Multifamily Executive Magazine: Julie Smith Named 2013 Executive of the Year

September 11, 2013

Published in Multifamily Executive

Personal Touch
Julie Smith’s great foresight, coupled with her trademark warmth, has turned Bozzuto Management into one of the industry’s best firms—and made her MFE’s 2013 Executive of the Year.

When Julie Smith walks in the room, it’s all smiles. It’s a surprise visit, but leasing consultants at Monroe Street Market Apartments in Washington, D.C., are no less excited to see the president of Bozzuto Management Co. walk in unannounced. And the mood is heightened by the surroundings—the cozy leasing trailer is stocked with plush decor, a kitchen filled with snacks, and a large, touch-screen television to keep prospective tenants engaged while they wait to speak to a consultant.

Monroe Street Market is the largest construction project The Bozzuto Group is working on, as the Greenbelt, Md.–based firm stakes its claim in the Brookland neighborhood, delivering much-needed retail space and housing to this emerging, arts-centric community. Monroe Street Market nearly sells itself, with its spacious interiors and single loaded corridors dotted with windows every 12 feet. Although the building perches directly over an outdoor train station, and three more apartment buildings are under construction, you can’t hear a thing as you look out of a window. But the sight of the construction activity, and the unfinished status of the main building containing the community’s amenities, can make for a
daunting view.“

This is the toughest part of a lease-up,” Smith says. “You really have to sell the dream.”

The leasing consultants have done just that, as they enthusiastically prepare for six move-ins that day while managing a wait list for the next three buildings. And as they update Smith on their progress, her smile conveys her pride in a team built on her training and vision.

It’s just another opportunity for Smith to connect with her staff, a skill that comes easily to her. After all, she’s walked a mile in their shoes, understands exactly how they operate, and can readily jump in to help a tenant if need be.

While she may have started her career as a leasing consultant, Smith is now leading an award-winning management
company that nearly dominates the D.C. luxury market and is growing its footprint up and down the East Coast. Bozzuto Management is adding 32 more properties to its portfolio this year, and just two months ago, it was named property manager for the 458-unit CityCenter DC, one of the city’s largest mixed-use developments to date.

Smith has been the face of Bozzuto’s management division since it began, helping to grow it from just 15 employees to more than 600 today. And now, as the firm prepares for its next growth spurt, all eyes are on Smith to see how she’ll maintain, or even improve on, that momentum.

Serendipitous Find
When Smith packed up all her belongings in 1982 with $2,000 in the bank to head to D.C., she had no clue what
awaited on the horizon. A series of odd jobs and house-sitting stints in Georgetown led her to a public affairs gig at Warner Communications. During her short tenure there, some one noticed her warm, outgoing nature and suggested she’d be a great fit in the property management field.

The next thing she knew, Smith found herself in Reston, Va., managing a 360-unit apartment building for Chevy Chase, Md.–based B.F. Saul Co. “It was my very first job in property management,” she says. “I was fresh and knew nothing about the business.”

Suffice it to say she excelled, and in a short, two-year span, all the stars seemed to align. Smith took on an assignment in Florida, where she learned about new construction lease-up and best practices in managing luxury communities, adding to her knowledge base.

She was homesick, though, and as soon as she met some representatives from the now defunct Oxford Management Co., she managed to get her footing back in the District to work for the company.

She started working in the field but quickly transitioned into a marketing role, opening up properties throughout the mid-Atlantic. But it was the relationship she built with two of Oxford’s execs—Tom Bozzuto and Rick Mostyn—that would take her to new heights.

After they left Oxford to found The Bozzuto Group in 1988, Bozzuto and Mostyn were itching to hire Smith. But a 365-day noncompete agreement kept them from snapping her up.

“On the 366th day, we hired Julie Smith,” Mostyn, now the company’s vice chairman and COO, says.

The rest is history. Smith has stuck with the company for 24 years and counting, and the two leaders can’t imagine their growth and success without her as president of Bozzuto’s management division.

“She’s as much a part of the company and the corporate culture as anyone,” says Bozzuto, chairman and CEO of The Bozzuto Group. “And as responsible for it, in many respects, as I am.”

Worldly Ideas
When Tom Bozzuto won multifamily executive’s Executive of the Year award 10 years ago, Smith was quoted in the article. And he distinctly remembers how she called him highly caffeinated. Now, the tables have turned.

“I think that description applies to her instead,” he jokes. “I’ll send Julie an e-mail at 11:15 at night. And at six o’clock the next morning when I get up, I’ve got a response. She’s seldom ready to rest on her laurels.”

It’s not just her work ethic he speaks of, though. It’s Smith’s enthusiasm and forward-looking approach that have solidified Bozzuto’s spot in the industry.

“She’s got a good finger on the pulse of the community we operate in, and what that customer wants and is looking for,” Mostyn says.

While touring a studio unit at Monroe Street, Smith is quick to point out smaller appliances, something she picked up on while visiting London. And while admiring the staged furniture, she talks to the leasing consultant about utilizing the website Houzz to address all the questions from prospective tenants about the furniture. You can see the wheels turning in her head as she schools the young professional on this new social media and design tool, which could prove useful for the company later down the line.

That same inquisitive look was probably plastered on Smith’s face during her travels to Europe three years ago. Just about every place her family stayed, or restaurant they ate in, asked them for a review on Trip Advisor.

“I was a devotee of reviews at that point,” she says. “I wouldn’t cook a recipe without checking the reviews first.”

She knew it was just a matter of time before the multifamily business transitioned from an advertising-based model to one based on renter reviews. So when Smith came back to the States, she immediately implemented her plan of social media action. By tackling negative reviews on Yelp and ApartmentRatings.com head on, Smith was able to make the company more visible on the Web and extract some real world value out of an otherwise young niche.

“Today, I would argue that it’s one of the most important things we can focus on as an industry, not even as a company,” Smith says.

Bozzuto has used social media as a performance evaluation tool, and as an educational tool to learn both the good and the bad about its properties. Simple issues like a renter having to stand in line for a grill are easily discovered and solved thanks to an organized social media outreach.

“You get a sense of what works at the community and what doesn’t,” Smith says. “There’s a good amount of information embedded in those reviews that can be extremely helpful in positioning your property.”

And to think—the initiative stemmed from a vacation.

This past summer, she embarked on another, three-week journey to Europe and spent a significant amount of time horseback riding. There, she ruminated on the future of the company, as well as about the way consumers digest information and how they choose to spend their money. Smith is all about remaining steps ahead of the competition.

“Time really flies in this business,” Smith says. “In order to be forward-thinking, you have to take the time to think about the future. I spent a lot of time on a horse, so I had a lot of time to think about the next five years.”

Finger on the pulse
Smith sits in a modest office in Greenbelt, Md., garnished with bowls of candy, pictures of family, and a conference table that she rarely uses. Visitors are welcomed with a plaque that states, “Good morning.
Let the stress begin,” and a series of other quirky quotes. Her door remains open, even when she’s not there.

“I’ll often come back from a meeting and there’s someone having a meeting in my office,” she laughs. And she’s OK with that.

With a business built on relationships and familial ties, it’s not hard to find the secret to the company’s leasing-agent turnover rate, which is less than half the industry average, Smith says. The Bozzuto Group employs more than 1,500 and has consistently remained on Washington Business Journal’s “Best Places to Work” list for the past five years and six in total. It’s all about creating an environment where employees feel mentored and can trace a clear upward path within the company, Smith says.

“We don’t hire people if we don’t expect them to get promoted in the next six months,” she says. “The success of our business is predicated on the growth of our employees.”

The company received more than 41,000 résumés last year, and it has been fairly selective about its workforce. Bozzuto is also diversity aware, making a conscious effort to have its workforce look like the communities it serves.

The executives at Bozzuto also are not afraid of nepotism. About 40 percent of their hires come from internal referrals. Add to that a large internship program, and Bozzuto regularly averages more than 100 internal promotions a year.

“Your success in this business is largely dependent on whom you work with, as much as whom you work for,” Smith says.

But beyond having a clear-cut plan for hiring the best talent, Smith realizes that employees are self-selecting and need to work where they can connect with others. As such, she’s forged relationships with almost everyone she comes in contact with.

“I’ve always wanted it to be very personal,” Smith says. “I knew all of my leasing consultants’ names, I knew their boyfriends, I knew who their kids were. Now, I don’t have that luxury, because we’re much bigger, but I still believe that it’s very important to have personal connections with the people actually working in the field.”

Smith can visit up to 10 properties a week. If she’s in the neighborhood and there’s a parking spot out front, she’ll park her black SUV and walk into the property in a suit and heels, to either meet some new faces or say hello to an old comrade.

At Yale West Apartments in D.C., she reminisces with a consultant she’s known for years, after personally connecting with the concierge and maintenance teams.

“I remember when she was ready to burst three years ago when we were in lease-up for a new property,” Smith says as she asks the consultant about her 3-year-old son. “She’s worked in at least six different properties. I’m happy to see her.”

To some companies, the constant transition of leasing consultants and property managers from community to community could be jarring. But it’s just another way Bozzuto helps build each consultant’s individual network, Smith says.

Hugging the Columns
No matter how far Bozzuto has come, it’s still a locally based company not ready to dilute its brand by growth for growth’s sake. Still, Smith could stay up all night thinking about the thousands of tenants for whom Bozzuto is meeting the most basic of needs.

“That’s a lot of responsibility,” she says. “There are times when it can get very stressful. Never could I have imagined having 45,000 units when we first started.”

But Smith has not once doubted her position in the multifamily world. The ever-evolving business combines her love of marketing, design, and problem-solving skills.

She remembers when the company let go of managing its first mid-rise luxury property, the Westbrooke, which returned to its original owners in 2002 after Bozzuto had managed it for seven years. The Westbrooke had been Bozzuto’s big break into the industry, jumpstarting the firm’s work in the market while the property held the highest rents in Washington.

You would think the Westbrooke would hold a special place in her heart. Yet, asking which property is Smith’s favorite is like asking her to name her favorite child. You should never get too attached to the portfolio, Smith warns, but there are some properties with loads of history that are tightly embedded in her heart.

“There are some properties where I literally hugged the columns before we sold it,” Smith says.

That passion dictates her every move, but she’s as tactical and as diligent as a chess player. It’s what Tom Bozzuto noticed when he worked with her more than 25 years ago, when he realized what Smith was capable of, convinced she could run a much larger portfolio.

It was nothing short of a self-fulfilling prophecy.