Couples Who Work Together: It’s Good for Business

Husband-and-wife team Steve and Randy Fifield find that the arm wrestling they do is actually very productive.

When Steven and Randy Fifield discuss what sets their company apart from its competitors, they often use a hockey analogy. They speak of being able to “anticipate where the puck is going,” as Randy Fifield says.

It’s a fitting metaphor to describe the couple whose companies, Chicago-based Fifield Companies and Los Angeles-based Century West Partners, have developed such trendsetting properties as Alta at K Station and The Californian on Wilshire. The Fifields display a Gretzky-like ability to visualize the course of action before it happens and be there before their rivals. That’s true whether they’re blazing development trails on the fringes of Chicago’s Loop or rigorously researching the lifestyle passions of distinct renting cohorts in L.A.

Little wonder Fifield Companies captured a 2014 MHN Excellence Award for Best New Development: High-Rise with K2, its 34-floor, 496-unit apartment community in Chicago’s increasingly hot West Loop.

In February, the couple unveiled their newest Chicago-area project, E2, a 356-unit luxury residential tower in near-north suburban downtown Evanston.

Charles Huzenis, principal of Chicago’s JRG Capital Partners, has been a real estate investment partner of the Fifields for 10 years. “They have great vision well in advance of others, and that’s totally displayed in their K Station projects,” he said. “When that deal first got going, it was kind of no man’s land out there. Nobody was willing to bid on those deals when it was just raw land. Now every institution in the country wants a piece of that area.”

Elissa Morgante, principal of Evanston’s Morgante-Wilson, an acclaimed, high-end residential architectural firm, served as architectural interior designer at E2. “They are very passionate about what they do,” she said. “They have a vision. They give you direction as far as the uniqueness and ‘wow’ they want. But they give you a lot of latitude … It was just a great synergy between us.”

Foils for each other

Observers of the company sometimes size up Steve’s finance background and Randy’s residential and design background, and assume the Fifields confine their activities to those respective specialties, Steve says. “But we act as foils for one another,” he adds.

“There are many times where she has comments on the financing structure of the deals. Or [she] says ‘drill down a bit more on the financial structure.’ Conversely, I’ll ask questions about the design elements of a building. We actually relish the opportunities to push each other to do things better,” Steve explains. “That arm wrestling we do is actually very productive, which enables us to produce leading-edge projects.”

An example of such decision-making came during the planning for their apartment towers at Alta at K Station, where the Fifields included their first full-size basketball court. “That was a push by Randy, who’s only five-feet-five, but thought it important,” Steve says. The court made the community one of the most popular in the city for athletic men, which in turn spurred its popularity with fit single women, and resulted in its pool being dubbed “South Beach.”

Adds Randy: “A lot of times I’ll be called ‘the girl with the boots on the ground.’ But it takes two of us, whether one of us is in the ivory tower and the other has the boots on the ground. The fine tuning and constant grooming of the company is always necessary. We don’t rest on our laurels.”

The 100 percent solution

The Fifields term their approach “the 100 percent solution,” referring to their drive to find 100 different ways to improve things one percent. “Being a husband and wife, and our tenacity to think out of the box, set us apart,” Randy says. “And I think we’re shape shifters.”

Steve briefly warbles the lyrics of a classic song about your dreams coming true, and it happening to you if you’re young at heart. “We have a very young perception on life,” he said. “We feel we’re in school every day. What I mean by that is we’re constantly trying to learn what the trends are, what our target market wants.”

While planning a 390-unit development in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, the Fifields learned that many Angelenos of Korean descent are such avid golfers they frequent multi-level driving ranges just to hit a few balls. The upshot: The Fifields will place a golf simulator in that apartment community.

“I think it gets to an attitude,” Steve says. “We’re always looking to push the design, push the efficiency, trying to find more and better ways to produce a product that has better services and amenities than our competitors.”

Randy says one of their success secrets is running their office on highly egalitarian principles. “It’s a very flat organization, with a lot of experienced senior people in the form of acquisitions execs, asset managers, construction and project managers, project accountants, an in-house social media guru and interior designers who have a voice in what we do,” she reports.
Another key is listening to their competitors, to hear what’s working and what’s not. “I love to open new projects and watch other developers walking around taking pictures of new features we’re rolling out,” Randy says.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Avoiding pitfalls

But how do they avoid the pitfalls of partnering with a spouse?

When the Fifields at times fail to see eye to eye, they recognize the importance of stepping back and realizing their marriage makes them different from other development partners who are able to stay mad at one another.

“We respect each other’s instincts and insights, which are two different things,” Steve says. “This is an industry where if you let the numbers rule, you’ll do a lot of dumb things. Sometimes, you have to listen to your stomach.”

“Or listen to both your head and your heart,” Randy interjects, adding, “We seek the win-win or the compromise.”

They’ve been known to look at housing even when on vacation, giving in to the fact their business is also their passion and hobby. But the Fifields also know when to get away from work. They have what Steve calls “an inviolable date night” for dinner and a movie. And Randy occasionally remarks to Steve, “We need three days, an island and some coconuts,” she reports.

The couple has five children, and Steve has two children by a previous marriage. “We chose to walk a 100-mile journey with our children, a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain,” Randy says. “We didn’t talk any business that week. Our cell phones would not work in the mountains of Spain. It was a really wonderful bonding experience.”

Twenty years together have brought them only closer in the way they view the world. “Steve and I have a very unique relationship; we think a lot alike,” Randy concludes. “There is very little today we disagree about.”