SUSAN M. ANSEL MAY BE Multifamily Executiv e’s 2010 E xecutive of the Year , but that doesn’t mean she’s altogether at ease with the role. The calm, soft-spoken Ansel can make others feel at ease immediately. And she’s certainly at ease handling a number of large responsibilities—most signifi- cantly, leading Atlanta-based Gables Residential through the worst recession of its lifetime.

But there’s one place the humble Ansel isn’t quite as comfortable— in the spotlight. “She doesn’t ask for the spotlight, doesn’t expect it, and isn’t comfortable with it,” says Linda Owen , who has worked with Ansel on a number of charitable projects over the years, including their current venture— Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation, a Dallas land bank to provide low-income housing coupled with a local program to bring homes up to code for the elderly who can’t maintain them, for which Owen serves as president.

But that’s just the thing. In 2009, when the industry was battening down the hatches, the calm, collected Ansel was exactly the type of person that companies under fire needed. When the economy collapsed in 2008, Gables had 15 new developments ready for lease-up in a number of hard-hit markets. That platform quickly ground to a halt, taking with it millions in revenue.

With Gables’ institutional owners—a closed-end fund managed by a joint venture between ING Clarion and Lehman Bros.—watching every penny, Ansel, Gables’ executive vice president and COO, literally had to do more with less. Yet, despite this, she outperformed some of her more well-capitalized competitors in 2009, producing an NOI of -3.6 percent in some very hard-hit markets. Today, the company is seeing its numbers grow: In August, NOI was up 5.5 percent from the beginning of the year on its stabilized properties. What’s more, the firm is 93.9 percent occupied and 95.4 percent leased across its 16,000-unit national management portfolio. (It manages an additional 22,000 units.)

That performance doesn’t surprise Greg Mutz , CEO of Chicago-based AMLI Residential, which owns 24,000 units nationally and is generally a friendly competitor with Gables. “Sue is practical, has lots of common sense, and approaches things in a disciplined way,” he says. “She’s a really good operator. She has a great feel for what works on site and how to drive both resident satisfaction as well as the bottom line. Sue’s a people person, and comes up with solutions and ideas that work.”

Other people in the industry feel the same way. Many have been influenced by Ansel through her myriad roles, including as an executive committee member for the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC) and a joint legislative committee member at the National Apartment Association (NAA). “Sue is highly respected in the industry,” says Doug Bibby , president of the Washington, D.C.-based NMHC. “She’s competent, honest, diligent, professional, and holds respect across the board within the industry.” Here are the strengths the quiet, calm Ansel has leveraged to earn such vocal respect, both internally and externally—and how her steady hand has helped an embattled team perform in some very tough times.

LEVERAGE A DIVERSE BACKGROUND

Like many multifamily executives, Ansel didn’t expect to go into real estate as a career. She just sort of fell into it. After graduating from DePauw University, a small liberal arts school in Indiana in 1982 (when the job market wasn’t a whole lot better than it is right now), she took a position as a financial analyst at Daseke Co. in Connecticut, which specialized in commercial real estate tax shelter investments. (The firm’s remnants are now Dallas-based Milestone Management.)

In 1985, as the industry was reeling from changes in the tax law, Ansel was sent to Dallas to help fix the firm’s struggling operating division. After a couple years in Dallas, she took an opportunity with Trammell Crow Residential (TCR)—she was hired to implement on-site computer operations. At the time, the company was doing everything by paper. Soon after, in the early ’90s, TCR spun Gables into a public company and Ansel, a development director at the time, was well on her way to touching every area of the company’s operations, from information technology and financial services to development and asset management.

“She’s had the fortune of working in different verticals within our industry,” says Steve Lamberti , president and COO of Dallas-based Milestone Management, which has about 42,000 units nationwide. Lamberti, who first worked with Ansel when they were at Daseke in the early ’80s, attributes her success to “seeing every aspect in all sides of the business.” Indeed, her roles at Gables from the early 1990s to the early 2000s ranged from development to ancillary services to operations. She has served as development director, vice president of ancillary services, vice president of operations, senior vice president and COO, and now executive vice president and COO.

“She had an unusual breadth of experience in a number of different roles in the company over the years,” says Gables’ CEO David Fitch. “We wanted someone in the COO position with that level of knowledge and familiarity to expand on it. Sue has very successfully done that and, along the way, created a more homogenous organization.”

As is her way, Ansel defers the compliments. “I love to learn and have a new challenge,” she says. “When I felt I had accomplished something and knew it well, I was ready for a new challenge.”

ENACT SUPERIOR LEADERSHIP SKILLS

In 2005, that challenge came in the form of Gables’ COO position. When well-respected COO Mike Hefley left the company, Gables hired an executive search team that looked far and wide for a replacement. Turns out they didn’t have to look too far. The right choice was Ansel, who was then vice president of operations in the company’s Western division.

Ansel had big shoes to fill when she became COO in 2005. Hefley had been COO for seven years and had a loyal group working for him. While Ansel respected Hefley’s leadership style, she was open to input on how to improve operations. “It was more about listening to the feedback on what people on-site liked and disliked about some of our programs,” says Cris Sullivan , senior vice president for property operations at Gables.

This fits with the Ansel leadership style, which is one of collaboration, questioning, listening, and learning. In fact, 30 minutes into Ansel’s interview, it quickly became apparent she was asking more questions than answering them. And while these are all great attributes for any leader, Ansel has another, less definable characteristic. “Everybody wants to work hard for her,” says Lynette Hegeman , Gables’ vice president of marketing. “It’s not that she’s demanding, but people genuinely want to please her. It’s because she’s such a great leader.”

Owen has seen this intrinsic quality in Ansel’s staff at a number of community service projects, including Woodall Rodgers Park. “She’s as fine a leader as I have worked with in commercial real estate,” Owen says. “She’s adept at communicating and delegating and wisely using resources. If she asks you to do something, you know she expects as much of herself as she does of you.”

Ansel cements this loyalty by continuously going on the road to meet site-level personnel. She estimates traveling 150 to 160 days a year (though some of those are for pleasure, admits the travel enthusiast). And she supplements that in-person dedication with a strong awareness of what motivates employees, both from an economic and charitable perspective.

For example, Ansel was responsible for making small tweaks to the company’s 401k program, which helped raise dividends. What’s more, community service is a huge priority under Ansel—the company completed a New Orleans neighborhood renovation the spring after Hurricane Katrina and has done numerous local projects there under Ansel’s tenure.

“She inspires greatness, and she inspires people to want to come to work everyday and be great,” Sullivan says. “She is wonderful to work with and for. She’s calm; she’s fair; and she’s even-keeled.”

VALUE THE CUSTOMER

It seems simple enough: Care about customer service. But executing on that value proposition isn’t as easy as it sounds. Which is why, early on in her tenure as COO, Ansel started small, addressing the intersection of service level and staff by tieing shopping reports to bonus programs, revamping renewal programs, and even including maintenance in the process.

It’s not hard to see why customer service is so important to Ansel. With a portfolio of highly regarded Class A assets in top-tier markets such as Washington, D.C., Texas, Southern California, Atlanta, and South Florida, Gables needed accompanying Class A service levels. Ansel enforces this policy with consistency. For instance, Gables doesn’t allow new associates on the sales room floor unless they’ve completed the company’s Gables University customer service program. That program, which Ansel began upgrading in 2005, has been recognized by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) from 2007 to 2009 as one of the top training programs in the country; it was also recognized by Training magazine as one of the top 125 training groups in the world.

Simultaneously, Ansel created and implemented a new talent management program that included a redesign of Gables’ recruiting and performance appraisal process. “If you’re focused on customer service, you need to offer a learning development program that really focuses on customer service,” Ansel says.

Ansel also chooses to benchmark her leasing staff’s initial interactions with customers by employing the Ellis Property Management ’s mystery shopping sales report. She’s pleased with the results—the company has ranked as one of the top three real estate companies nationally for the past 15 quarters. “It is a real source of pride to be highly recognized and valued and celebrated with a perfect score on a shopping report,” Ansel says. “It’s all done to measure the effectiveness of the sales team with prospects.”

At the same time, Gables manages for other clients, and they’re just as impressed with Ansel’s operations and customer service focus. “She really understands what her clients want and need,” says Iphigenia Demetriades, portfolio manager and director with New York-based AEW Capital Management, which owns 27,379 units nationally, ranking it at No. 40 on last year’s MFE Top 50 Owners list. “She‘s always aware of things that are critical to us, like improving property performance and figuring out ways to improve expenses and increase revenues, yet still having happy residents at your properties. She really understands that.” One way she does that is through reliable communication. “The asset manager can call Sue and get an answer back very quickly,” Demetriades says. “The great thing is that you know that you can reach out at any level, depending on the circumstance, and get an immediate response.”

That responsiveness is conveyed by Ansel’s team as well, and she encourages them to make pivotal market decisions. For instance, Gables uses its own internal revenue management program to track market and property results, but Ansel thinks letting revenue management systems solve problems in a vacuum can lead to disaster. “It is important to recognize that technology is not a solution but a tool,” she says. “We’re trying to manage that and be more nimble. I’m not sure everybody uses technology in the same way that we do. I think that some people view technology as being an answer rather than a management tool used to help identify the best solution.”

STAY CALM AT ALL TIMES

Unfortunately, despite her diligence and focus, nothing could prepare Ansel for the disastrous impact of the recession. The company’s top five markets—Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, South Florida, and Austin, Texas, cumulatively saw 8.7 percent unemployment in 2009. When the market crashed, Gables had 15 properties in leaseup and 85 percent of the company’s personnel reporting to Ansel. She needed to remain as calm and steady as she had ever been.

“She has been the perfect person because she is so even-keeled and is very thoughtful before she makes a decision,” Sullivan says. “I don’t know what better person we could have put in that position given what we’ve been through the last several years.”

Her clients agree. “Sue has a great calming presence,” Demetriades says. “Circumstances happen where people wind themselves up and get crazier and crazier. The great thing is that she’s always able to get people to calm down and see what’s most important to deal with first. It helps set the tone for everybody else.”

With its major source of income—new development—grinding to a halt, Ansel faced the greatest challenge of her career. The oft-repeated “do more with less” mantra became gospel. Though Gables denies feeling any added pressure from its owners, industry watchers think ING and Lehman, who bought the firm in a highly levered buyout of approximately $2.8 billion in 2005, are likely exerting additional pressure on the bottom line.

In the aftermath of the recession, Gables slowed development, sold land, and disposed of 30 percent of its portfolio in 2007 and 2008. It used innovative, cost-effective marketing ideas, such as offering a home to a disc jockey in a new lease-up, as ways to keep its name in the forefront. Ansel also grew the property management group, bringing in 16 new third-party contracts within the past year. “We went into the downturn with some very important lease-ups in front of us,” Fitch says. “Well in advance of units coming online, she organized a team whose sole focus was to manage the process. Sue established an intensity level with this team that was maintained throughout the lease-up, never letting up until we reached stabilization. Like so many things she does, it was well-conceived and orchestrated, so we hit the ground running when units were delivered.”

She also cut costs as needed. “Her focus has been to scrub down every property to identify savings in operating expenses while not sacrifi cing customer service,” Fitch says.

Which is why even her competitors are impressed. “It takes somebody who is trusted and who has common sense [to manage in turmoil],” Mutz says. “She kept the troops going when there were fewer resources. She’s kept the brand very strong and very fresh.”

This quiet calm doesn’t mean Ansel has her head in the sand. In fact, her greatest strength may have been that she recognized what was coming early—in late 2008. “She didn’t over- or underreact,” Gables’ CFO Dawn Severt says. “She’s very steady. Like other companies, we needed to cut costs and had to be proactive about that. We did what we needed to do.”

One of Ansel’s proactive measures was deciding in early 2009 that Gables needed to shift its focus to existing residents. Her goal is to lock residents into long leases and simultaneously ramp up renewals. She’s well on her way: Gables’ renewal rates hover at 30.5 percent for the year. “We went to the residents earlier in the process than ever before, and we offered them the opportunity to renew for longer periods of time, sometimes at a discounted rate,” Ansel says. “We really focused on that, so I think that drove our performance.”

LOOK AHEAD FOR OPPORTUNITIES

Ansel’s leadership is part of what helped Gables stop its 2009 NOI losses at -3.6 percent. (It was predicting more than -4 percent.) Meanwhile, the REIT peers against which Gables benchmarks itself came in at an average NOI of -4.3 percent, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment banking and brokerage firm in New York.

Still, Ansel won’t take full credit: She says declining homeownership rates kept people in their apartments, and the ability to recruit Class B renters to Class A product (with rent cuts) helped. And ultimately, Ansel credits her team. “We have had better performance because we have better people—and well-trained people,” she says.

Even if things continue to improve as they have through 2010, Ansel’s steady hand will be greatly valued at Gables. In the next couple of years, the company, whose ownership fund is closed-end, meaning it has a defined lifetime, will be sold yet again. But the unshakable Ansel isn’t concerned. “I believe the company is structured to be an evergreen company,” she says. “There is still value in our platform, under lots of different ownership structures.”

Regardless of who ends up owning Gables, Lamberti knows they’ll get the ideal COO in Ansel, if not a potential company chief.

“To see her become CEO of a public or private firm wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Milestone’s Lamberti says. “I think her skills and her extensive background in multiple vertical divisions of large companies have certainly prepared her. She has the mental acuity to do that.”

Her current CEO Fitch agrees: “The sky is the limit for Sue.”