How Ric Campo settled an identity crisis, found growth through mergers and had fun at Camden Property Trust Featured

2:07am EDT November 1, 2012
How Ric Campo settled an identity crisis, found growth through mergers and had fun at Camden Property Trust

Ric Campo has been Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus, Indiana Jones, ZZ Top and a number of others. He’s not an impersonator, nor an actor, but the CEO of an $8 billion company trying to get all his 1,864 employees on the same page.

His company, Camden Property Trust, owns 206 business and multifamily apartment properties around the nation. For years, the employees working at those properties pretty much had allegiance to their property and not to the company. That was a big issue.

A rebranding effort solved many of the concerns. Gone were inconsistencies in naming and policies. All properties now had Camden in their names.

But as part of team-building exercises such as departmental comedy skits, Campo’s impersonations set examples on how to let your hair down, break through the walls that separate different ranks of employees and drive engagement.

“There are enough barriers between employees and the C-level people,” Campo says. “You know how people just freak out, how people are awed by that. I think the skits are sort of a leveling; they make people more approachable and more real as opposed to, ‘I’m the CEO and you’re the employee and I tell you what to do — I can fire you or hire you.’ Those kinds of breakthroughs are important to get the best out of your employees.”

The scenes for those breakthroughs are the stages of companywide meetings and events. When the curtain rises, there is a lot of employee spirit going on. Campo sets up to tell the people who make up the brand they have to get engaged, get to know the company better and get to see that one of its core values is fun.

The idea behind the skits is people have to work together, come up with a script and produce it.

“You create a tremendous amount of shared experience because that is what you are trying to do — team building,” he says.

It all leads to a united company firing on all cylinders. Here are the steps Campo finds effective in getting everyone on the same page throughout a far-flung company with annual revenue of $676 million.


Seek and enhance relationships

While many businesses may feel their most important relationship is that between the company and its customers, equally important are employee/employee relationships. You have to have the second one before you can even think about developing the company/customer relationship.

Camaraderie is your lifeblood, and without it, work and even life in general may be rather dull.

“One of your core values should be to have fun,” Campo says. “If you can’t have fun, you can’t have fun with the people you work with, why bother? We try to make it feel like employees want to get up in the morning and come to work for Camden. And they want to have fun doing it.”

Creating a culture of fun starts with research and borrowing ideas from fellow companies’ successful efforts. Once you have some plans, roll out the initial ones. The first part of the year is a good time.

“One of our big ones is at the beginning of the year. Starting in February and running throughout March, we have what are called ACE awards, which is Achieving Camden Excellence. It’s basically an employee recognition event,” Campo says.

Employees vote for other employees on how they emulated Camden’s values in the last year, and winners get prizes.

“It’s a really big deal,” he says. “Some people get up and cry when they win. They also get money, too, like $2,500, a trophy and a watch.”

You can try different formats and vary the locations. Campo finds an all-day employee event effective for rehashing how everyone did last year and what is going to go on in the new year.

“But if you think about what you have — a lot of people, maintenance people and service people and so on — don’t communicate in corporate-speak,” he says. “Communicate in normal language. For example, when we talk about how we did over the last year, we don’t talk about balance sheets or income statements, earnings per share or multiples on stock or anything like that.”

Talk about normal things people understand. Incorporate some well-produced videos and other audiovisual means if you can.

“We use a lot of fun stuff so that creates a camaraderie with the employees; it gives them a sense of pride where they work,” Campo says. “Spend a fair amount of time talking about what you do.”

As the discussions are carried on, it’s important to follow through when suggestions or requests are made. Those can be turned over to a committee structure, which you would have in place by that time.

“The key thing is you have to listen to them, and you should make changes based on their input,” Campo says. “Have various constituent groups of employees. For example, we have the maintenance advisory committee, the MAC. It’s made up of maintenance people from around the country. They meet four times a year in Houston and basically deal with issues that they get from the field.

“They go through and decide which idea or request is going to be prioritized, and then which one is going to be presented,” he says. “The key to this is making sure that there is a forum for communication from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down.”


Start with a focus on trust

Developing the employer/employee relationship depends in a big way on creating a great workplace.

“That’s the key,” Campo says. “It all has to do with how people treat each other. It starts with trust. You build trust with your employees over a period of time.”

Building trust involves some of the key issues leadership must embrace.

“Some employees say they trust; well, a lot of them don’t trust,” Campo says. “Trust revolves around things like fairness, respect and credibility, and a lot of that has to do with communication and what things you do as a management team and how you do them.”

For example, on the fairness side, if you always hire management from outside the company and never from within, is that fair?

By establishing company practices, it will be a step toward greater trust.

“Have a policy on posting a new job,” Campo says. “We always post job openings in advance on our website for our employees to see. They get two weeks’ advance notice before we go out into the marketplace.”

You earn people’s respect when you do your job consistently well, set a good example, don’t bad-mouth others and respect other people, for example.

Credibility is being credible in good times and bad.

“During the good times, the key is, if you treat your employees well and you are fair and pay them well, you share the profits — there are not two or three people making all the money and no one else,” Campo says.

“You communicate effectively — What are the goals of the organization? Then you are patient. It takes time to develop those kinds of things. It takes about a nanosecond to blow them out.”

Don’t destroy that trust even in times of financial challenge, such as with the recent recession. Campo made some bold steps that helped ensure trust.

“We cut pay for the top people the most,” he says. “I took, like, a 75 percent pay cut, my next level took, like, a 40 percent cut, and then as we got down to our managers, they basically got a zero cut in pay but we froze their salaries. That is how you get into credibility, respect and fairness for people, and that’s how you build trust.”

It’s important to build pride, camaraderie and awareness that the job is not just a paycheck. Campo makes sure employees get a piece of the action and that communicates how he cares about their eventual retirement. But it also gives them a new perspective because they become part owners.

“When we hire a manager, for example, or a service maintenance person, we give them stock,” he says. “We have about 2,000 employees, and about 1,000 own stock in the company. A lot of them own stock because we gave it to them. Some own stock because we have a pretty robust employee stock purchase program.”

So when a manager or a service maintenance person has to make a decision, such as replacing the carpet or the roof, they are making decisions as an owner and not as an employee.

“They understand you need to take care of the customer first, but they are shareholders, and they understand that every dollar they spend is important,” Campo says. “If they can make spending decisions that are efficient and drive revenue and enhance expenses and what have you, then they get that and they’ll enhance shareholder value doing that.”

What it leads to is a productive workplace, Campo says, and Camden, for example, is No. 7 in the Fortune 100 Best Places to Work for 2012 and has been in the top 10 for the last three years.


Break the ice in a big way

If your company should acquire or merge with another business and you’ve done your homework and determined it’s a good company and its culture is OK, Campo says it’s still a time to pull out your bag of tricks and break the ice.

“The whole idea on trying to engage employees is to really understand that you need to bridge the gap between the C-levels, the management levels and the front-line employees because I think the biggest mistake that most people make is that they are not approachable or that they are just too stiff,” he says.

Campo suggests taking a page from the CBS TV show “Undercover Boss.” In that reality show, the company leader puts on a disguise, takes a job in a low level of his or her company and observes the operation from the bottom up.

Campo showed up at the first merger meeting in one case dressed up like a maintenance man.

“I wore a maintenance shirt that said ‘Camden’ and ‘Ric’ on it like I’m an air-conditioning repair guy. I wore jeans, and I didn’t sit at the executive table. I sat with maintenance people and talked to them.”

About 350 people were there, and most of them were property managers and similar management. A maintenance man came up to him and began a conversation.

“He said, ‘Wow, you’re a maintenance guy from Camden?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ ‘Are you going to talk to us today?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ ‘Well, that’s pretty incredible. They bring in a maintenance guy to talk.’

“The outgoing CEO of the company was on the podium, and he was wearing a suit and power tie. He said he was really excited to talk about the merger. ‘It’s a great thing for both companies.’ And then he said my name and CEO and introduced me as the head maintenance man. I walked through the crowd, telling people what the deal was and how it affected them. I didn’t talk about the accounting details of the sale.

“I just said, ‘Look, these two companies together are better. And you guys all have jobs, and it’s going to be better for all of us.’ I talked in broad strokes so people could understand instead of saying a billion this and billion that … and people just loved it.”

The tactic was a big hit and scored points in the communication arena.

“Communication is absolutely one of the most critical things that you can do and you have to do, and you constantly have to reinforce messaging on what you want people to think about and how you want them to move forward in the current environment,” Campo says.

“I think this is something that companies really fail to do. If you don’t communicate, people feel like they don’t know what’s going on or are not part of the group, and that leads to complacency and wondering why they are working here.” 



The Campo file

Name: Ric Campo
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Camden Property Trust

Born: Carmel, Calif.

Education: Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore. I was the first one in my family to go to college. I met my wife there, and my son just graduated from there. I majored in business accounting. I’m actually a CPA.

What was your very first job? I worked in a laundry in Lake Tahoe sorting sheets. It was a laundry for towels and sheets for hotels. It was a good job. I was 16.

Who do you admire in business? I would say somebody like Warren Buffett. I am impressed with his business basics. He buys and owns companies long term, low debt and has just kind of a country common sense as opposed to the rapid-fire style that we have today.

What’s the best business advice you have ever received? It is something that I remember a lot. When I measure success, success is not how much money you make but how many jobs you create. Whenever we were at various levels in our development of our company, we always had the ability to cash out and take our money and go home, but we always went to the next level, which meant we got bigger and created a broader platform for our people. It was good advice because each time, had we taken the money and gone home, we always thought about what that would mean for our team, our platform and our organization. So we always took the next level. We created a company that not only is big, and bigness was never the issue, but it’s sustainable. I think that’s pretty good advice.

What’s your definition of business success? It’s how many jobs you create and what kind of value you create for your customers. It’s definitely not your total rate of return on your stock, even though I think they are correlated.

Learn more about Camden Property Trust at:

Twitter: @CamdenLiving



How to reach: Camden Property Trust, (713) 354-2500 or