Richard Campo,chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Camden Property Trust, sat down with Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to discuss how his company strives to put people first, and the small gestures that have consistently made camden one of Fortune’s top companies to work for.
Q | What was it like growing up in California?
A | I was born in Carmel but we moved to Southern California soon after that. I spent a lot of time in Monterey and Pacific Grove visiting my grandparents, but lived in Southern California through grade school there. My parents moved to Lake Tahoe when I was in the seventh grade and then to Oregon when I was in high school. I stayed in Lake Tahoe to finish high school, then moved to Oregon for college.
Q | So what led you to Oregon State University?
A | I hadn’t thought about college much. I didn’t have really good grades in high school, but I heard that OSU would let you in if you wanted to be a science major. I started with a double major in chemistry and business, and it taught me how to study and be analytical. After a while, I started getting involved in student government, and I also realized that business was much easier than chemistry. By the time I was a junior, I decided to drop chemistry and got an accounting degree instead.
Q | And after that you came to Houston?
A | Right. My father was a serial entrepreneur. He had a theater in Oregon first, and then he moved to Houston and opened a restaurant in 1976. I didn’t have a job right out of school so I worked with him for a month or two, and then took a job with Century Development Corporation. I worked there for about 10 years, then did a leveraged buyout of my division, and that division became Camden. So really, that one job mutated into this one and I’ve had no other job.
Q | I’ve heard about the amount of time you spend on the aspect of people. Do you find that to be unique in the industry?
A | I think it’s pretty unique to Camden. We have a wonderful culture. It’s a work in progress, but we focus on it every day. We think about it in the context of our employees and how they feel about where they work. Keith Oden (president of Camden) is my co-founder and business partner. We set out to build a great workplace and wanted to make sure we weren’t just focused on or rewarding one particular department rather than our whole team. Real estate companies tend to be deal-oriented and focus on buying a piece of property, improving it, then selling it. The great thing about a public real estate company is that you don’t have to sell your properties to make money. You can build long-term portfolios and create value through operating that real estate over a long period of time. You still have to be deal-oriented to a certain extent, but what you really have to do is outperform the market, regardless of market conditions. You do that by buying the right real estate, but you have to manage it with the right people.
We look at our real estate as the equipment, and the people that operate it are the real assets. If you get them connected, it’s a winning team. Why does one team win and another team lose? Often it’s because of the chemistry amongst the group. They have the spirit and energy that gives them a lift and a drive to win. We think about that a lot and we spend a lot of time focusing on how to build, maintain and nurture our culture over time. We’ve been on the FORTUNE “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for the past eight years. And in the eight years that we’ve been on the list, we’ve been in the top 10 five times. There are only 10 companies total that have been in the top 10 five times in the 18-year history of that list. It takes a lot of hard work and effort to manage that kind of culture.
Q | How many employees are there at Camden?
A | We have around 1,800 direct employees of Camden. If you include all of the contractors and workers who are employed on our construction sites, that would add another 10,000.
Q | It sounds like you do a lot of fun things for your employees.
A | We spend a lot of time doing little things that add up to culture, and sometimes there are bigger things. We had a really fun thing this year. We recently restructured a $1 billion joint venture, and it created around $100 million in profit for Camden. Keith and I have a fundamental philosophy that when Camden wins, the team wins, so we decided to distribute $10 million of the profit as a special bonus to our employees. We cut real checks (instead of doing direct deposits) so that everyone would get a real, tactile thing in their hand, and then we sent secret boxes to all of our locations with the checks inside. Inside each FedEx box was another box, and then within that box there was an envelope with the checks. No one ever thought that the boxes would create such an uproar, but they did. People went nuts over the boxes, asking, ‘What’s in the box?’ We sent the boxes out on a Monday in January, and then hosted a company-wide conference call that Thursday so everyone could open their boxes at the same time. All of our employees received a check for at least $1,000 and often more based on their tenure with Camden. We definitely created a ‘win’ for our people and put big smiles on their faces. We also received hundreds of thank you notes from employees saying, ‘I paid off my bills’ or ‘I used it to buy something special for my mother.’
It’s all about the people. If your people do well, then you’ll do well. When I talk to our employees about Camden, I tell them that we primarily do three things: 1) We provide homes for people, and that is important because memories are made in homes. 2) We provide jobs—for all of us at Camden, and many others—and that’s a very noble thing to do. Without a job, it’s hard to have a good quality of life. I remind our team that every dollar we spend at Camden provides revenue to someone else, and that creates jobs as well. 3) We provide income to our shareholders. They use their investment income to fund retirement, buy homes, pay for medical expenses and put their kids through college. They trust us and buy our stock. We take their capital and invest it in real estate. They trust us to use that capital to grow their investment in the future. That’s pretty simple. It’s what we do, and it’s not that complicated. Basically, if your employees are smiling, then your customers and shareholders will be smiling too. And the owners of the company will smile as well.
Q | It sounds like you are passionate about the way you set a tone for the culture at Camden.
A | I spend a lot of time with people. I try to get out in the field a lot. The other signature thing that I do is wear a Camden maintenance shirt at events. I once went to an industry conference in Las Vegas with 7,000 attendees while wearing my maintenance shirt and jeans. People were asking, ‘Isn’t he the CEO of that apartment company?’ We were talking about onsite motivation and how do you connect with your team, and that sort of thing. I wear that shirt to every major event at Camden, even if I’m speaking to just five or 10 Camden people. It’s great nonverbal communication, and I always say the same thing: ‘I wear it as a sign of pride and respect for our people in the field. Without our people in the field, we wouldn’t have jobs in the corporate office.’ I’m not someone who could wear a suit and tie every day, then walk onto our properties and not be able to communicate honestly and directly with our staff. It’s not me, number one, and it’s just not our culture.
Q | How do you balance your time with the many commitments you have, including Camden, Houston First, the Super Bowl and others?
A | First, the whole outreach towards Houston First, the Super Bowl and other things is really about giving back to the community. Houston has been really good to me. When I moved here, I didn’t have anything. Keith and I both raised our families here, and we asked people in the community to support us. When we started Camden we didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we had an idea and we were able to raise enough capital to start our company. I think it would have been really difficult to do elsewhere, but Houston has a ‘can- do’ spirit. People don’t care who you are or where you came from, but they’ll listen to your idea and see if you are honest and trustworthy. Will you work hard, and when there’s a problem will you tell me quickly instead of hiding the problem? I am at the point where I am able to give back to the community. Houston has been good to me, so I need to be good to it.
The Super Bowl will be played here in 2017. Some people say that I brought the Super Bowl to Houston, but that’s just not true. I was the chairman of the Bid Committee. I had 20 people on that committee and an incredible person named Sallie Sargent running it, and she is now the CEO of that entity. There were so many players who all have a vested interest in getting something done—Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Houston First, the City of Houston, Harris County, the Houston Texans, the Houston Rodeo, etc. What I do is make sure that the people who are actually doing it have the right direction, the right authority and the right amount of responsibility, and then I just get out of the way and let them do it. From time to time you have to solve a problem or you have to push something out of the way, and that’s pretty much what I do. I do that at Camden, too. Keith and I have been working together for over 30 years and we have very different styles. I’m the gas, he’s the brakes. I’m the mom, he’s the dad. I’m looking at revenue, he’s watching expenses. I’ve never seen a deal I didn’t like, and he’s never seen one that he did like. It’s a magical combination and it’s all about balance. There can be conflict, too, and some heated debates, but then we’re back on the same page and we get things done.
That’s the way I’m involved in the Super Bowl and other things. You have to pick good people, give them the tools and the resources to be successful, and then help them find their way. Once they’re down the trail, you have to stay out of the way. If you try to do everything yourself, you won’t get anything done.
Q | Tell us what you see for this great city moving forward. There are a lot of different moving parts here, but I think this is an exciting time in Houston.
A | I think this city is on track to be one of the top world-class cities in the world. We’re coming into our own. Houston is a very young city relative to San Francisco or New York or some of those other great cities. We don’t have an old-school bureaucracy that runs the city, so we have lots of new ideas and fresh thinkers, and a spirit that is very unusual in cities. We’ve got a lot of good things going on, when you think about the medical center and everything that’s going on over there, you think about the heart of the city reinventing itself with downtown living. The light rail programs are interesting because they’re creating nodes of livability that weren’t there before. The fact is that we are the most diverse city in the country and we get along. You haven’t seen any major challenges with people getting along here in Houston, and I think that creates a lot of value long term for us to reinvent ourselves on an ongoing basis. I think with cities, just like companies and people, if you don’t move forward, reinvent and adapt to the new reality, then you’re moving back or you’re staying static, and that’s not what anyone wants to do. You don’t grow doing that, and you don’t thrive without adapting to the new environment. I think Houston is probably one of the most adaptable, interesting cities that I’ve ever seen when it comes to its ability to change and reinvent itself.