If Leonard Wood had left Trammell Crow to start an ice cream stand, Donna Hawkins says she would've followed him. And Wood's longtime executive assistant obviously isn't alone. When Wood resigned from Trammell Crow in 1998 to launch Wood Partners, roughly 60 Trammell Crow employees, including senior leaders Jerry Durkin and Jim Simpson, went with the mild-mannered executive.
While it's not unusual for a senior executive's team to follow him to a new venture, the loyalty Hawkins and other Wood Partners employees have to their leader seems extraordinary. The reasons for their devotion: a successful track record of profitable deals, a high standard of ethics, and a belief in giving employees freedom. "Leonard is very smart and he's very likeable," says Ron Terwilliger, chairman, CEO, and Wood's former boss at Trammell Crow Residential. "He's wonderful guy. He added that trait to being very smart. Then he got very experienced in multifamily with us over 15 years."
In just six short years, Wood built a company that last May landed on Multifamily Executive's Top 50 list, ranking as the sixth largest multifamily builder in the country with 3,632 units started in 2003. Wood Partners, one might say, has taken root. It has accomplished that just like a tree might, by turning over new leaves, extending new branches, and bending–not breaking–in the wind.
These qualities appear in many ways throughout the organization. Wood Partners gives its local offices the opportunity to listen to their market and pursue new deals that make sense–not just add to company's traditional portfolio of garden-style properties. If the market wants high-rises, condos, affordable housing, student apartments, or senior units, the company can build it. The company will add markets–moving out of its original Southeastern base into Washington and the Southwest. Local executives (with oversight from senior partners) can alter financing for individual projects to correlate to the risk of each property type. All in all, these characteristics have brought Wood Partners success. "They have seen opportunities to expand into other types of products, which I think they've been extremely successful at," says Brent Farnham, a senior vice president in Bank of America's Atlanta office, which lends to Wood Partners.
Southeast Spinoff Trammell Crow has a long history of spinning off companies, from Gables Residential in Boca Raton, Fla., to AvalonBay Communities in Alexandria, Va. But there are some differences between those two spin-offs and Wood Partners. While the departures of these companies (and their personnel) from the Trammell Crow family was expected, Wood's decision wasn't. But perhaps it should have been. As Trammell Crow divested itself of Gables and other Southeastern assets that Wood oversaw, Wood, the group managing partner, decided it was time to move on. "It got to where I had a pretty small operation [at Trammell Crow] and I was in a financial position to go on my own," Wood says.
First, he needed to talk with Terwilliger. Wood had to tell his longtime boss not only that he was leaving, but that he wanted to take Trammell Crow colleagues Jerry Durkin and Jim Simpson with him. Terwilliger was surprised by his longtime colleague's decision. "I thought with the money he had made, he would retire," he says.
Terwilliger made a pitch to keep Durkin and Simpson, but they chose the new venture. Eventually, their teams did the same, resulting in a transfer of roughly 60 employees from Trammell Crow to the new Wood Partners. The new leaders tried their best to handle the potentially delicate situation appropriately. "We were careful not to talk to anyone before we talked to Ron," Jim Simpson stresses. "We didn't have the whole thing lined up at the beginning."
The other key to the transition was the construction pipeline. Wood, Simpson, and Durkin had seven projects in progress when they left, which Wood wanted to make sure were handled properly. His solution: Wood Partners would finish the jobs under construction for Trammell Crow. After these jobs were completed, some construction employees decided to join the new company as well.