A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Failure Was Never an Option

By Colleen Kearney Rich on October 19, 2012

When you look at what housing industry prognosticator Ivy Zelman, BS Accounting ’90, has accomplished over the course of her career, it is surprising to find out she has been driven by a fear of failure.

Ivy Zelman

The CEO of Zelman & Associates has more than 18 years of experience covering housing and housing-related industries and a huge number of accolades. She started out at Mason as many students have—working full time (for Arthur and Young [now Ernst & Young]) and taking classes at night. Zelman’s father had a successful business that failed just as she was preparing to go to college so he couldn’t afford her tuition.

“I was pretty devastated,” says Zelman, “but it was a blessing in disguise. I had a taste of the good life, and I learned I never wanted to be financially insecure.”

Zelman didn’t exactly know what she wanted to do for a career—she just knew that she wanted to make “a lot of money.” So she essentially began researching what kind of career would be the most profitable for her to pursue.

“I loved numbers, finance, and economics,” she says. “So I started asking people about their careers—anyone who would give me the opportunity to interrogate them.”

Everyone told her to go to Wall Street, which presented another problem. “I had no idea what people on Wall Street did.”

That didn’t stop Zelman, though. After more research, coupled with her never-ending questions (which counts as networking), Zelman landed a job at Salomon Brothers in New York City. But it was not the career she had hoped for.

“After two years of investment banking, I knew I hated it. And I didn’t know what I was going to do next,” she says.

Fortunately, a job opened up at Salomon in equity research, and she took it. The key for her turned out to be research.

“It was exactly right for my personality,” she says. “I fell in love with it.”

She is also really good at it. After seven years at Salomon Brothers, Zelman joined the Credit Suisse Group, where for eight years she was managing director. She soon established herself as a leading industry source, and the recognitions began pouring in.

She has been on Institutional Investor’s All-America Research Team for 18 consecutive years, earned first place in Greenwich Associates’ Institutional Research Services Poll six times, received the Wall Street Journal‘s Best on the Street award for the Home Construction sector five times, and was featured in Forbes magazine three consecutive years as the number one earnings estimator. In 2005 and 2006, she was ranked 14th in Builder Magazine’s Power Broker list of the 50 most influential people in homebuilding, which included such luminaries as then President George W. Bush and Alan Greenspan. And did we mention she predicted the crash of the housing market?

How do you follow a big call like that? Start your own company.

By this time, Zelman was married, the mother of three, and turning 40.

“I wouldn’t say life was becoming complacent, but I wanted more,” she says. “I was at the top of my game. I thought it was time to try it on my own.”

She did. With the help of her husband, David, who serves as president, she started Zelman & Associates in 2007, where she continues to deliver propriety research. The company publishes 80 reports a month and continues to grow and expand its purview.

“I’m still doing research, but I also do a lot more marketing and presentations,” she says. “And I spend a lot of my time talking to people in the industry.”

“You have to look at data, but it isn’t data alone,” Zelman says of her research. “It is relationships with people in the industry, talking to companies about their business. Collectively, that with the data that help us analyze what trends are.”

Despite all the success, Zelman admits she continues to worry, but more often these concerns are the typical family-related ones most parents encounter.

“My husband always asks me ‘Will you stop worrying about ___,’” she says. “I wish I could.”

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