Authenticity is Key

Why Toby Bozzuto knows design creates value.

toby bozzuto 20140429_8194.2Whether they’re developing new multifamily assets or providing third-party management services, Bozzuto’s award-winning apartment communities are known for their focus on delivering cutting-edge design that resonates with residents. Toby S. Bozzuto, president, The Bozzuto Group, is largely credited with bringing this vision to the company founded in 1988 by his father Tom Bozzuto. MHN Editorial Director Diana Mosher recently interviewed Toby Bozzuto about the connection between design, amenities and market share.

Your company is on board with the idea that design drives occupancies. This strategy has become more commonplace in recent years, but you were clearly on the forefront. Why and when did you embrace design as a business tool?

I appreciate the fact that you believe that Bozzuto was at the forefront. In many ways, our attention to design and detail has been derivative of the incredible projects done in the boutique hotel world, as well as restaurants and nightclubs. These product types recognized early on that consumers are aspirational in nature. We are all desirous of being around beautiful places, whether we know it or not. On a subconscious level, we all perceive beauty. My breakthrough came from staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City when it first opened. It was developed by the nightclub impresario Ian Schrager, and designed by the incredible artist Julian Schnable. In other words, the hotel world collided with the art/design world and created an incredibly beautiful project. In turn, customers paid more to stay there—and ultimately felt happier doing so. I realized at that time that the apartment industry, for whatever reason, had largely become very commoditized, and could really benefit from some design innovation.

I believe that design creates value. Customers pay more rent and stay longer in developments that feel authentic and offer them an experience. However, this manifestation of experience is not accomplished just through design. As an example, our management company creates extraordinary experiences with our residents every single day. In both our attention to design and our attention to our customers, we believe that we should be providing experiences that transcend the ordinary.

Was it difficult getting other decision makers in the company on board with this vision when you came on board as the next generation?

No. Visionaries like my father and Julie Smith (who runs our management company) have become quick to accept and adopt new changes in consumer behavior. Our entire company rallies around the idea of “creating extraordinary experiences” and allows the concept to permeate everything we do. I give my father tremendous credit for allowing all of us to move forward with the incredible platform he created to embrace new concepts while staying true to our corporate values of “Concern, Creativity, Passion and Perfection.”

Do some design-driven enhancements or ideas cost more? How do you make a case for the ROI?

In some cases, we are spending more money than perhaps we used to on our amenities. This is true of our competitors as well. What we try to do to differentiate ourselves is to put an extreme amount of attention on authenticity. In other words, we embrace the local community we are in and allow the architecture, design, and spirit to reflect some unique qualities of the environment. For example, at Union Wharf in Baltimore, we hired a local metal worker to design beautiful wall panels and sculptural elements (even down to the unit numbers). We hired a local glass blower to build a beautiful sculpture for the lobby. We filled the building with beautiful original art from local Maryland artists. My favorite thing we did was to buy old horse stables from a defunct horseracing facility in Maryland called Rosecroft that ultimately became the floor and wall material. Authenticity is key. How many dog washing stations you put in a project is not.

How has the company’s emphasis on design become integrated into the corporate culture, or does the company naturally attract creative, like-minded individuals?

The beauty of creating exciting and innovative projects is that we are able to ultimately attract more and more creative and like-minded individuals that want to be a part of future projects. We all want to work on projects that are special and authentic. We all want to be a part of something that matters. Amazingly, success therefore begets success. The better we do as a company, the more amazing people we are able to attract, which in turn makes us even better.

What’s new on the development front? What features are you most proud of?

I am extraordinarily proud of the 27 artist studios we developed at the base of our “Monroe Street Market” project (developed in a venture with Jim Abdo). I am also very excited that we are going to be building a project in Locust Point in Baltimore near Under Armour’s campus that will be incredibly focused on health and wellness. We are going to have more than an acre of outdoor space on the roof of the building (including an infinity pool), that was inspired by the High Line in New York City. That outdoor space will be bifurcated by a jewel box glass space that will include workout facilities and yoga rooms. The walls will open up to this magnificent open area that has soaring views of the Baltimore skyline and harbor. Furthermore, the outdoor plantings will include rocks and other things to climb on, exercise near, etc.

What feedback have you received from residents? 

My father has always told me we are in the business of creating “sanctuary” for our customers. The most rewarding compliments we ever get is that our customers feel like they are “home” or that they are incredibly happy living in such a beautiful place where they are treated so well. What greater satisfaction in the world is there than knowing that you somehow contributed something beautiful and meaningful to this earth in the short time we are here?