Servant Leadership Works
By Nelson Leenhouts
Chairman, Home Leasing & Home Leasing Construction
For starters – who am I? I am 83 years young and blessed to have led the development of a few successful companies over my 50+ years in the real estate industry. At the “peak” of my career, I was responsible for 1,500 employees. As I reflect on my work, I have increasingly realized that the use of Servant Leadership has been key to my success and my happiness. But, let’s start at the beginning. I have lived in the Rochester area all my life. I am an identical twin and my brother, Norm, and I were business partners most of our lives. My wife and I have 5 children, 15 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren (so far!). I think of myself as having a strong faith.
I attribute much of my success to my mother, Myrna. She was widowed at a very young age and worked to support our family of 4 with a small dairy business. Mother was a Servant Leader although we did not use that term back then. For example, she would be the first person at the dairy every morning to start the boiler and generate steam for pasteurizing milk. This required her to get up at about 4 am 7 days a week. She always greeted customers with a smile and asked how they were doing. When Norm and I worked the soda fountain she insisted that we greet every customer with a smile no matter what. She taught us respect for all and to make work a pleasure.
Norm and I started our real estate business, Home Leasing, in 1967. For two of the early years, I was the only full-time employee. We had little money so we formed investor partnerships for each property. We grew quickly and by 1993 we had almost 400 investor partners mostly from the Rochester area. To fuel further expansion, Norm and I took the company public in 1995 as Home Properties, listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Home Properties grew quickly over our decade of involvement from about 3,000 apartments to 50,000 and our investors did very well.
In 2005, at age 70, our corporate by-laws, dictated by Wall Street, required Norm and I to step down as co-CEOs. Our path being chosen, we retired from Home Properties to each form separate businesses. Norm, and his daughter, Amy Tait, formed Broadstone, a private real estate company specializing in commercial property. I, along with my daughter, Cathy Sperrick, continued Home Leasing as a closely held family business focused primarily on creating and managing affordable multi-family communities.
We designed Home Leasing to be unique in the multi-family housing business. As a for-profit company, we develop, build and manage residential communities. We focus on the long-term benefit that we provide to our residents, our employees and my family. We insist on quality design and construction to last the test of time. Home Leasing now has 22 completed communities with more than 2,000 apartments throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. We currently have 6 new communities under construction, two of which our construction company is building for other developers. We have strong partnerships with not-for-profit companies that provide support for our residents and the communities in which we work. We are dedicated to adhere to our mission to, “Improve the lives of our residents and the communities in which we work.” We believe that every Home Leasing stakeholder directly or indirectly participates in this mission. Even when we build for other companies, we feel that it is our responsibility to build the best quality communities for the residents they serve.
We were proud to become a Certified B Corporation (B Corp) in 2017, one of about 2,250 in the world and the first real estate development and construction company with this designation in New York State. Certification required us to prove – and continue to demonstrate – that Home Leasing operates as a force for good and meets the highest standards of transparency and accountability in dealings with our residents, employees, partners, and customers. We support sustainable practices within our company and our communities and always seek to provide opportunities for advancement for our staff, and paths to family self-sufficiency for our residents.
Did I mention that I’m 83? Probably time to concentrate a bit on succession so that this wonderful company we’ve built with our employees, residents, and partners will continue to deliver on its mission. To that end, we hired Bret Garwood as COO nearly 2 years ago who as of March 2019 has taken over as CEO for Home Leasing. I will continue as Chairman as long as I am able. Bret is a true Servant Leader. I often see him going around the office asking each person how he can help. He has a special way of empowering our team by sharing his industry experience and connecting them with resources to make them successful.
I attribute a great deal of our success to Servant Leadership as modeled early on by my mother. For us, this means putting our teammates first – just as she put others first at the dairy and soda fountain. As Servant Leaders, we look to helping them succeed in concert with our mission before turning to our own agendas. In our industry, it means putting our residents on the top of the organizational chart and the CEO at the bottom. The CEO serves the Leadership Team that serves the construction and management teams who serve community leaders and maintenance staff who work directly with the residents that live in our communities. For us, we believe that all stakeholders – employees, residents, government representatives, neighbors, investors, contractors, and family owners should be treated as customers deserving of our attention.
What does this mean day to day? We are careful to select and train new teammates, so they have the self-confidence, the empathy and humility to become Servant Leaders. We are deliberate when we onboard new employees to emphasize our mission, our values, and leadership philosophy. As Servant Leaders, we encourage more listening than talking. We empower employees to make decisions. We stress that providing quality homes for individuals and families of all incomes is an integral part of our mission. We provide a work environment where it is safe to take risks and be honest and trust each other. Whenever possible, we believe that decisions should be made by those closest to our customers. We are personally fulfilled by the positive impact of our work. We also try not to take ourselves too seriously. Instead, we aspire to act as servants for each other and are not too concerned about who gets the credit. I know that this sounds like an idealistic culture. It certainly requires a unique group of rather humble people. I can’t say that it’s always easy – it will always be a work in process. However, I think it is working. Our annual surveys do indicate a high level of employee engagement and satisfaction and we recently were selected as one of the top 65 workplaces by the Democrat and Chronicle out of 1,200 that applied in the Rochester area.
Mother’s Servant Leadership works. It has been the key to our success. In the long run, I believe it is the most rewarding and profitable way to do business. I am blessed to be a participant and hope to continue working for many more years.
People get much more done when they don’t care who gets the credit.— Benjamin Franklin