Sue Ansel Is Multifamily’s Go-To Executive
- Sep 04, 2019
In summing up her distinguished career, Susan Ansel sometimes says that she has held only three real jobs in her life. From the age of 14 through her college years, she worked as a lifeguard at local swimming pools in her hometown of Dundee, Ill. During the course of her third and most recent job—as she might refer to her 32 years in the multifamily industry—Ansel has built a reputation for strategic acumen, prodigious industry knowledge and unfailing graciousness. By the time she stepped into the role of president & CEO at Gables Residential a few decades later, she was among the industry’s most respected executives.
It speaks volumes about her peers’ high esteem for her that Ansel was elected chairwoman of the National Multifamily Housing Council. “Sue is the go-to person for everyone in the multifamily industry,” said Laurie Baker, executive vice president of operations at Camden Property Trust. “She is genuine and universally respected for her professionalism and integrity. She cares deeply and passionately about the multifamily industry, her associates, peers and investors alike.”
On Ansel’s watch, Gables has expanded its ownership and management footprint to 38,000 units. Today the company’s employee roster has grown to more than 1,000. Gables Residential owns, develops and manages a coast-to-coast portfolio of high-growth markets that include Washington, D.C., Atlanta, South Florida, Houston, Dallas, Austin and Southern California. The company also provides third-party management services in the Boston, New York City, North Florida, Central Florida, Chicago, Phoenix and Seattle markets.
Under Ansel’s direction, Gables has earned awards for leadership in sustainability, development expertise and its technology-driven approach to operations. Over the years she has led efforts that include third-party client services and the advancement of real estate technology.
“There’s not a job or function Sue doesn’t know at the intricate level,” said Doug Bibby, president of the National Multifamily Housing Council, who has known Ansel since he joined NMHC 18 years ago. He describes his longtime colleague as smart, level-headed and quick to give credit where credit is due. Bibby cites a combination of traits that make her an industry leader. “Sue is as results-oriented as any successful CEO needs to be, but she is always focused on the human side of the business. She knows that good, motivated and well-rewarded people will win the day.”
Ansel views her mission as providing the leadership and resources necessary for the Gables team to deliver successful results, as well as communicating those results. She believes that company’s success is measured by delivering returns that compare favorably to both Gables’ investment thesis and to alternative investment vehicles. Quality of life is essential, as well: “For our associates, it is important that they work in healthy and safe environments with the opportunity to grow personally and professionally,” Ansel said.
To help to help quantify and qualify results, Gables uses associate engagement tools. “Our residents and retail tenants vote every day with their leases, so we clearly pay close attention to that, but we also try to engage our residents on a regular basis so that we can measure more than just the absolute results of our offerings,” she said.
For Ansel, a great day at the office means going out into the field and meeting Gables associates, whom she describes as passionate, dedicated and the secret to the company’s success. “Unfortunately, my current responsibilities make that happen less frequently than I would like, but it is always a pleasure to get out and meet the team on their turf and let them demonstrate how talented and skillful they are,” she says.
Those field visits also underscore an acute challenge facing multifamily operators. “In this low-unemployment environment, it is harder than usual to continue to attract and retain superior talent,” she noted. (paraphrase?) To compete for that talent, Gables makes finding, training and retaining first-rate team members a top priority, Ansel added.
In 1982, after graduating from DePauw University with a degree in economics, she spent five years as a financial analyst with a real estate syndicator. The balance of her career has been with Gables and Trammell Crow. Ansel joined Trammell Crow Residential, the company’s immediate ancestor, in 1987, and was on the team at the time of Gables’ IPO seven years later 1994. Along the way, she prepared for leadership by taking on a wide variety of responsibilities: development and acquisitions, asset management, financial operations, responsibility for the company’s real estate technology strategy and efforts. At the time Ansel succeeded David Fitch as Gables’ president & CEO seven years ago, she was serving as the firm’s chief operating officer.
Gables has undergone several ownership changes during Ansel’s time at the company. Since 2015, the parent company has been an investor group headed by Clarion Partners, which acquired the company for a reported $3.2 billion. That concluded a decade of ownership by ING Group, which had been Gables’ parent company since 2005.
“I get charged up and invigorated by having challenging opportunities to address and work through,” she says. But as CEO she’s careful to find the right balance between implementing new initiatives while trying to minimize unnecessary distractions or disruptions. Technology has been changing the multifamily business throughout Ansel’s career; what’s different today is the pace of that change. “If we are not evolving as an organization with these changes, our business model will soon become obsolete,” explains Ansel.
“The most difficult aspect of the pace of technological change today, from my point of view, is selecting what areas to focus on first,” she adds. “There is only so much change that can be managed in an organization at one time, and prioritizing and change management efforts absorb a great deal of company resources and bandwidth.”
Recognizing that Silicon Valley has taken notice of multifamily as an industry ripe for disruption and innovation, Ansel thinks proptech will change the way apartment communities s are built, how deals are done, how buildings are monitored and managed and—just as important—how teams interact with residents to provide a superior customer experience. Virtual reality, blockchain and augmented reality are all terms that she predicts will become part of the sector’s daily lexicon.
For decades, Ansel has been working to move the industry forward on multiple fronts. During the late 1990s, multifamily REITs were looking for innovative ways to create alternative revenue strategies and technology solutions, which were scarce at the time. “I met Sue around 1996 when she was vice president of ancillary services at Gables and I was in a similar role,” says Camden’s Baker. “Back then, our communities were not connected via the Internet. A group of REIT players banded together to use our collective size to begin to drive change. And that we did.”
That collaboration, Baker notes, was the catalyst for an industry focus on telecommunications and technology. Among the results: creation of NMHC’s OPTECH Conference; the removal of perpetual franchise cable agreements, which promote telecom solutions that better serve residents; technology investments by a number of owners, before proptech was hot; and standards for software integration.
“It was an exciting time to be in our business, and the relationships we built as a small and mighty team still hold a tremendous bond to this day,” says Baker. “Sue is and has always been the thoughtful voice in the room.” Ansel’s focus on results is evident in every facet of her work, she added, from running Gables Residential to serving as NMHC’s chairwoman or testifying on Capitol Hill.
Ansel has also been a leading voice in promoting the benefits of diversity and gender equality. This practice ultimately leads to better decision-making and improved financial results, Baker said. “Sue understands that progress comes when people pull together,” she said. “She knows how to conceive big ideas and put them into actionable initiatives. This is Sue’s hallmark and it puts her in rarified space.”
Ansel was born and raised in Dundee, Ill., approximately 40 miles northwest of Chicago. The town has become part of metropolitan Chicago’s suburbs since Ansel’s childhood, but in those days there were probably still 30 miles of cornfields between Dundee and Chicago. “It was great to grow up in a small town and have that atmosphere, while being close enough to take advantage of the cultural offerings of a big city,” she recalled.
Young Susan could readily imagine pursing all kinds of careers when she grew up. Among the more unusual: oceanography. “I loved science and was a swimmer,” she said, “so those two things seemed to go together nicely in my mind.” Her family supported the notion that she could do whatever she put her mind to. Crucially, they also helped her set expectations for high levels of achievement.
“I was and remain a competitive person,” says Ansel, who played multiple sports during her formative years. “I liked the sense of accomplishment, and I liked the camaraderie of a team environment.” The activities also provided opportunities to learn leadership skills. Ansel credits a senior-year economics class as a key influence. “The course work was so interesting and practical to me that it led to my field of study in college, which led to my path into business.”
Ansel counts herself fortunate to have had several influential professional mentors. The first hired her right out of college and took an active interest in her progress during her five years with his firm. “He pushed me into new opportunities,” Ansel recalled. “He took time to tell me little things—often that I did not want to hear—about timeliness of replies, chewing gum… little things that are important in the business world that as a young person I did not recognize. He could be hard on me, but for all the right reasons.”
Others have helped her make more significant changes of direction, whether that meant taking on new responsibilities or moving on to a different company. Even before she had demonstrated skills in a particular area, those colleagues would showed faith in Ansel’s ability to take on whatever was next. As she puts it, “They were betting on the athlete and assuming I could figure out the job skills.”
In turn, Ansel finds it rewarding to support initiatives that are have enriched her journey, whether personally or professionally. She serves her alma mater, DePauw University, as a member of the board of trustees. And in her high-profile position as chairwoman of NMHC, Ansel represents her industry in meetings with lawmakers, regulators and White House staff. “It has been fascinating to advocate on our behalf and see the details of how the systems work on a firsthand basis,” she related.
It’s a good thing, then, that Ansel loves to travel, since her professional responsibilities keep her on the road steadily. She is an enthusiastic traveler when she is off duty, as well. “Without fail, I always come home thankful for the good fortune of living in the United States, but I am fascinated and intrigued to experience new cultures, new people and new locations,” says Ansel. “I keep a world map in my office marking the places I have visited, and use it to dream about the places I still want to go.” Wherever Ansel travels next, they will add to a journey that has already taken her to extraordinary places.