When Brigadier General Jeff Farnsworth retired after a 31-year career in the Army, a typical next move might have been to embark on a career with a Department of Defense contractor. Instead, he strategically pursued his lifelong passion for real estate investment by cashing in his G.I. Bill for a master’s in business with a concentration in real estate from the VCU School of Business.
“Jeff could have gone anywhere he wanted to,” explains Robert Taylor, executive director of VCU’s Kornblau Real Estate Program. Nearly a year before enrolling, Farnsworth reached out to Taylor to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Kornblau program’s benefits. “Being in the military, he was very matter of fact. He wanted to make sure we were the right fit and had the right resources.”
For years, Farnsworth had commuted from the Fredericksburg area to Washington D.C. Yet when the time came to pursue his second master’s degree, he found no universities in the D.C. metro area and few throughout the nation could compare to VCU.
Fast tracked real estate credentials
“I knew that if I was going to reinvent myself in the real estate sector that I would need a few credentials. The Kornblau Real Estate Program was a great vehicle to do that,” Farnsworth explains.
Indeed, the real estate concentration satisfies the rigorous educational requirements of the Appraisal Institute’s MAI designation. It also put him on a fast track to become a Certified Commercial Investment Member (CCIM) and earn other real estate licenses and professional designations.
“A number of trade organizations recognize our program so our students earn hours toward various levels of licensure and certification,” Taylor explains. “Jeff also knew that VCU would offer him a networking platform.”
Before enrolling at VCU, Farnsworth was intrigued by the 125-member Real Estate Circle of Excellence that partners with the Kornblau Real Estate Program to advance the quality and relevance of its educational efforts and bring practical "real world" experience to the program. Ultimately, the realities of that partnership exceeded his expectations.
“In my last semester, I took a three-credit, independent guided study course,” Farnsworth explains. “Robert Taylor asked members of the Circle if they had any projects that might need help with.”
It happened that Dan Hargett of Rebkee was keen to investigate opportunities to provide quality housing for temporary migrant workforce members living in the U.S. Farnsworth, who previously had a wide range of military deployment experience living and working in a variety of temporary facilities and executing construction projects for the Corps of Engineers, was delighted by the opportunity to complete such a study for Rebkee. He carefully examined the possibilities and challenges offered by migrant housing, preparing a thorough report that he delivered to Hargett. “My labor was free, so it was worth every penny,” he laughs.
Farnsworth also took full advantage of networking opportunities within VCU’s real estate alumni. “Our program is oldest of its kind in Virginia. It’s been around since the 1970s,” says Taylor. “We have well over 800 real estate alumni.”
Through various breakfast events and meetings with the Real Estate Circle of Excellence, Farnsworth became friendly with Richmond developer Robin Miller of Miller & Associates (who had earned his undergraduate degree at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point). “He’s a very well respected and distinguished real estate developer. I knew of him and was impressed by his work,” says Farnsworth.
Over time, the men’s acquaintance deepened into a mentorship. Miller invited Farnsworth to Staunton where he and a partner were restoring and converting the former Western State Hospital into an elaborate campus with a hotel, condos, apartments and restored houses. “He’s become a friend and mentor, coaching me on different aspects of the development business,” Farnsworth says of Miller.
Last May, Farnsworth completed his degree, a master’s of science in business with a concentration in real estate. Today he actively manages a portfolio of real estate assets and interests in Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado that his company began acquiring in 2001 as a dual business career in addition to active military service. “I’m in the process of developing a strategic plan for how I will grow the business and what direction to take it.”
Farnsworth becomes reflective when asked about how his VCU degree has changed him. “Real estate development and investment has always been a passion of mine. I got it from growing up with my dad in Vermont. He built a great property from nothing and I watched him do that. So, it’s in my blood.
“Before going to VCU, I ‘didn’t know what I didn’t know’ about the real estate sector. Now I have a well-honed understanding of the practical aspects of investment, development, finance, brokerage and sales, valuation and property management. By going to Kornblau I’ve also met most of the underlying education requirements for the real estate certifications I may pursue.”
He remains eager to engage with members of the Real Estate Circle of Excellence – to explore additional mentor relationships and explore business opportunities of mutual benefit in commercial real estate. “If I’m successful,” he vows, “I’ll be looking to hire Kornblau graduates.”