Not too long ago, Laramar Communities had a major problem on its hands. The firm decided it was a smart time in the real estate cycle to maximize investor returns by disposing of a majority of its 20,000 apartment units. This move, however, presented a major obstacle: The disposition significantly impacted management fees, and the firm faced the imminent possibility of dramatic layoffs and restructuring to compensate for the lost revenue.
Enter Dave Woodward, problem solver extraordinaire. Laramar's CEO and managing partner quickly crafted a masterful plan to avoid losing his team members. The winning solution: the 2004 rollout of a fee-management division to offset revenue losses. In less than six months, he personally attained more than 4,000 units of fee-management business. To ensure the division's profitability, the companies must meet Woodward's carefully selected criteria, which limit the clients to institutional owners with a portfolio of at least 1,000 units in markets where Laramar already owns properties. Plus, Laramar insists on implementing all of its own operating systems and programs.
Woodward's ability to step in with a solution comes as no surprise to his industry colleagues. “In many ways, Dave is fearless,” says Connie Moore, president and CEO of BRE, who worked with Woodward in the '90s at major REIT Archstone-Smith and its predecessor, Security Capital Group. “He continually exhibits the attitude, ‘Throw something at me, and I'll try to figure it out.' Dave has always pushed for innovative ideas in the areas of technology, energy efficiency, and finance that have been at the forefront of the business.”
Give the 2007 Executive of the Year any problem—big or small—and he will find a way to fix it, often by soliciting the advice of both corporate players and on-site property managers. You'll frequently find him running in and out of his colleagues' offices or driving from property to property in search of ways to improve the company's operations. This hands-on approach helped Woodward, in seven short years with the company, transition the Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Laramar Communities from a small, niche player with inconsistent business practices across 12,000 units to a national value-add real estate firm with a solid industry-wide reputation. Today the firm, which operates under The Laramar Group moniker, owns and manages about 10,000 units and fee-manages another 10,000 units in a total of 20 markets across the country.
HIGH ENERGY Woodward, 40, has always had a penchant for fixing things. His first big project: A red 1962 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider convertible he bought when he was 15 years old. “My first car was literally in mothballs, all covered up in a garage with the wheels missing,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I fixed it up, got it painted, got the engine working, and that was my car all through high school.”
Though Woodward has upgraded his wheels over the years—he now drives a fully accessorized Land Rover—he still loves a good challenge. That's why, in 2000, he traded the security of a senior vice president title at Archstone-Smith for a chance to rebuild a promising company. (Prior to his seven-year stint at Archstone, Woodward was one of the first employees of Security Capital Group.) Why make the audacious move? “Building a culture, hiring people, putting systems in place, and leveraging technology is exciting. And you can tell I get all ‘nerd-ed out' about this stuff,” he explains with a smile.
From day one at Laramar, Woodward was tasked with solving a major problem: Rebuild the company into an organization with the professionalism, structure, and systems of a large REIT but without the slow decision-making and layers of bureaucracy. During the past seven years, he has done just that. Woodward moved the company's headquarters from Chicago to outside Denver, hired a senior- and middle-management team—several who he wooed from industry titans such as Archstone and Equity Residential—and implemented a host of new policies and programs, many of which he originally developed and executed during the early days of Archstone.
These detailed programs, which range from an in-house employee training program called Laramar University to a recently launched revenue-management system, are at the heart of the company's success, says Woodward, who loves lists and is known for his extreme attention to detail. To say he's organized is an understatement; not a piece of paper is out of order on his large, walnut desk, and he even sorts his home pantry by sweet and savory foods. Woodward channels this energy into improving the company's operations and profitability, and he constantly solicits ideas from all levels within the firm.
“Feedback is key to the whole culture here,” says Tom Klaess, senior vice president of operations. During Woodward's frequent on-site visits, he won't leave until the employees give him one thing the company can improve upon, Klaess adds. This strategy, coupled with Woodward's infectious enthusiasm, works. “You hear Dave speak, you see the sparkle in his eye, and you can't help but be engaged,” says Erin R. DiPaola, vice president of multifamily investments for Transwestern Investment Co., a Chicago-based real estate investment firm with 1,226 units fee-managed by Laramar. “His enthusiasm, given how long he has been in the business, is really inspiring and refreshing.”
Indeed, when Woodward stops at a property, he often does more than the standard CEO's 5-minute power walk through the leasing office and clubhouse. His favorite way to spend an afternoon? Grabbing lunch with all of the on-site employees at a newly acquired property and sharing what he dubs the “Laramar story.” In fact, he's explained how the company works and where it's headed so often that colleagues often tease him about it. “One of the best things about Dave is his communication style,” Klaess says. “He gets a lot of grief because you hear the same story over and over again, but it's really great because people feel like they are important enough for the CEO to take time and explain exactly what we are doing with programs and initiatives.”