Last year, sales of apartment properties jumped 32%, to $150 ­billion, according to a report from New York–based Real Capital Analytics (RCA). That volume had a huge impact on the NMHC 50 Owners list, as companies like Starwood suddenly joined the exclusive rankings. Less obvious, though, was the influence this transaction volume had on the NMHC 50 Managers list.

As the big got bigger on the Owners list, the same seems to be happening on the Managers list. When a big institution buys a large portfolio in a new city, it often seeks to work with a familiar name. Sometimes, it pulls an existing manager along. Other times, these owners look for the most recognizable name. That benefits companies like Greystar and FPI Management (and incentivizes them to keep looking for growth opportunities), which are among the biggest in many markets they serve. But that’s not the only path to growth. As No. 45 ZRS Management shows, it’s possible to grow at a strong clip by being selective, too.

Greystar Real Estate Partners

Bob Faith, Greystar
Bob Faith, Greystar

2015 Units Managed: 413,679
2016 Managers Rank: 1

When the list of the biggest apartment managers of 2013 came out in April 2014, Greystar stood atop the NMHC 50 with 214,696 units. Then, in June of 2014, it completed one of the largest mergers and acquisitions the multifamily sector has ever seen, securing its biggest rival, Riverstone Residential, and the latter’s 176,319 units. By the end of 2014, Greystar’s units under management had jumped to 393,079.

After nearly doubling its management portfolio, the question was, what would the Charleston, S.C.–based owner, operator, and developer do for an encore? While the firm didn’t pick off its biggest competitor again last year, it did add more than 20,000 units—pushing Greystar over the 400,000-apartment threshold, to 413,679.

The Riverstone purchase gave Greystar founder, chairman, and CEO Bob Faith the platform to be competitive in literally every market in the country. And, in a year that saw a slew of large transactions among owners, Greystar built a platform to accommodate such deals.

“Having the ability to take care of pretty much every major market in the country certainly gives us a leg up to continue to be a major player in that consolidation that’s under way,” Faith says. “An organization such as ours, with boots on the ground in all these markets, that can do takeovers very quickly, allows us to do large transactions.”

After the Riverstone purchase, Faith estimates Greystar is either the first- or second-largest manager in most markets. That’s important: When a buyer enters a new market, they’ll often ask brokers for a list of top managers that service the area. “This is a game of at bats,” Faith says. “If you get more swings, you’ll continue to grow.”

One market in which Faith hasn’t been able to step up to the plate is New York. Like most national apartment owners, Greystar has had difficulty getting traction in the Big Apple. “It’s a different market, but you just have to adjust your game plan,” Faith says.

For Greystar, that’s meant establishing its presence by buying apartments rather than earning management contracts. The company has secured several units in New York City and set itself up as manager of the properties. That signaled to Faith’s institutional clients that he was ready to do business in New York.

“Once we started acquiring assets in that market and clients saw that we were committed to New York, we started growing our service platform, as well,” Faith says.

FPI Management

Dennis Treadaway, FPI Management
Jeff Singer Photography Dennis Treadaway, FPI Management

2015 Units Managed: 98,401
2016 managers Rank: 6

Since Dennis Treadaway bought FPI Management from his father roughly 25 years ago, he’s been working towards one major goal—seeing the company grow to over 100,000 units. At the time he bought the company, that goal seemed distant. The firm managed fewer than 10,000 units. In 2015, Treadaway finally put that goal within arm’s reach, growing 28.6% from 2014 and ending the year with a little more than 98,000 units.

The nearly 22,000 units FPI Management added to its management portfolio is the highest number any manager gained, and considering they’re only a fee-based manager with no investment in any of its properties, it makes the feat that much more impressive. Treadaway says it was a busy year, but the growth was natural.

“You get natural growth when you focus on doing the right job,” he says, claiming he hasn’t cold called a company for business in years.

A majority of this growth came from lucrative whole-portfolio deals. In September, the Folsom, Calif.-based company opened up a new regional office in Round Rock, Texas after agreeing to manage a 5,000-unit portfolio for an existing client in the Austin area. The firm also gained another 5,000-unit portfolio for a manager-owner in the San Francisco Bay area, and another 3,500-unit portfolio in Southern California. Outside of that, the remaining growth was a sum of smaller deals in California and Washington.

“When the markets are hot like this, there’s a lot of sales activity and the sales activity creates property management opportunities,” says Treadaway.

What positions FPI Management so well in its markets is its expertise in managing both affordable and market-rate housing, according to Treadaway. His father started the firm in the 1960s as a developer called Federal Projects, Inc., which built federally-insured housing. Over time, the company added conventional housing, which Treadaway managed for his dad’s company. When the developer stopped building, Treadaway sold off the assets under one condition: that he retain the management contract.

Today, FPI Management’s portfolio is still roughly half affordable and half conventional, with the unit gains in 2015 mimicking that ratio. Treadaway is aiming for a net gain of what he considers the standard 5,000 to 7,000 units next year. The company’s experience with affordable housing could serve it well as rents drive up and cries for more affordable housing in markets like San Francisco are heard. But for now, FPI Management is excited about the growth on both sides.

“In the affordable markets and market-rate, there’s new construction and acquisition rehab like we haven’t seen for the last several years,” says Treadaway. “We see strong opportunities in both spaces.”

ZRS Management

Steve Buck, ZRS Management
Steve Buck, ZRS Management

2015 Units Managed: 30,410
2016 managers Rank: 45

Steve Buck, president of ZRS Management, has a simple philosophy when it comes to maintaining the core of his company: “We don’t need to grow.” That’s probably why after twenty years in the business ZRS Management is just now making the NMHC 50 Managers list for the first time, with 30,400 units under its belt.

For this Orlando, Fla.-based manager, it’s always been about the quality of work and not necessarily the quantity, though it’s certainly not averse to growing. “We all would much rather be small and keep what we have than be big and risk what we all really like about working here,” says Buck.

ZRS Management was born out of its developer parent company ZOM Residential. Buck started out just managing the properties ZOM was building, but over time, people started asking ZOM about their manager. “People would come to our properties and see people were happy, the projects were always well maintained and we were successful and we were different,” he says.

With that, the company started obtaining third-party management contracts. By 2010, the fee-based management arm had grown so much that ZOM Residential’s properties were only 5% of the overall management portfolio. Buck suggests it had just become time to move out of their parents’ house. Since then, the company has only grown bit by bit and has carefully chosen the contracts it wanted to take on.

“We don’t manage C deals. We don’t manage outside of our markets. We don’t manage for owners where our people don’t enjoy coming to work,” says Buck. “We don’t need to grow, so we don’t make bad decisions on our growth.”

Instead, ZRS Management emphasizes the strength of its personnel. As a rule of thumb, Buck doesn’t assign more than five properties to each of his regional property managers. He wants to ensure his regional teams still get onsite at every property constantly, and in order to travel around and get out there, they need the time. Buck also says the onsite teams want to know their efforts aren’t being overlooked. A pat on the back from the boss goes a long way to keeping employees happy. And when they’re happy, the residents will likely be happy too.

“We’ve been really focused on just being a great place to work for our employees and being a great option for institutions that maybe don’t want an enormous company and want the attention of the executives that you get with a midsize company,” Buck says.

Growth will be natural as long as ZRS Management keeps doing a great job, says Buck, but he’s not interested in setting out ambitious growth goals. The firm has been asked to enter new markets, but for now the company is just aiming to grow within its current markets, and through it all, maintain what made it good in the first place.