Honored as a Top Woman in Business: Q&A with Gwyneth Coté, Bell Partners

Bell Partners announced last week that the company’s Chief Operating Officer Gwyneth Coté was named one of the “2015 Women in Business” honorees by the Triad Business Journal. MHN spoke with Coté to learn about her journey through her career and today’s hot trends in the multifamily industry.

Bell Partners announced last week that the company’s Chief Operating Officer Gwyneth Coté was named one of the “2015 Women in Business” honorees by the Triad Business JournalMHN spoke with Coté to learn about her journey through her career and today’s hot trends in the multifamily industry.

MHN: How did you earn your title as chief operating officer at Bell? Did you come from another industry or work your way up?

Gwyneth CoteCoté: After I graduated from college I worked in sales at Johnson & Johnson for about a year and a half.  Following that position, I worked with my uncle selling custom-built homes in Maryland, and that’s where I got my first taste of real estate and I loved it. I loved the concept of seeing land being developed into something, which becomes a home, where people create memories. It really made me feel like I was impacting people’s lives in a positive way.

After working with my uncle for a couple of years I realized to enhance my career I needed to get an MBA. I went to Wharton, graduated and joined Trammell Crow, the largest private developer in the U.S. at the time.  I went into development and thought, “This is great. I will work in the multifamily space developing apartment communities because it’s not just single homes, its many homes where people live and breathe and experience life.”

However, times were tough. It was during one of those down real estate cycles where the funding for development opportunities was low and the only opportunity was to move into management. I took the opportunity to switch to the operations/management side of the house and I found a passion for this area of the business. I’ve now been on the management side of the business for 25 years in the world of real estate.

I worked with AvalonBay. We were first Trammell Crow, then we went public and became Avalon Properties, and then we merged with Bay Communities to create AVB.  After 15 years there as SVP-Operations, I stepped down for a time to be a stay-at-home mom. As my kids got older, I started my own consulting company, where I worked with numerous private real estate companies including Bell Partners.

After a time, Bell asked if I would join their company full time with the idea that with their succession planning I would be able to take over as chief operating officer when the then COO retired. I have been Bell’s COO for the last year and a half.  I love that my job touches on so many aspects of the business: finance, legal, investments, talent management and marketing.

MHN: What are the biggest challenges in the multifamily industry today?

Coté: I think one of the biggest challenges that we face these days is managing online reputation and opinion sites. The whole notion of technology and online reputation management—how to keep that all intact is really key and critical. People can say whatever they want online and it’s really important to make sure that we are meeting people’s needs, addressing their concerns and exceeding expectations.

I also think Fair Housing continues to be a complex issue in the world of multifamily as it is constantly changing and companies need to be prepared and plugged in to the latest standards.

Then market conditions, it’s always the fundamentals. We’ve seen such cap rate compression recently. It can be challenging to buy assets right now because of the influx of foreign and domestic capital which makes it harder to bid, and harder to win. A lot of times the best deal you bought was one you didn’t end up buying because you didn’t overpay for a certain community. There’s definitely a lot of capital in the U.S. right now and that is making it more difficult to find good investment opportunities.

MHN: What are the hot trends you’re noticing in the industry?

Coté: We talked about technology a little bit and it’s clear with the spaces that are being built out today that people want more connected common area spaces where they can work remotely, work from home, work in that space, meet up with people, and they want to be able to have the support for their mobile devices in a comfortable setting.

Faster Wi-Fi connectivity in public spaces will always be a request, perhaps even across the entire community, and free of charge. So, the technology aspects will continue to be something I think is a hot trend and the challenge is to stay abreast of it because technology moves so quickly in today’s world and we are always trying to keep pace with the latest developments.

Renovations continue to be seen in many markets. The increased capital investment at the property level allows for the communities to be modernized and differentiated. Bell is the 7th largest renovator in the country; it’s a competency we have and one that we are leveraging at numerous assets.

On a micro-level, you’ll find things like rental and loaner bicycles. People are really into physical fitness and being able to do things particularly in assets that are located in the cities where the walkability score is really high. Another focus is on enhanced fitness centers with Fitness on Demand or enhanced features inside the apartment homes, such as nest thermostats and in-wall USB chargers. Making things convenient for residents is a big trend. For example, self-storage package delivery pick-up at a time that is good for the resident versus having to come in during leasing office hours.

And, let’s not forget the importance of pet-friendly amenities and services such as pet spas, bark parks, Yappy Hours for residents to mingle, and partnerships with local vet offices and dog walking service providers.

MHN: What keeps you awake at night?

Coté: For me, it all starts with people so I spend most of my time thinking about our people. I’ve got to be attracting and retaining the right people. I think from that flows many questions, “Am I making the right decisions? How am I anticipating? How am I being strategic as to where we’re going?” I lie in bed at night and think about the career opportunities for our teams; how do we leverage off of the deep bench that we have as we anticipate where we want to go next?

I want Bell to continue to be the employer of choice so that we continue to attract and retain the very best talent that we can. And, I always want to be flexible and nimble with how we adapt to these ever-changing events in multifamily, whether it’s gaining even more expertise, like with changes in Fair Housing and translating those changes through training, out to the field as quickly as possible.

Here’s the thing that’s fascinating to me: each and every day, we have the ability to make a first impression because when someone comes to look at our property for the first time, it’s like Opening Day. We need to make sure that we are treating each and every day as that opportunity to welcome that individual person to our new community whether it is a potential new resident or a new employee.

bellflatironsbld5943hi-600xx3300-2200-0-1For example, we just acquired this unique community in Denver, Bell Flatirons. It has 1,200 plus units. That took a lot of foresight and planning and it continues to keep me up at night because it’s a new market. Now, as a company, Bell is great at assessing and identifying opportunities in new markets but there are always things that come up—how do I equip my people to be incredibly successful each and every day?

Bell is doing great things and people want to work here, people know who we are as we have a huge presence in the Triad. However, now that we have one property in Denver we need to truly lay down roots and make inroads so people get to know Bell including residents, vendors and the community at large.

How do we get them to know our people? That’s what I think about. All of these new relationships are built on trust and that takes time to establish in a real way. But I know we will get there, as we have every other time we expanded into a new market, and I am so excited about being on the frontline of helping to make those first impressions memorable.  We already have begun to develop a relationship with the Mayor of Superior and I am looking forward to getting to meet him in the coming months as well as establishing relationships with the on-site staff.