By Leah Etling, Contributing Editor
The Bozzuto Group’s Union Wharf is the newest luxury apartment enclave in Fell’s Point. It abuts the harbor, with rental slips for pleasure boats available right outside. Its interior and exterior finishes draw inspiration from the historic seafaring lifestyle that created this charming community, now resurrected with popular bars, restaurants, shops, galleries, and many apartment homes.
Just across the street from Union Wharf is the Red Star, now a modern tavern serving lunch, wine and cocktails, but once a destination for sailors whose ships had docked in the harbor, and they could follow red stars painted on the sidewalk to find a thirst-quenching libation or perhaps the company of a lady of the night.
Long gone are the days of sailors and brothels, but some of the best bits of Fell’s Point—and Union Wharf—honor the very far past.
“We designed it to fit into the community. We have reclaimed floors, beams from shipyards, we’ve got lots of industrial finishes here,” says Julie Smith, president of Bozzuto Management Company, as she sits near a full-length plate glass window looking out on Wolfe Street, with the Red Star right across the way.
“We really designed this to capitalize on the views and to feel comfortable and casual, but at the same time to pay homage to the community that it’s in. We think it’s a reflection of the Fell’s Point community and the history of the neighborhood.”
Smith and the entire Bozzuto Group team—led by founding partners Thomas S. Bozzuto, chairman and CEO; Richard L. Mostyn, vice chairman and chief operating officer; and John B. Slidell, vice chairman and president, Bozzuto Land Company—are understandably proud of Union Wharf. Now halfway complete and occupied, the project was a challenge to design and build. Situated on a narrow strip of land that was previously a parking lot, the 280 units, plus nearly 6,000 square feet of retail and a parking garage, are shoehorned into the unusual property configuration but still manage to maximize the harbor views. Some of the apartments overlook an infinity lap pool that stretches from the lobby right out to the boardwalk.
“The construction trailer was on a floating barge,” Smith recalls. “It was a very complicated project, on a long skinny site, so everything about it was hard. The design was difficult; the unit plans were tricky; even trying to figure out where to put the front desk was challenging. It was a unique site to stage; an intriguing site to design; and it was hard to build, too. Now we look back and it’s a gorgeous property, very unique, but it was a lot of work to get here.”
In addition to Union Wharf, Bozzuto owns or manages several other notable properties in Baltimore, including The Zenith, next to Camden Yards, The Fitzgerald near the University of Baltimore campus, and Spinnaker Bay and The Promenade in Inner Harbor East. They recently announced plans to develop a 275-unit apartment and retail project in Locust Point, near the Under Armour corporate headquarters and Fort McHenry.
Smith has come to Baltimore on a Monday morning for several meetings, including her interview with us. Just a year away from marking 25 years of work at Bozzuto, she’s helped build and lead a company that has continued to be known for its boutique management style, even as the portfolio size has grown from 2,000 units to nearly 40,000.
In 2011, in addition to receiving an MHN Excellence Award for Best Marketing Program, Bozzuto Management Group was also named Property Management Company of the Year by MHN. In 2013, Smith was recognized as one of the industry’s most successful executives by Multifamily Executive, an honor she describes as “overwhelming,” especially when people she hadn’t seen in years began to reach out.
“I was really excited by the number of people that I was able to connect with and reconnect with that I hadn’t seen in a long, long time. It really brought a lot of people out of the woodwork,” she says.
That there were so many people anxious to congratulate Julie is no surprise to Lisa Williams, the company’s Vice President of Strategic Business Solutions and Smith’s very first hire at the company 24 years ago.
“She doesn’t forget anybody’s name, what company they are with, or even their children’s names. She genuinely cares about the people she works with,” says Williams, who clearly enjoys the chance to spend several extra hours of time in the presence of her boss. Smith’s travel schedule is hectic, and she is not only an executive, but a part-time professor and mentor at the University of Maryland, a mother to two teenage daughters, and a horsewoman, cyclist and dog owner who loves the outdoors.
Even Smith admits that her friendly and outgoing nature can be a bit much at times. “My kids get mad at me because I talk to absolutely everybody that I meet. But that is my nature, to be friendly and outgoing. I enjoy getting to know people, and I really enjoy getting to know the people on our Bozzuto teams,” she says.
The company has been consistently recognized as one of the best places to work in property management in the Mid-Atlantic region, and the corporate values established by founders Tom Bozzuto and Rick Mostyn are a big part of that. So, too, is Smith’s leadership, though it’s impossible to get her to engage in even a humble brag.
“Since we started the company, Tom Bozzuto has been very consistent in terms of making sure everyone really understands corporate values. We are very much a values-driven company. The corporate values have really guided the organization over the years, and as the company got bigger, we had to change and we had to adjust to new sizes and new challenges. But the values always stayed the same,” Smith says.
Those values are defined on the company website as “CONCERN for the communities we touch. CREATIVITY in everything we do. PASSION in our approach to business. PERFECTION as a goal worth pursuing.”
Smith’s dedication to each came through as she talked with us about her work and her life. Read on for our interview with Bozzuto Management Company President Julie Smith.
Tell us about the beginning of your career.
I started as a property manager, so I was thrown into the business. I would actually say that I probably didn’t know what to expect. It was trial by fire. But it was a fun business, it was multifaceted, it appealed to a lot of what I was interested in. There was a good degree of marketing, customer service, just general entrepreneurship of running a business. I knew nothing about it when I got into the business, and really enjoyed it, so I stuck with it.
How did you know property management was the right career fit for you?
It certainly didn’t happen in the beginning. No one really acknowledged property management as a professional career back when I got involved in the mid-80s. I would say when I moved down to South Florida, that was when the business was really being taken to a new level, and it was really because there was so much new development in Florida. There were companies like Trammel Crow and my previous employer, Oxford Development, as well as other companies, that were taking the business seriously and turning it into something that could offer a career path. I think it was at that point where I started to meet other people in the industry and recognized you could have a really successful career in this business if you found the right company and stayed with them.
What are you most proud of?
I think building the management organization at Bozzuto is probably the thing I’m most proud of. A lot of things had to happen along the way in order to get to where we are now. It’s difficult for me to point to one thing, but I think building an organization of like-minded individuals who really believe in the same thing and work together to create what is now Bozzuto is probably what I’m most proud of. That we are where we are today from a company that was really just starting out.
Tell us about your mentorship outreach?
We’ve always hired a lot of people who are new to the business through our college recruiting efforts and that sort of thing. But I believe it’s certainly my responsibility to give back to the industry that has been so good to me. And it’s enjoyable to mentor people. I mentor people within the organization and also outside the organization. I’ve been teaching at the University of Maryland for the last seven years. I go back and forth from teaching a full semester course to coaching students in real estate competitions to helping them improve their presentation skills. I’ve mentored a lot of people there, as well as through industry affiliations. I think it’s our responsibility as leaders to mentor people who are trying to further their own careers, and it’s very gratifying. You get a lot more out of it than you put into it.
Who were your mentors?
I had a lot of mentors along the way. When I first got into the business, I had a mentor in the first company I worked, and she really is the reason why I stuck with it. Back when I got into the industry there wasn’t a lot of training. I was just sort of thrown in, and trying to figure out how to run a fairly large apartment community. She was very, very helpful. When I was with Oxford Development I was part of the training team, and the director of training was one of my mentors. Of course, Tom Bozzuto has been my all-time mentor. Since I started with the organization 25 years ago, Tom has always been there to help me out professionally and personally.
Tell us about your executive team.
I have an amazing executive team. I really think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful. The management group has had a lot of tenured people—people stick around for a long time. People typically don’t leave Bozzuto. That’s one of the trademarks of the company. But I think it also allows for so much continuity and consistency in terms of vision and execution. I’ve been very fortunate, and quite honestly, we’re family. We’ve known each other for a long time. We’ve seen each other through a lot of different times of our lives. It’s really a wonderful facet to working at Bozzuto. The work is always challenging, but the relationships shouldn’t be and aren’t. We really have a good time together.
What are your thoughts on social media?
It’s all about connecting with people. Social media is really just a vehicle for sharing information. It’s how people update others about their personal lives and what they’re doing and where they are and so we are just following that trend. We might have done it differently a few years ago, but at its foundation, social media really is just a communication tool. It’s been an evolution for us. But it was something we did see coming early on, and we knew that we were serving the constituency that would embrace this model. So we got started early with our social media initiatives.
We’re finding that social media is a vehicle we use to help serve our customers. We want to make it easy for our residents to do business with us, so we use it to facilitate operations, and we really use it to understand who we are serving. Our ability, through technology, to understand how our properties are being used and by whom is really enhanced by the tools that we have today.
Tell us about how Bozzuto has been involved in the revitalization of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
We’re very involved, but I wouldn’t actually call it a revitalization, it’s really the creation of a place. Most of the Inner Harbor East was originally old brownfields. We got involved in 1995, with the first residential high rise a bit up the road, and have since been involved in several buildings that have been part of the place-making of the Inner Harbor East, which really connects to this Fell’s Point neighborhood.
I think Baltimore has a soul and is really moving in a good direction. A lot of people who grew up in Baltimore go off, attend college, and then come back and live in Baltimore. What’s been terrific about this whole waterfront area is that it’s created opportunities for young people to move closer to the water and to be in an urban setting. We’ve been very focused on that kind of development. Many other really good high-quality developers have also participated, and we’ve created a lot of good buildings that have attracted some residents who are either studying or working at the various medical centers like Johns Hopkins, the University of Maryland Medical Center, or working in the financial district. So it’s a very vibrant, youthful, energized and cultural urban living environment for all these young folks who are moving to Baltimore.
How do you think Bozzuto impacts your residents’ lives?
We’re providing housing, which is a basic need, so we never lose sight of that. Today, more and more people are staying renters. They’re starting off as renters, but they’re also finding that the whole rental scene has changed so much, that it’s conceivable you may never want to buy a home. The entire model has changed. This notion of using other people’s things for as long as you need them is liberating. There are companies that rent cars, bikes, clothing, vacation houses for the weekend—we are part of this new sharing economy. I think it impacts people’s lives in a very personal way.
What do you look for when you create your own living space?
I look for the same thing I look for in our apartment buildings. I like the outdoors, so I like to have a lot of outdoor space and light, and I have that at my house. I want access to culture, entertainment and nature. I want it to be comfortable, warm and inviting and a haven. And that’s what we try to do at Bozzuto at all of our properties, whether we build them or not, whether we own them or not. We want our buildings to be havens. We want people to feel really happy living in a Bozzuto community. When I walk in my front door at night, I feel really good. I want my residents to feel the same way.
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