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The Ringel and Makowsky Families: "Memphis Mischief"

Ringel Family
Father and son Nick and Jimmy Ringel at a company picnic in fall 2005. 
Ringel Family
The Makowskys and Ringels at a meeting announcing the company would be passed to the next generation: Gary, Jimmy and Michael.
Makowsky Family
Jerome Makowsky, wide Evelyn and son, Gary, at an employee function in the mid-1980s. 

While most children spent their Sundays running around the neighborhood with friends, Jimmy Ringel was looking at vacant land in Memphis.

His father, Nick, began investing in apartment communities with partner Jerome Makowsky in the late 1960s. By 1970, he was building and managing them, too. Reluctantly, Jimmy was along for the ride.

“Some of my earliest memories are of my father taking me on Sunday drives when I was 5 and 6 years old to look at vacant land,” Ringel, CPM, says. “He would take my sister, brother and me out of the house to give my mom a break, but we couldn’t understand what we were doing looking at open ground. We just knew that in order to get lunch and ice cream afterward, we had to look at land. At 5, I didn’t know it was real estate.”

Ringel spent the next five years visiting construction sites and speaking with resident managers. His father was the “management guy” and Makowsky specialized in the construction and development side of the business.

When Ringel was 15, he spent the summer cleaning the community pools. The following year, he and his best friend were hired as landscapers.

“It was 1981—it was a different business then,” Ringel recalls. “This was before they hired professionals. You’d just buy a lawn mower and get college kids to do the work.”

However, his father soon learned the pitfalls of hiring amateurs. 

“When I got my license, my dad drove us around to show us the communities they owned around the University of Memphis,” he says. “It was a bunch of 40-unit places in the university district, but there were other communities under different management that were sprinkled in there. I was 16, spaced out and half paying attention, and I cut the wrong lawns. My dad said, ‘I guess you just gave our competitors a free cut because I don’t think they’re going to pay you.’ He still likes to tell people that story.”

Ringel wasn’t the only one causing trouble. His father’s partner, Jerome, also had a son. Five years older than Ringel, Gary Makowsky grew up on the construction side of the business. He spent his teenage summers working as a maintenance technician and his winters cleaning two pools at a 340-unit community.

“My job was to ready the pools for summer and pass the health inspection,” Makowsky, CPM, says. “I butted heads with the Health Department and didn’t have a great reputation with them. During one visit, I was with the health inspector when I realized I had forgotten to put chlorine in one of the pools, which was on the opposite end of the community. I gave him an excuse to leave and ran back and threw in three or four buckets of chlorine. The health inspector knew something was up and started chasing me until he tripped and broke his leg. Needless to say, the Health Department didn’t like me.”

Makowsky eventually left pool cleaning behind, but stayed in the industry. After graduating from college he returned to Memphis and worked on the management side of the business before returning to his construction roots.

“I needed to learn that side of it but realized management wasn’t my forté,” Makowsky says. “I spent three or four years as a district property manager, learning sales and customer service, but my personality was to start something, finish it and move on to the next thing. The construction end of it spoke to that and I had a real passion for it.”

Ringel also found his stride, but not before temporarily stepping away from the industry. After gravitating toward an onsite position as a leasing agent during his college summer breaks, Ringel graduated from the University of Michigan and moved to New York to pursue a career in advertising and marketing.

In 1991, 26-year-old Ringel returned to Memphis and began working his way up from assistant manager to district manager. A decade later, Ringel and Makowsky took over the business from their fathers. With a third partner, Makowsky’s brother-in-law, they merged the brokerage, management and construction businesses into one company, Makowsky Ringel Greenberg LLC.

Today, Ringel says he still returns to the lessons he learned early on.

“I was taught from the ground up,” he says. “What I know about swimming pools, I know from the summers I spent cleaning them. When I was put on a lease-up, I was there to learn everything I could. When we teach a class to a new person, they know we didn’t develop policies and procedures from some ivory tower, having never done any of the things we’re teaching. Gary and I have done it all.”

However, with the changing of the guard comes the changing of the times. Ringel says the apartment industry is now a far more institutional, competitive, formal and short-term business than the days when the majority of his father’s long-term clients were family friends. 

Makowsky, who now runs the company’s construction department, agrees.

“There weren’t a lot of national property management firms in the 1960s, and certainly none in Memphis,” he says. “I think we were one of the first companies that had resident managers in uniforms. We were cutting-edge for Memphis.”

But it wasn’t all forward thinking. Ringel says his father—who retired 13 years ago and now works as his son’s client—was reluctant to put computers onsite for fear that managers would start focusing on a machine instead of their residents. 

“Dad had it right—he wanted to shift all of the finances to the corporate department and let people onsite do what they do best,” Ringel says.

Still, the company hired someone to write a software program in the late 1970s and early 1980s, enabling them to computerize all of their data on a main-frame machine.

The other big development: Rent. Ringel says he remembers apartments leasing for $395 in the mid-1980s. Today, they’re going for $700.

But of course some things never change.

“When my dad dragged me to vacant lots every Sunday, I swore I would never do that to my own kids,” Ringel says. Thirty years later, I did that every Saturday with my two boys. It all comes around.”