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Despite No Industry Experience: One Man’s Journey to Property Manager

Property Manager

In our 10th installment of Profiles in Success, a series where NAA talks to successful apartment professionals to learn how they got to where they are, who inspired them and what their biggest challenge was, we visit with the first recipient of the Alex Jackiw Diversity + Inclusion Scholarship.

Profile in Success: James A. Burwell, MBAName: James A. Burwell, MBA
Company: Belhaven Residential
Current Title: Multi-Site Property Manager
Years in the Industry: 4

What (or who) led you into the apartment industry?

My first job after college was with Walgreens as a store manager. I spent 10 years leading multiple locations across the country and after my mother passed away, I no longer had a passion for it. I left seeking a new challenge and found my way into this industry.

Although I had never been a property manager, I have a strong belief that good leadership qualities (i.e., strong communication, forward-thinking, compassion, engagement, accountability, team building) are universal and are relevant no matter the industry. So far in my career, I have found that to be true. 

What was your first apartment job?

My first job in the industry is my current job.

Describe your job now: 

I manage all of Belhaven Residential’s properties in Jackson, Miss. Our properties make up the equivalent of a small town and I am the one who knows all of the residents and suppliers by name, remembers their birthdays, anniversaries, etc They call me the “Mayor” because I know everyone and am always holding babies and helping them to fall asleep (never too early to secure a future resident).. I am the bridge between the office, maintenance and the property to ensure an overwhelmingly positive resident experience. I will do W.I.T (Whatever It Takes) to close the deal and keep the residents happy.

Who was your greatest influence in the industry (how did they influence you)? 

There have been so many people who have been great influences: Jennifer Welch and Dana Hale took a chance on me and hired me for my first job. Meghan Elder, Arthur Blakenship, Andy White and the entirety of the Mississippi Apartment Association sent me to my first NAA meeting as the delegate three years ago. Mike Holmes, Julie Elkins, Kirk and Angi Downey, Kayla Quint, Michelle Childers, all of Region IX, Greg Cerbana, Don Brunner and the others who gave me advice, encouragement and helped me navigate through the NAA landscape.

What was your biggest challenge? And how did you overcome that challenge?

Double consciousness and being true to myself and my heritage. It is easy to be what others tell you that you should be or do what they tell you to do. My faith and my family - my wife Constance and our son Tre’- keep things in the proper perspective and remind me of what is most important.

What is your ultimate goal in the apartment industry?

To have ownership in a property management company and to become a member of the NAA Board of Directors and Executive Committee.

What has the apartment industry given to you both personally and professionally?

Personally, the apartment industry has given me an opportunity to take care of my family and at the same time, doing something that I love. Professionally, this industry has given me countless opportunities to learn and grow and introduced me to lifelong friends and mentors.

What’s your favorite or funniest apartment industry story?

My first NAA meeting was Advocate in 2017. During the few days of that event, I managed to hand out more than 1,000 business cards and shake just as many hands. I was not yet on any committees, but I attended a committee meeting every hour. Never underestimate the power of networking or “net-weaving” (Thanks Dr. Debbie!). It is still the best way to build lasting relationships.

What’s one thing you or your company does that sets you apart?

Belhaven Residential is a small company but very technologically driven – we were paperless with leases almost two years ago and our maintenance team uses iPads to communicate and complete work orders.

Success is best when shared. How do you or your company find ways to give back? What volunteer roles do you currently hold?

I give back by serving as a mentor to young men of color. As a father to a son of color, I recognize that we are an endangered species and we must do all we can to equip them with the tools to fight for their lives.

What impact have you made on other future leaders in this business?

Hopefully, I have been an inspiration to those new to the industry or that haven’t been in the industry for very long. I always have an open door and am always willing to share what I’ve learned.

How has your experience as a volunteer helped in your career?

Volunteering is all about unselfish service to others – it stretches your comfort zone. The willingness to volunteer also helps you learn new skills and meet new people.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to travel with my family. I also enjoy shooting skeet and sporting clays.

What did you want to be growing up?

I wanted to be a lawyer (I loved Perry Mason!) and a preacher.

What do you want to be doing five years from now?

I would like to have an ownership stake of a property management company, continue to mentor others and advocate more for this industry. There are so many disparities that deserve our attention – diversity and inclusion in leadership, chronic homelessness, the rent-burdened (those who spend greater than 30 percent of their monthly wages on rent), the prevalence slumlords and the rise in blighted properties.

If you could talk to yourself 10/15/20 years ago, what advice would you have given yourself?

You are the sum of your experiences. Just wait … The day you plant the seed is not the day you eat the fruit.

What’s the biggest difference you see between our industry today and when you started?

The rapid advancement of technology. When I first entered this industry, we had a file room full of leases and paperwork. I was scared to throw away anything. Today, all of that is in the cloud and I don’t like seeing anything on paper.

What’s your favorite quote?

“You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.” - UCLA coach John Wooden

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” - Shirley Chisholm

What’s your favorite song/musician?

My playlists are very diverse, but I LOVE gospel music.