6. Respect a company's past.

LeBlanc has also treated the Summit culture with respect. Tight-knit and creative, the company values and expects independent decision-making. "You're in charge of what it is you are hired to do. It's almost like working for yourself," says Keith Downey, Summit's executive vice president of construction. "We don't hire people who need to be directed to what to do."

That hasn't changed under LeBlanc. "A lot of people coming in from the outside would have wanted to put their stamp on things. What he discovered was a positive, powerful culture worth saving," Schwarz says. "It takes a lot for a person to recognize that."

To LeBlanc, it's simply part of being a leader, particularly when joining a new company or assuming a new managerial role. "The first step is to honor the past," LeBlanc explains. "Every company and every team have stories they tell about their rich history and culture and you need to listen and learn them. Only then can you acknowledge the present before you begin the process of charting a course for the future."

Along the way, LeBlanc has made his own contributions to Summit's culture, including an annual community service day. This year, the company chose to help children's organizations, closing its offices so employees could descend upon shelters and alternative schools to paint walls, replace furniture, repair plumbing, rebuild play areas, and more. "[T]he difference from start to finish was like an episode of 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,'" wrote Jennifer Branscome, a Summit associate in Florida, in one of many e-mails that circulated around the company after this year's service day.

Such transformations floored the recipients. "The girls were screaming and crying with surprises and joy when they walked into their rooms for the first time," Cindy Barnes, a Summit construction accountant, said in an e-mail. "I have never seen tears that could touch your heart so deeply as the ones we all shared with these girls on Friday."

"That's a Steve deal, and now it's part of Summit," Ell says of the community service day. "It's something we'll do forever."

7. Know when it's time for a change.

Of course, sometimes forever ends sooner than expected. As of January, Summit will become a division of Camden Property Trust, and Steve LeBlanc will step aside.

"Instead of being an egocentric corporate executive who wants to hold onto his job at all costs, he did a great thing for stockholders," says Arthur Zankel, senior managing partner of High Rise Capital Management, an investment management firm in New York.

That remains a top priority for LeBlanc, as the days advance toward January. "My goal is to deliver a fully integrated operating company running on all cylinders on the day of closing," the Summit CEO says.

As for LeBlanc's own post-merger plans, he says he hopes to help Summit associates who won't be joining Camden find new jobs. Beyond that, nothing has been announced. But wherever he goes, he'll take his philosophy of big ideas, considered decisions, and small but symbolic gestures with him.

Steven LeBlanc
  • Title: President and CEO
  • Company: Summit Properties
  • Education: B.B.A. in real estate, University of Texas, 1980
  • Background: Joined Summit in 1998 as COO; promoted to CEO in 2001. Worked for Security Capital, Lincoln Property, Archstone, and others.
  • Personal: Wife Ellen, son Andrew (17), and daughter Aubrey (13)
  • Notable: Worked his way through college as a real estate broker. Bought his first computer from fellow University of Texas student (and future technology titan) Michael Dell.
Summit Properties at a Glance
  • What: Public real estate investment trust that owns, operates, and develops luxury apartments
  • Headquarters: Charlotte, N.C., in Summit Grandview
  • 2003 Revenue: $144.135 million
  • 2003 Net Income: $16.331 million
  • Apartments: 14,806 with 1,715 under construction (as of September 2004)
  • Markets: Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; Southeast Florida; Atlanta
  • Big Deals: Announced $1.9 billion merger with Camden Property Trust in October, creating one of the largest apartment companies in the country