Laurie Lyons doesn't have an office, but she isn't complaining.
“I am not a comfortable CEO sitting behind a desk in a high-rise,” says the recently promoted Lyons, who just moved up from president to CEO of BH Management Services. In the process, she good-naturedly handed over the president's office to her successor. “I am most comfortable when I have my walking shoes on and I am in the field, in the trenches. I love it.”
For Lyons, on-site has always been her office. Unlike many CEOs of large property management firms, Lyons' industry experience stems from the five years she spent as an on-site property manager. The energetic, charismatic CEO serves as a voice of experience for the company's 1,000-plus employees and is never too busy to help a manager with the daily challenges of running a property.
“My experience in the trenches goes a long way,” says Lyons. “I really understand what they [property managers] are going through because I have been there.”
Others agree. “What sets her apart, in my mind, is her on-site experience,” says David Onanian, CEO of Houston-based Professional Apartment Services, a bulk purchasing company used by BH. “I think she understands not only what an employee needs because she was one, but she fundamentally understands what a property needs to be marketed appropriately.”
Lyons' background has helped BH grow dramatically from its modest beginnings with a five-property portfolio to a company that now owns 16,630 apartments and manages nearly twice that—more than 30,000 units in 11 states, with a focus in the Texas and Florida markets. And as BH continues to expand (it just landed the No. 29 spot on MULTIFAMILY EXECUTIVE's Top 50 ranking of the largest multifamily management companies), the company relies on Lyons' guiding principles, developed through years of industry experience.
Back to the Basics
BH Management's roots date back to 1990, when Lyons managed a 287-unit property in Sheboygan, Wis., for Harry Bookey, a real estate lawyer who had decided to try his hand at real estate investing. As Bookey slowly acquired more properties, Lyons assisted with due diligence and asset management. In 1993, the duo officially launched BH Management, with Lyons as president and Bookey as owner. “He's a financial guru, and I am the property management person, so it's a great combination,” says Lyons.
Over the past 10-plus years, BH has relied on a simple, yet vital, management strategy: Provide residents with a clean, friendly living environment. Lyons likens her business to running a high-end hotel, such as the Ritz-Carlton. “Aren't their properties always clean? That is what I want,” she says. “Aren't their people always friendly and call you by name and care about you? That's what I want.”
BH recently developed an auditing system to ensure that the basics aren't overlooked at any site. Checklists include broad categories, like clean make-readies and landscaped exteriors, down to the smallest details—no cluttered desks in the leasing office and freshly painted lines for the parking spaces. And when Lyons walks a property, nothing gets past her. On a recent tour, she quickly sees that a signature BH Management magnet is missing from the refrigerator in a model unit and that a narrow, winding staircase in the lobby needs to be replaced with a safer alternative.