ULI Atlanta #MemberSpotlight on Arun Singh, CFO of MDH Partners
We spoke with Arun about his love for Atlanta, relationships built through ULI and commitment to ESG in the golden era of industrial investment
Arun Singh remembers being interested in real estate as a high school student in Columbus, Ohio. “I liked the tangible nature of it and every building being unique,” he said. However, despite that, he chose to study computer science at Georgia Tech.
After one year, he realized his mistake and returned home to The Ohio State University, where his father was a professor and where he studied real estate. One thing that stuck with him from his year at Tech? A love for Atlanta. “The old saying, a city too busy to hate, really did seem true,” he said. He appreciated that Atlanta was “diverse in every way that Columbus was not and represented opportunity.” He knew he would eventually find his way back.
Singh graduated from Ohio State with a degree in real estate from the Fisher College of Business and accepted a job in a rotational program at BP Oil and ended up in a group selling off the company’s owned stations across the country. It ultimately sold 3,000 stations between 2007 and 2009 and Singh’s group was selling upwards of 50 a day. “Before I was 25, I had done more deals than some people ever do,” he said. “Hopefully you learn something from each one.”
Singh said one thing that would surprise people about him is that he was not a very good student. “The professional working environment is what I was built for,” he said. However, he did return to school to earn a graduate degree at NYU in 2009. He worked full-time during the day and went to school from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. He found the NYU program to be more engaging because his professors were working full-time in real estate and bringing real-world problems to class to discuss. “Instead of a traditional classroom experience, it was more like a colleagues mentoring younger colleagues, working together on a problem,” he said. “I loved it.”
After finishing with an MS in Real Estate, with a concentration in finance and investing, he took a job in another rotational program, this time at MetLife. He started in research, where he got to look at a wide variety of strategic real estate topics — from purchasing banks liquidated assets, to buying asset managers, to taking public REITS private. He moved around with multiple roles within MetLife and in 2014, was offered a position in commercial loan originations — in Atlanta. He was thrilled to come back to the city where he had felt so at home as a college freshman.
One of the first things he did in Atlanta was join ULI. In his early 30s, he quickly joined and became an active member within the Young Leaders Group, which allows emerging leaders to interact with established leaders in unique settings, both socially and professionally.
“I was interested in building a professional and personal network and it worked beautifully,” he said. “I enjoyed hearing about how others, such as architects and general contractors, viewed the same deals I was working on, but from a different vantage.” He continues to value those relationships today.
Singh also went to another CRE organization’s event, where in 2014, he heard Jeff Small, the CEO of MDH Partners, speak. MDH was an entrepreneurial firm founded by Small and other former executives of M.D. Hodges, one of the leading developers of industrial properties in metro Atlanta from the 1960s through the early 2000s.
“He was Jeff Small, which is to say he was an amazing public speaker,” Singh said.
Singh talked to him after and eventually pitched his business. They began working together and eventually Singh developed a new product for MDH Partners that resulted in $275 million worth of financing over the next few years and MetLife became the go-to financing source for MDH. In 2020, Singh accepted a job as the CFO of MDH.
His job is much broader than his title implies. He oversees finance, accounting, investor relations, HR, operations, technology, strategy, ESG, marketing efforts and capital markets. “I am not just keeping the books,” he said. “I am focused on strategy and how we operate in the best possible way.”
MDH, which had just five employees when Singh and Small met, now is a team of 25. In the past two years, they invested Fund I, raised Fund II and deployed about half the capital in Fund II, acquiring nearly 20 million square feet of industrial assets across 20 states in just three years. The accelerated timeline is necessary as MDH takes advantage of what Singh calls “the golden era of industrial investment.”
MDH has long been focused on ESG “because it was the right thing to do it, not because our capital sources required us to do it.” Singh wrote the ESG policy when he arrived at MDH, formalizing the company’s longstanding approach to business. The firm was then recognized for its exceptional commitment in ESG programs and earned the global Emerging Manager ESG Award, as part of Pension Real Estate Association’s (PREA) inaugural Real Estate Investment ESG Awards.
MDH’s ESG policy and its unique situation with all capital coming from foundations and university endowments has allowed the firm to apply its value-add approach in over 30 cities across the country with a long view. MDH’s ESG policy is instilled in each asset, whether it’s installing clerestory windows for more natural light or replacing outdated lighting with energy efficient LED light bulbs or enhancing operations.
Singh highlighted two initiatives that represent MDH’s ESG policy at its core, first, CarbonCure Technologies. MDH was one of the first industrial developers to adopt CarbonCure, which injects captured CO2 into concrete as its mixed, thus reducing carbon emissions by embodying the CO2 into cement, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. The firm has utilized the technology in three developments so far, saving more than 250 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Most recently, the firm broke ground on one of the largest CarbonCure developments of its kind, Busch Commerce Center in Cartersville, GA.
At the Cartersville project, MDH used so much CarbonCure, it is the equivalent of taking more than 1 million auto miles off the road each year.
The second ESG initiative he mentioned is the commitment the project has to the neighborhood surrounding Lee + White, which MDH is redeveloping with Ackerman. In addition to being home to a variety of locally owned and diverse businesses, the adaptive reuse development has offered free meeting space and hosted several community organizations. Examples include meetings for the West End Neighborhood District (W.E.N.D), a giveaway event for Free99 Fridge mutual aid project, free COVID testing through the Community Organized Relief Effort (C.O.R.E) and a partnership with Atlanta Public Schools for remote learning pods and a food giveaway for neighborhood families during the height of the pandemic. It recently hosted the Beltline Lantern Parade and provided space for them to complete the lanterns.
Despite his busy schedule, Singh finds time to give back. He has focused much of his efforts on his alma mater Ohio State, where he has helped fund a scholarship and where he mentors real estate students. MDH just hired a recent Ohio State graduate, who was president of the real estate club. “When I was a student, that was something I really thought was missing, mentorship by young professionals in real estate,” Singh said. “So I am committed to doing my part to improve that.”