In his best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey offers a handful of principles for life and work. "Be proactive," he recommends. "Begin with the end in mind."

There are five more habits, of course, but just those first two seem strangely familiar after spending time with another business leader named Steven: Steven LeBlanc, president and CEO of Charlotte, N.C.-based Summit Properties. Talk to LeBlanc and those who know him, and these themes emerge again and again in his career and corporate decisions.

Colleagues and competitors alike talk about LeBlanc's curiosity, his concentration, and his ability to create a vision for a company's future. "There's a lot of good real estate people who know bricks and mortar, but the industry has not been long on strategic thinking and professional management expertise," says James Allwin, president of Aetos Capital in New York and a member of Summit's board of directors. "Steve is one of those rare people."

Now, as Multifamily Executive's 2004 Executive of the Year, LeBlanc will join another elite group of industry leaders.

It's an honor about which the soft-spoken LeBlanc says he is humbled. "I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to lead a great team of talented professionals," says LeBlanc, who knew nothing of the award nomination prepared by Summit COO Michael Schwarz until Schwarz told him.

It's also a final tribute to LeBlanc and his work at Summit. This fall, the CEO announced the North Carolina-based REIT would merge with Camden Property Trust in a $1.9 billion deal expected to close in early 2005. How did LeBlanc take a young public company still emerging from its entrepre- neurial start and turn it into a highly appealing acquisition? Let's consider the seven habits of Steven LeBlanc.

Steven LeBlanc, standing in the lobby of the Summit Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., brought strategic vision and geographic focus to Summit.
Steven LeBlanc, standing in the lobby of the Summit Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., brought strategic vision and geographic focus to Summit.

1. Seek knowledge.

When it comes to gathering information, there's little that stops LeBlanc. "You never get to the end of a conversation without him asking a question," Summit CFO Gregg Adzema says. "He wants to know everything about everything."

LeBlanc has been that way since his early days in real estate, when as a young appraiser, he would attend local zoning board meetings, staying until things ended in the wee hours. To some, such a schedule sounds about as enjoyable as a regular root canal. But not to LeBlanc, who had discovered the tradeoff for those late nights: "I knew every development that was planned in Austin," he recalls.

It stands as an example of LeBlanc's inquisitiveness, not to mention his competitiveness, two qualities he has exhibited at Summit as he's led the company toward more financial and strategic sophistication. "He understands the industry, because he asks a million questions and remembers everything," Adzema says. "He is an accumulator of knowledge."

LeBlanc also transfers it to his people, in the form of a seemingly endless stream of ideas and information. "Steve is our Factiva," says Randy Ell, Summit's executive vice president of property operations. (Factiva is an online archive of news and information from around the world.) "He goes through all the crazy ideas and filters back the top seven ideas and leaves us to figure out one or two worth trying."