Future leaders: Sansone Group’s Hai Cao
April 21, 2022



Hai Cao is a director of acquisition and development at Sansone Group in St. Lous. He’s played a key role in growing an industrial development and acquisition platform at Sansone from scratch to 14 million square feet under construction and another 40 million square feet in the pipeline across the United States.

Cao is also fairly new to the industry. He began his career at Sansone Group in 2017 as a senior financial analyst before being promoted to lead the development and acquisitions department.

Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?

I was born and raised in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Learning and exploring new things motivates me. As a result, when I was 18, I left my family in Vietnam. I moved to Singapore to pursue a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at Nanyang Technological University, one of Asia’s top engineering schools.

Because I am the first generation in my family to attend college, everything about a new college and a new country amazes me. Singapore became my second home. After graduation, I worked for some top Singapore real estate developers, managing projects in both Singapore and Vietnam. Later, I wanted to expand my knowledge outside of eastern culture, so I accepted a Master of Business Administration scholarship at Washington University in St Louis and began my fantastic journey with Sansone Group in 2017.

How did you get your start in the industry?

It never ceases to amaze me how real estate can revolutionize a neighborhood, an area or a person’s life. I followed my uncle, who worked as a general contractor in Vietnam when I was a kid. I enjoy observing how buildings were constructed out of the ground. That was my first real estate experience, and it sparked my interest in the field.

With my analytical background, I chose civil engineering as my undergraduate major. After college, I worked in a variety of areas to get experience in the real estate value chain, including public planning, development, marketing and asset management. During my MBA program, I was offered a position with Sansone Group. I’m grateful to the company for giving me the chance to use my civil engineering expertise, MBA and experience in development, marketing and asset management to achieve success.

Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?

The firm’s principals, Jim Sansone, Doug Sansone and Nick Sansone, have been my mentors throughout my time at Sansone Group. They are all real estate experts who have taught me firsthand how to navigate the industry. Nick is a visionary leader who constantly pushes me beyond my boundary. I also gain insight from his persistence, creative thinking and approaches to dealing with various parties. Jim has been a role model for me when creating relationships and managing difficult stakeholders while maintaining partnership trust. Doug always offers a unique viewpoint on challenges, and his negotiating skills are second to none. In addition, I have the privilege of working with several development partners that have 30 to 40 years of experience in the sector. Their expertise and advice have made a significant difference in my professional development.

What does an average day at work look like?
My day mainly focuses on three pillars: advancing current projects, expanding company growth and focusing on personnel development. I now oversee more than 20 industrial developments coast to coast, all of which are in various stages of site selection, due diligence, entitlement, construction, completion and disposition.

Each project presents its own set of opportunities and difficulties. I’ve created a matrix of priority and urgency for my portfolio, which I use to plan and prioritize according to my quarterly and monthly plans. During the day, I will focus on tackling key issues with our principals, development partners, team members and other stakeholders based on this priority list. To develop solutions for each project, we spend a lot of time brainstorming and discussing. These brainstorming sessions are a lot of fun for me. It sparks plenty of new and creative thoughts. In addition, I spend roughly an hour every day reaching out to brokers, consultants and other stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California to find new sites.

Finally, I always allocate time in my day for team development. I would never miss a one-on-one meeting with a team member or a team training session. I always set aside time during the day to review models, provide feedback and train our team’s associates. As our principals have always said, “You are only as good as your team.” Having a great team allows you to take more calculated risks, which leads to innovation and progress

What do you like most about your job?
I am a natural entrepreneur who enjoys experimenting with new ideas and expanding our development and acquisition platform. Since the onset of the health crisis, the industrial sector has experienced overwhelming demand driven by e-commerce and supply chain challenges. In such a fast-paced environment, things happen quickly and continuously. I often find myself moving from one project to another without much time in between or juggling many projects at once. Every day is a new day where I learn something fresh. It is an exciting place to be.

Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you have not already?
We have built great momentum at Sansone Group. We are now a well-recognized top national developer. My number-one focus now is to improve operational efficiency through better processes and adopt best practices to scale up the business. Our backend is in the process of upgrading to support the company’s rapid expansion on the front end. As a result, we have weekly department meetings and a weekly process sub-committee meeting to focus on best practices, standardization and process enhancement.

Furthermore, I believe that the factors that drove 2021 industrial real estate growth will continue to influence the subsequent years, such as logistics challenges, labor shortages, inflation and e-commerce demand. Demand for warehouse space will continue to drive prices up and vacancy rates to new lows along the logistics supply chain. We frequently see spec buildings with several bids from several tenants. The time it would take for supply to catch up to demand would be years. As a result, my second priority is to expand the pipeline, with a particular focus on the Pacific Northwest and Northern California and strategic partnerships in the region.

How do you spend your time away from the office?
Before COVID, I enjoyed traveling and have visited 16 countries. While I still have a lot to knock off my bucket list of travels, COVID has slowed things down. I’m hoping to travel again now that we’re getting out of COVID. During COVID, I, like everyone else, developed a new interest, and it’s running. Every week, I set a goal to run at least 15 miles. I’m not quite ready for a marathon yet, but it’s another item on my bucket list!

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