Rising to the Top
By Les Shaver
2020 NAA Chairman of the Board Mike Holmes overcame doubts and challenges as he built a property management business and moved up the association ladder.
When Mike Holmes graduated from Furman University in 1975, the country was in the midst of a recession and contending with a soft job market.
Holmes, a married commuter student, needed some luck or divine providence, as he calls it.
Holmes was working part-time in a department store as his graduation date approached. Without any great job options lined up, he planned to continue in that role until more permanent employment came along. “I had interviewed a lot and just couldn’t come up with anything,” Holmes says.
Benton Sellers, a trusted professor, approached him with a slip of paper that had a name on it. “He said, ‘I want you to call this guy. I think he might have a job that would work out for you,’” Holmes says.
Holmes called the man, Carroll Lindsey, to learn about the position, which was a corporate accounting role at U.S. Shelter Corp. He interviewed and got the job, which was no small feat in 1975.
“The day I showed up for work, I had no idea what they did,” Holmes says. “I didn’t have any idea that there was an industry called property management. It was only as I started working there that I really understood what I was getting into.”
It turns out that what Holmes was getting into was a 40-plus year career that saw him build a property management business and ascend the volunteer ladder to become Chairman of the Board for the National Apartment Association in 2020.
U.S. Shelter gave Holmes a varied introduction to the apartment business. As he gained experience, he eventually took charge of all property management accounting at the company. He also dabbled in other areas, moving over to the syndication department and even serving as an asset manager for almost two years.
“My experience at U.S. Shelter prepared me because I learned how to do the accounting side of property management,” Holmes says. “I learned how deals were put together and how sales of properties were put together. I also looked over the shoulder of the property management folks [to learn about that part of the business].”
After more than a decade at U.S. Shelter, Holmes was presented with another opportunity. Like many people in the industry, his career was affected with the 1986 tax law change, which ultimately forced some companies out of business. U.S. Shelter laid off people, and his supervisor at the time, Gordon Gibson, left to join Easlan Capital in Greenville, S.C. (Insignia Financial Group Inc. acquired almost all of U.S. Shelter’s assets in 1991.)
“They were commercial developers and he went in to help them open up a multifamily development business,” Holmes says.
In 1987, Gibson asked Holmes if he wanted to join Easlan and build an in-house management operation. The company was growing and presented a unique opportunity. “We really didn’t have any real titles then,” Holmes says.
The offer came at a good point in Holmes’ career. “I had reached a ceiling at U.S. Shelter and there wasn’t really anywhere else for me to go,” he says. “I was actually considering having to move to Charlotte or Atlanta or a bigger market to find something I wanted. But starting a company was not on my radar screen until I got that call.”
At Easlan, Holmes needed to be able to build a third-party management business to help justify his role there. It forced him to not only move inside of a property management operation but also to learn how to sell.
“The biggest challenge in starting Easlan Management Company was just the fact that I’d never actually done property management before, though I worked all around it,” Holmes says. “I had never really been a producer. All of my roles up to that point had been more in support of service-oriented departments. I had some leadership roles, but I was never one of the revenue generators. So, this was a new role for me.”
Not only was Holmes moving into a role that was foreign to him, but he was doing it at a firm that was adding a new service—property management.
“Trying to recruit for business when you don't really have any business is a pretty big challenge,” Holmes says. “I needed to try to get somebody to be the guinea pig.”
Even for an experienced salesperson, starting up a new property management operation with no clients would be daunting. But Holmes had even bigger challenges.
“I had some issues with just general lack of self-confidence,” Holmes says. “This was one of the hardest things that I had to overcome.”
Fortunately, Holmes has a strong faith to help him. “I'm a Christian,” he says. “So, learning to incorporate my faith in Jesus Christ into every part of my life helped lead me to overcome that.”
It also helped him move up the volunteer ladder.
“I had a lot of hesitancy about being able to be an Executive Committee member and a Chair,” he says. “I was always very reluctant to step forward and say, ‘Hey, I’ll do this,’” Holmes says. “I’m always the one who’s holding back a little bit. It helps when somebody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, why don’t you do this?’ It tells me that they saw something in me that either I needed to have affirmed or just didn't see for myself.”
As Holmes was helping to build Easlan, he found peers who could help him through challenges at local and state apartment associations. While giving back to the industry was important, he also saw other advantages to volunteer service.
“I really needed some industry peers,” Holmes says. “I’d never started a company before, and I’d never actually done property management. So, I really felt the need to get where I could rub shoulders with people that knew more than I did and learn more about the industry. I have been surprised and pleased with how willing people are about sharing information.”
Holmes was first recruited into the Upper State Apartment Association by Debby Gardner. Gardner had agreed to serve as President of the Upper State Apartment Association at the time but only if Holmes would serve as Vice President, and then assume the role of President the next year.
Holmes later moved up to state leadership, serving two different stints as President of the South Carolina Apartment Association. During that time, he moved into national roles for the NAA as NAAPAC Chair in 2009 and 2010, and the Legislative Committee Chair in 2013. He was also a Regional Vice President for Region IV from 2006 to 2013 and served on the Executive Committee in 2013.
At the state, local and national level, Holmes has made his mark. Victoria Cowart, CPM, Vice President at Darby Development Co., first met Holmes when he was President of the South Carolina Apartment Association. She credits him with getting her involved at the state level and bringing together diverse groups, including a resident's rights group, to support expedited eviction that would enable property managers and judges to speed up the eviction process for residents that were a proven danger to other residents and onsite staff or guilty of malicious destruction of property. While one politician keeps blocking passage of the law, that doesn’t distract from Holmes’ and Cowart’s efforts for which they were both awarded The Palmetto Patriot Award, the highest award bestowed by the South Carolina Lt. Governor for service and leadership to the state and nation.
“We worked hard at producing a really good bill that we could literally stand there and celebrate with a [resident] advocacy group,” Cowart says. “It really was a process and I was pleased to work on that with him.”
Part of the reason those discussions were successful was because of Holmes’ disarming style.
“He seemed shepherd-like in his approach to making sure everybody was comfortable, participating, informed and enthused,” Cowart says.
But that wasn’t all that Holmes gave the state association. Cowart credits him with bringing new people into the association. “He has a great way of explaining things,” she says. “He takes a tough topic and adds humor and instruction to it. I think that’s a great way to get folks involved and help them understand. That is the first step toward turning somebody into a grassroots advocate.”
Ken Szymanski, former CEO of the Charlotte Apartment Association and Apartment Association of North Carolina, is also a fan of Holmes’ work in South Carolina. “He was instrumental in the establishment of the South Carolina Apartment Association,” he says. “There used to be three locals and no state association.”
The Year Ahead
Now, as Holmes ascends to the volunteer role at NAA, he plans to pick up where past Chairman Mike Clow, CAPS, CPM, left off. He wants to continue to execute the strategic plan, see the enhanced NAA Click & Lease rolled out and explore the idea of a certification for management companies.
“We have certifications for apartment managers, leasing professionals and maintenance technicians, but we have nothing for the management companies,” Holmes says. “We still live in a world where people see us as the evil landlord. It seems to me that if we could have some sort of credential or certification for our communities telling people the service they should expect to receive, it would be good for the industry.”
While certification for management companies is an ambitious project, Holmes seems most excited about his work on diversity and inclusion in the apartment industry.
“That is going to be a really big part of my year,” Holmes says. “We’ve had a task force and we have formed a committee. We also created a mission statement, but now it’s time to really start trying to unroll this and really carry it out. It is not going to be accomplished in a year or two years, but this is something we need to continue to pursue.”
It’s not surprising that inclusion is one of Holmes’ signature issues. Including people comes naturally to Easlan Management’s President, according to people who know him.
“He’s both sophisticated and folksy at the same time and everyone respects him,” Szymanski says. “He makes sure that folks are included. He brings people into the conversation and makes people feel like they’re part of the mix.”
Holmes says one mark of success for the diversity and inclusiveness initiative will be if leadership can encourage people from diverse backgrounds to step up into leadership roles. “They could say, ‘Hey, I don’t see anybody here that looks like me. I’m certainly not going raise my hand when it comes time to volunteer for a leadership role,’” Holmes says. “There needs to be people in leadership positions that see these people and encourage them.”
A Good Place
As Holmes steps into the Chairman role at NAA, he has helped put Easlan, which he became President of in 1998, in a good place. “We’ve had good stable growth and development through the years,” Holmes says.
The company, with 104 employees, isn’t a large national player, but Easlan has carved out a nice niche with as many as 4,000 apartments in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. It has also managed in Alabama and Tennessee. “It’s a respected group,” Szymanski says.
Sally Clark Garza, CAM, CAPS, a Regional Manager with Easlan Management Company, says Holmes is a big reason for Easlan’s growth. “I think he has a vision for Easlan, and he just remains calm in the storm,” she says. “He has integrity, inspires those around him and is always ready to make himself available when needed.”
Garza joined Easlan right after college and has stayed with the firm. The culture Holmes helped create is a big reason why people don’t leave. “He is on a first name basis for those that work on the Easlan team,” Garza says.
When Holmes isn’t building Easlan or providing volunteer leadership to the apartment industry, he’s watching college sports or movies, listening to music, playing golf, reading, traveling with his wife, Sally (who he has been married to for 45 years), and spending as much time as possible with his 3-year-old granddaughter, Livi (the daughter of his only son, Matt, and his daughter-in-law, Laura).
Admittedly, with his duties serving the industry and Easlan, he doesn’t have as much time as he wants for those pursuits. “What is free time?” he says. Still, he doesn’t regret any of the long hours he has spent serving the apartment business.
“The industry has been very good to me,” Holmes says. “I have a very fulfilling career and I felt like I needed to give something back to others [through industry service]. That is very important to me.”
Les Shaver is Editorial Director at NAA and can be reached at [email protected].