Maybe the first thing to know about Bob Faith is that he has something of an open-door policy.
That’s no easy feat for a firm with more than 11,700 employees, but it speaks to the charismatic Faith’s humility and grace. He’s constantly in touch with staffers from all levels of the massive firm via the company’s internal network, a Facebook-like app called Yammer that keeps him on top of the million moving parts that constitute Greystar.
“He loves interacting with people at all levels, and he would have more of that if he had more time in the day,” says Tom Bumpass, executive director of the firm’s technology services. “It allows us to shrink that gap between the property staff and the CEO. He’s on there as much as anybody.”
Or maybe, a closer glimpse of Faith is revealed in his unparalleled attention to detail and need to understand, at a granular level, the finest points of each of the many aspects of Greystar’s business.
“We go through investment committee meetings every Monday, deal after deal—all of these long and thick memos—and, of course, he reads all of them, and he’ll point out spelling errors,” says Wes Fuller, executive managing director of investments. “It just shows you he has a really incredible attention to detail.”
But Faith doesn’t point out typos because he secretly harbors ambitions of being an editor. One of his hallmarks as CEO of the nation’s largest property management firm is to eschew too much delegation; to understand, at a granular level, each of the firm’s moving parts. “Our teams work really hard putting those memos together, and I think it’s important that they know they’re really looked at,” he says.
Listening to people, instead of telling them what to think, is a classic Faith trait. Unlike many leaders who demand the execution of a prescriptive vision, Faith has maintained a nimble, entrepreneurial corporate culture. “He always puts the team member, the client, or the investor first, and I think he just thinks of himself as a service provider,” says Fuller. “But he just has an inner competitiveness and a relentless drive that keeps the company moving.”
Indeed, over the past year alone, Greystar has expanded internationally on two continents; made strategic investments in a technology start-up poised to disrupt the industry; and sold off a massive, $2 billion portfolio at premium pricing. All this while managing a growing development pipeline, becoming one of the nation’s top owners, and integrating the voluminous Riverstone portfolio, purchased in 2014, to reach a management portfolio of more than 400,000 units.
“If you just keep doing the exact same thing over and over, the world’s going to pass you by,” Faith says. “In business, you have to identify the great trains of opportunity and make sure you’re positioned to get onto them instead of in front of them.”
That adept philosophy, combined with a fiery competitiveness, sets Faith apart. A grounded family man—he never missed any of his daughters’ high school basketball games last year—Faith’s vision for Greystar has been executed on a grand scale. “We never set out to be the biggest,” he says. “But if you ever lose sight of wanting to be the best, well, you won’t be the biggest for very long.”
An Evergreen Lesson
Born in Tulsa, Faith pursued a petroleum engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma, following in his father’s footsteps. But when he graduated, the oil industry was, as it is now, tanking.
So Faith went to business school and then interviewed with Trammell Crow Co. for a summer internship. “That’s how I switched from one big cyclical industry to another,” he says.
Faith credits Trammell Crow and George Lippe—CEO when TCC went public in 1997—as his mentors during his burgeoning career. Working out of the Tulsa office with Lippe, Faith learned an invaluable lesson that helped form the bedrock of Greystar years later.
It was 1986, and the commercial real estate industry was mired in a downturn; it hit development- and acquisition-heavy shops like TCC the hardest. There was no development or investment activity going on in Oklahoma, and foreclosures proliferated. So, under Lippe, the office took on more REO from local lenders and reinvented itself as a property management firm, the beginning of a big service business.
“We knew we better figure out something to do to be profitable or they might close the office,” says Faith. “That really taught me that, in a cyclical industry, you better have a business model that can allow you to thrive in whatever part of the cycle you’re in.”
That lesson was seared into Faith’s consciousness and, years later, afforded Greystar the dry powder to acquire JPI’s property management business in 2008, giving the firm a national footprint. “When you’re a healthy, stable business, sometimes the dips in the cycle can be the opportunity to make some strategic moves,” he says.
After the Savings and Loan (S&L) crisis hit in 1990, Faith founded Starwood Capital Partners in 1991 with his old Harvard MBA classmate Barry Sternlicht, amassing a portfolio of apartment buildings. In 1993, Faith bought multifamily firm Greystone Group and struck out on his own with 9,000 units under management.
“That gave us a unique niche. In the early ’90s, there weren’t a lot of institutions that owned apartments. So we looked around and said, ‘Hey, why not us? Let’s go be that company,’ ” Faith says.
Along the way, Greystar founded Homegate Hospitality, building extended-stay hotels for corporate lodging. Shortly after, Faith founded an assisted-living seniors housing company called Eden Care.
While fee management is the bedrock on which Greystar is formed, the yardstick Faith uses to measure the company expands beyond the traditional bounds of the sector. “He doesn’t really think about ‘how do we compare ourselves to other fee managers in the market?’ ” says Bumpass. “He’s really about ‘how do we compare ourselves to other blue-chip companies in the U.S. or in the world?’ ”
And the world, for Greystar, is getting smaller every day.
Fuller, as director of Greystar’s investments, has borne witness to the firm’s incredible expansion. He joined as an entry-level associate in 2003, when Greystar managed about 40,000 units in a few Sun Belt metros and had one investment fund and a handful of developments. “It felt like a small company that had big aspirations but was still finding its way,” Fuller says.
As he rose through the ranks, Fuller presided over a firm with aspirations far beyond fee management. In 2013, Greystar expanded internationally, investing in a 6,900-bed portfolio of U.K. student housing largely concentrated in London.
“The idea was to build a portfolio of student housing properties to reach scale at a time when we felt we would see not only improving fundamentals but also a compression of cap rates due to an influx of additional investors into the space,” Fuller says. “We made all of our investments from October 2013 to May 2015, and if you look at the capital inflows over the last year, it’s really been tremendous.”
The company now has ownership interests in more than 28,500 beds in the U.K. and one 600-bed development under way. In the conventional space, Greystar has a handful of U.K. developments in the pipeline or planning stage as well, totaling more than 2,500 units.
Also in 2013, Greystar expanded into Latin America, where it now has over 1,000 units in the development pipeline. And last year, Greystar expanded into the Netherlands, with ownership in more than 1,000 student beds and a development pipeline of more than 3,000 units in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam, one of the largest metro areas in Europe.
Will Greystar become the first internationally recognized apartment brand? To Faith, this international focus is more investor- than consumer-facing. The firm has investors from every corner of the globe—Australia, Japan, the Middle East, and Canada, to name a few.
“I think where brand is super important is the B2B brand, our brand with our suppliers and vendors, and our investors, who know how they’ll be treated and the kinds of investment returns we’ve been successful in generating,” Faith says. “And now, there’s so much more global capital investing not just outside of the U.S. but in the U.S., as well, and so that’s really helping the Greystar brand grow globally.”
Faith isn’t just another well-known, and well-liked, industry leader. He’s also regarded as something of a trailblazer who’s helped the multifamily ecosystem evolve in progressive and unexpected ways.
Faith has never made his desire to turn Greystar into the nation’s best multifamily firm a secret. And it’s that inclination to “think big”—and assemble the resources to execute that vision—that sets him apart.
“Every successful leader pursues a big dream that is supported by great people, tireless effort, and a propensity to never be satisfied. I can’t think of anyone who personifies these attributes more than Bob Faith,” says Michael Schall, CEO of Essex Property Trust. “The growth, expanse, and scale of Greystar are breathtaking, approaching the impossible. I am awestruck by Bob’s accomplishments.”
One of Faith’s goals has been to build a recession-proof business, but his efforts at diversifying Greystar into development and investment have gone well beyond the bounds of traditional future-proofing and national borders. In the process, Faith has challenged every other multifamily firm to sharpen its focus.
“Bob and the team at Greystar continue to demonstrate leadership in marrying a global platform with local business execution at the highest level,” says Tom Toomey, CEO of UDR. “With Bob’s vision and energy, the industry owes a huge thank-you to making all of us better.”
Faith’s leadership has positioned Greystar as not only entrepreneurial, but as one of a kind, too—a reinvention of what it means to be a large multifamily firm. “I consider him to be a true visionary, and gifted in his ability to recognize opportunity in every cycle,” says Mark Alfieri, CEO of Monogram Residential Trust. “Bob has created a globally recognized brand in Greystar and will go down in history as a pioneer who looked beyond conventional business practices and used innovative ideas to create an unparalleled institutional platform.”
But maybe the most striking thing about Faith is his humility, his ability to stay approachable and available, despite his growing stature. “First and foremost,” Alfieri says, “Bob is a good person.”
Tom Bumpass came to Greystar via its acquisition of JPI’s management business in 2008, where he was chief information officer. And he soon found that his new boss was all ears.
“Bob has always had a really strong desire from a technology standpoint, a real vision and desire for us to be much more technologically savvy,” says Bumpass. “I think the technology piece was something he knew he needed as a platform at Greystar to fulfill the vision.”
Greystar never set out to be an innovator. But even as it engages in data mining and helps seed a start-up, the firm’s vision is to understand how to use data to inform its strategic decision making. “Our core as a manager really makes our IQ in all these markets just way smarter on all the decisions we make, whether that be specific property management decisions or whether it’s investment and development decisions, as well,” Bumpass says.
The data allow Greystar to understand more about those living in its communities, helping it to target the unit mix, amenities, and features in a new development or renovation. And from a marketing standpoint, it allows more hyperlocal, tailored messaging.
To Faith, the sharing economy is today’s most disruptive technology and raises more questions than answers. How does the Airbnb model shape services and engagement? To what degree is the owner at risk? Renters undergo stringent background checks, but that’s not so for the Airbnb model. Yet the sharing economy provides a huge opportunity, as well—short-term stays can boost the bottom line.
That opportunity led Greystar to invest last year in a company called Urbandoor, which would vouch for the short-term resident via background checks, taking some of the liability off of the manager.
“They work with corporations, mostly people renting corporate apartments, and they’re really trying to allow apartment owners to participate in some of that arbitrage,” Faith says. “They do it in a way where the people coming in are being screened. So, we want to be creative and standing right there at the forefront in trying to figure out how to take advantage of that.”
Despite its expansive vision, Greystar won’t grow for growth’s sake. But while Faith’s five-year plan doesn’t include any volume targets, he’s far from resting on his laurels. You’d think after amassing a management portfolio of around 413,000 units—not to mention becoming a top owner and developer—Faith would be satisfied.
“But that’s in a market of what, 26 million institutional apartments in the U.S.?” he asks. “So, when you think of market share, it’s tiny compared to companies like Coke or Pepsi.”