Courtesy Crescent Communities

There’s been no career second-guessing for Benjamin Collins. A bachelor’s degree in real estate from the University of Wisconsin in 2002 was quickly followed by a real estate MBA from the University of North Carolina’s Charlotte Belk College of Business, a degree Collins obtained while working full-time as a development project manager for Charlotte, N.C.–based Grubb Properties. Before he hit his 30s, the multifamily-minded professional was already serving in a board capacity for the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and was a development manager for Colonial Properties Trust.

A critical need for both affordability in housing and innovation in its development has guided Collins’ career path and its -velocity, which now finds the 2017 Multi-family -Executive Rising Star as a vice president and senior managing director for Charlotte-based Crescent Communities, where Collins is responsible for 5,600 units of development and $1.3 billion worth of total capitalization accounting for approximately 60% of Crescent’s entire multifamily business.

“Ben’s strongest attributes are those most critical to our businesses: his sourcing skills and, even more important, his ability to execute on new investments,” says Crescent Communities multifamily president Brian Natwick. “Simply put, he makes it happen. He consistently upholds our company values to be idea-driven and seeks opportunities for innovation and excellence at every touch point.”

No Silver Bullets

A member of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) since he was an undergrad, Collins credits the capstone real estate program at the University of Wisconsin for sparking his interest in multifamily.

“My mom was a single parent and worked two jobs, and we struggled to find housing,” Collins says. “I grew up in a 700-square-foot rental in not the best neighborhood in town, and as soon as I was exposed to affordable housing at U. of W., that’s when the lightbulb went off and I knew this was the industry for me.”

While Collins says housing affordability remains an imperative issue, his approach has led him toward innovation in the development process to reduce total costs while securing impressive returns on investment.

“I’ve spent my career invested both personally and professionally to look at innovation opportunities at the national, state, and local levels to address the growing problem of affordability,” Collins says. “It’s not a simple fix.”

Contributing to the challenge is an investment and development process that remains stuck on repeat, geared only toward market-proven due diligence, underwriting, and pro forma norms. “Risk management is at the core,” Collins says. “The apartment space remains an industry replete with personal entrepreneurs looking to mitigate risk and funded largely by institutional capital that is likewise risk averse, and both of those conditions are huge barriers to innovation.”

At Crescent Communities, Collins has realized an opportunity to contribute to a new approach to real estate development, one based on consumer-informed community design that eschews following macro indicators in favor of isolating extremely underserved submarket renter demographics. “The way multifamily works is that you get a site, you go through due diligence, launch design or take a plan off the shelf, and then hope for a great lease-up,” Collins says. “But isn’t there a way we can incorporate the customer within this process and, particularly, at the forefront of the process?”

People-Powered Platforms

The answer to that question at Crescent was the development of Canvas: a six-category, consumer-profiling exercise that pinpoints the needs and wants of a target renter demographic. Collins won’t reveal the categories used in the underwriting, but age isn’t one of them. “The process itself we still consider to be proprietary and a competitive advantage to keep under wraps,” he says. “Where maybe other investors and developers are looking for opportunities geared specifically toward millennials or boomers, we don’t think that’s the right way to think about it. There are customer demographics with specific market needs that span age categories.”

At an additional $70,000 cost per development, the Canvas process doesn’t come cheap, and Collins credits the Crescent leadership and ownership teams for supporting calculated risk-taking and innovation. “We’ve also had the delivery of results that have allowed us to continue to apply the program,” Collins says. “It’s a very unique situation to be in, and I hope we continue to see that.”

External investors, as well, are seeing the value in this more-concerted consumer-oriented development approach. In late 2014, Boston-based Berkshire Group began its purchase of a nine-asset portfolio of Crescent properties that hadn’t even been stabilized yet. Led by Collins and internally dubbed Project Eagle, the deal was valued at $700 million and became the fourth-largest multifamily transaction of the year, with Berkshire managing director David Olney calling the deal a “compelling, high-quality” investment.

Reinvesting and Reaching Out

Proceeds from Project Eagle have already been reinvested via the Canvas program into 4,500 new units of development at Crescent, including a community in Nashville, Tenn., just a block from Collins’ new, single-family home—also in a Crescent community.

Crescent Cameron Village in Raleigh, N.C., part of the nine-property Project Eagle portfolio deal with Berkshire.
Courtesy Crescent Communities Crescent Cameron Village in Raleigh, N.C., part of the nine-property Project Eagle portfolio deal with Berkshire.

“I lived at Crescent Dilworth in Charlotte, which was part of the Project Eagle portfolio, and I was able to meet a great Nashville girl, and we’re getting married and settling into our first home,” Collins says.

The greater multifamily industry remains a passion as well. Collins is a member of the NMHC, serves on the boards of several area real estate groups, and volunteers with various social services organizations.

“Look across the landscape of apartment associations and national networks and you just don’t see the volume of volunteer leadership from under-40 professionals,” -Collins says. “Figure out what [you’re] passionate about and ask how you can get involved. Tremendous opportunities are out there if you raise your hand and go get it.”

And while Crescent is primarily a Class A developer in the commercial, single--family, and multifamily sectors, Collins says the customer-first approach could ultimately provide a path toward improvements in affordability, as well.

“We talk a lot about consumer-focused design, short of standing on a podium and screaming about it, but building a better community shouldn’t just generate better value for our investors and shareholders; it should build better lives—and put them within easier reach—for our residents, as well.”