To some, a rectangular stamp with the words "Same Day Service" inside may not mean much. But to Penny Priebe, the property manager at Hunter's Glen, a Laramar Group property in Aurora, Ill., it was very important. When Dave Woodward, managing partner and CEO of Chicago-based Laramar stopped by Hunter's Glen for a visit, Priebe wanted to make sure she showed him the property's new stamp to demonstrate just how responsive her maintenance team–and by extension, her office–was to residents' needs. Before Woodward slipped out, Priebe caught him and proudly punched an invoice with the new stamp.

Why was she so excited about such a seemingly mundane item? Because, over the past four years, Woodward has built a culture within Laramar that encourages property-level people to propose and implement ideas that improve customer satisfaction, increase revenue, and cut costs. If the ideas don't work, they're usually chalked up to experience. But if they succeed, property managers are praised companywide, with their ideas presented as best practices for all Laramar properties to consider. "All of the ideas are appreciated and thought about in terms of how they benefit the company's future," says Marie Hamilton, a regional manager for the company.

Laramar Group CEO Dave Woodward relies on his property-level staff, like this group at the Hunter's Glen Apartments in Aurora, Ill., to make key pricing and concession decisions for his company.
Laramar Group CEO Dave Woodward relies on his property-level staff, like this group at the Hunter's Glen Apartments in Aurora, Ill., to make key pricing and concession decisions for his company.

This openness to new ideas represents just one example of how the company, which owns or manages about 15,000 units, empowers its employees. Laramar encourages them to push both the pricing and concessions envelopes in their market and allows them to manage their own budgets. "It's almost like we're a franchise," Woodward says.

But the company doesn't let it go too far. Around these pockets of property-level empowerment stands a framework of systems and corporate oversight that maintains consistency and control across the portfolio.

Meeting of the Minds Like many entrepreneurs, Jeff Elowe, Laramar's president, started building his company (then called Elkor Realty Group) slowly. He bought his first property–a two-unit building in Chicago–in 1989, when he was just 26. Working with an old college buddy, Brad Korzen, who is no longer at the company, Elowe started buying small properties around Chicago. When someone suggested the two look at Florida, Elowe and Korzen went to Fort Lauderdale, where they'd spent their college spring breaks, and bought a property there.

Then they started buying buildings around the country, whether in Florida, Chicago, Texas, or Boise, Idaho. "Our strategy was purely opportunistic," Elowe says. "If we found a deal, we did it." The two built an 18,000-unit portfolio that included multifamily, retail, office, and hotels. But operating these properties was a distant second to buying them. "We didn't pay attention to operations at all," Elowe says.

That changed around 2000, when both partners realized they needed to focus more on operations. "The industry was riding a wave then, but we knew there would be a downturn," Elowe says. "We knew that having experienced people in operations would provide a cushion."

Enter Dave Woodward, then a senior vice president for Archstone-Smith in Englewood, Colo. Woodward started with Archstone's predecessor, Security Capital, and moved through the ranks, demonstrating his skills in operations. "Early on, he focused on management and operations," says Connie Moore, president and COO at BRE Properties Inc. in San Francisco, who was co-chairman at Archstone when Woodward was there. "That's what he loves and what he's good at."

From afar, the match between Woodward's operations skills and Elowe's deal-making acumen looked perfect. But Woodward, who was happy at Archstone, wasn't interested. A Chicago headhunter finally persuaded him to meet with Elowe and other Laramar leaders. After the meeting, Woodward saw things he wanted in a company–a small organization where he could leave his imprint–and he made the move in 2000.