about teaching and having an impact — it’s not only meaningful but a great deal of fun. The exhilaration of seeing a student creatively apply material they’ve learned is pretty much unparalleled. And of course, at an institution like Northwestern that attracts academically gifted students, participating in truly insightful solutions and collaboration with students from around the world elevates the experience for everyone.

What are two or three things you hope that students coming from your class have learned?

  • While development projects require a high level of technical expertise, ultimately their success depends on how well the art and the science come together in each of them. Having good instincts about a market can be even more valuable than having a full understanding of all of the technical details.
  • Being a developer as a profession is higher risk than many, but the rewards can be substantially higher than in other industries. Any one development project creates numerous opportunities for the many other practitioners needed on the team who are serving in other roles, most of which offer greater stability.  
  • Every member of a development team has opportunities to influence the success or failure of a project — don’t let the limitation of your designated role prevent you from advocating for the client. Having an appreciation for everyone’s unique contribution on a team and collaborating effectively allows you to participate more fully in creating a successful project.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering the MPM program?

I would tell them what I’ve told prospective employers of many students, that MPM offers the unique advantage of preparing students who already have technical backgrounds with the requisite business skills needed to step into positions ready to perform and excel. MPM students are well-versed in how the industry is organized, operates and delivers projects, and they exit the program having already collaborated on diverse teams where they’ve applied course principles in situational project cases.