Matthew Armstrong Working

Risk and reward

Business Administration major Matthew Armstrong took a chance on a real estate internship—and ended up running the show

When Matthew Armstrong set out to find an internship, he did not anticipate essentially running the marketing department for a luxury real estate company.

“I had a small amount of real estate experience and a small amount of spare time,” the Business Administration major said, “so I put on a suit and went to five or six real estate offices to ask if they needed some help. Everyone said no or that they’d shoot me an email. As an afterthought, I went to a new firm in the area, thinking ‘what do I have to lose?’”

That firm was Engel & Völkers, a German company that specializes in selling premium residential and commercial properties. It boasts over 800 locations across five continents—including one in Banner Elk, which in September 2019 found itself in need of Armstrong’s specific skillset.

The Engel & Völkers office in Banner Elk, North Carolina. (Courtesy of Matthew Armstrong)

Armstrong is an international student from Northern Ireland with a passion for travel and a willingness to take chances. In high school, he knew he wasn’t interested in attending college at any institution in the UK, but his school didn’t provide much support for students who wanted to study internationally. He did all the research and outreach himself, looking specifically for schools with collegiate cycling teams, and found a place at Lees-McRae.

At first, the decision to come to North Carolina for school seemed like a mistake. Armstrong’s first few hours in the United States were full of mishaps, culture shock, and unending rain. However, as he arrived on campus after the long drive from the airport, the sun finally peaked out and revealed the beauty of the landscape, and Armstrong realized he could enjoy his time here.    

A few years into his education, Armstrong made another gamble when he applied for an internship with an agency in Belfast called Digital Rocket Marketing. The internship was unpaid, which for a college student means having to choose between earning money and gaining experience, without a guarantee that the internship will prove beneficial in the long run.

Fortunately for Armstrong, the risk of working an unpaid internship, like the risk of going to a different country for college, paid off.

Armstrong’s work at Digital Rocket Marketing revolved around search engine optimization (SEO), and that was what Engel & Völkers was looking for. Not many other people at the firm had SEO experience, so Armstrong was invaluable to the digital strategy—especially after he found himself the only person left in his department and fully responsible for the entire marketing strategy. And because Engel & Völkers makes multimillion-dollar property deals, the marketing had to be impressive.

Armstrong was up to the task. His SEO updates, particularly the Google MyBusiness performances, were recognized as a franchise leader by Engel & Völkers US headquarters. He also took on the job of placing advertisements in luxury magazines like Business Jet Traveler and QC Exclusive. For one magazine distributed in private airports, Armstrong used the circumstances surrounding the pandemic to reduce the price of placing the ad, since fewer people traveling meant fewer people would see it.

“I’d negotiated deals before,” Armstrong said, “but never with that much money.”

Throughout the internship, Armstrong also had the chance to boost his marketing skills and learn more about business best practices. He observed different selling techniques and developed an idea of what would work for him in the future.

One major benefit of interning at Engel & Völkers was getting to interact with high-profile clients. Armstrong wasn’t able to talk real estate to clients without a license, but he could shadow agents during deals and make an impression on the people he met with.

“They weren’t expecting some kid from Northern Ireland,” he said. “I made some unbelievable contacts that I can use in the future.”

Armstrong is trying to narrow down what that future will be. His work with Engel & Völkers has already garnered interest from other companies, and the network he built could lead to further opportunities. Graduate school could also be an option, which he said came as a surprise. Classroom instruction had always been a struggle for Armstrong because it was difficult to connect the principles he was learning with the work he would need to do outside the classroom, but that changed after getting actual industry experience. Now, he has real-world examples to relate back to.

“The next semester after my internship was the first time I enjoyed the schooling part,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong’s experience proves not only the value of seeking out opportunities during college, but that those opportunities are out there.

“People would say, ‘You’re so lucky to have the job.’ No I’m not,” he said. “I just went in and asked. What’s stopping anyone else from doing that?”

Although Lees-McRae is not located in a major metropolitan area, there is no shortage of options for students interested in getting hands-on experience working in their field.

“There’s a lot here, no matter what you’re interested in,” said Armstrong. “Even if it’s unpaid, you still have something to write on your resume. The contacts you can make from it are unbelievable. And if you don’t ask, you don’t get it.”

Not everyone will wind up running the marketing for an international luxury real estate firm, but anyone can find an opportunity to develop their skills. All you have to do is ask.

For help finding an internship or preparing for an interview, visit Career and Life Planning, located in the Shelton Learning Commons. Students can also create a Handshake account to connect with employers sharing job and internship opportunities.

By Emily WebbFebruary 04, 2021