“You'll never reach the bar, because you're always raising it higher.” This is what the Myers-Briggs personality test told Karen Kossow in 2003 when she joined McLean, Va.-based Kettler Management (formerly KSI Services). She wasn't surprised; the assessment was dead-on.

At the time, she had just been hired as a sales and marketing manager—but a little more than six months later, she was the department's director, and less than a year after that she was named assistant vice president. Delivering a 96 percent occupancy rate through her marketing strategies, Kossow's competitive spirit and drive for perfection has her climbing the ladder of success. An honorable mention in last year's MFE Rising Stars, Kossow, 39, is now center stage and continues to head for the top.

“I don't know if I would go as far as calling myself a perfectionist, but I don't want to do something if it's not going to be done right,” says Kossow. “I'm very competitive, but in a good way.” She credits this streak to her athletic history. Having played sports since the age of seven, Kossow swam competitively in high school and played tennis, basketball, and soccer. In fact, it was this love of physical activity that led her to the multifamily industry.

When she graduated from the College of William & Mary in 1990 with a degree in French and psychology, Kossow found the job market pretty stagnant. Taking a job as an activities director at The Brittany Apartments in Arlington, Va., managed by the Dreyfuss Brothers, she got her first exposure to multifamily real estate. After spending six years in the position, she became a leasing manager—a job Kossow never expected to have. “I was shy growing up, so if somebody had told me that I was going to get into leasing to start with, I probably would have laughed at them,” she says.

Kossow left Dreyfuss for Charles E. Smith, making her transition into marketing and, after a merger, into the Kettler family. No longer the shy girl she once was, Kossow has helped to establish national brand partnerships that have changed the way Kettler does business. Working with the likes of American Express, Apple, and Williams-Sonoma, her projects have changed the way residents live.

“She's very instrumental in making sure we come up with the greatest relationships possible,” says Jamie Gorski, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Kettler. “She's the best in the industry.”

Kettler was among the first multifamily management groups in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to accept rent payments via American Express, an amenity that has made a difference to residents. “We've had customers tell us that American Express acceptance was one of the deciding factors in their renting with us,” says Kossow, who actively maintains the relationship with the credit card company. She touches base weekly, each time looking for ways to expand and strengthen both businesses.

“Karen is often our first stop when reviewing new ideas and concepts,” says Sheraz Shere, vice president of real estate industry strategy and partnerships at American Express. “Her keen insight helps us to provide the best possible value for our partners and their residents.”

A recent partnership with Apple has yielded some innovative results. As a promotional event, new residents can order complimentary Apple notebooks from an Apple Web site created specifically for Kettler residents. No one else in the industry has explored such a relationship, and the technology giant had never considered working with apartments.

Thriving on the challenge of the job, Kossow emphasizes the power of innovation: “It's not waiting until something has to be accepted, but it's being a leader and being the early adopter and getting the benefits.”