Dale Burnett’s Humble Foundation

From inner city New York to the halls of Wall Street, Dale Burnett, head of real estate acquisitions and development at Assurant, opens up about his unorthodox career path

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Dale Burnett says that he was instilled with a strong work ethic from a young age by his parents. (Photo: Martin Bentsen)

As a first-generation American born to Jamaican immigrants in the 1970s, successful corporate executives were not part of Dale Burnett’s daily interactions, but a strong work ethic certainly was.

Even though he grew up in inner city New York, Burnett’s parents were adamant when steering him away from self-defeating temptations and toward positive opportunities.

“My parents ingrained in me that hard work was non-negotiable,” Burnett says. “They also taught me that education was the key to realizing the American Dream.”

More specifically, Burnett’s parents encouraged him toward one particular dream that would have a far-reaching impact on his future career: “My parents said the centerpiece of the American Dream is owning your own home. They told me, ‘That’s when you know you’ve made it.’”

As the head of real estate acquisitions and development for Assurant, a New York-based provider of specialty protection insurance products and services, Burnett oversees the company’s real estate equity investment portfolio, which is part of the company’s $15 billion multi-strategy investment group. He’s completed more than $10 billion in transactions—including acquisitions, restructuring, and asset management in the United States and abroad—but his real estate career began by following his parents’ simple advice to achieve homeownership.

After college, Burnett moved back in with his parents and, saving everything he could, managed to acquire his first property in 2000—a brownstone in Brooklyn. Wisely, he rented out the house rather than moving in, and within five years, he and his wife (his fiancée at the time) had acquired seven multi-family properties.

“By my mid-twenties, I was making as much from real estate as I was working as a young professional at a Fortune 500 company,” Burnett says. “I had the bug! At that point, I knew real estate investing was going to transform my life.”

Indeed it did. Burnett’s second job out of college was at a consulting boutique, where one of his first assignments was advising the Blackstone Real Estate Group. He was so enthusiastic and dedicated to the project that the six-month consulting assignment morphed into a five-year stint at the company.

“It was a life changing event, the first time I realized I could have a real estate career in corporate America,” Burnett says. “At heart, I was still a first-generation American from the inner city. Before then, I hadn’t been exposed to Wall Street or the world of private equity.”

Blackstone turned out to be a stepping stone as well. Burnett flourished in the operational aspects of managing real estate portfolios there, but says he knew he was “a deal-maker at heart.” After completing his MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, he accepted an offer to join AIG’s global real estate investment practice, which allowed him to make those deals. He helped lead a series of successful transactions in the United States, Europe, and Asia. After working his way up to vice president over a near 10-year period, Burnett played a significant role in restructuring and relaunching the company’s real estate business after the economic downturn.

Skilled in underwriting and modeling, Burnett is also well-versed in understanding markets, properties, locations, and identifying investment opportunities. Yet, if there is anything he’s learned at this point in his career, he says it’s that success in real estate ultimately relies on people skills.

“The biggest challenge I have is managing all the relationships required to acquire and develop properties,” he says.

“The most meaningful opportunities come through people you have served well, that enjoy working with you, that believe in your abilities, and trust your judgment. Mastery of the human element of business is probably the biggest difference between a smart guy and a leader.”

Dale Burnett, Head of Real Estate Acquisitions & Development

In addition to the investment professionals that comprise his team internally at Assurant, Burnett interacts with developers, operators, lawyers, brokers, and consultants on any given transaction. Naturally, each party is working in their own best interest, he says, but maintaining good relationships with all parties involved leads to positive outcomes in intense negotiating situations.

“People don’t just do deals with companies—people do deals with people,” Burnett says. “The most meaningful opportunities come through people you have served well, that enjoy working with you, that believe in your abilities, and trust your judgment. Mastery of the human element of business is probably the biggest difference between a smart guy and a leader.”

Burnett says that, at times, his busy schedule makes it tough to keep everything in balance. “There will always be more requests for your time than you could possibly meet if you are going to run an investment business and sleep,” he says. So he leans on his family and faith to provide an inner compass. Giving back to his community also helps him to feel like he’s keeping his life in balance and maintaining the proper perspective. Burnett is the Board Treasurer of the Praxis Supportive Housing Foundation and is on the board of Life Center Ministries International, where he is an ordained minister.

“Giving back is not a choice for me,” he says. “I grew up in a place and time where I was just as likely to end up dead or in jail as I was to end up in college. I was lucky enough to have people in my life who went above and beyond to provide me with the tools and resources for me to succeed. If it were not for the intervention of people who invested in my future without the prospect of a return, there is no way I could be in my current position. That fact is not lost on me.”


 

Extracurricular Work

Outside of his role with Assurant, Burnett’s commitment to community involvement runs deep.

Praxis Housing Initiative:

Praxis Housing Initiative is New York City’s largest provider of transitional housing to homeless people who have HIV/AIDS, and is one of city’s lowest cost/highest service housing providers. The organization provides a wide variety of permanent housing placement options through its Brooklyn-based program. Burnett has been a board member for six years, and is the board’s former treasurer. During his tenure, Praxis developed $50 million in LEED Platinum, state-of-the-art housing to support New York’s homeless population.

New York Business 

Development Corporation

NYBDC is a multibillion-dollar lending consortium that promotes the economic development of New York by providing loans to small businesses, with a particular emphasis on minority- and women-owned businesses. The organization seeks to offer credit opportunities not otherwise available to small businesses in support of economic development, to create or preserve job opportunities, and to stimulate the growth, expansion, and modernization of small businesses in New York. Burnett is a Senate Pro-Tem appointment, board member, and has served for three years.

Rise to College

Rise to College aims to increase the enrollment of children from working-class families into competitive colleges and universities by providing scholarships for standardized test preparation and counseling during the college application process. Burnett is a cofounder of the organization and former board chair. During his time working with the organization, Burnett helped more than 350 students obtain sponsored SAT prep and college application guidance, resulting in attendance at prestigious colleges such as the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Pace University.

New York Real Estate Board

The New York Real Estate Board prescribes the content of courses of study for the examination and education of real estate brokers and salespersons for New York, as well as advising the Secretary of State on policies governing the administration of real estate broker examinations. Burnett, a gubernatorial appointment, has been a board member for three years.