A Conversation with Mike O'Malley '96, FIRE's Inaugural Executive-in-Residence

The following is an interview with Mike O’Malley ’96, who served as the Fitzgerald Institute's inaugural Executive-in-Residence in 2022-23. (On July 1, 2023, Mike became the Institute's Executive Director.) 

At the time of the interview, Mike was a Principal and Head of Capital Formation at Pennybacker Capital in Austin, Texas, and had served 14 years as the firm’s COO and CFO. Since spring 2021, Mike also had served as an adjunct professor at Notre Dame, teaching a course in both fall and spring semesters on Real Estate Private Equity.  He also serves on FIRE’s Advisory Board.  

In fall 2022, Professor Dan Kelly, FIRE’s faculty director, posed a series of questions to Mike about his new role as FIRE’s Executive-in-Residence, his passion for helping Notre Dame students, and his love for Notre Dame.  

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Mike O'Malley '96 teaches Real Estate Private Equity

Dan Kelly:  Mike, thanks for taking a few minutes out of your day to chat.

Mike O'Malley:  Absolutely, Dan, happy to do it!

Dan Kelly: For the last two years you’ve been teaching Real Estate Private Equity at Notre Dame.  Each semester you’ve had over 30 students, including undergraduate students from the Real Estate Minor and MBA students from Mendoza.  But it entails commuting from your day job at Pennybacker in Austin to South Bend multiple days each week.  Why did you want to teach?

Mike O'Malley: Over the past fifteen years, I have had the privilege to work with incredibly bright analysts and associates who joined our firm directly from undergrad or getting their master’s degree.  While these employees possessed incredible technical skills, I realized that many did not understand the business of real estate investment and specifically private equity.

I believe that by creating a course with content that simulates the experience of working in a real estate private equity firm and supplementing that by inviting guest lecturers who have enjoyed success in various roles in the industry, we could prepare students to be instant contributors in their full-time positions (and even internships) by understanding the larger picture.  

This was my initial goal in teaching, but now that goal has expanded.  I have been impressed by the knowledge, and both technical and communication skills that our Notre Dame students possess.  I believe the FIRE program will be a Top 5 undergraduate real estate program in the next five years, and we have a caliber of students that will allow Notre Dame to eventually be the top program in the country.

Dan Kelly:  What’s been your favorite part of teaching at Notre Dame?

Mike O'Malley:  Teaching real estate to undergraduate students and MBA students has truly been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career, and I feel like I am just getting started.  It’s a privilege to interact with fully-engaged students each week, students who have a desire to prepare to be leaders in the real estate industry.

My favorite aspects of teaching are engaging in thoughtful in-class discussions with our students and mentoring current and former students outside of the classroom.  I learned the real estate and private equity industries through trial-and-error (a lot of error!), and it’s rewarding to share those experiences, and more importantly what I learned from those experiences, with students preparing to commence their careers.  

I have borrowed an axiom that I first heard from Lou Holtz in the early 1990s when he said, “Give me four years, and I’ll give you forty."  My commitment to the students in my Real Estate Private Equity class is that if they fully engage in all aspects of the class for eight weeks, I will do whatever I can to be a resource for the rest of their career.  Many of the alumni of the class are now at inflection points in their career or fielding multiple job offers coming out of Notre Dame.  I enjoy when a former student reaches out for career advice, especially working with them to make a decision that best aligns with their personal and professional goals.

Dan Kelly:  Speaking of the early 90s, what is your favorite memory as a student at ND?

Mike O'Malley:  Haha. Before I answer that question, I want to share something I tell each of the students on the first day of class.  When I showed up on campus as a freshman in 1992, I’d heard about the value of the Notre Dame network.  For years, I interpreted that as there were older alumni that someday may hire me or provide career guidance.  What I’ve learned is that the value of the Notre Dame network is the other students in your classes, dorm, and other student activities.  I am 100% confident that at least two students in each of my 32-student classes will engage in a business transaction at some point in the future.  The Notre Dame network is sitting in the classroom with you right now….invest time in getting to know your classmates.  I have engaged in business transactions with several of my classmates from the Class of 1996 and beyond, and the long-term relationships and trust make a difference.

I have many great memories from my time as a student.  Florida State’s football team was ranked #1 in the country my sophomore year and had that year’s Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback.  They came to Notre Dame in November.  Notre Dame was ranked #2 and both teams were undefeated.  The game was billed as the “Game of the Century,” and there was a buzz on campus all week.  It was the first time ESPN brought GameDay on a campus (a tradition that is still going strong 30 years later).  I was a student athletic trainer, and back then, both teams came out of the same tunnel in the North endzone.

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Jim Flanigan (#44) celebrates trouncing FSU as Notre Dame defeats Florida State in the "Game of the Century" on November 13, 1993

Notre Dame got to the tunnel first, and waited for the Florida State team to take the field. To this day, I have not been in a more electrically-charged environment than that tunnel.  There was pushing and shoving and plenty of language that the team chaplain, Father Riehle, probably wished wasn’t being used. Notre Dame knocked off Florida State in dramatic fashion and took over as the #1 team in the country (at least for a week, before a devastating loss that definitely does not belong in a recollection about my favorite Notre Dame memories).

I also have very fond memories of times with my roommates and friends.  This was long before social media.  All interactions were in person, and strong bonds were built.  I still speak or text with each of my Notre Dame roommates weekly.  We’ve been in each other’s weddings, served as Godparents for each other’s children, and stayed close despite being spread throughout the country.  

Dan Kelly:  Following your time as a student at ND, what eventually brought you to a career in real estate? 

Mike O'Malley:  After starting my career as an auditor and bankruptcy consultant, I spent almost ten years in the software industry, running a start-up software company for about eight years.  While I enjoyed the industry, I was always drawn to the tangibility of real estate.  The assets, business plans, and tenants are all tangible….real estate investment is in some ways a puzzle we try to solve to create value for all stakeholders.  

A friend and former co-worker asked me to join the advisory board of the real estate private equity firm he founded, Pennybacker Capital, and then to become a full partner.   At the time, I lacked a real estate investment background, but I did have experience raising private capital and building an operations team that would be useful to the firm.  I learned the real estate investment industry ‘on the job’.  We’ve grown Pennybacker Capital tremendously over the past 15 years, buying and operating over $6 billion of real estate assets across the country.  Pennybacker is one of the fastest growing real estate private equity firms in the country, and the learning never stops.

I think about my experiences in building our firm often, and I find ways to contextualize those experiences through the curriculum of the Real Estate Private Equity course.  I want to share the lessons I learned with our students in the comfort of a classroom environment so that they will be more prepared than I was when they encounter similar situations in their real estate career.

Dan Kelly:  In addition to teaching at ND, you’ve also been serving on the Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate’s Advisory Board, which includes a distinguished group of real estate professionals.  Why did you want to serve on the Advisory Board and what has your experience been thus far?

Mike O'Malley:  It’s been an honor to work with leaders in the real estate industry from all corners of the country to shape the direction of the FIRE program.  We have a large advisory board of 40 members from every segment of the real estate industry.  Each member of the FIRE Advisory Board has a real connection with Notre Dame and a deep desire for Notre Dame to prepare students for success in real estate after graduation.  We are off to a good start, but there is so much more coming. 

A key responsibility of the Advisory Board is getting other alumni in the real estate industry involved in FIRE.  This initiative will undoubtedly result in better academic content for the students, more firms recruiting FIRE students for internships and full-time positions, and industry awareness of the quality of graduates from the FIRE program. 

Dan Kelly:  As you begin as FIRE’s inaugural Executive-in-Residence, what are you most looking forward to?

Mike O'Malley:  I’m truly excited about the opportunity to be FIRE’s first Executive-in-Residence, and initially focusing my efforts on three objectives.

First, in addition to the Real Estate Private Equity class, I will have the privilege of co-teaching the Real Estate Colloquium: Finance, Investment, and Law with you, Prof. Kelly, this fall.  I look forward to spending more time in the classroom with our students, and hope to potentially add additional teaching responsibilities in the future.

Second, our goal is that FIRE students matriculate to rewarding careers in real estate.  I enjoy spending time informally advising students as they evaluate internship and career opportunities.  I love hearing students’ backgrounds, understanding what they are interested in, and helping them achieve their goals.  As EIR, I believe I have a responsibility to be a resource for our students.  I also will be serving as the faculty advisor to our MBA real estate student club, known as Fighting Irish Real Estate, another FIRE!

Lastly, I look forward to continuing the work of the FIRE Advisory Board in promoting alumni engagement, hiring, and philanthropy to the FIRE program.  I’m in a unique position as EIR to reach out to other real estate professionals and share why I am so excited about the students in the FIRE program (and I do this often).  I want to bridge the gap between alumni and our FIRE students, and this position presents a wonderful opportunity to do so.

Dan Kelly: Mike, thanks so much for spending a few minutes with us and sharing your insights. We really appreciate it.

Mike O'Malley:  You’re welcome, Dan.  I’m really excited about the future of the FIRE program, and love being a part of it!