A tribute to Michael Humphrey

December 14, 2016 admin

Four weeks ago, I was sitting at a table on the 56th floor of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino, overlooking all of Singapore, having drinks and enjoying a farewell dinner with a small group from our 2016 Asia Pacific Editorial Advisory Board Meeting. Joining us at that table was Michael Humphrey, the founder and CEO of Courtland Partners, who had flown in from Cleveland to attend our event.

Not surprisingly to those who knew him well, Michael’s charisma and energy dominated the evening’s discussions. He was so upbeat, so positive, so full of life, and so excited about the coming year.

So it is strange to hear the news of his sudden and unexpected death only a few weeks later.

Michael was a friend and a long-time supporter of our publications, going back to the very earliest years. He and several of his colleagues have attended editorial board functions on three different continents over the years, covering both real estate and infrastructure investment. Michael was always encouraging, always complimentary, and always contributed immensely to the quality of the discussions.

I think it’s safe to say he was one of those unique individuals who come along rarely in life, who “make a dent in the universe,” to paraphrase Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple.

There is a lot I personally could say about Michael, but I thought I’d dedicate this space to enable others to help paint a picture of the kind of individual he was, as well as the impact he had on the investment and investment management communities he served so well over the years:

“I was Michael Humphrey’s partner for over a decade, and I never remember him taking a day off. Second to the love for his family, his passion and pride for the business he started in 1995 was limitless. We all use the cliché that someone we know works a 24-hour, seven-day week. That is a cliché that truly no one adheres to — with the exception of Michael Humphrey. His work ethic was extraordinary. His passion for doing the right thing for the clients is his career legacy. It was an honor to be his friend and partner.”
— Steve Novick, principal/COO, Courtland Partners

“‘Trusted Adviser’ is a hard title to earn, and even harder to maintain. Michael Humphrey earned it every day, and was passionate about it. Being the best at everything he touched for his family, clients, staff and friends was the only way he knew. Losing or backing down wasn’t an option.
Working side by side with that kind of conviction, wisdom and moxie is contagious.
He is already greatly missed.”
— Gila Cohen, head of corporate strategy, Courtland Partners

“I think the qualities I admired most in Michael were his integrity and his work ethic. I don’t think anyone in the business took his responsibility as a fiduciary more seriously than Michael did. He always put his clients’ interests ahead of others, including his own, and he insisted that everyone at Courtland display the same high ethical standards.
Michael’s preparation before every meeting was unparalleled, as was his ability to ask questions that quickly got to the core of the key issue or risk at hand. He set a high bar for anyone desiring to do business with a Courtland client. I pity the manager who didn’t bring their ‘A game’ to a meeting with Michael.
It was Michael’s adherence to these core values — an unwavering commitment to always do the right thing for his clients and a rigorous work ethic — that are perhaps his greatest legacy. Our industry is far better because of him.”
— Fred Gortner, co-founder, Paladin Realty

“We are still at a loss here in Honolulu about Michael’s untimely passing. Michael was an outstanding consultant who went beyond the expected in helping HIERS to find appropriate investment solutions. Michael and Courtland came on the Hawaii account in 2008, and we renewed our contract in 2012. Courtland was HIERS first ‘specialty’ consultant focused on real estate, an asset class that had long been held in the portfolio. However, the real estate program was somewhat neglected and not positioned do withstand the stresses of the Great Financial Crisis that soon befell the global economy.
From that unstable framework, Michael went to work. He restructured the real estate portfolio by balancing it between core, value-add and opportunistic investments. He added new strategies, such as real estate debt and senior housing. He introduced new fund managers to HIERS. He negotiated more favorable terms with our legacy core real estate separate account manager and optimized the allocation.
HIERS now ranks as one of the best performing public pension plans nationally over the past 10 years. I fully credit Michael for that turnaround in fortunes. This was a major and substantial accomplishment. He was already working side-by-side with us to move real estate to a new framework focused on functional risk allocations. It was exciting to get his perspective on the latest portfolio evolution, which was clearly both intellectually and professionally fascinating to Michael.
Beyond what Michael might have been expected to do as a consultant, it was clear that he cared for his clients. Michael embodied the fiduciary spirit at its best. I knew that when he was on a project or negotiating with a manager, he was going to go beyond the function of a consultant and treat our concerns as his own. Michael understood us as if it was his own money he was investing. I knew that the people of Hawaii could trust and depend on him to act in our interest alone to secure the best outcomes. I trusted him.
Michael took on some of the most challenging investments in the HIERS portfolio, and we could tell that he wanted to do well because he cared, professionally and personally, for the people at HIERS. The last time I saw Michael in-person was during an October trip to New York City. He joined me on some meetings with possible strategic relationship partners because I asked, and by the time he showed up, I had added two more meetings to our already busy itinerary. As we rushed through the pouring rain on foot and then by taxi to get to a Chelsea meeting with a ‘sharing economy’ start-up real estate venture, I marveled at how we both were in our element, fully engaged seeking understanding of a new investment opportunity. We were having fun.
Later Michael told a trustee how within 20 minutes of arriving at this particular venue, I had gotten us an audience with the CEO. I wish I would have told Michael that whether it was that CEO, the billionaire Manhattan developer, or the many other talented and successful investors we met together in New York City during that day-and-a-half, it was only because he was at my side that I had the confidence to be so bold.
I would be remiss to not add that trustees and staff at HIERS felt aloha for Michael. We cared for him. Many of us knew him on a personal level, and had time to learn about his family and his work family. We felt a love and aloha for Michael because he was a good person, always trying to do what was best for those around him. His sense of modesty, humility, and humor endeared him to us. In a world governed by contractual terms and obligations, Michael’s professionalism and personality cut through the formality. We wanted him around. We wanted to know what he thought. Whether about deflation expectations in Europe or about how proud he was to see his children as young adults, we wanted him to keep talking and talking. Now, every time we have an in-depth discussion about real estate or macroeconomics, I will pause and wonder what Michael would have thought or done.
We are at a loss. He was trusted, respected and loved. Michael will be missed.”
— Vijoy Chattergy, CIO, State of Hawaii Employees Retirement System

“With Michael, you learned by osmosis. There were no guided tutorials, just the Socratic Method with the real estate consulting grand master. No one ever really graduated, you just got better at refining the product, until no stone was left unturned.
Michael’s dedication to his craft knew no bounds. Time zones, jetlag, food and sleep were mere inconveniences. He would be in India interviewing managers by day and leading client calls in the U.S. at night. During the workday, his approach to food was often quirky; he would often eat late or nothing at all. Once, during Lent, someone bought in White Castle hamburgers and fish sandwiches for breakfast (don’t ask). Michael was busy and worked through lunch, as was customary. That is when I witnessed true dedication. He is the only person I have ever seen microwave an aged, cold White Castle Fish Slider. You know you are focused when the ‘best option’ is to reheat a choice fresh catch of fast food seafood. No bet was involved; he did it willingly.
It was not just dedication, but true passion. As others have mentioned, he truly loved his work. Whether it was wordsmithing a recommendation for a client into the wee hours of the evening or preparing a slide deck on real estate economic trends, he was always engaged, always looking to improve.
Surprisingly, despite all the long hours, endless flights and lack of sleep, Michael rarely missed a day of work or even had a cold. If he wasn’t in the office, we assumed that he was in the air, at a client meeting, or with his family.
While Michael will be missed, especially by his family, hopefully he will finally be able to obtain the rest that always seemed to elude him.”
— Marc Rivitz, senior vice president, timber/Latin American funds, Courtland Partners

“(To the Humphrey Family), please accept our deepest condolences for the loss of your wonderful husband, father, son and our colleague and friend, Michael.
San Joaquin County Employees’ Retirement Association (SJCERA) is one of Courtland Partners’ more recent clients. We have been privileged to work together with Michael and our Courtland team to evolve our real estate program over the past three years. Michael was best known for integrity, integrity, integrity. He provided us with thoughtful discussions on various topics as Michael had a great passion for consulting, modestly sharing his vast knowledge and educating others in real estate.
Michael loved to tell stories about his family and how proud he was of his children and appreciative of Joanne’s support in his career.
All of us at SJCERA celebrate Michael’s accomplishments, the success of Courtland Partners and our friendship over the years.”
— The board and staff of San Joaquin County Employees’ Retirement Association

“Honeywell International was one of Michael’s early clients and valued his knowledge and integrity immensely. It was a true privilege to get to know and work with Michael over the years. The success, growth and reputation of Courtland Partners are a lasting testament to Michael. He spoke often of his wonderful family; they are in our thoughts and prayers.”
— The staff at Honeywell International

“I always liked how when you were on the phone with MJH and a productive call was coming to an end he would say, ‘OK, real good Brad … real good.’ I like to think when he entered Heaven, God said, ‘Real good Michael … real good.’ He was an amazing man, taken from us far too soon.”
— Brad Creel, CAIA, director of real estate investments, Lockheed Martin Investment Management Co.

“I extend my sincere condolences to the family of Michael Humphrey and to everyone at Courtland Partners. It has been my pleasure and privilege to know and work with Michael for these last eight years as a senior consultant for Courtland located here in New York City. Michael was a brilliant and creative professional, as well as a fine human being.
Although I grew up in Cleveland, my working career began in 1965 in New York City when, as Michael, I started as a first-year lawyer. Also, as Michael, I soon moved from law into the business side of life, and I have spent over 35 years in the field of real estate. With this perspective, I can confidently state that what Michael founded and grew at Courtland Partners is one of the more impressive accomplishments I have observed in my career. Without doubt, Courtland now plays a pivotal role in the global real estate industry. Michael has left a powerful, positive legacy to his family, all those at Courtland, and the international business community.”
— Robert “Bo” Rodgers, senior consultant, Courtland Partners

“I have been both lucky and privileged to have worked over 30 years with some of the outstanding commercial real estate leaders and consultants our industry has known. Michael was the most principled and thoughtful real estate executive I worked with. The legal standard of fiduciary care is largely indefinite; in practice, Michael defined it better than anyone.”
— Tom Hester, senior vice president, Courtland Partners

“When my mother-in-law developed dementia five years ago, and she was going to watch my infant son, I told Michael I had to leave Courtland, as I didn’t want to put my son in daycare and needed to be home with him. He told me to come in when I could. So I would come in after my husband got home from work at 4 p.m. It worked out nicely, and I enjoyed talking to him when no one was in the office. As my son is now in preschool, I am in the office three days a week. Michael helped me be the mother I wanted to be for my son and keep my foot in the workplace. He was such a good guy.”
— Julie M. Limpach, executive assistant, Courtland Partners

“I am thankful for my meeting with Michael who gave me another chance, at this stage of my life, to learn a new career. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
— Kirby Freeman, consultant, Courtland Partners

“As someone who worked with Michael for over a decade, it is difficult to narrow down his impact to one anecdote or conversation. Michael was a tireless worker, who possessed more energy than a room full of kindergarteners after an ice cream social. I never once saw a caffeinated drink touch his lips. He wasn’t fueled by caffeine like most of us; rather he was driven by a never-ending passion for his work and our clients. He believed that he was truly blessed to be doing what he loved for a living, which made him one of the lucky ones.
Michael was extremely detail oriented. He never stopped rewording reports, memos or presentations until the teacher told the class to put their pencils down. Yet for such a detail-oriented guy, I often wondered how we would always end up having the same conversation over and over again, like my own version of Groundhog Day. We were not regular traveling companions, but a few times a year we would inevitably end up on the road or in a restaurant together. Michael and I grew up in the same suburb, albeit a generation apart. Michael loved Cleveland and Lakewood, in particular. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Lakewood families and houses. Inevitably our travel conversations would gravitate toward talking about Lakewood. Yet, he would always ask me what street I grew up on or if I knew this family or played sports with someone from that family. I was like the teenager rolling his eyes at the question that already had been answered a hundred times.
However, he would seemingly out of left field ask me a question that demonstrated that he had been paying attention the entire time. He’d ask me about coaching soccer (which he once loved to do), about one of the teachers at St. Raphael’s, or about my alma mater. I’ve now come to realize that his brain was like that giant black briefcase full of reports, presentations, and cap rate data that he hauled around with him at all times. He may not have known exactly where the information was in his bag. But it was in there and he would always come up with the right answer when he needed it most. I will always appreciate and remember that despite everything that he had going on in his life that Michael still ultimately managed to remember even the smallest details of our trivial conversations. One of the greatest Lakewood High Rangers is now riding with God. Michael, rest in peace.”
— Michael Murphy, managing director, Courtland Partners

“Michael and his family have given me some of the best years of my personal and professional life. It has been a privilege to know the Humphreys and work for an organization that has made a real difference in the lives of so many pension plan and foundation beneficiaries. Michael changed who I am for the better as he did for so many who were willing to roll up their sleeves and work side by side with him. He demanded excellence from his staff and set the standards for client service at Courtland Partners high by the example of his own efforts.”
— Charlie Manak, general counsel and chief compliance officer, Courtland Partners

“I first met Michael in 2005, when Bill Foster introduced us. Bill and I worked together at another consulting firm, and the client that Bill liked the most needed additional real estate exposure. Bill thought so highly of the client that he wanted to bring in an expert to cover the real estate portion of their portfolio. Mind you, we did real estate investments at the prior firm, it’s just that Bill wanted to provide the client with the best, and Michael was clearly the best.
That introduction began a six-year conversation in which Michael and I would get together occasionally to discuss capital markets, the consulting industry, personnel development and corporate growth initiatives. Often these meetings would be scheduled to occur late in the afternoon and I would sit by the phone or in the conference for an hour or more waiting for the conversation to begin. Rather than being annoyed by the constant delays, postponements or cancelations, I was intrigued. I could tell that he had a deep passion for his clients as demonstrated by his willingness to put their needs before all else and a hunger to have someone help him provide an even better service to an even wider group of clients.
During that six-year job interview, Michael had asked me to join him in various capacities and at various junctures of the firm’s evolution. In 2011, I joined Michael with the intention of helping to grow the business, expand the offering and alleviate some of the management burden he carried. It was a hell of a ride, and one for which I will always be grateful.
Soon after I joined, Michael and I were in Park City, Utah, at a multi-day client seminar. On the middle day of the seminar, the client scheduled an afternoon break where participants could take in the beautiful and unique offerings that can only be experienced in the lower Rockies — mountain biking, trail hiking or golfing in a valley. We did none of that. We drove to Salt Lake City to meet with the property managers of an office building owned by a long-standing client. We walked the block and toured the building as Michael put the building representatives through an endless interrogation of market comps, rental rates, tenant improvements and HVAC maintenance schedules. The folks from Salt Lake had never been through this type of questioning and weren’t sure what to make of it. What I learned from that session, and countless sessions like it, is that Michael had an insatiable curiosity where he desired to gain knowledge simply for the sake of learning, as well as a sense that he gauged people by their ability to answer questions — that was the law school coming through. He served his clients both by his ability to gain the factual information needed to make prudent decisions and by forming qualitative opinions about the people with whom they do business. He wanted to know that he, and therefore the client, could trust the people.
I also learned from the events of that afternoon that work was the way in which Michael relaxed. There was no golf or mountain biking release needed to help him unwind. He was most comfortable and most at peace when he was actively working for the clients he cared so deeply about.
Along the way, I learned that the passion for clients meant that the way in which I could serve Michael best was to help him serve the clients more. This was the opposite of what I thought he needed when I joined him and very different than what the would-be buyers of the firm were telling him. At first I thought, and all potential buyers thought, that Michael had reached a point in his professional development where he should be more of an industry ambassador and a speaker on the conference circuit. While he did enjoy the speaking engagements, he was guided by the desire to do right for the millions of pension retirees that he was serving. It was an awesome responsibility and one that he never lost sight of.
Michael and I had many personal conversations around the time that we were negotiating the purchase of an investment platform. He brought to that diligence process all the same attention to detail and curiosity about intricate details, but it was far more than that for him. He would tell me over and over the very important reasons that he ‘could not screw this up.’ He carried a responsibility for the well-being and continued care of his family as his utmost responsibility. While some in the firm, or in the industry, were critical of Michael for not taking more aggressive movements to grow or evolve the firm, I know from those conversations that it was not growth, wealth or notoriety that motivated him — he cared most about the three of you. No risk was worth taking if it jeopardized what he wanted for you and no bird in the bush could tempt him if it meant the possible loss of the one in the hand.
When talking with clients about market conditions, he would constantly reference oil prices as a way of referencing Houston as a way of letting the clients and the firm know what Lauren was up to — his pride abundantly obvious to all. At other points, he would remind us of the sacrifices he would make on special occasions (i.e., Mother’s Day, Easter, graduation parties) as a way of letting people know how important it was to produce the best possible product for the client. His willingness to make these sacrifices were to show employees that if the boss is willing to make this effort, then everyone should step up. Those were hard days and I know from our conversations that he deeply regretted time taken away from his family.
Though private to the point of stoicism, Michael would occasionally share when medical procedures had him particularly nervous. The love that he showed for his family at those times impacted us all and we did the only thing we could. We tried to make his work-life as normal as possible so that he could cope with the mental stress of it all. As I learned in Salt Lake that day, Michael needed work to deal with stress. The absence of work was a cause of stress for him and the last thing he wanted at the time of the dialysis, transplant, recovery and relapses was to have one of us take work away from him.
All of us that worked with Michael knew that we were working for the family he cherished and felt a shared responsibility in providing for your care. It was not our burden; it was our privilege.
It is my hope that God will bring peace to his beloved family, and that God has an interesting project for Michael to work on.”
— Jay Morgan, senior adviser, Courtland Partners

“No doubt about Michael’s brilliance and vision. He did not make working at Courtland easy; however, after nine and half years, his challenging and blessing definitely made me better at what I do. I was very fortunate to having been able to participate and share the fruit of his success in building Courtland. His unexpected passing is not only a terrible loss to his family, but also devastating to me personally. I miss the occasions where he touched my life. He gently offered advice for my son’s aspiration to be an entrepreneur. He generously gave me time off when it was needed for my family. He shared his excitement about his children’s achievements and hardship he went though to build the business. Michael will be missed and never be forgotten.”
— Susan Yelin, director of performance measurement, Courtland Partners

“It is sad to know about the unfortunate demise of Mike. Please accept my deep condolences, may his soul rest in peace. I had the good chance to speak to him a couple of times over Skype and meet at Salt Lake City. He was such a sharp mind and a fine person.”
— R.K. Narayan, real estate investment management, Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets

“Michael’s passion for knowledge and challenging conventional wisdom pushed us all to think about our businesses beyond our typical boundaries. Investors gravitated toward his intellectual curiosity and his clear desire to put their objectives first. The void he leaves behind is significant to our industry, and he will be missed professionally and personally.”
— Ryan Krauch, principal, Mesa West Capital

If there’s someone out there you care about, and you haven’t let them know lately how you feel about them, now might be a good time to do so. Our days all are numbered, and we never know when the few remaining days allotted to us will be running out. Michael Humphrey made a difference, and one of the ways he made that difference was by being who he was, and letting people know that they mattered.

We can all take a good lesson from his life. Please use the space below to record any additional tributes you might have to Michael.

The views, statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Institutional Real Estate, Inc.

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Geoffrey Dohrmann is president and CEO of Institutional Real Estate, Inc.

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