Lessons learned managing real estate, building wealth

Lisa Wise owns Flock, a Washington, D.C., property management company.
Lisa Wise owns Flock, a Washington, D.C., property management company.Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez

WASHINGTON - I recently reread Roger Lowenstein's biography of Warren Buffett, "The Making of an American Capitalist."

The passage on the "joys of compounding" changed my life when I first read the book 25 years ago: "Buffett had a certain obsession. In his mind . . . a nickel today could become so much more tomorrow, spending it drove him nuts."

That powerful thought - related to deferred gratification - turned me into a buy-and-hold investor, much like the subject of this week's column.

Lisa Wise is the founder of Flock, a Washington, D.C., property management company, and she knows what it takes to build wealth in America: ownership - be it equities, real estate or a profitable business. She projects that capitalist philosophy through a social justice lens to change the lives of her 45 employees.

"I think about helping others create wealth all day, every day," said the self-proclaimed "spirited hustler."

Flock is a holding company whose operating divisions, or brands, provide property management services to condominium associations and rental properties.

The biggest brand, Nest, manages about 1,000 rentals of single-family homes and condos in the District of Columbia, and collects 75% of Flock's total revenue. Nest charges 90% of one month's rent to find and land a tenant and then collects a monthly management fee of 8% of the rent for a condo and 10 percent for a house.

The Starling division supplies workers who will get a property in shape - painting, repairs, patching - for new tenants. The average daily rate is about $1,000.

Roost manages condominiums, co-ops and homeowner associations. It charges about $50 per unit per month and additional fees if it provides maintenance.

Flock's total revenue comes to about $6.5 million a year. It has a gross profit (before taxes) of about $1 million, and Wise - the "chief nester and chief rooster" - spends much of that on what she calls "reinvestment" in the company, including profit-sharing ($240,000), a 5% 401(k) match and bonuses that range from $4,000 to $8,000.

Some employees can also buy shares in the privately held company, at about $7,500 a share. (Wise is the largest shareholder, with 23 of the firm's 89 shares.)

In addition to encouraging her employees to think like owners, Wise uses cash flow to help them pay down student loans, build college savings plans for their children and fully fund employee health and disability insurance. Everyone gets an Apple laptop and flexible time off, and they can telecommute one day a month. Eleven company cars enable the company to respond quickly to emergencies and complaints.

Flock also gives about $40,000 a year to charitable causes.

Spreading the money around isn't all about social justice and altruism. It's also about investing in the workers and creating a culture that fosters productivity. She invests $175,000 a year on "impact hires" to bring in new ideas and help the business grow. Wise also dedicates $80,000 a year to leadership coaching and retreats.

"I run a services business, and having happy employees makes for good workers," Wise said.

Even with that outlay, Flock will claim a net profit in the low six figures.

Wise said the secret of successful property management is screening for "quality units," well-maintained properties that won't make life at Flock miserable.

Wise looks for a number of traits in prospective employees: emotional intelligence, patience, creativity and the ability to move quickly in a fast-paced, uncertain environment.

Flocksters also must be conversational and have a sense of humor, especially when dealing with some of the less savory aspects of home maintenance, such as scooping up a gob of rotting hair from a sink. Teachers make good Flock employees because they are patient, she said. That comes in handy when tenants lock themselves out or demand an investigation into a missing welcome mat.

I recently spent an afternoon with the flock and instantly noticed the relaxed, conversational clubhouse-like vibe. Everyone seemed serious about the job, but they also seemed happy. Who wouldn't be with fully funded health care and a 5% 401(k) match?

But it's not easy to become a member.

"We do phone screenings, then panel interviews, which usually involves three staffers meeting for an hour with the candidate," Wise said. Candidates who pass that test, get a short tryout.

The paid tryout is a highly structured, four-hour process. Applicants are given particular tasks that are tied to the role for which they are applying. The assignments could involve processing paperwork, replying to inquiries, responding to angry clients, mapping spreadsheets or reading technical documents.

In addition to Flock, Wise owns 15 revenue-producing properties, mostly in the District. "I made some good choices as a kid, smart decisions financially," she said. "One of them is buy early, buy often."

The moneymaking gene was apparent early on. As a kid growing up in Idaho, she shoveled snow, pet sat, and dusted and vacuumed houses for a buck a room.

"I would do anything for cash, for the security and freedom."

She had $10,000 in the bank by the time she graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in media arts.

Wise also had a thing for real estate and housing early on, including fixing up properties and making repairs. She loved the idea of designing additions.

"You name it. I have liked everything to do with housing since I was little."

She bought her first property, an adobe duplex in Tucson, Arizona, for $83,000 in 1997. She lived on one side and rented out the other for $375 a month.

The money piled up, and Wise soon had enough for a down payment on another property, and that property begot another. "I pretty quickly started figuring that one out. It really clicked for me."

Real estate provided a substantial monthly income to augment the income from her regular jobs, including working for a nonprofit. Friends and others started asking her if she would manage their houses, including finding renters, getting the properties in shape and maintaining the homes.

After moving to the District in 2004, Wise started another side hustle so she could impart her financial philosophy to others: Wise + Associates, a financial planning firm she operated from 2004 to 2010.

For a while, Wise + Associates overlapped with Nest, which Wise began in 2009. Then she closed the consulting practice to focus solely on property management. "I felt that is where I could make a real impact . . . having a company to create good jobs," she said.

Wise still takes an interest in financial planning, trying to help her staff better understand money. Flock holds brown bag lunches, offers tax preparation education, conducts home-buying workshops and pays for professional financial planning for its senior leadership team.

Wise recently started depositing a portion of employee bonuses directly into their 401(k) plans. The company, for the past year, had already been helping employees pay down student loans or save money in college savings plans, Wise said. She didn't want the employees to blow their money on trips to Europe and concerts, "because you know they will," Wise said.

"They will be angry at me when they hear this," Wise said of the 401(k) deposits, as she headed into an employee meeting to make the announcement. "But in 30 years, when that money is worth many times what I put in, they will be thrilled."