Changing lanes

After contracting along with the nation's economic downturn by reducing staff from the property to the executive levels over the past couple of years, Lane Company is adding new C-level talent, in anticipation of better times ahead.

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Most recently, the vertically-integrated, full-service multifamily real estate firm created a new position, president of the company, and hired real estate veteran Cindy Pfeifer to fill the post of president and COO. Pfeifer, who moved into her new office on Feb. 30, will serve right under Lane Company Chairman and CEO George Lane, who founded the Atlanta-based firm in 1974.

“Cindy is uniquely qualified to lead Lane Company through this period of our history,” said Lane, whose company manages around 24,000 apartments in 10 markets from Texas, across the Southeast and north into the Mid-Atlantic, including 5,500 units the company developed and the balance for third-party customers that include the Atlanta and Charlotte Housing Authorities.

“Her decades of experience through several up and down economic cycles will help us identify new opportunities to grow the business,” said Lane, referring to Pfeifer’s 25-year career in a variety of leadership positions in some of the most successful real estate companies in the Southeast. Prior to joining Lane Company, she served for two-and-a-half years as COO and chief investment officer of Place Properties, and was with Carter, the largest full-service commercial real estate company in Atlanta, for more than 20 years, where she was a partner and CFO.

“My primary focus at Lane will be in three areas — property management, asset management and acquisitions,” explained Pfeifer in early March. She considers herself fortunate to be joining Lane Company just as the economy is about to turn a corner and is anxious to help the firm take advantage of the acquisition potentials on both the property and the debt side.

The multifamily company that got its start specializing in reviving distressed apartment communities has grown to include apartment and condominium development, investment, property management, construction and asset management, several of which are core competencies that have been spun off into separate entities operating under the Lane Company umbrella, like Lane Management LLC.

“Rob Couch has done a fabulous job expanding that business,” said Pfeifer of the 36-year-old property management division’s president for the past two years. “We’re going to stay focused on that, as well as the asset management side,” she said. Pfeifer started working with Lane as a consultant several months before accepting the post as president of the company.

“One of my former partners at Carter said, ‘You need to chat with Lane,'” she said, explaining the evolution of her relationship with the company. “I did and they had some things they wanted me to look at in the Fall. In the process, I realized how great the company was, so, when a position was offered, I took it. It was a good fit,” said Pfeifer. She expects the mostly stagnant transaction market of the past year to see increased activity in 2010. And, when the flow of cash resumes as asset purchase opportunities increase, predicts Lane will be able to move very quickly in negotiations and take advantage of those opportunities.

“Up to this point, the bid-ask prices have not been in sync, but, in the coming months we expect more movement,” said Pfeifer, who oversaw the placement of $250 million of investor equity at Place Properties, coincidentally the same amount of equity Lubert-Adler provided for the acquisition of multifamily properties in the Southeast and Southwest in a real estate venture Lubert-Adler formed with Lane in January 2009. With an initial focus on acquisition, rehabilitation and repositioning of distressed properties or properties held by distressed sellers, the Lubert-Adler/Lane partnership is the cornerstone of Lane’s acquisitions, which the former president of Windsor Capital Partners (now known as The Shoptaw Group) Bill Stahlke came out of retirement to oversee last July.

“Lubert-Adler represents one branch of capital available to Lane. Their return expectations are in line with opportunistic deals and we are seeing a variety of deals, including some very good opportunities to acquire core properties at a discount to replacement costs,” said Pfeifer. She plans to work with Lane’s current executive team to implement new strategies to capitalize on market opportunities and attract new sources of capital from additional investors.

The skills she brings to Lane that will help the company to navigate the still-rough waters stirred up by the country’s financial hundred-year storm, Pfeifer said, include her experience in “developing a disciplined, streamlined team to take advantage of current market opportunities, creating an organization that is laser-focused on the company’s goals and managing for profitability during economic downturns.”

Although this unprecedented down cycle makes for a cloudy crystal ball, the health of the multifamily market is and always has been dependent on the jobs that produce the paychecks that pay the rent. “There is a direct correlation between the multifamily market recovery and job growth. Unfortunately, Atlanta was hit pretty hard in the last year with job losses, so it may be another year to 18 months for a recovery to really start to show,” said Pfeifer.

Several markets are projected to experience job growth in 2010, including Washington, D.C., where Lane operates seven communities and several cities in Texas, where the firm oversees day-to-day operations at 15 communities, she said, predicting that those markets should begin seeing signs of a recovery within the year.

“The hardest hit markets may take as long as two years to see a recovery. This multifamily downturn has been tied to the economic downturn and will be improved with not only an economic recovery, but with the increasing demographics of that targeted age group — the echo boomers. There is a pent-up demand from the echo boomers and we will see a tremendous surge in the next couple of years,” said Pfeifer.

“This company is primed and ready to explode. It’s ready to take advantage of what’s going on in the marketplace,” Lane Company’s new president said.