Business is in Michael DeAscentis II’s blood. His father, Michael Sr., was in the excavating and housing business in the 1970s and 1980s before the father-son team started Columbus-based Lifestyle Communities in 1996. Today, the father serves as the company’s chairman, while the son runs the day-to-day operations as CEO. Since it was founded, the company has built more than 3,500 apartments and condominiums and created 18 communities in Ohio and Kentucky. By focusing on its brand creating living solutions for young professionals the company has grown to 195 employees and $92 million in 2006 revenue. Smart Business spoke with DeAscentis on how he maintains his core strategy.
Establish your brand. When people talk about brands, they think about their products and their services, but really, it’s the unique relationship you want to have with your customer. From our standpoint, we want to create a competitive advantage with the customer experience.
We communicate our brand to our leadership team in two pieces: One is from the bricks-and-mortar standpoint, and the other is the human side of the business and the personal interaction with our customers.
Develop a set of employee values. As we grew from a start-up into a developer, we started to see people in our organization that were very successful, and some people that weren’t very successful. We started to talk about their attributes: What is it about their competency set? What is it about their values that either align with our organization and our vision or don’t align? What are the essential qualities that are required to execute our vision? We outlined five or six key elements, and we integrated those into the recruiting and hiring process.
In doing this, we clearly saw a benefit in our ability to execute on a day-to-day basis and our ability to grow and to perform. We saw our market share and our profit margins increase. We saw an influx of ideas from employees to launch other services or businesses around our brand and discovered growth opportunities within our existing business.
Hire communicators. We value people who can communicate clearly no matter how difficult the topic. We don’t want to hire people that tell us what we want to hear. We want to hire people who can have crucial conversations and talk about tough topics.
People need to be willing to share information. You have to have this open-source philosophy that you’re not the only one who has a good idea: Everybody’s smarter than somebody. The ability to effectively communicate in an unselfish way, with integrity and honesty, is important.
Look for performance and leadership skills. People who are results-oriented and have a strong work ethic are adaptable. They like and understand what it means to be held personally accountable, but it’s also having passion for what you do and a commitment to do it better than anybody else.
The other quality that’s tough to find but I’ve seen it deliver the biggest results is people who have leadership skills. Leadership’s not a position but an individual commitment and approach to your business. You practice it with your actions. Leaders deliver on commitments. They fix mistakes and don’t fall blame with people.
Leadership is the toughest quality to ferret out in an interview. The best way I’ve found to do it is take the successful leaders in our company and put them on the interview committee. Like people find each other.
If you value it, reward it. We’ve been pretty good at creating a culture of innovation. If a staff person or a middle-management person comes up with an idea, seeing that idea get launched is a huge reward. It’s not just ideas falling from the top and sprinkling down through the organization; it’s really the other way around.
Empower your team. When you find people on the management side that line up with your values, extending an invitation to sit at the decision table is important to them.
There’s a tremendous amount of personal satisfaction in knowing that you’re participating in the success of a business. The financial incentive is a part of it, but there are a lot of nonfinancial things that go along with it: the ability to take on more responsibility and the opportunity to move up in the company.
Know your customer. We started out in 1996 as, predominantly, an apartment developer, and our products and our communities didn’t look much different than any other apartment developer. Then the vision came: What’s going to make us different than everybody else, and what’s going to create a competitive advantage for us?
We came to the conclusion when we looked at our customers, there was this concentration of young people choosing their housing solutions for the very first time. We focused more on them and their needs than what the product needed to be. Then we started to change our marketing, our product, our amenity package and our services.
It’s everybody’s responsibility in our company to understand our customers and to stay current, whether you’re a maintenance tech, sales agent or a construction superintendent. Your employees interact with your customers every day; they see the brand of car the customers drive, how they dress, what they look like, what work hours they keep, as well as their habits. Our people are our best brand ambassadors.
You don’t start this initiative, figure it all out and stop. It’s something that’s constantly evolving, and it’s a discipline that we felt was very important to imbed in the culture of our company.
Be prepared. Years ago, my father gave me some advice: Always be ready for the competitor that comes out of nowhere and will try to try to take your market away from you. You have to constantly refine and retune your business to keep it fresh. That permeates everything we do.
HOW TO REACH: Lifestyle Communities, (614) 883-4663 or www.lifestylecommunities.com