It’s one of Roger Morales’s final remarks during his interview, but it’s perhaps the most important: “I had a very singular mission for most of my career. I got up every day with the mind-set of determination to keep moving forward and not allowing setbacks to get the better of me. When you’re on Wall Street, this is absolutely something that happens. Rising in leadership and working with people who became very successful on their own, I learned an important lesson—that nobody wants to talk to a hard-charging person who forgets to say thank you.”
Now a partner at KKR in the firm’s real estate business, Morales says that thinking about how his parents struggled after fleeing Cuba, working whatever job they could find, always fuels his fire. And though his father did eventually build a thriving career at General Mills, Morales describes him as “a very intense person.” To counter that, Morales notes, “I’ve had to learn to breathe a little and just look around.”
He should be happy with what he sees. Both a husband and father himself, Morales was selected as a founding team member of KKR’s real estate platform in 2011, and since then, he’s served as head of commercial real estate acquisitions for the Americas. He also sits on KKR’s real estate equity and credit investment committees as well as the equity portfolio management committee for the Americas.
Evolving the Playbook
Morales’s evolution over the years provides a good model for those hopeful of following a similar trajectory—but he admits to being reticent when it comes to doling out advice. “As a Hispanic person, I always ran the ‘work smart, work hard’ playbook, and I think that worked very well for me for a very long time,” he explains. “I got up from failures and just continued to work hard with the aid of health, family, and friends.”
But what happens when the effort pays off? “I found that once you reach some measure of seniority, that same mentality can lead to you being perceived as someone who doesn’t want to be part of a broader entity,” Morales says. “You can’t continue running that same, hard-charging playbook that can be perceived as individual-centric. The winds change.”
Roger Morales has made waves at KKR, but he credits nonprofit Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) with helping him find the water. SEO helped Morales get an interview for an internship at Salomon Brothers in 1999, and since then, he’s done his fair share to help the organization continue to find positions for young, motivated people from underserved communities.
“It’s an organization that gave back to me even after the internship, and as time has gone on, I’ve tried to be as involved as I can,” says Morales, who is a contributing donor to the SEO Scholars program. “I will participate to the extent that I’m able to, forever.”
It was the old maxim of “what got you here won’t keep you here,” which rang doubly true for Morales, who was willing to eat, sleep, and breathe real estate—not because it was a career but because it was his passion. (When asked about his hobbies, Morales answers first with “real estate investing.”)
“As you become more senior and your responsibilities change, your approach also requires retooling, rethinking, and innovating,” Morales says. “In my case, that required a little bit of softening. I needed to become more conscious of being a multidimensional leader and how my actions or perceived actions could impact an organization.”
Risk, Reward, and That Moment to Breathe
KKR, Morales says, has provided the optimal environment for that leadership evolution. “I got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get into an organization like KKR and help build out a business that was initially incubated in 2011,” Morales says. “It’s now a very formidable, competitive entity in the real estate private equity space. That business-building has made the job even more interesting than a traditional investment job.”
The business mentality at KKR is also one that meshes well with Morales’s style. “KKR has an incredible culture of entrepreneurship and being open to new opportunities,” Morales asserts. “I’ve worked at other investment organizations where the bias is to figure out what is wrong with an investment versus what’s right or can go really well. But our founders have so much career investing experience and have really seen it all. At KKR we leverage our platform and our contacts to take smart risks, not shun them.”
But Morales has found even more in KKR than a business model he can believe in—at long last, he has found a place where he can learn to breathe. “The quality of people we have here is what allows me to relax a little bit,” Morales notes. “There is a team mentality here, and a culture that was created from the ground up. I believe what’s being done here can be doubled and tripled and quadrupled in both size and relevance in the markets.”
Even though Morales is able to breathe, he’s still contemplating the massive expansion he feels is possible at KKR. He admits that while it’s tough for his mind to settle down, his wife is the one able to keep him grounded.
“I know how cliché it sounds, but I have an incredible wife. She understands the demands of this job, and we have such open and honest communication,” he says. It’s in those small moments that Morales’s ability to take a moment to appreciate all he’s earned shines, and it’s why he continues to grow into new and challenging roles—those winds of change notwithstanding.