From MBA To Investing With A Dragon

Faisal Butt attributes his entrepreneurial success to a great mentor, and refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer

Partner at 90 North Real Estate Partners, Managing Partner at Hamilton Bradshaw Real Estate, and Director at Prime London Advisory LTD, Faisal Butt has an impressive career profile even by MBA standards. Faisal’s entrepreneurialism stems from his desire not to plateau, and his projects have taken him from Los Angeles, via Asia, to London.

His most recent ventures in real estate began after meeting high-profile entrepreneur James Caan at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Talking to BusinessBecause, Faisal stresses the importance of finding a great mentor, as well sharing his MBA experience, outlook on the real estate market, and advice for MBAs hoping to follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve lived all over the world, and moved around since early childhood. Attending international schools with students from countries as diverse as USA, Korea and Nigeria definitely shaped my global outlook. I studied as an undergraduate at UCLA, where – as an economics student – some of my classes were in the MBA school, exposing me to the best MBA professors in the US.

I started my career as a business analyst in an IT consulting firm, which was the ‘hot thing’ in the early 2000s. I did well, but I felt like I was beginning to peak, and I’m really not interested in stagnation!

My next move was to relocate to Pakistan, where some of my family lived, to set up my own e-business, connecting artisans in the region with buyers worldwide. It was very successful, but a few years in I felt like it was time to step back, and to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge with an MBA.

What was your MBA experience like?

I studied my MBA at Oxford’s Said Business School, where I benefitted from the Skoll Scholarship, which connected me to an impressive international network of visionary entrepreneurs. The other students in my class were mostly international, with a very entrepreneurial mindset, which suited me well. I was quite outspoken, and earned a lot of respect for my unconventional points of view.

When successful entrepreneurs came in to speak to us, I was unafraid of taking full advantage of the opportunity to network with them. I met James Caan, who is now my business partner, when he came to speak in Oxford. I challenged him a couple of times during his talk, and discussed business with him after the event. It was quickly apparent that we had good business chemistry!

How did you end up working with James Caan?

His organisation was going through a period of change, which naturally brings problems that need solving. I pitched to him the idea of me hand-picking a team of bright Oxford MBAs to take on a strategic project over the summer of 2009.

At the end of the summer, James realised that I could really thrive with him, but he had no specific role for me. Instead, he offered me the opportunity to shadow him, which was basically an extremely quick but well-rounded training programme.

After a while, I pitched to him a real-estate project, and co-founded Hamilton Bradshaw Real Estate. We had both known that it would only be a matter of time until we found a role that was right for me. I’m planning to grow my portfolio to twelve businesses soon. I always intended to be a serial entrepreneur – working with James has just provided me with a great platform from which to unleash my entrepreneurial energy.

How does James Caan compare to his on-screen persona?

I didn’t actually watch Dragon’s Den before I met him, but I’m aware that he’s known as the nice dragon! My impression of him is that he really deeply believes in nurturing talent: if you’re less experienced, he will take time to mentor you, and therefore bring out the best that you can offer.

Unlike some others in development roles, who help because they’re told to, James is absolutely passionate about it. His ability to develop human capital is one of his key strengths.

How helpful was your MBA in advancing your career?

For me, it was a case of stitching together the morsels of knowledge I already had, and filling in the holes, to make me a more rounded individual. An MBA is a generalist course, so there’s not a great deal of opportunity to develop depth of knowledge, but it gave me the confidence to talk knowledgably about a whole range of diverse subjects.

It was also a confidence boost in that it made me realise that I was good in an international context. I was sat alongside medical doctors, hugely successful bankers, and Olympic gold medallists, but I was still able to shine.

I loved the intensity of the MBA experience, with so much to learn in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, and speaker evenings – all over a very short time span. However, as much as I knew that the academic side of the experience was important, the opportunity to network and explore was far more significant. I quickly achieved a reputation for networking in my class, and that skill is now at the forefront of my business success.

You specialise in real estate – is the market beginning to recover?

There are pockets in the market that are strong, and macroeconomic principals make me confident that they will continue to be. Prime London real estate is stable, because of the diversity of demand. We have 64 different countries actively buying these properties, and even while the UK domestic economy has suffered, emerging markets such as India, China and Brazil are creating millionaires at a record rate, who are looking for a city in which to park their wealth.

I’ve also personally invested in commercial property with a strong tenant or long lease, and I’m excited about the student accommodation sector – nothing’s changed about people’s desire to study in the UK.

What’s the most exciting deal you’ve ever made?

About a year ago, I met a guy at a cocktail party. An ordinary conversation turned into him admitting that he wanted to quit his high profile job, and after a few lunches to discuss business options, the idea of 90realestate partners emerged.

I wasn’t a real estate expert myself, but he was, and he went on to make £64million worth of deals in the first six months. The plan for the next six months is to make £100million worth of deals, and the five year plan to have £1billion worth of assets under our management. It’s very exciting at the moment!

How important is your international network in helping you succeed?

Hugely. The centres of wealth around the world are changing, and capital is coming in from new places. I’m fortunate that I can travel to pretty much any country in the world, and I’ll be able to meet up with someone for a beer and to discuss business!

My international background allows me to adapt quickly to different cultural settings. We get investors approaching us from countries like Malaysia, Kuwait and Singapore, and it’s important to be able to build relationships with them.

What personal qualities are key to excel as an entrepreneur?

Sheer resilience is key – you must not be afraid of failure. I’ve had my successes, but many businesses I’ve backed have failed along the way, too. It takes serious nerve, but it’s important to bounce back quickly, and to return to the office so that you can look for a new high-calibre team to invest in.

Also, never take ‘no’ for an answer. I’ve been in many situations where the first answer has been ‘no’, but I’ve made what I want happen regardless. For example, after I had first met James Caan, I wasn’t getting any replies to my texts and emails – so I turned up at his office instead!

What advice would you give to MBAs after graduation?

All MBAs would benefit from finding a great mentor. My own personal experience is that you can’t plateau in a partnership – you’re constantly pushing yourself to new heights. Swallow your pride, and find someone stronger and better than you, and you’ll be amazed how much you can grow.


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