Carnegie Mellon University

Malcolm Johnson

August 11, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Malcolm Johnson

Malcolm Johnson (MBA 2006) has not slowed down due to the pandemic. In fact, he launched his real estate company, Langdon Park Capital, during COVID-19. As an ex-NFL player, Johnson is used to navigating the stress and hard work required to become a successful entrepreneur. He is also socially conscious, and his company is committed to improving the communities in which they own properties.

We sat down with Malcolm to learn more about the launch of Langdon Park Capital, how his time at the Tepper School shaped his career, and where he hopes the future will take him.

You have a rather unique career journey for a Tepper alumnus. Can you share how you transitioned from being an elite athlete in the NFL to a corporate career as a business leader in real estate?

My time in the NFL is so far in the rear-view mirror that it feels like another lifetime. Tepper was absolutely the right space for me to make that transition. I played professional football for four years before entering Tepper, but outside of personal relationships with people from the NFL, there's not much that I took with me from my playing days. Pretty early into my time at Tepper, I knew that I wanted to focus on a career in banking, so I joined the Finance and Marketing clubs. I wasn't certain exactly what I wanted to do in banking.

After a summer internship search that took me from looking at jobs in sales and trading to investment banking, I settled on real estate finance and did an internship with PNC Bank. I enjoyed the collegial atmosphere that existed inside of large banks. You can't exist in a large organization without leaning on team-building skills. Probably more than the finance, that drew me to this space.

After that summer internship, I continued to follow this path and interviewed with several banks. I finally landed on Bank of America where I was hired into a rotational program. The first rotation was in commercial real estate in Los Angeles in Fall 2006. The real estate market was on fire and I was so busy trying to learn the nuances of being a banker that I did all the things I did to succeed as a football player. I showed up for work an hour and a half early and stayed 2 hours later. I was trying to learn the rules of engagement. The group was so busy and the person running the group came to me and said, “It looks like you really enjoy this work”. He based it on how many hours I was working, but I was doing that to make sure I didn't miss anything. He offered me the chance to leave the rotational program and become a full-time banker in the real estate group. It was a great opportunity.

Then, of course, the Great Financial Crisis happened. That was a learning experience for me as well. I was hooked because of what banking required, which is teamwork at every level. I really had a lot of interest in real estate and building up the community. The transition was easier in a lot of ways, due to the technical skills I gained at Tepper as well as the relationship building skills.  I followed a path that was not linear in any way, and it's still not.

What led you to join the Tepper School to earn your MBA?

At the time I was considering business schools, I was recently removed from my pro football career. All of my friends and anybody from the football world who knew me said I would be a natural fit as an agent or sportscaster.  Those were two things I knew I definitely didn't want to do. It's hard to be someone with a lot of integrity as a sports agent. Not that you can't, but I didn't want that lifestyle. I wanted to explore the world outside of sports. I knew that to give myself the best opportunity, I needed to have a strong technical skillset.

I was fortunate because my wife and I were living in Pittsburgh at the time. We had just had our first child. I considered the top quantitative schools. Chicago, MIT, and Tepper were the final three programs I was applying to. CMU was right in Pittsburgh, and I didn't have to uproot my family. I felt a sense of connection with the admissions staff, and I got to know the school during that process as well. It was an easy choice for me. After all these years, it was the best and right choice.

What inspired you to leave your senior corporate role at JPMorgan to launch your new venture, Langdon Park Capital?

Langdon Park Capital is in a lot of ways a company that I've been building in my mind for the last 43 years … and I'm 43 years old. This has been a culmination of all the skills I've gained in real estate and finance, and my real, intentional work around strengthening communities that look like the one where I grew up. It’s a real estate management investment firm that does many of the same things as our peers.

We own and operate commercial real estate, and we do it through a series of commingled fund vehicles. Our differentiating factor is that with every property we own and in every community we operate, we seek to enhance the quality of life for Black and Latino people. That, to me, fulfills a true passion and allows me to lean on the skillset I gained first at Tepper and, later, as a banker.

When I made the decision to leave JPMorgan, it was not because there was something I disliked about that bank. I'm biased, but I believe JPMorgan is the best institution for anything you want to do in finance. But it was not the place where I was going to be able to build a company with this kind of intentional focus.

The timing was right. 2020 brought a lot of clarity around if not now, then when and if not me, then who. I've been thrilled to make the transition, and my early success has proven it was absolutely the right choice.

What is the significance to you of the name of your new firm?

I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. My neighborhood was absolutely a real neighborhood. It was one where people took a lot of pride in where we lived. At the time, the city was very homogenous. D.C. has changed from a demographic standpoint since then. 95% of my neighbors looked exactly like my family did. That was everyone from our city council to our mayor to our police chief and even to the drug dealers. It was a great time to see the entire spectrum of what it meant to be Black in America.

Langdon Park is the name of the recreation center where I spent countless hours after school between the ages of 9 and 13. My parents both worked so my younger brother and I were latchkey kids. School ended at 2, and I would go directly home, finish my homework, and then 45 minutes later I went down to the park to play basketball, football, karate, you name it. Every activity happened at this park.

What I also remember is that the city started to change during that time, too. It, unfortunately, became a more dangerous place because of the crack epidemic, which hit D.C. and Black communities like mine really hard. There were bad things happening at that park, but for me, it was a flowerbed. I had such amazing coaches and older mentors that got me through that potentially bad space to do something that was positive.

When I think about where Langdon Park Capital will invest, I want to think of these communities as flowerbeds. I want to think about every neighborhood where we own property from a human perspective. That's a neighborhood where someone is raising a family, where someone wants to retire with dignity. Every day when I walk into my office and tell people the name of the company, I'm reminded of a very positive space that nourished me as a young person, and I want us to be that answer for people as an owner.

What makes your real estate investment firm unique? How do you see it affecting society in the years ahead?

This is the best part of our story. The thing that separates us without question is our dynamic leadership team and our diversity. Every one of our real estate professionals and staff members are excellent in every way. We have banking veterans, folks who have extensive real estate finance expertise, CPAs on staff, and even my office manager spent 15 years as a personal assistant for Faye Vincent, who was the former MLB commissioner.  She has the most amazing background. The people – that's what sets us apart.

We don’t only look at these investments from the standpoint of how we are going to create value. We look at them because each of us has a very real sense of responsibility to uplift communities because we either came from communities like this or are one degree of separation removed from communities like this.  Our business acumen is obviously important. We are a fiduciary, and we have to do all things you'd expect. But we look at investing not just through a lens of what can we do to increase financial returns. We think about how we can enhance the quality of life for our residents and tenants. People live at the places we own. That is ingrained in each of us. That is the biggest differentiator for our company.

For example, obviously there’s something special about the Steelers’ organization, but the most special thing is the Rooney’s as a family. They've been at the core of everything the organization has done. You think about the amazing players that have come through there. It's not just the uniform or stadium or Terrible Towel. It's the human capital that walks through the locker room every day that makes that organization special, and we're no different. It's our people, and that is our advantage in every way.

What was it like to launch a company during the pandemic? What challenges did you face?

We've all figured out how to be productive during the pandemic. Most of us still want some sense of human interaction that is hard to get virtually. There was a lot of ability to be efficient in creating the foundational blocks to build this company, whether that was hiring a Big Four accounting firm to choosing outside council to draft our fund documents. All of that was done virtually. Some of our team is in New York, some are in San Francisco. We were able to interview every one of our partners in an efficient way. When you are an emerging manager, you have got to be careful about selecting the best team. You’re still running negative revenue, and you want to get off the ground but be efficient.

The one constant is that every one of our partners, save for a handful of vendors, are people we had a relationship with prior to the pandemic. Relationships still matter, and our senior leadership team has extensive experience working together. There’s a trust factor there that you can't ever get around. You must have that trust factor.

We were able to be more efficient because of the pandemic. In fact, we're moving into a brand-new office in Los Angeles that’s still under construction. Our team has yet to have a full five-day work week in the same office together because our office is not slated to be completed for another 30 days or so. The pandemic allowed that to be normal. Typically, you would not be able to get as much done as we have without being in the same physical space for 60-70 hours a week, but we've been able to do that. It’s been somewhat of a positive for us.

How did your time at the Tepper School influence your leadership/career?

Each of my classmates would attest to this. The one thing that Tepper requires is that you must be very sharp in terms of quantitative analysis, and for me, it was absolutely necessary to train myself to think that way. I was more of a right-brain thinker. And I still am, but because of that, I also had to think about teamwork and about becoming good at the quantitative analysis part. I went to the Tepper School with a handful of students who had master’s degrees in engineering and computer science so things that came naturally to them, I had to work extra hard to grasp.

That’s how I approached building the team I wanted at Langdon Park Capital. I thought about people with strengths in acquisition, deal-making, accounting, asset management, among other areas. To me, a CEO has four jobs. One is to create a culture and set the mission. Two, you've got to identify, recruit and empower amazing talent. You can't win without amazing talent who are completely bought into the mission and empowered to act. Three, always be active on the capital-raising front. That’s my role and responsibility as leader of the firm. Four, find good investment opportunities. You need to have a pipeline of opportunities ready.

What advice do you have for Tepper students or alumni who aspire to be entrepreneurs?

Think about who can build with you. A lot of the time the misconception about being an entrepreneur is you choose that route because you either want to be the boss all alone, or you don't get along well with others. I think the opposite is true for those who are successful. There's really nothing you can do at scale if you chose to do it all alone. You can't do every job in a company and find a way to have that company be large and scalable.

Think about who can build with you. Those people could be your Tepper classmates or colleagues at your first job. You have to focus on how to build the best team that has the same mission that you do. You cannot do everything inside of a company that you need to in order to grow at scale alone. For me, finding the right team has been the biggest part of our success early on.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about your company, your future endeavors, or your time at Tepper?

First and foremost, the Tepper experience shaped me in a way that's every bit as important as any previous experience I’ve had. That two-year experience was critical, and everything I’ve become since was because of it.

I was, for better or worse, in a space where most people were from the same background as me. Although, I did attend a great Jesuit school in D.C. with a lot of non-Black classmates, I went to school every day and then came right back to my Black neighborhood. For college, I went to Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, which is much different than Northeast D.C. Even there, my social circle and network was still confined largely to other athletes, mostly football players. I existed in a space that was insulated and homogenous. My first career as a professional football player brought me into more contact with people who had the same upbringing as I did. I didn't have to expand myself in terms of connecting with different types of people in the way I did at Tepper.

For those who are considering Tepper, that was the best part for me. I got real-life training in being an active listener and engaging with people who didn't have the same background as I did but were every bit as valuable and principled as I was. It was a great experience and I’ve carried that with me every step of the way, professionally. I cherish that time.

For those who are thinking about building for their professional futures, you don't have to compromise doing good and building for others with the pursuit of capitalism. Those two things don't have to be mutually exclusive. I think, if nothing else, we should have learned from everything that happened in 2020 that building a bigger moat is not the answer. Eventually, the castle will be stormed. Eventually, people who are sick or hurt or disenfranchised will rise up so we have to think about how we can heal. How do we provide opportunity? How do we partner with everyone so that we can all have more? That should be applied to business as well. That is the ethos of our company.

It just so happens that I’m a fiercely proud Black man who was born and raised in a very conscious household. I have a lot of insight into the Black community in this country. But that's not the only group that feels disenfranchised. A lot of lower-income people feel the same way. A lot of people who identify as LBGTQ feel the same way. And so on and so on. The more we can think about how we should all be growing, whether it's in a community or company, the better chance of success we will all have.

This journey is just beginning. I want Langdon Park Capital to be a catalyst for others to think about building in the same way. I'm excited for the path ahead.