BH founder Harry Bookey.
Ben Easter BH founder Harry Bookey.

Since Harry Bookey founded BH in a small extra room at a friend’s office in 1993, it has grown to become the nation’s eighth largest multifamily property management firm and 22nd largest multifamily owner-operator, managing more than 107,000 apartment units in 29 states and generating more than $1.75 billion in annual gross revenue.

The key to Bookey’s success? He would tell you it’s nothing more than good luck, good people, and maybe a good appetite.

Bookey founded BH after an unsatisfying stint as a partner in a large law firm in Des Moines, Iowa. Realizing he would rather be the client than the counsel, he traded in a hushed mahogany office for an 8-by-10 room next door to a psychiatrist who practiced primal scream therapy, his workday interrupted every hour by someone releasing repressed childhood traumas. He never looked back. “I was just happy to not be practicing law anymore,” he says.

His first acquisition, in 1992, was a 150-unit apartment complex in San Antonio that he purchased for a very favorable price from a bankrupt savings and loan amid the S&L crisis. After the late-afternoon closing in San Antonio, Bookey was hungry, so he asked the savings and loan president to join him for dinner. The president declined because he had to go to another closing for the same deal, this one to collect a check from the Federal Home Loan Bank for the difference between the mortgage on the property he had just sold to Bookey and the amount Bookey had paid him.

The lightbulb went off, illuminating Bookey’s path forward.

“I looked at him, and I said, ‘So, you don’t care what the price is?’” Bookey recalls. “And he just said, ‘Nope.’ And I said, ‘Well, do you have any more of these?’ And he said, ‘Four.’ So, that’s how I got started—just asking a person to go to dinner. It was just good luck.”

Luck might be a factor, but Bookey didn’t build a multifamily empire from nothing and become a go-to adviser for preeminent real estate and brokerage firms like Blackstone and CBRE through good fortune alone. A Des Moines native, he has a Midwestern work ethic—he started working in the stockyards of his father’s meat-packing plant as a teenager, learned the art of negotiation as a cattle buyer at the age of 16, and purchased cattle of his own that paid for college—and a direct yet modest way of being.

He has built a company culture that values and supports everyone, from C-suite executives to property maintenance staff. He guides BH with two simple principles: Do business the right way, and invest in the team because it is the company.

For Bookey, integrity is everything. When nearly every company in the multifamily industry was trying to renegotiate their loans in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2007–2008 financial crisis, Bookey used his personal funds to ensure BH never missed a payment or laid off any employees.

“If we hadn’t been able to pay it back later, it would have been a sad situation for me,” Bookey says, but the stress was well worth it. “That gave us a very strong name in the industry.”

Precision Serving

With headquarters in Des Moines and Dallas and regional offices in Atlanta; Chicago; Houston; Phoenix; and Richmond, Virginia, BH’s four divisions—real estate acquisition firm BH Equities, property management company BH Management Services, BH Architecture & Design, and BH Construction Services—employ more than 2,600 people. As chairman and founder of BH, Bookey oversees all aspects of property acquisitions, asset management, and property management.

“Harry is a hands-on leader who is involved in the day-to-day implementation of the newest projects,” says Shawn Handrahan, president and CEO of Valet Living, a multifamily amenities provider that announced a national partnership agreement with BH Management Services earlier this year. “No task is too small for Harry, and he leads by example, always willing to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty. Harry’s ideas are as big as his charisma, and he inspires his team to think outside the box and push the boundaries.”

Bookey is known for paying attention to every detail, walking BH properties with an eagle eye and striving to make residents feel at home. “You’re dealing with people’s homes,” he says. “Regardless of what a resident is paying in rent, it matters.”

He realized what a difference attention to detail can make during an encounter with an investor partner who made more than $100 million on a large BH project. Bookey was hoping for a bonus when the investor partner invited him to lunch at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, but the topic never came up. As they were leaving the art deco building, the investor partner said he had something on his mind—but it wasn’t the lucrative deal that had just closed. He was concerned about grass growing in the cracks on a tennis court at a BH-managed property in Texas. “I was having an out-of-body experience, but I told him I would take care of it right away,” Bookey says. “And that was it!”

A week later, a pension fund asked Bookey to be a reference for the investor partner. He took the call from the pension fund and told the story about the grass on the tennis court. The next day, the investor’s assistant called and said, “What did you tell him?” The pension fund had intended to invest $5 million and was instead investing $25 million.

“The pension fund obviously felt that if they were concerned about grass on a tennis court in Texas, that was who they wanted to invest with,” Bookey says. “It was a great lesson for me that attention to detail is very important, not only for residents but investors.”

Improving Lives and Communities

BH owns and manages a mix of luxury and workforce housing in its portfolio, and Bookey understands the value of both—to his business and to the communities BH serves. In 2022, Freddie Mac named BH its Impact Sponsor of the Year for transforming communities with affordable housing and green technologies.

BH is committed to preserving and improving workforce housing and has led the way in completing green improvements and technology upgrades that benefit both residents and the environment, says Laura Cathlina, senior managing director of institutional solutions with Berkadia Chicago Mortgage Banking, which has a long-standing relationship with BH.

“One of the key areas of focus for Harry has been BH’s deep commitment to green initiatives,” she says. “BH has made strides in this sector and truly understands the importance of sustainability and has implemented policies and procedures that prioritize the environment.”

Another core value for BH is “hear every voice.” Diversity is more than just a policy at the company, where women make up 70% of the senior leadership team and eight of the 13 executive leaders. Bookey attributes much of BH’s success to BH CEO Joanna Zabriskie, who joined the company in 2013 in what Bookey considers another lucky break. “She can spot great people and has cultivated a great team,” he says. “People just respect her and like working for her. That’s been a big part of our growth and success.”

Andrew N. Stark, principal of Timberline Real Estate Ventures, which partnered with BH to create student housing management company B.HOM Student Living in 2020, says Bookey has been instrumental in building BH’s “deep-rooted culture of family first.”

“For Harry, family has a broader meaning, as it not only embraces his wife, daughters, sons-in-law, and other relatives,” Stark says. “But when Harry defines family, he is including the BH leadership team, the whole BH family of employees, and BH’s hundreds of thousands of residents. I think Harry created the first true culture- and people-first organization in the multifamily management world.”

BH supports employees through initiatives such as a sabbatical program for personal and professional growth, a “bring your baby to work” policy, and the “BH Gives Back” program, which allocates eight paid time-off hours per year for employees to do volunteer work. Through Project Destined, BH contributes time and company resources to provide internship opportunities to college students who want to focus on real estate.

In charitable work, as in everything else, Bookey leads by example. He and his wife, Pamela Bass-Bookey, are a philanthropic force in Des Moines, with a foundation that has invested millions in local nonprofits, including The Isiserettes, a local minority-based youth drill and drum corp; Des Moines Art Center; Des Moines Metro Opera; Des Moines Symphony; and Salisbury House, a 1920s mansion-cum-museum that hosts tours and community events. The Bookeys are active contributors to the International Crisis Group and have taken two trips abroad with the organization.

Bookey has also been heavily involved in redeveloping his hometown’s downtown, starting with the transformation of the historic Beaux Arts–style Masonic Temple into The Temple for Performing Arts, which provided a cornerstone for downtown revitalization.

He helped conceive and co-found Court Avenue Partners, which funded the Vine Street Lofts and Kirkwood, two of the first downtown multifamily projects in 20 years, and upped the downtown dining scene by opening Centro, an award-winning Italian restaurant, in 2001. Since then, 36 new restaurants have opened downtown.