For some, finding the ideal profession can be an almost lifelong pursuit. They go through high school, college, maybe post-grad and even multiple jobs and they still don’t know what they want to do in their career. This pursuit can be stressful, turbulent and lead to self-doubt.
Under those circumstances, consider Mike Clow, CPM, to be lucky. He discovered the career that he’s come to love when in college as an intern at the brokerage firm now known as CBRE.
Clow’s introduction to commercial real estate began in high school. His neighbor worked for CBRE and helped him secure that internship. In high school, he also dated the daughter of Steve Evans, Founder of Evans Withycombe Residential, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based apartment REIT.
Just because Clow found a career early does not mean things were easy. In fact, his career collided with many cataclysmic events in the apartment industry during the past three decades. These events not only impacted him. They forced him to change course.
When the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) was disposing of commercial assets from failed Savings and Loans (S&Ls), Clow left the brokerage world for apartments. When the big REITs started amassing coastal portfolios, Clow decided he wanted to stay in landlocked Arizona and join a new development firm. And, when the recession shuttered that development company (like many around the country), Clow helped build Greystar’s massive management portfolio. Now he brings those experiences to his role as 2019 NAA Chairman of the Board.
“I kind of rode the waves,” Clow says. “I’ve survived three cycles in the apartment industry and have been lucky that I made good decisions each time. I’ve been successful and I’m appreciative of that.”
When he graduated in 1989 from Arizona State University, Clow’s summer internship at CBRE turned into a full-time job. While the brokerage firm marketed all commercial real estate asset types, including industrial, office and retail, Clow was designated as the “apartment guy.” He spent his first year and a half in training before becoming a runner, a person who assists brokers but is not commissioned to sell buildings.
At CBRE, Clow got a taste of the cyclical nature of the real estate industry. In the late 80s and early 90s, almost one-third of the S&Ls in the U.S. failed. Their assets ended up with the RTC, which was a government-owned asset management company charged with liquidating holdings of those S&Ls. That meltdown changed Clow’s career trajectory.
“I was about to go into the brokerage business and become fully commissioned,” he says. “I looked around and said, ‘I should probably find other alternatives because I’m not sure where this [the brokerage] industry is going.’ ”
Instead of selling apartments in an environment where the government was also disposing of troubled real assets at pennies on the dollar, Clow decided to manage them. So, he joined Evans at Evans Withycombe in 1992 as a Regional Property Manager, where his portfolio was between 1,500 to 2,500 apartments.
It was a transformational time in the apartment industry. In the wake of the S&L mess, many private companies, including Camden and Equity Residential, were going public. Evans Withycombe joined in the fray, launching an IPO halfway through Clow’s tenure there.
Evans Withycombe also provided Clow with an introduction to the broader apartment industry. Clow joined the Arizona Multihousing Association (AMA) in 1992, beginning a 27-year journey that eventually took him to NAA’s Chairman position.
“Evans and Withycombe were both past chairs for the AMA,” Clow says. “Serving the industry was something that you did when you worked at that company. It was in the company’s DNA. In fact, I found that all of the companies that I worked for were big advocates for getting involved in the apartment industry, as well the communities we were involved in.”
In 1996, one of Clow’s biggest clients, BRE Properties, decided to pull its property management portfolio in-house. The company hired Clow to run the non-coastal states in the portfolio, including Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. But the REIT tides were shifting. By 2001, several REITs, including Archstone and AvalonBay Communities, decided they could get better returns by focusing on high-barrier coastal markets. When BRE decided to sell Clow’s portfolio and focus on the West Coast, he had a decision to make.
“They told me that I could prepare my portfolio for sale, move to California and work in the acquisition group,” Clow says. “I didn’t really want to move to California.”
Instead, Clow decided to reconnect with some colleagues at Evans Withycombe and launch his own firm in 2001, which eventually became Gray Clow Residential. During that time, Clow continued to move up at the Arizona Apartment Association.
“Having my own company afforded me more flexibility for association leadership roles because I was a Principal at Gray Clow,” he says. “It was my own company. I wasn’t working for someone else.”
By the time Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in 2008, the subprime crisis had grown into a full-blown contagion that would force millions of people out of their homes and close scores of real estate companies. Gray Clow was not immune to pressures in the market.
“The partners had different risk tolerances and profiles and we just got over our skis,” Clow says. “By 2008, I was looking for a job.”
Clow contacted Tom Shelton, CAPS, who he had befriended at AMA, about working for Greystar, where Shelton served as a Regional partner. When Shelton (2003 NAA Chairman of the Board), who is now Principal of Shelton-Cook Real Estate Services, decided to become President at Western National in 2008, Clow took his spot at Greystar.
Shelton is impressed with what Clow has done in his former role.
“There are people at the top of major public-traded REITs that have less responsibility than Mike,” Shelton says. “Mike has a big, big job. He has a lot of support and a lot of staff behind him, but he earns every nickel.”
Andrew Livingstone, Executive Managing Director of Real Estate for Greystar, knew of Clow’s reputation before he came to Greystar. Livingstone has been impressed with his leadership, service and commitment to the industry.
“Under Mike’s leadership, Greystar’s management portfolio in the western United States has grown tremendously during the past 10 years,’ Livingstone says. “He helped nurture our growth in the region at a critical time in the company’s history, helping to make Greystar a leading manager of apartments in every major market in the West.”
The new position did bring challenges. While Evans Withycombe managed for third-party clients, many of them were through joint-venture structures. At Greystar, Clow needed to find and secure third-party business.
“I had never really done third-party management,” Clow says. “To my advantage, I had been in the management side before, but I had an owners’ mentality. Now, I’m managing for people [owners] that I used to be. That helped me.”
Clow ended up playing a pivotal role in some of the biggest deals of the past decade—Greystar’s purchase of the Archon Group’s management portfolio in 2010, its purchase of Riverstone Riverstone in 2014 and its privatization of Monogram Residential in 2017.
“Those deals don’t happen without people like Mike in those roles,” Shelton says. “Unless you’ve got people like Mike that get all of those new employees and clients to buy into your philosophy, it is tough to be successful.”
Getting people to buy into a philosophy has not be a problem for Clow. As his career has wound from REITs to his own firm to the largest manager in the country, Clow has brought people from previous stops with him. “I’m proud of that,” Clow says.
Shelton is impressed by the loyalty that Clow has earned from his colleagues. So is Livingstone.
“As a leader, Mike has always understood the importance of people,” Livingstone says. “He has spent his career building strong relationships with his team, his clients and industry peers. He recognizes that the foundation of any great success is people working together to build great teams and partnerships to achieve common goals.”
Clow is no novice when it comes to association leadership. In 2008, he took the helm of AMA—an organization facing turbulent times.
“We had a change in leadership,” Clow says. “Financially we were OK, but not great. We had to hire new leadership and get through the storm. AMA is now one of our most successful affiliates in the country. I’m very proud of that.”
Clow has also held high profile roles within NAA. In 2015, he served as Conference Co-Chair while Thomas D. Beaton, CAPS, Senior Vice President, Management at Dolben, was the organization’s Chairman.
“When he was Co-Chair, he listened to what people had to say and showed great leadership abilities in that process,” Beaton says. “As an Executive Committee member, he has also been a great leader. His thoughts and ideas are very well respected by the people on the Executive Committee.”
Clow doesn’t intend to steer NAA into an entirely new direction during his year as Chair. Instead, he wants to build off the work done by recent past Chairs Jeff Lowry (2018) and Cindy Clare (2017).
“I get asked what my goals are for 2019,” Clow says. “Mainly, I want to continue the implementation of NAA’s strategic plan. There is a cohesive three-to-five-year plan from Cindy to Jeff to me. I want to make sure NAA is a more powerful organization in partnership with all stakeholders.”
Clow also wants to continue the work that Lowry began toward building diversity within the industry.
“A huge focus is our Inclusion and Diversity Taskforce that will become a committee in 2019 and really trying to put forth a lot of effort into making sure that the committee is successful,” he says.
Like most apartment executives, Clow also has his eyes on the calendar. He knows the industry has been on a 10-year run of growth that won’t last forever. The economic environment is changing and Clow wants to ensure the success of NAA’s conferences, products and educational offerings as new challenges emerge. Affordability is also another pain point that he sees for the industry.
“The industry has to help figure out a path in affordable housing,” Clow says. “What is our role in trying to provide affordable housing and doing it the right way. I want the market to solve the problem. It cannot be mandated by the government.”
No matter what Clow’s focus is, Beaton believes he will be successful.
“He will be outstanding,” Beaton says. “He listens to people and thinks things through before he makes a decision. When he decides, he is very decisive.”
While Clow is excited about piloting NAA for the next year, he also has a future mapped out when he winds down his more than 25 years of volunteer service to the apartment industry. Most importantly, he will have more time to spend with his children, Kasey, 23, and Mac, 15. He also enjoys golf, hiking and running.
Clow also spent 25 years officiating high school football and basketball in Arizona. He worked games with future professional athletes, such as Terrell Suggs, Todd Heap and Mike Bibby.
“I gave that up when I started up the officer ranks, but maybe two or three years from now when I’m less busy with NAA, I may venture back into officiating at some level,” Clow says.
Regardless of whether Clow heads back to the hardwood or gridiron, he plans to continue to grow with Greystar. Fortunately, he is working for a company with a footprint that reaches around the world.
“I want to continue to work at Greystar and grow and expand as Greystar grows to be the global leader in rental housing,” Clow says. “The opportunities for me at Greystar could be international, on the management side or even on the development side, which I really like. I really want to use those opportunities to grow and advance.”