Student Housing Management A Leader in the Midwest
Student housing leader A comfortable place for students to sleep
Story Discussion Font Size: Default font size Larger font size By KAREN RIVEDAL | firstname.lastname@example.org | 608-252-6106 | Posted: Saturday, April 10, 2010 2:00 pm | (2) Comments
Over the past 25 years, Madison resident Bill Levy has managed more than 100,000 leases covering 75,000 beds in student housing properties across the country. His Madison-based company, Best Management Onward Campus, now handles about 3,000 beds in several states and also provides consulting and brokerage services for many clients.
Photo by Karen Rivedal/State Journal
About Bill Levy
CEO of Best Management Onward Campus, a property management firm focused on student housing
Degree: Double major in marketing and marketing education, University of South Florida in Tampa
Family: Married, two sons
Business address: 150 E. Gilman St., Suite 1250
Staff: More than 300 in five states, including 17 office staff in Madison, plus Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and California
Founded: August 1984
Bill Levy began his corporate rise in the field of property management from about as low a post as possible — he was a dishwasher in the kitchen of the private dorm he lived in as a student at the University of South Florida in 1978.
By 1980, after a few promotions, he was managing that building, a 13-story high-rise with 824 beds owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.
By 1982, after he graduated, the company had transferred him to Madison, where he managed 1,600 beds of student housing for Northwestern at properties including The Towers, The Regent Apartments and The Langdon.
"Back in the early 1980s, I was one of the largest landlords in Madison, and I was only in my 20s," said Levy, who never left Madison after that transfer and used the city as a corporate headquarters to launch his own property management company, Best Management Onward Campus, in 1984.
It started small and began by helping campus fraternities and sororities run their buildings better. But he only started focusing on it exclusively in 2002, when he quit his job managing a $4 billion investment fund in student housing run by GMH and Goldman Sachs, which bought up Northwestern's housing in the early 1990s and kept Levy on.
Levy left after the fund went public and his bosses wanted him to move to Philadelphia.
"It wasn't a happy decision (to quit)," he said. "But I didn't want to leave Madison. I'd always negotiated that as part of my position."
Now operating in five states with 300 employees and six properties, BMOC still focuses mostly on student housing, with services including day-to-day management, consulting and brokerage. It is one of about a dozen companies nationwide that handle properties for large investment groups such as Met Life and ING.
"They own the buildings and we do the third-party management of them," Levy said. "I've been able to grow my company more than I ever dreamed I could grow it in a short time."
Levy, 52, met and married his wife, Lisa, shortly after moving to Madison. He said they decided to stay in Madison after the wedding on a coin flip, but added he liked the city early on and said the feeling grew stronger with time.
"When I first moved here from Florida, I called my mother and said, ‘Mom, I found out where they film those Chevy commercials. This is America.'
"Other than January, February and March, I love it," he added. "It's been a wonderful place for me to raise my family."
Q: Besides your properties in Madison, you also manage student housing in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and California. Is it tough do this kind of work from a distance?
A: I have regional (staff) that travel and visit all the properties monthly or quarterly. And with our technology, I can do conference calls and talk about topics (with employees) like marketing and student issues. I can also get all my (resident assistants) on a conference call, and I can do training and show them new forms we're using on the Web site.
What's the most challenging part of running your company?
A: Finding the entrepreneurial employee with real business sense who can come in and work with us to maximize the profitability of our communities. I've had great success in Madison finding those type of people. They often start at the RA level, and our goal is to promote from within.
What's the most important thing you tell your managers to keep in mind about their work?
A: That we respect our customers. Our clients are from 18 to 25 years old, and we need to treat them at the same level of respect as you would treat your grandmother or grandfather or your little cousin.
In addition to the 3,000 beds you currently manage, the company plans to add 2,000 beds over the next few years from properties in Kentucky, North Carolina and Florida. How do you go about getting new business?
A: In the past two years, other than my Web site, I have not spent any money on marketing. What's important (working) on the national level is your reputation and experience. After that, it's the relationships you develop.
I've now become an elder in this business. These huge corporations, much of their decisions they base on word of mouth and trust. They'll say (to a colleague), "You can work with Bill."
In your consulting pitch to architects and developers, you tout your knowledge of what's hot and what's not in student housing. What are some of the latest trends?
A: The biggest change compared to 25 years ago is that students want that individual room now. That's what they had at home, and they almost demand it (in college housing). A big, huge apartment isn't a concern of theirs, but they want their own rooms. Students also really love washers and dryers in their apartments, and they like separate bathrooms. They'll live in a two-bedroom unit, but they want their own bathroom.
And in the newest designs, they want a communal kitchen (for the building). They might have a fridge or microwave in their room, but they still want a place to make brownies or cookies. You see communal kitchens in the new developments, and a community room on every floor, with a widescreen TV and soft seating. They love that.
It used to be, 10 years ago, we would sell elitism. You would say, ‘This is the most prestigious development, with marble in some units,' and so on, but today the students don't want that. I'm not saying they want something bad. The demand for quality is still there. But they don't want this elitist mentality about it, and I'm finding that across the country now.
Do you have an overall business philosophy?
A: We want to look at things we can do to make this experience an easy one for students and their parents, so the students can focus on what they're here to do. We try to take away any frustrations that could occur. We are the first step in making them alumni.