Mary Ludgin: From the Classroom ToThe Boardroom, A Lesson In Problem Solving

Mary Ludgin. Photo by Mary HanlonAs a managing director of Heitman, a leading real estate investment firm, Mary Ludgin (MSEd 79) spends her working life in the Chicago Loop, a world of tall buildings and high finance. When Ludgin arrived at Northwestern in the summer of 1978, however, she envisioned her future in a far different setting — the classroom.

" My original intent," she says, "was to become a teacher."

Ludgin's hard work and dedication have helped propel her through the corporate ranks. But she also attributes much of her success to the education she received at Northwestern —years that began in SESP's Master's in Education (MSEd) program, where Ludgin spent a year student teaching in the Chicago Public Schools.

" The best management preparation I received was teaching five-year-olds," she says.
Ludgin came to Evanston a year after graduating from Vassar College with an AB in political science. "At that point, my closest experience with teaching kids had come as a summer camp counselor in New Hampshire," she notes. That convinced her that education was something she wanted to pursue.

SESP had introduced an accelerated MSEd program for college graduates who had never taken education courses. Thanks to the advice of a Vassar classmate who had completed the program, Ludgin decided to give it a try. "It was fabulous — truly hands-on — a chance to test my skills at teaching on the job."

Ludgin spent her year taking classes and student teaching. In the spring of 1979, however, the enthusiastic teacher-to-be's path to the classroom was altered forever when she took a history of education course from Michael Sedlak (now a professor of education and associate dean at Michigan State University). After Ludgin submitted her first paper of the quarter, Sedlak asked if she could stay after class to discuss her work. "His first words to me were, 'This is a great paper!'"

Those few words of encouragement had a profound effect. "It was a life-changing moment," Ludgin says. Sedlak had just received a government grant to study public schools, and the grant included funding for a PhD. The professor asked Ludgin if she were interested.

She was already interviewing for teaching jobs but decided this was an opportunity she couldn't pass up. "I figured I had my degree and could teach any time." So in the fall of 1979, only a few weeks after receiving her teaching certificate, Ludgin began her PhD studies.

Ludgin's time at SESP spurred an interest in urban issues, and as a graduate student, she focused on the politics of urban redevelopment. Work with a variety of supportive professors helped land her a job in the Chicago city planning department during the Harold Washington administration. After Washington died, Ludgin realized she wanted to experience urban development from a different perspective.

"I was an eager city hall employee," she explains. But she had never worked in a for-profit organization and believed it would be helpful to understand the profit motive and its relation to economic development.

This desire led to a job with Dominick's supermarkets, where Ludgin helped determine where the chain should locate its stores. She was lured away from Dominick's by JMB Institutional. The opportunity to deal with real estate on a national scope was so exciting she couldn't refuse.

Heitman acquired JMB in 1994, and Ludgin has been with the company ever since. Today, she serves as Heitman's director of investment research and also helms the company's U.S. private real estate equity division, which manages more than $5.9 billion in assets. The company invests in real estate on behalf of institutions like colleges, foundations and pension plans looking to diversify their portfolios. Ludgin and her coworkers advise clients about many aspects of the real estate world and must communicate complex facts and figures to a wide audience.

"The communication skills and people skills I developed in preparing to teach are pertinent, " Ludgin notes.

Indeed, the same techniques Ludgin learned to employ behind the teacher's desk and in front of the chalkboard have helped her succeed at countless meetings, conferences and in day-to-day interactions. "How do you capture people's attention?" Ludgin asks. "What teachers are taught to do is make it concrete. I apply that concept daily."

By Jen Aronoff
Photo by Mary Hanlon
By Jen Aronoff