Go back to 2007 and check out the Multifamily Executive Top 50 lists. Scan all the owners, managers, and developers and try to pick a firm that makes the cut in all three. Lincoln Property Co. is one of the first names you’ll see. Now, skip ahead nearly 10 years to the National Multifamily Housing Council’s 2016 Top 50 lists and repeat the same exercise. Lincoln’s presence remains ubiquitous.
The tumult of the past decade pulled once venerable names like Archstone and BRE Properties off the Top 50 and into the arms of competitors. And it provided the right climate for burgeoning platforms, like Greystar, to bloom.
Amid this chaos, Lincoln quietly rode the cycles and continued to expand its management and development operations. While other companies gravitated toward the spotlight, Lincoln preferred to let its work do the talking.
“For the most part, we stayed out of the fray, put our heads down, focused on existing clients, and got some existing and new [business] that way,” says Scott Wilder, Lincoln’s executive vice president of residential management.
But in the constant Internet and social media feedback loop that defines today’s media and business environment, the “Quiet Giant” decided maybe it needed to make a change. Today’s renters, and their technologies, required outreach and storytelling.
“As people are spending more time online and there’s more social media, we made a conscious effort to get our message out there,” Wilder says. “We think the millennial renter, and a lot of renters today, want to live with companies and communities that have some of their same values and beliefs. They want to understand who they are and what the companies are about. We’ve made a conscious effort to get our name out there and explain who we are.”
Lincoln’s story begins in Texas and the Southwest, where it began developing apartments in 1965. The company was nothing if not ambitious. The ’70s brought the firm expansion into other countries (Western Europe and the Middle East), new product types (commercial real estate), and a new business focus (property management).
The early ’80s were good times for oil-rich Texas and the apartment industry. And that’s when Texas A&M grad Wilder came aboard, two years into his business career. “Like everybody else in property management, I just kind of stumbled into the business,” he says.
In 1985, he was promoted to manager—just as the mid ’80s recession and tax law changes caused a market collapse. That prepared him for the ebbs and flows of the real estate cycle. “I got to go through a really soft market and understand how to survive during those times, and I got to come back on the other side when rents went back up and we started building again,” he says. “Then, I went through the tech wreck of the early 2000s and came back out.”
Like Wilder, the other leaders at Lincoln rode their share of real estate cycles. For instance, President and CEO Tim Byrne arrived at Lincoln in 1984. With that baptism by fire and real estate’s volatility, it’s little surprise that Lincoln prides itself on operating efficiently and keeping overhead low.
Other companies say the same. But, unlike many of those firms, Wilder claims Lincoln went through the recession without making layoffs. That’s no small task for a company with a development machine that churned out more than 3,500 units in the three years before the 2008 recession.
“The management business was solid in that time, which afforded us the luxury of keeping our infrastructure in place,” Wilder says. “So, when we came out of the recession, all of our regional partners and their development personnel were intact, along with their specific regional construction group. We were fortunate to be as stable as we were before. Quite frankly, the size of the company helped us weather that storm.”
The management group also reaped the benefits of the firm’s stability through the Great Recession. “On the conventional [apartments] side, we grew as the market grew,” Wilder says. “There are a ton of new products. There are more renters versus homeowners, more people are moving into apartments, while more institutional money is chasing yield on apartments. So, it created more opportunities for everyone in the multifamily management business.”
Lincoln’s conservative approach extends to development and the land market. “We don’t land-bank for a long period of time,” Wilder says. “We find a site, get it under control, have our partners lined up, and start the development. Sometimes you have to go through entitlements and zoning delays and not be shovel-ready for a year or so. We don’t sit on land for long periods of time.”
Connecting the Dots
While Lincoln’s development and property management platforms were poised for growth when the apartment market came back after the recession, that doesn’t mean it didn’t need to tweak operations and marketing. Specifically, the company needed to work on messaging and taking its story out to its institutional partners, clients, and renters.
That’s one of the things Wilder brought Margette Hepfner aboard to do.
Lincoln was Hepfner’s client at Apartment Guide, where she worked for 13 years. To lure Hepfner to Lincoln, Wilder offered a newly created position on the Lincoln org chart—senior vice president of client services. Hepfner spends the majority of her time working with clients that reach across different regions of the country. In many cases, these firms serve a dual role—as investors in Lincoln’s developments and as clients on the property management side.
“One of the things I really work hard at doing is helping transfer relationships and maintain relationships,” she says. “So, it’s making those introductions to other regions and other parts of the country and ensuring that it’s a good handoff and the clients in California have the same experience in Chicago. Helping to connect those dots is something I do as well.”
But there’s another important part of her job: Hepfner says she spends about 20% of her time helping the Lincoln executives prepare for pitches by coaching, training, and teaching them how to sell.
“In the competitive landscape, where there are a lot of new owners and investors in real estate, setting ourselves apart and telling everyone how great we are is something our team is not necessarily the best at,” she says. “They don’t brag about themselves. That’s been one of the most fulfilling things I get to do—having the privilege to work with our incredible teams across the country and helping them to be comfortable in telling that story.”
Lincoln also partnered with multifamily marketing firm LeaseLabs to provide a total marketing makeover, including a brand refresh and revamped website. While the bulk of the upgrades were aimed at consumers, LeaseLabs also helped Lincoln target potential property management clients with a rent forecast.
“It was geared to prospects looking for an apartment and to ownership groups to position Lincoln in areas where it’s pursuing management contracts,” says Steven Ozbun, president of LeaseLabs. “That’s how we picked Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver as growth markets for Lincoln. We created content to show ownership groups that [Lincoln has] a grip on the industry in those markets.”
Susan Vickery, managing director at Trammell Crow Residential, first hired Lincoln 12 years ago to manage a property that the Dallas-based developer owned in Denver. She was so pleased with Lincoln’s performance that she asked for the same team to run a property in Dallas and has remained since.
“They’re kind of known for really marketing,” Vickery says. “They have great abilities, and they have really strong marketing people in those roles regionally.”
The company’s marketing prowess has impressed other clients, as well. “Lincoln has regional people who run marketing and support the regional managers,” says Robert Bastien, director of asset management for institutional investor Eaton Vance’s Real Estate Investment Group. “They support owners like me in trying to identify ways to best advertise and market the property.”
Despite the satisfied customers, Sheri Killingsworth, who began at the company 17 years ago at the property level and is now vice president of marketing and communications, recognized an opportunity.
“Over the past couple of years, we’ve watched our competitors, and we feel it’s important to promote ourselves, because we never have really and it’s important to share how innovative and exciting our brand has become,” she says. “We’re doing a lot more corporate national marketing, and we’ve never done that either.”
Lincoln worked eight months with LeaseLabs on branding and building the site, which launched in December 2015.
Ozbun says his team met with Lincoln’s team multiple times throughout the process before developing an approach that emphasized the company’s culture. “It’s a very human brand,” he says. “Even though it’s a large corporation, it’s very people-focused.”
When relaunched, the site conveyed a more personal touch with handwritten fonts and lifestyle videos aimed at driving an emotional connection with potential renters. It started a “Share Your Story” campaign where it asked residents to share their best story about any sort of interaction with a Lincoln community and employee. And, it started a Look Book, which channels the spirit of retail brands by showcasing 10 communities and their “new looks for the seasons,” according to Killingsworth.
“Doing these kinds of campaigns has pushed us a little further along with the brand and gotten our name out there even more,” Killingsworth says.
If people aren’t signing leases, Lincoln wants to know why. LeaseLabs monitors every site visit. With a heat map, it studies the paths customers take on Lincoln’s site as they look for apartments and where they leave the site.
“If there’s a drop-off point where people are leaving before converting [to leases], we bridge that path,” Ozbun says. “We monitor and make edits of that quarterly. The site is constantly being updated with conversion-rate optimization in mind.”
Even before the rebranding, new website, and focus on storytelling, property management helped drive growth at Lincoln. The growth isn’t just from new property management contracts, though: Part of Lincoln’s management portfolio is from a military housing joint venture with the federal government, through which it bought 5,000 units last year.
Another large part of Lincoln’s growth was new construction not owned by the company and stabilized assets it gained through a management change or a change of ownership on a transaction. Lincoln maintains a robust development pipeline with 3,800 units on the way in 2017.
It will also continue to add units through development. “We’ve never been a feast-or-famine developer,” says Wilder. “We’ve been steady and opportunistic and generally pretty conservative. ... We have a nice pipeline right now.”
Lincoln will continue to be opportunistic, but don’t expect major acquisitions (though it did buy student housing firm Grand Campus Living in 2013).
The words “steady” and “measured” come to mind when looking at Lincoln’s plans. “Our goal is continued steady growth—making sure our clients are taken care of and our team is taken care of first,” Hepfner says. “With that comes very strategic growth.”
And, now it’s time to tell people about that strategy.