Christy Freeland, chairman of Riverstone Residential Group, is retiring after 34 years of service. Freeland, who founded the company with Terry Danner in 2006 as a buyout of Trammell Crow Residential Services, got her start in the real estate and multifamily industry when she interned for HUD after receiving her master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Tulsa.
Freeland’s love of building and the opportunity to provide people with a place to call home led to her long career in the field. In an exclusive interview with Multifamily Executive, Freeland talked about the foundation and successes of her company, what she plans to do next, and her optimism about the changing future of the multifamily industry.
MFE: Tell us about how Riverstone Residential was formed and what was essential in getting the company to where it is today.
FREELAND: Sure. Back in the middle of 2005, Trammell Crow had decided they wanted to get out of the property management business and focus on development. Terry Danner and I were lucky enough that we were offered the opportunity to buy the company, which at that time was about 55,000 units in 180 properties across the country. Trammell Crow even financed the deal for us, and we originally took out a loan from them! We paid that loan off in June, just six months after we started, and we were still able to continue to grow: From April 2007 to April 2008, we bought five more companies around the country. We had an opportunity at that point to decide everything: What do we name the company? What do we want our culture to be? We had what we called birthday parties because we were just being born, and we invited everyone to please join us. We told them about the five dreams we had for the company. It was a wild and wonderful time.
MFE: You mentioned the five dreams you had for the company—what were those?
FREELAND: The dreams were meant to just give an opportunity to grow with the company in the sense of giving education and classes and promote at least 20 percent of open positions from within the company because we thought that was important. We obviously knew that we had to be profitable or else you don’t have a company for very long. We wanted to be industry leaders from the standpoint of making sure that we were giving back and coming up with new programs and ideas; we wanted to give back to our people. And we also wanted to make sure that we had satisfied clients in terms of delivering Net Operating Income. Most people would have called them goals, but we thought goals were kind of a yawner, so we called them dreams because we were really just starting out, and maybe we could make a dream come true by taking the steps and setting goals along the way.
MFE: How has Riverstone survived the recession and dealt with increased competition in the field?
FREELAND: I think we went into markets that we wanted to have a bigger presence in and we bought companies there and were able to absorb the people. In terms of the recession, we definitely needed to look very carefully at every position that was at a regional or corporate level, and we did a head count—which I think most companies have had to do—to make sure we’re spending all our dollars wisely. Clearly, with rents being lower than they had been in the past couple years, our fees had gone down, and we needed to make sure we were using technology well and getting things done better, quicker, faster. We made a very difficult decision last year when we decided to stop our 401K matching program, both on a regional and corporate level, because we thought that was one of the ways we could help property owners with their own Net Operating Income.
MFE: What do you see as the future of the multifamily housing industry? What do you think the biggest change will be in the years to come?
FREELAND: People will always need a place to live, a place to raise their families, a place to make memories. I think that multifamily will always have a big and bright future. I think that one of the things we have to make sure we’re very aware of is what our demographics want and need in an apartment home because that’s continuing to change. I think we are going to get more renters by choice even if they can afford a single-family mortgage. I do think our shadow market is in the single-family home, however. There are millions of single-family homes for rent out there, and in the past you couldn’t really get that organized but now you have things like Craigslist and it's easier for people. We have to keep our service level really strong and really focused in order to make sure that we attract and hold onto good, solid clients.
MFE: Looking back, what has been a favorite experience or period of time in your career?
FREELAND: I think one of my favorite times was a couple of years ago when we began our senior leadership program, which we’re very proud of. We train every regional manager, vice president, senior vice president, etc., and we continually are looking for new things, time management [strategies], a different way to look at expenses, our budgeting, [adding] more technology each year. We offer them somewhat similar to college-level classes. We want them to continue to grow since they’re really the catalysts that make sure the properties run according to contract. I’m really happy that we created that program. I’m proud of that.
MFE: What type of special projects do you hope to work on with Riverstone in the future?
Freeland: I think it’ll be a wide variety; I think it’ll be what Walt and Terry need. Revising bonus programs or looking at finance structures or trying to figure out if there’s a new way to look at fees or property management agreements. It will depend on what they want me to get involved with. And it will really allow me from the prospect of not being in a leadership role any more to find a certain area, research it, talk to people, and figure out what they want and maybe try and produce a product. And when you’re trying to lead a company and look at new products, that’s a really tough balance.
MFE: More broadly, what are you going to do next personally?
FREELAND: It’ll be a chapter of my life I’m really looking forward to. I’ll have a chance to get re-acquainted with my family, so I think that’s important. One of my sons is two years into high school, so I’m hoping to spend more time with him. I have three books in my head that I’ll be working on along the way. I also may go teach at a college level. So nothing that’s simply earning a living; instead, my plans are much more philanthropic. It’s nice to finally be able to give back.