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Executive Conversations: Camden’s CEO Talks Pirate Ships and Brilliant Jerks

Camden’s CEO headshot

In our first executive conversation, we visit with Ric Campo, Chairman of the Board and CEO, at Camden on the heels of another appearance for the REIT on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list. Campo discusses how to build a great culture and compete for talent in this competitive environment.

When people ask Ric Campo the accomplishment that he is most proud of since he started what became Camden in 1982, he doesn’t have to think long to come up with an answer. It’s Camden’s run of 12 consecutive years appearing on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list. The Houston-based REIT placed No. 19 this year.

Campo took some time to talk with NAA about creating a great culture, competing for talent, brilliant jerks and pirate ships. Here is the discussion.

NAA: When you started Camden, was your goal to make it a place where people wanted to work and a company that attracted good people?

Campo: Absolutely. I hired Keith [Oden] in 1981. We had worked together at a development company where what I would call a pirate ship culture existed. In other words, if you could discredit somebody above you or around you, you could take over what they had. That is what I consider to be a dysfunctional operation.

I was a really good pirate, though, and so was Keith. When we left and were able to run our own show, we made the fundamental decision not to be a pirate ship. We wanted to create a more collegial kind of supportive culture that was fun to be around. While it’s fun to be a pirate now and then, it takes a lot of work and effort. It takes more work to be a pirate than it does to be a reasonable person and treat people fairly. We wanted to lay out our values and the business practices that we wanted and instill them in our people.

NAA: How do you make sure your managers maintain this “non-pirate ship” culture down through the organization? It’s one thing to hear it said from top, but you can’t have senior leaders or managers behaving in other ways. Is there a way to make sure that they’re sticking to the script?

Campo: Absolutely. If you say it at the top and you don’t hold people accountable at every level, then you’re not saying it at the top. You’re saying nice words, but no one believes them, right? It does have to start at the top, and then you have to infuse it into the organization. If [managers] don’t comply or assimilate into the ‘why’ and the ‘mission statement,’ you get rid of them.

Getting everyone on the same page takes a lot of time and effort. Here’s an example: Each year we present our ACE [Achieving Camden Excellence or Amazing Camden Employees] awards at meetings held in our major cities. It’s a 14-city tour. Keith does seven cities, I do seven cities, and we double up in Houston. At those meetings, our messaging matches a lot of the same things I just talked about. We’re infusing this culture every time we see [our associates]. Generally, Keith and I flip our visits each year, so this way, our associates see each of us at least every other year at an ACE award meeting.

Beyond these visits, it is about calling people out if they’re not playing the game the right way. Our employees know that we’ll call them out. This is known as our policy of not allowing “brilliant jerks” to work for us.

Brilliant jerks are top performers who are pains. They disrupt people, but they’re amazing at their jobs. They’re the top leasing people, the top managers, the top acquisitions people and the top development people. They are somebody who is such a ‘star’ that they feel as if they can behave like a jerk to other people in the organization.

I would rather have zero brilliant stars than stars who are jerks. I would much rather have more middle-of-the-road folks who get the job done and who are good and culturally tolerant. You might be the smartest, most amazing person, but if you’re a jerk and if you’re not part of our culture, you’re not going to do well here.

Now, does that mean that we don’t have issues with people now and then? We have 1,600 employees in 14 markets and nine states and the District of Columbia. We’re going to have some people who don’t get it, and when we do, we’ll cull through them.

NAA: How do you consider culture and your employees in the decision process?

Campo: You have to flow every major decision that relates to how you run your business and how you treat your employees through the sieve of ‘Is it in our values? Is it fair? Are we acting with integrity?’

Many times, people feel like they aren’t part of the equation, and they’re not part of the process. For companies, it is a continual process of communicating why you’re here, what your values are and why they’re important. Make sure that your decisions reflect those values.

Then, even if you have tough decisions to make, such as laying people off, freezing salaries or asking people to tighten their budgets, as long as they know why you’re doing it, and that management is part of the team that is doing it, and we are not just this ivory tower group that continues to be tone deaf to our rank and file, they will trust us.

NAA: Is this a tougher, more competitive hiring environment than it was 10 or 20 years ago?

Campo: This definitely is a more competitive environment, and the competition is better equipped skills-wise today than ever. You go back 20 years, every [operator] was smaller. It was more of a mom-and-pop business and people weren’t as sophisticated as they are today. We’ve all raised the bar on the quality level of people and the education that they need to do the job. Now, we all recruit from colleges. We bring people in right after graduation and put them in assistant management roles or immediately include them in management and development and take them up through our ranks.

NAA: How can apartment firms stand out in this competitive environment?

Campo: If your pay is competitive and you have robust benefits that are competitive in the market place, then it come down to more esoteric issues. People ask, ‘Does [the employer] trust me? Do I like my co-workers? Does my job have meaning? Do I feel like they care about me as a person?

If the answer is ‘Yes,’ than that is where you can create culture, longevity and great long-term employer relationships. It’s really about trust. If people really like Camden and trust us and they think we respect them and we’re fair to them, then pay will not be the deciding factor, as long as we pay them within the ballpark. Would they want to make more money? Yeah, absolutely. But it’s not the determining factor of why they chose to leave or why they continue to love working here.