As a precursor to NMHC’s twofer spring business meetings in Boston, NMHC Emerging Leaders Committee hosted a sold-out networking event for the industry’s young up-and-comers. Committee Chairman Mike Darling (Walker & Dunlop) moderated a fireside chat with Bob Slater, a former trail lawyer turned apartment executive, now serving as chief administration officer for Bell Partners.
The discussion explored Slater’s 26-year real estate career, starting with his getting a toehold in the business at Trammell Crow and spanning both his leadership and management experiences at publicly held AvalonBay Communities and now Bell Partners, a private company. Beyond emphasizing the strong link between property management and the overall success of an apartment firm, Slater offered attendees a few tips-and a few chuckles-to help guide them in their emerging careers.
1. Follow first. While leadership is the ultimate goal for the industry’s freshman and sophomore classes, Slater reminded attendees that they still need to crawl before they walk and walk before they run. “The leadership will come,” he said. “But make sure you’re doing your job really, really well. Because when the inevitable turmoil comes, if you are with a good company with a good culture, there are many things you can do.”
This was a lesson Slater learned early in his real estate career. After giving up law because it “wasn’t creative enough,” Slater eventually landed a job in development at Trammell Crow Residential (it took nine months of convincing, he said). But then the market turned and Slater said it was a game of musical chairs as the company moved people around to cut costs and weather the economic storm. The money dried up and suddenly development people were in management, he said.
“This was a serious recession,” Slater said. “People were getting laid off every Friday. There were people were hiding in the bathroom stalls with their feet up, hoping no one could find them.”
“So, you need to put some shekels in the barn,” he added.
2. Embody your company’s values. Leaders are always on stage and in the spotlight, so it’s critical to walk the walk when it comes to company’s values. For Slater, he learned a lot in this respect from Trammell Crow himself.
“Mr. Crow used to say that we’re not in the development business, we’re in the community building business. And so if he didn’t like the way the drive up to one of his properties looked, he use to go out and plant trees on other people’s property,” Slater explained. “Today, he’d probably be sued for it, but he was a visionary.”
This sense of pride and respect for the business was something that was carried over as the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of Trammell Crow broke off and coalesced as AvalonBay. Named for Avalon, the mythical island where King Arthur was allegedly buried, Slater said a core value was providing “legendary service.”
As a result, Slater said, everyone in the company had a different way of talking about the business. For example, the term tenant was replaced with customer or resident; the company didn’t have units but rather homes; and they managed communities not complexes.
3. Understand that there are no rules. “You’ll see all these books on rules of leadership everybody’s got rules on leadership and some of them really belong in a van down the river--except integrity,” said Slater. “There’s a ying and yang. You have to know what rules to break in certain situations.”
Breaking-or at least redefining-the rules was a major theme throughout Slater’s career. As an example, Slater pointed to the early days of AvalonBay as a public company, where leadership was able to establish some corporate strategies that ended up developing into industry best practices.
“It was exciting to be public. We had a great leader who was determined that we were going to be a great real estate company. “Our CEO came at it that we were going to be transparent, the most open company around. And that wasn’t the norm.”
As a result, the company freed itself of its poison pill provision, embraced board diversity and thought more about strategic planning rather than just the next deal.
4. Take a love test. Slater said every young professional should channel the inner Cosmo reader inside and take a three-part career “love” test to gauge performance.
“One of the love tests of the business was, ‘Are you worth more than you’re paid?’” said Slater. “In a dynamic culture, rationality always prevails, so make sure you are worth more than you are paid.”
The other two tests were: would your supervisor care if you worked for the competition? and if your supervisor was going to start her own company, would she want you to work for her?
“If you can say yes, you’re in good shape,” said Slater.