Billy Pettit Jr. knows he was wrong. But, at the same time, he couldn’t have been more right.
As a newbie at Seattle-based R.D. Merrill Co. in 2006, he wanted to create a new brand to distinguish the multifamily division from the company’s flagship senior housing portfolio. And even though Pettit, 34, was new to the 100-plus-year-old company, his enthusiasm served as armor against the opposition he would face.
“I was out of line; I probably should have been fired for insubordination,” he says now. “But I had convinced myself that this was what we had to do to build the multifamily portfolio, and that’s what I had been hired to do.”
His fierceness paid off, as the company’s multifamily branch was successfully rebranded Pillar Properties, breaking away from the recognizable name Merrill Gardens, the firm’s seniors housing brand.
Pettit was named vice president of Pillar once the branding was complete, in 2012. However, he won’t soon forget how he overstepped his boundaries holding the torch for the rebranding. He may have actually been fired if he hadn’t been hired by his father, Bill Pettit Sr., president of Pillar Properties and Merrill Gardens.
When he walked into his father’s office and uttered the words “quietly awesome” and “localicious” as the concepts around which to build a company brand, the elder Pettit recalls thinking his son had gone off the deep end.
Pettit Jr. decided to continue developing the idea with or without his father’s blessing.
“I will admit that’s a time when I took advantage of the father–son relationship,” he says. “Because, right then, I was fighting tooth and nail for something I believed in.”
“Quietly awesome” is the idea of being able to do something amazing by going above and beyond without being asked to; “localicious” means being committed to the community where the buildings are developed.
After mulling the idea over for about four months, the senior Pettit began to see the vision. Once he recognized what his son was trying to do, he became one of the brand’s biggest supporters.
“I have to say, upon reflection, he was right,” Pettit Sr. says. “And I’m glad I had the patience to let him do what he felt was right. I think it’s a better company, with a better vision and a better team, than I might have built.”
Breaking the Mold
R.D. Merrill Co. was founded by Richard Dwight Merrill as a timber company in the 1890s, operating as such until it acquired a single senior housing community in 1993. The firm grew the senior living brand to more than 55 properties over the next 20 years, making it one of the most recognizable senior housing companies in the market.
When Pettit Jr. was presented with the task of overseeing the conventional multifamily portfolio, he started small, hoping to create a unique brand for just one of the company’s buildings. He hired a brand consultant, and while brainstorming with the consultant and Pillar Properties marketing director Loree Wagner, Pettit had an epiphany.
“He just knew this had to be something bigger than one building,” Wagner says. “From there, we couldn’t stop it.”
Following that meeting, the team met with an outside firm to help come up with a larger branding concept, and the name Pillar Properties was born. The name comes from Pillar Point, the highest point on Olympic Peninsula land the Merrill family has owned since the 1890s.
“We immediately said, ‘Yeah, that’s it,’?” Wagner says. “It hit on all the things that we wanted to hit on. It had such a deep connection to the [Merrill] family and the legacy of the family, and it really made sense. We wanted to honor the family but we didn’t want to use the [Merrill] name, because of Merrill Gardens.”
The Lyric, the building that sparked the branding initiative, was the first community to be named under the new brand.
“I was like the new kid on the block,” Pettit Jr. says. “I had these ideas and I didn’t think they were crazy, but other people did.”
His father was the first in line to say the company wasn’t wild about changing the entire multifamily portfolio’s name or using catchy phrases to build a sense of community.
“If we go back in time to when we were just branding the Lyric, my dad was OK with it,” he says. “But when I went back and wanted to rebrand the whole company, I hit more opposition. He wasn’t convinced it was worth it.”
But Pettit Sr. trusted his son and knew he had hired him for a reason. He decided to look at the junior Pettit as a bright young professional instead of his son and to give him a fair chance before completely shutting down the idea.
“I knew what I was looking for in terms of hiring someone who could think outside the box,” Pettit Sr. says. “I wanted to bring in a fresh perspective, and he had that.”
Still, Pettit Jr. wanted more than mere approval; he wanted support and enthusiasm.
“We forced him to get involved,” he says of his father. “Now, he’s one of the biggest supporters and fans of the concepts brought forth by the rebranding. Once he approved it, we were off and running and never looked back.”
The Lyric opened in November 2012 and was named in honor of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, which has a deep-rooted appreciation for art and music. The 234-unit luxury apartment building leased up quickly and was completely filled within five months.
Pettit Jr. learned persistence from his father. The elder Pettit was relentless when trying to woo his son to leave an associate position at Herbert J. Sims & Co. in Fairfield, Conn., to come back to Seattle and work for the Merrill family.
“I honestly didn’t necessarily think about his future when I offered him the job,” Pettit says. “I was thinking more about my needs at that time and in that context.”
He made two unsuccessful attempts at bringing his son back to Seattle, but on his third try, he made Pettit Jr. an offer he couldn’t refuse: to help develop a strategy for the multifamily branch of the company.
“It was one of those situations where you’re not sure if it’s the right decision,” Pettit Jr. says. “But, it was an opportunity that, at 27 years old, I couldn’t refuse.”
He was apprehensive at first because he wasn’t sure how working for his father would go. Six and a half years later, both men are able to brush off the possibility that business could damage their bond. While the conflict surrounding the branding initiative could have turned their relationship sour, they both look back on the memory and laugh.
Pettit Jr. feels privileged to have the opportunity to learn from his father. As a child, he watched his dad fly around the country helping to build a seniors housing empire that started with a single acquisition.
“I experienced the growth, I saw what it became,” Pettit Jr. says. “I got to see it and hear about it at the Thanksgiving dinner table.”
As an eighth grader, Pettit Jr. attended boarding school on the East Coast, which forced him to become strong willed and independent. His two younger brothers followed when they became old enough to enroll at the school. And although their parents lived in Seattle, their father was always stopping in to check up on his boys.
“My dad would fly out Monday through Thursday in the Southeast and then spend the weekends in Connecticut,” he says.
His father’s work ethic, coupled with his dedication to his family, set the tone for Pettit Jr.’s attitude toward a career.
“I looked at how much fun my Dad was having,” he says. “And that’s what I wanted.”
Passing the torch
The opportunity to see his father at work was an added bonus to the original offer that brought him across the country. What drew Pettit Jr. in was the chance to learn from a great family friend, Rich Reel.
Reel and the elder Pettit had worked together for more than 40 years as part of the R.D. Merrill Co. Reel retired in 2008 but couldn’t stay away. He currently serves as a company board member for the Housing Strategies IV Fund.
He still sees Pettit Jr. four times a year during board meetings and notes how he sees much of himself reflected in the young man’s drive.
Pettit Jr. worked under Reel for about two years, absorbing everything he could from the veteran and asking questions along the way. “He certainly is inquisitive,” Reel says.
Pettit Jr.’s job was to support Reel, who was working as senior vice president of acquisitions for Merrill Gardens at the time. By the end of his first year at the company, Reel could see the fire being lit.
“With some people, you can just tell that they’re really into it,” Reel says. “Billy was really into it.”
Reel mentored Pettit for another year until he decided to retire. And even though Reel isn’t in the office anymore, Pettit continues to ask him questions.
“I still bounce ideas off him, to this day,” says Pettit, who often runs things by Reel if he needs advice on finding direction with a vision that might not be fully developed.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know everything,” Pettit says. “I’m always asking people questions, and I’m trying to learn more and more as I go.”
The idea of mentoring others and fostering growth is an attitude Pettit continues today. His thirst to find motivated professionals is what he taps into when hiring new staff for Pillar.
The close-knit team has grown from six people to more than 25 in just over a year.
“It’s all about hiring the right people,” Pettit says. “They just make me look good. They’re actually the true stars.”
Get up, Get out
Pettit has a breathtaking view of Lake Union from behind his desk. He could easily spend hours gawking at the beauty of the landscape as seaplanes softly land on the crisp blue water across the street from the company’s office. However, he is rarely able to sit down long enough to appreciate the scenery. More likely, he only glimpses at the water as he’s in transit to a meeting or heading out to the firm’s development sites. Pettit prefers to be out and about so he can see the buildings as they come along and make changes accordingly—a lesson he learned from Reel.
“My philosophy is you have to get out and smell the brick and mortar,” Reel says. “I think sometimes people spend too much time in the office at their computers.”
As the walls in the first phase of Pillar’s Stadium Place went up across from CenturyLink Field, Pettit suited up in a hard hat and construction vest so he could be on the front lines. Armed with a Diet Coke and a vision, he was determined to ensure each and every common space and apartment had some sort of spectacular view.
“This used to be a parking lot,” he says now, looking out toward the field.
When he strolled through the area where a communal room was planned, he decided it just wasn’t what he wanted and asked for the plan to be revised. He began telling the construction workers what needed to be done to make the space more accessible.
“If you develop something exactly how it was designed, you may be disappointed,” he says.
Inside the units, Pettit was adamant about giving his potential residents moveable islands in the kitchen, high ceilings, and large windows to maximize the aesthetics.
Despite the dust and debris from construction, Pettit visualized the potential. Standing in the kitchen of an unfinished apartment, he noted how someday a resident will be able to watch all of the festivities on the streets of Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood when the Seahawks start their season.
“There isn’t a unit in this building without a view,” he says.
His ability to have a clear vision is what makes his team enthusiastic about coming to work.
The long-term goal isn’t to be the largest or most powerful apartment company, but, rather, to be the best. A constant vigilance in evaluating how things are being done and adapting to make them better is something Pettit tries to bring to his staff each and every day.
“If you look at how to define success, some people say it’s money or the number of deals they are able to do,” he says. “But I like to think there’s a lot more to it.”
Part of being a success, in Pettit’s mind, is being able to believe in what you’re doing. He lives and breathes the concepts of being localicious and quietly awesome.
Whether it’s through an online tweet or an explanation of a company pamphlet, Pettit is eager to share his enthusiasm, and he encourages his staff to be inventive and to be as invested as he is in the company’s founding concepts.
“Five years from now, I want everybody else in the multifamily market in Seattle to be trying to recruit from Pillar,” he says. “I want people to try to hire people away from us because they are jealous of what we have.”