An Alumni Spotlight on Marc Watkins ('83)

Marc Watkins (’93) has long been one to take initiative and create opportunities for himself, especially with regards to business. Back when he was an undergraduate in the College of Arts and Sciences, he was very interested in business and entrepreneurship although there wasn’t a formalized curriculum at the time before the establishment of the Dyson school. Eager to learn more regardless, he petitioned to take classes in the business school, law school, hotel school, and in agricultural economics. By doing so, he says he essentially formed an “ad hoc,” informal business major for himself to complement his degrees in Government and Psychology.

Marc first learned about Student Agencies from an informational session during his sophomore year, where he remembers being impressed by former President Aaron Pempel (’91) and feeling compelled to apply. He got involved as a sales representative for the Get a Clue guide, selling advertisements to local businesses. The guide was an early predecessor of Campus Promotions’ (CP) current print publications, the Ithaca Map and Gorge Dining Guide, giving an overview of Ithaca and Cornell for new students. He then worked on another one of CP’s publications at the time, the coupon book, before running Student Agencies’ Princeton Review franchise and eventually becoming president of SAI.

One of Marc’s favorite experiences as a manager at SAI was superseding Princeton Review’s rival Kaplan as the top test preparation provider in Ithaca. As Marc recalls, “When I ran the Princeton review, our biggest competitor was Kaplan. We put out an ad in the Cornell Daily Sun with the tagline ‘The truth hurts,’ promoting that our students’ average test scores would increase for the SAT, GMAT, GRE, and MCAT. Kaplan was massive national company and couldn’t respond to us quick enough. We gutted their enrollment for MCAT prep and obliterated LSAT while they hadn’t even responded to our ad. Kaplan had the #1 MCAT program for medical school, we took that away from them within one year and became the #1 test prep in Ithaca. It was great getting to be entrepreneurial, make quick business decisions, and go toe to toe with national companies.”

Marc also enjoyed working to expand Student Agencies while he was President. “We had added a contract with Coach USA bus services, serving as their ticket agent,” Marc reflects. The role came with additional challenges, however. “We were going through a period of change and figuring out how many agencies we should have, should we create more businesses, what was our goal, etc. There were over 20 businesses at the time, so that was always an ongoing challenge of push and pull. There were also some challenges surrounding how integrated we were with Cornell. The Cornell student body were our primary customers, so there were some growing pains across the different businesses in terms of how we would be integrating with the undergraduate experience.” That being said, having to balance these high-level strategic aspects of SAI helped Marc learn what can truly drive a business and motivate its management team to succeed.

Since Student Agencies, Marc has gone on to have a successful career in real estate investment, development, and management. After graduating from Cornell, his former Student Agencies colleagues Peter Everett (MBA ’90) and Aaron Pempel (’91) helped him get a job in investment banking at Smith Barney, where he worked for a couple of years before going into private equity. Marc then attended Columbia Business School, where his interest in real estate began to grow. He went on to receive a graduate degree in real estate from Harvard and found his own real estate enterprise, Rockledge Ventures, LLC. He has been managing Rockledge full time since 2014, which “includes five buildings encompassing 225 apartments and is valued at over $30 million.” Marc still emphasizes how pivotal Student Agencies was to his development as a professional. “My experience with Agencies was the #1 experience I had that motivated me to get into entrepreneurship. I spent 20 years in my career to get back to the point where I had the amount of autonomy I did at SAI.”

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