Dynamic duo Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
After five years or so, Ric Campo says something started to irritate him. When Campo was working his way up through the business ranks, he attended the annual company Christmas party. Every year, he brought his wife, and every year, the company’s chairman approached his wife and introduced himself. “Every year, he’d come up and say, ‘Hi, my name is so-and-so, glad to meet you,’ as if it was the first time he had ever met my wife,” Campo says.

The chairman meant well as he pressed the flesh with hundreds of employees and their families, but he and his wife couldn’t help but feel diminished, as if the chairman thought his wife wasn’t important enough to remember.

Now, as chairman and CEO of Camden Property Trust, Campo is on the other end of the handshakes, and the introduction overkill that stuck in his craw years ago taught him a lesson he still uses to this day.

When Campo and Camden President and COO Keith Oden break the ice with employees at their $600 million rental property management company, they never say, “Nice to meet you,” instead opting for something more neutral, like, “Nice to see you.” “With 2,000 employees and a lot of new ones all the time, I never say to anybody, ‘Nice to meet you,’” Campo says. “I may have seen them before, and we want them to feel good.”

Campo and Oden, who in 1982 co-founded the company that would become Camden, say they want employees to have a sense of ownership in their company.

At Camden, which owns nearly 200 properties throughout the country, giving employees a sense of ownership begins with allowing them to make an emotional investment in the future of the company. That begins with a positive and inclusive attitude from upper management.

If you want your employees to take ownership in the company, you have to treat them like owners by attaching value both to them and to their input.

Thinking like an owner
One of the most effective ways you can attach value to the concept of employee ownership is by making your employees — especially management-level employees — shareholders.

Oden says it was one of the driving factors in the decision to take Camden’s stock public 14 years ago.

“It allowed us to very simply and efficiently put ownership in employees’ hands,” Oden says. “It goes back to a principle we had when we were a very small company and were just getting into the apartment business.”

Back in the early days of Camden, when the company had fewer than 10 properties, Campo and Oden frequently walked the properties with their site managers, discussing what the managers intended to do with their budgets. “We’d discuss, what are you going to do with a capital expenditure, how are you going to spend your money,” Oden says. “It was interesting because you would have conversations with the community managers, and on one hand, they’re trying to answer the question, but in their minds, they’re trying to do this dance of, ‘Well, I know I’m going to spend the money, but it takes capital to do that, I’m not sure that is the right decision, I think I can get rents, but I’m not sure. I don’t want to commit to that.’”

But when Oden rephrased the question by putting the property manager in the owner’s position, an interesting thing happened.

“Then we’d ask, ‘Well, what would you do if you were the owner of this asset?’ he says. “Then it suddenly became clear to them exactly what they ought to do and exactly what the correct trade-off was in terms of a dollar spent today and the ability to raise rents or get a return on it.”

The message was simple to Campo and Oden: If you want your managers to think like owners and make decisions like an owner would, make them actual owners.

When people are promoted to a manager’s position at Camden, they receive their first grant of shares. The company hands out annual grants of shares all the way down to the site-manager level. “I think you’ll find that’s fairly unheard of in this industry, granting shares down to the level at which we do,” Oden says. “We have 900 employees [out of about 2,000 total] who own stock through grants.”

Emotional investment
Campo says not every Camden employee is eligible to take financial ownership in the company, but for lower-level employees, the ability to feel like they have a say in the direction of the company is still there.

Campo says the key is a down-to-earth message that is consistent and communicated frequently.

Even if your company grows to the point that it is a puzzle of various departments and sites, you must try to keep as much of a small-company feel as you can for your team members. He says you do that through tireless communication. “You have to go out and engage your people,” he says. “You have to see them and talk to them and e-mail them.”

Having multiple points of contact is critical to both communicating your message and making sure both you and your senior management are accessible. Campo and Oden make it a point to frequently answer employee e-mails personally. “You have to really believe (in your communication strategy), not just talk the talk,” Campo says.

He says every opportunity to interact with your work force is an opportunity to either reinforce or damage your employees’ emotional investment in the company. Even when you present employees with monetary rewards for good, realize that it’s not just about the money you are handing out. It is also about the way you present it. “We recently gave bonuses to all our on-site people,” Campo says. “They had outperformed their budgets by about $16 million above the original budget. Those bonuses were not part of our normalized plan. “The result was that we had hundreds of e-mails thanking us and all kinds of different stories like, ‘Gee, I wasn’t able to go see my mother, and now I can.’ Just all kinds of interesting employee stories. Keith and I personally responded to all those e-mails. “So the point is, you have to be able to walk this way, to answer e-mails and thank your team for what they do and involve them.”

Oden says that the simplicity of the message is as important as its frequency. With nearly 200 properties under the Camden umbrella, he says simplicity is necessary in order to keep everyone on the same page.

Camden has been guided by a one-sentence company mission statement for 12 years: “Guided by our values, we are committed to being the best multifamily company by providing living excellence to our residents.”

Oden and Campo have tried to turn the mission into a mantra by asking everyone in the company, top to bottom, to memorize it.

The incentive? Everyone is fair game for a pop quiz.

“Our expectation is that everyone in the company will commit that to memory, and we test it all the time,” Oden says. “We tell them that senior executives are fair game for anybody at any time to say, ‘Share the mission statement.’”

The risk with committing a mission statement to memory is that you will have a company full of parrots who repeat the mission statement on cue but have no idea what it really means, which flies in the face of building an involved, enthusiastic work force. That’s why Oden and Campo also communicate the reasons behind the company’s mission regularly, then lead employees by example. “At the end of the day, you have to demonstrate the behavior that you want to hold people accountable for,” Oden says.

Oden says that he and Campo have created a list of nine company values and six operating strategies. Every one of those values and strategies falls in line with the mission, and every decision made concerning the company’s future should fall in line with the values and strategies.

If you want a culture that involves employees and drives them to care about the direction of the company, you need to make sure they understand what they are being asked to do and how it fits into the bigger picture. “Having a clear, simple message that people can embrace is crucial,” Oden says. “A lot of companies get way too fancy-pants with their intergalactic theories of capital market pricing, etc., and honestly, the vast majority of those conversations would probably be lost on your headcount. It’s crucial to your culture that your employees can make your values and strategies a part of their day-to-day conversations.”

The new guys
Asking new employees to come in and make an emotional investment in a company is a tall task. Multiply that by hundreds or even thousands of people, and you have the cultural challenge of an acquisition.

Over the years, Camden has made a number of acquisitions, and each time, it’s a feeling-out process for the employees of the acquired company.

Campo says employees at acquired companies can be slow to trust, so you must interact with them on their level if they are ever to feel like part of their new team. If you don’t, you can quickly undermine the chances of success for the acquisition. “Mergers are tough,” Campo says. “The company we bought, people are all thinking they are going to lose their jobs. They hear about huge bank mergers with 2,000 people getting laid off, and they get really scared.”

Two years ago, when Camden merged with Summit, another property management company, Campo took employee interaction to a whole new level. “Keith and I are going to address the crowd of 200 or 300 new employees who had never heard from us before,” he says. “So I show up in a maintenance man’s shirt that has ‘Camden’ on one side and my name on the other. I’m in tennis shoes and blue jeans, and I’m walking around chatting with people, and this other maintenance guy comes up to me and says, ‘Wow, this must be an interesting company if they brought in a maintenance guy to talk about the merger.’”

Campo holds up his pretend role-shift as his best example of appealing to employees on their level.

“The outgoing CEO is wearing a coat and tie, and he introduces himself to the crowd, then turns to me and says, ‘Now I’m going to introduce you to Camden’s head of maintenance, Rick Campo.’”

But Campo says after the attention-grabbing introductions are over, it’s time to walk the talk. Dressing up like a maintenance man for one meeting won’t make any difference if you aren’t out there mingling with your team when you’ve put your suit back on. “That’s what you have to do to create this culture where you have a down-to-earth mentality,” Campo says. “If you don’t act the part and just dress up, they won’t listen to you. You have to see them and talk to them and act in the way they expect you to act. You have to give them the sense that you are helping them and you believe they are important.”

HOW TO REACH: Camden Property Trust, www.camdenliving.com