Chaz Mueller and Scot Sellers
John Schulz Chaz Mueller and Scot Sellers

Going into the Thanksgiving holiday in 2012, Lisa Donovan felt pretty confident in the future of the company where she had spent the past 12 years of her career.

Sure, the owner who took it off the public markets in 2007 had just gone bankrupt, leaving its competitors circling its assets. But all signs were pointing to Englewood, Colo.–based Archstone—No. 21 on Multifamily Executive’s 2013 Top 50 Owners list—staying together and fully enjoying the apartment recovery.

“We were getting ready for an IPO [initial public offering] and we had brought in people to get ready for a public offering,” says Donovan, former group vice president of national training and development at Archstone. “We were communicating internally on stage [at a leadership meeting before Thanksgiving], in front of the leaders, that we were going down the IPO path.”

That confidence didn’t last long. On Nov. 26, ­Chicago-based Equity Residential (which made a bid earlier in the year for Archstone) and Arlington, Va.–based AvalonBay Communities announced that they had bought Archstone from Lehman Brothers Holdings. The news shocked even executive vice president of financial and corporate operations Rick ­Jacobsen, who was preparing forms for an IPO.

“At first, I didn’t think I had heard it right,” says Jacobsen, now CFO at San Mateo, Calif.–based Prometheus Real Estate Group. “I was always suspecting that maybe someone would take a run at it, because we had great assets in good locations. But I thought it was a really creative and clever proposal for these two companies, two large competitors, to get together and split up the assets. I didn’t see that part coming.”

But after that shock, Jacobsen, Donovan, and the rest of the Archstone management team focused on the tasks at hand—winding down the company that they spent the bulk of their careers building, and figuring where they wanted to go next. While those executives have since landed at different companies around the country, the Archstone legacy remains intact.

Winding Down

With the financial crisis, Lehman’s collapse, and constant speculation surrounding its future playing out in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, it wasn’t always easy running Archstone after 2007. President and COO Chaz Mueller credits a strong culture and open communication with all employees as the glue that kept the company ­together during that time. “There was significant turmoil, particularly surrounding Lehman,” he says.

When AvalonBay (AVB) and Equity Residential (EQR) announced they were teaming up to buy Archstone, Dave Brackett, executive vice president overseeing the Western Region, knew he would spend his last few months at Archstone constantly communicating with his charges in the field. He was not only busy meeting with employees throughout his region—in Houston; Dallas; Denver; Phoenix; Seattle; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Orange County, Calif.; and San Diego—but also advocating for them with the new owners and helping his team find new positions.

“The first 30 days were in essence a nonstop road show, as I ­wanted to meet with all of our associates throughout my portfolio in the West,” Brackett says. “I needed to assure them that everything would be OK, that the sun would rise tomorrow and the next day.”

Jacobsen, who stayed on until April 1, 2013 (the acquisition closed Feb. 27), was the last senior executive out the door. After working at Archstone for 17 years and Weingarten Realty Investors for 12, he took a few months off to travel to Hawaii, New England, and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

“It was the first time that I really had more than a few weeks off at a time,” he says. “So I had time to just reflect a little bit.”

Others took a similar approach. Former chief development officer Neil Brown spent some time with former COO J. Lindsay ­Freeman in Kiawah Island, S.C. “I was figuring out what I wanted to do next,” he says.

Donovan doubled up on classes for her master’s degree in leadership and organization at the University of Denver, took a National Lampoon’s–like summer vacation to all of the major national parks, and began to consider what to do next.

“I definitely had time to hit the reset button,” Donovan says. “Most people jump from one to the next with little or no time in between. You’re not doing what you dreamed of doing. By taking some time off to really think about it, I was able to realign my career and now have that dream job.”

Mueller spent the summer of 2013 watching his son, Paden, play in basketball tournaments around the country. He also spent time at his lake house in Texas and played golf.

“I always liked to play golf, but I never really had the time,” he says. “I enjoyed it but also realized that I’m not ready to just play golf the rest of my life.”

With a yearlong noncompete agreement, CEO R. Scot Sellers, one of the most prominent men in multifamily, decided to take a break from the world of business. He and his wife, Keely, traveled the globe—hitting Europe, Africa, New Zealand, and Asia. His daughter Alyssa, 17, joined them for much of the trip.

Sellers’ feats included skydiving, bungee jumping, scuba diving, and climbing mountains like Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. But the trip wasn’t just a pleasure cruise: His other children, and even former Archstone colleagues, helped Sellers do some work for Habitat for ­Humanity Cambodia. He also was involved in establishing a surgical clinic for the poor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and helped outfit a medical clinic in Mekele, Ethiopia.

“I told my family and kids from the time they were little that when they do research about people near the end of their lives and ask what their biggest regrets are, the first is they wish they would have spent more time with their family,” Sellers says. “No. 2 is they wish they had taken more risks. I’ve tried to live my life so as to have neither of those two regrets. I’ve pursued many things out of my comfort zone that were a bit scary—whether it was starting a business, or climbing a steep ice wall at 20,000 feet in Nepal—all of these experiences have added tremendous color and satisfaction to my life.”

Charting a New Course

While Sellers’ adventures will continue into 2015, other Archstone ­execs soon found new homes. And, after a lot of exploration, most of them ended up in a familiar spot—multifamily (or, at least, housing in general).

Donovan quickly landed as chief people officer at Denver-based Sage Hospitality. Brackett looked at multifamily and a number of ­industries, including manufactured homes and single-family rentals, but after conversations with Kevin Baldridge, president of Newport Beach, Calif.–based Irvine Co., a strong culture and real estate drew him in April 2013.

The Archstone Legacy

Once every three or four months, you can go into Q's Pub & Grille in Littleton, Colo., and run into a lot of ex-Archstoners. They've filed in to see Coverado—an aptly named cover band featuring former VP of business intelligence Chris Brust (co-founder at ReLuminous) on the bass and former assistant VP of e-commerce marketing Gary Redmon (director of national marketing at UDR) on lead vocals.

When Donovan catches up with old colleagues at these shows, she's learned not to assume they're at the first place they landed after Archstone.

"Quite frankly, some of my peers from Archstone are now on their second and third employer because they didn't realize how important culture is," Donovan says. "When I reconnect with old peers, they've left the job immediately following Archstone because they haven't found that strong, positive culture in the new place. A good 60 percent of the people I've seen at those shows are on their third company now."

When you ask most people what Archstone's legacy will be in the industry, it starts with a consistent culture. "There were two companies that really had a culture," Petrik says. "One was Avalon and one was Archstone. They created a brand. It was not a brand that was necessarily recognized by the consumer, but it was a brand in the way they did things. If a property manager left a property in Washington, D.C., and moved to San Diego, it was seamless."

That culture helped Archstone initiate pricing and revenue management and pioneer Internet services such as allowing residents to submit a lease and pay online. But Brackett thinks the company's legacy will go beyond technology and revenue management.

"It had a great culture where associates truly enjoyed working," Brackett says. "That culture engendered great innovation. It was at the forefront of revenue management, online credit checks, and way too many other innovations to mention here. But what I really hope the legacy will be is the great people who were allowed to be the best they could be."

That legacy continues to grow. In addition to executives like Mueller and Jacobsen, Donovan says her colleagues ended up at both private and public apartment companies. Others now call technology vendors like Rainmaker, RealFoundations, and Yardi home. "They're just all over the place," Davidoff says. "It's almost like someone just blew on the dandelion and the seeds have just gone everywhere."

He didn’t get to take that vacation he wanted.“The fantasy I had in my head was that I would take half a year off and reflect on the previous seven years with Archstone,” he says. “I would hang out all summer with my wife and kids. It was pure ­fantasy—I would have driven my wife nuts!”

After taking some time off, Brown broke ground in October 2013 on a 444-unit community in San Diego, and this August he and his partners at KNR, a firm with offices in Atlanta and Irvine, Calif., announced a 510-unit project in Huntington Beach, Calif. He also formed a company called ArchCo Residential that will focus on some of Archstone’s former markets in Florida, Georgia, Texas, and, eventually, D.C. “We’re out there looking for opportunities,” Brown says.

Mueller considered becoming a senior executive of another large public company, starting his own firm, and switching to other product types. But, eventually, he took the opportunity to run San Diego–based Conam, an NMHC Top 20 Manager, with 50,000 units. Mueller brought in former Archstone colleague George Lloyd as his new head of acquisitions to add more assets to the company’s portfolio.

“I shopped eight to 10 properties in three markets to get a sense for the management,” says Mueller, Conam’s CEO. “I had a really good experience across the board. I got a good feeling about the company. It is a well-capitalized private apartment company with a very strong track record over a long period of time.”

In July, Jacobsen started discussions with Prometheus, an owner of about 11,000 units (with 1,500 in the pipeline) and manager of an additional 7,000 units, and started as its CFO last fall.

“I liked that it was still multifamily,” he says. “They have great ­assets. We did a lot of due diligence, talked to a lot of people about the company, and read a lot of things.”

As everyone else has landed in new spots, Sellers continues to travel. He insists that he doesn’t really know what’s next. “I would consider doing something else if there is a really extraordinary opportunity,” he says. “If not, I’m perfectly content doing exactly what I’m doing now.”

That life isn’t too bad. Sellers sits on a number of boards, which keeps him busy and intellectually stimulated, he says. The time off has also given him a chance to pursue hobbies such as surfing and hiking.

“A few years ago, I played the 50-and-over national tennis tournaments, which was great fun. I might do that again when I turn 60 in a couple of years; I’m a very active person,” he says. “Our kids are older now, so they can do a lot of these things with me and Keely, which makes it all even more fun.”

That’s all very well and good, but others wonder whether Sellers can truly stay out of the business world: Once a deal junkie, always a deal junkie.

“He’s a very competitive person,” says Donald Davidoff, former senior vice president of strategic systems at Archstone and current owner of pricing, sales, marketing, and technology consultancyD2 ­Demand Solutions in Littleton, Colo. “Like most CEOs, [Sellers] plays to win. I don’t think you get the same feeling of a win on the charity board, and you don’t win traveling. I believe Scot will eventually want to be in a scenario where he can win.”

Donovan also thinks Sellers will jump back into the business in an investor role. “I don’t know that Scot will get into operating a company, because he’s a deal guy at heart,” she says. “I would not be at all surprised if he came in on the investment side of the business.”

Right now, Sellers serves on the boards of The Howard Hughes Corp., Irvine Co., Inspirato, and Habitat for Humanity ­International.Since Sellers built apartments in California for Lincoln Property Co. before coming to Archstone, some people wouldn’t be surprised to see him take a larger role with Brackett at Irvine.

“As a rumor, it makes sense; that’s why it has some legs,” says Rod Petrik, managing director at Baltimore-based Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

If he does go back after he finishes traveling next April, Sellers doesn’t see himself running a start-up, but he would consider running a large company, whether public or private.

“I believe I know how to run a company very well, whether it’s in real estate or another industry,” he says. “I think I know how to build strong, highly successful teams. If there was a great opportunity in another industry, I would look at it.

“Having said that, obviously real estate is my expertise,” says ­Sellers, “but you never know what interesting opportunities may come along.”