View the 2012 MFE Top 50 Managers List

It was another big year for the top manager of 2011. Charleston, S.C.–based Greystar Real Estate Partners, a primarily third-party manager, clinched the No. 1 spot for the second year in a row, adding more than 5,000 managed units, thanks to what CEO and founder Bob Faith calls an “evergreen business strategy.”

“We’re absolutely honored to be No. 1 again,” Faith says. “It’s been a good year; we focused on management development and investment management, giving us a balanced business model. We’ve added a lot of new clients and have continued to grow and acquire in new markets, expanding our geographic footprint.”

Part of his business strategy was to use what he calls the “six pillars of excellence,” which comprise people, customer satisfaction, operational excellence, profitability, growth, and community outreach.

“I wish there were a magic bullet,” Faith says. “But I really think it boils down to the basics of business, and what we’ve done is boiled down our recipe for success.”

But Faith realizes that with the economy still recovering, it wasn’t a time to stray too far from what he knows. “We’ve always maintained conservative capital and never acquired a lot of debt or leverage,” he says. “While competitors have struggled, we’ve continued to grow.”

Still, there were challenges.

“One of the challenges for a large third-party management company like ours is that when there’s a lot of buying and selling going on, we are stretching the market,” Faith says.

“One way we’ve continued to grow is to manage a lot of REO properties,” Faith continues. “We’ve managed a lot of foreclosed properties, but over the last year we’ve seen REO properties starting to sell. So, in spite of the headwind, we’ve still been able to continue our strong growth. Fortunately we’ve added more in the front door than out the back door. It’s steady as she goes for us in a rocky environment.”

The environment wasn’t too rocky for the other top 10 on the list, though. Nearly all managed a growing number of units this year. No. 2 Dallas-based Riverstone Residential managed an additional 8,000 units, and another Dallas-based company, No. 3 Lincoln Property Co., moved up in the rankings by managing more than an additional 10,000 units last year. And No. 10 Greensboro, N.C.–based Bell Partners added nearly 1,000 units to its management portfolio. It was also a significant year for the No. 8 manager, Englewood, Colo.–based Archstone.

Archstone is now managing more than 77,000 units, down 3,000 units from 2010. But Charles E. Mueller Jr., Archstone’s chief operating officer, remains positive. “We made significant strides in 2011, both in strengthening our industry-leading operating platform and in acquiring and developing outstanding apartment communities in great neighborhoods in the best cities in the country,” he says. “We’ve added substantial value to our portfolio recently with a number of acquisitions and development starts in our core markets, including New York, San Francisco, Southern California, Seattle, and southeast Florida.”

Houston-based Camden Property Trust remained at the No. 9 spot on the list again this year. But the fact that the firm increased both its revenue and number of units managed in 2011 goes to show just how competitive a year it was for apartment managers.

Ric Campo, Camden’s CEO, has even bigger plans for this year. “2012 is going to be one of the best years in the apartment industry,” he says. “Because of an incredible turn of events, supply and demand are definitely in the landlord’s favor. We have very well-located properties, maintained through the downturn and located in the right markets where job growth is happening.” Camden sees demand mainly being driven by young people, who tend to be more mobile and have less intention to buy a house than do other demographic groups. He hopes to take advantage of that this year.

“One of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now is making sure our people in the field raise rents faster than they are inclined to. I think people get nervous, and giving them the confidence to be aggressive to drive revenue and take advantage of the very strong market right now [is important],” he says.

As far as the strongest markets to take advantage of the young demographic, Campo says Texas is very strong, especially in cities like Houston, Dallas, and Austin. Other strong markets around the country include Denver and Raleigh, N.C. But Las Vegas, for example, has been slower.