CEO Q&A: Steve VanAmburgh

Steve VanAmburgh
Steve VanAmburgh

Last month, D CEO magazine revealed the results of SMU’s CEO Sentiment Survey, conducted annually by the school’s Cox School of Business. As part of the study, North Texas c-suite executives named their picks for the region’s CEO of the Year.

Among the finalists this year were two real estate executives—Steve Van Amburgh of KDC and Craig Hall of Hall Financial Group.

D CEO asked all finalists to share thoughts on their careers, lessons they’ve learned, and what lies ahead. Below are responses from Steve VanAmburgh. (Click here to read the Q&A with Craig Hall. Click here to see excerpts from all finalists, and click here to read a profile of this year’s winner, Joel Allison of Baylor Scott & White Health, click here.)

Q. What are the most significant business lessons that you’ve learned throughout your career?

VANAMBURGH: Hire the best and brightest people that respect and care for others. Having a culture of caring for others…that is the secret sauce. And, having a strong empathy for employees, teammates, clients, vendors, partners, lenders, etc. is a key to success. Placing yourself in their shoes, asking questions and looking at the project from their perspective, vs. your own view, yields the greatest results. At KDC, we are people–focused and always respect every job performed and the people who do it.

An open book philosophy builds immediate trust. KDC has always felt comfortable following an open book/transparent development process. Openly sharing all information from the beginning of the relationship allows our team to “sit on the same side of the table as our client” very quickly. It generates trust with the client from the start. Plus, it’s a lot more fun and satisfying to partner with our client and collaborate to achieve maximum results.

Third, “Your EGO is not your amigo.” There is not much room for egotism in a complex development project, as it requires tremendous teamwork, collaboration and communication. Arrogance and egotism don’t fit into that equation. A couple of quotes that we like to share are:

1. “Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity.” In sum, you should check your ego at the door.

2. Our KDC culture prefers team work and humility: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking about yourself less!” I believe, and have worked to instill this at KDC, having a consistent daily attitude of thinking and caring about others is what your business life should be focused on. The rest takes care of itself as long as you have smart, hardworking teammates. Our culture at KDC is centered on treating people the way you want to be treated. We believe that J.C. Penney’s Golden Rule is more applicable today than ever before!

Q. What is an important business success you have enjoyed, and a failure you’ve learned from?

I have been through five negative “down” real estate cycles while at KDC. I started with KDC 25 years ago, so approximately every four to five years our economy slows down, we over build, we have a recession, etc.

Over those 25 years, our business has grown and improved significantly. We have persevered and remained focused! We have rarely downsized our team, and as a result, we are stronger and better than ever before. We have awesome people, and that is why we win business.

Building our KDC team and seeing their excellent performance is really inspiring for me. When I think about KDC, I’m so proud to say that we have a BIG HEART. We love to help others and that’s what it’s all about at KDC.

We’re also laser focused on corporate development and build-to-suit projects, which has been the correct path for KDC because we’ve experienced great success. And, being really well capitalized helps in a big way.

Our team and the way we communicate and execute our projects is exactly what Corporate America demands. We have no conflicts of interest. I feel that we have the best managers and partners in the business. I’m very proud of our entire team as they jump in the foxhole every day, with smiles on their faces.

During a downturn about 10 years ago, we took our eye off the ball, and as a consequence, we had marginal results. We developed two large industrial projects in Mexico and although we completed both on time and the tenants were happy, we didn’t make a dime. We were fortunate to finish these successfully, yet not making a profit was no fun.

Also, we developed a large retail power center 25 years ago. We made a small profit, but the development culture in that product type didn’t fit well with KDC’s open book culture.

However, those failures and setbacks have created resilience. We say: “Losing doesn’t make us want to quit – It makes us want to fight that much harder.”

Q. Where do your company’s greatest opportunities lie in 2015?

This past year was a banner year, with 5.7 million square feet and more than $1.5 billion in projects under way! That’s a lot of great projects for a lot of great companies! They include:

• CityLine: State Farm: 2.1 million s.f., office (largest build-to-suit in DFW history)

• CityLine, Raytheon: 490,000 s.f. office

• CityLine, Whole Foods at Regency Center: 100,000 s.f. retail

• CityLine, Multifamily with JLB: 525 units

• CityLine, Aloft Hotel: 150 rooms

• Legacy West, FedEx Office: 275,000 s.f. office

• Legacy West, Toyota US HQ : 1.3 million s.f. office

• Advocare Corporate HQ: 260,000 s.f. office

• State Farm Atlanta Park Center: 600,000 s.f. office

• Houston, Lennar Corp.: 65,000 s.f. office

Going forward, we feel that Corporate America is focused on locating their people and facilities in mixed-use “live work play” developments. That is how top companies recruit and retain their employees in today’s economy. KDC has two great mixed-use developments underway: Legacy West in Plano and CityLine in Richardson. Both of these are beautiful, pedestrian-friendly environments. Mixed-use is what the top companies in the U.S. are seeking, and KDC is ready to provide top facilities to them all!

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