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Brick & Wonder Profile – Christopher Parker

Christopher Parker is an entrepreneur and real estate developer. After cutting his teeth learning asset management and acquisitions in New York, he leveraged smart partnerships and a leap of faith to launch his own development firm, focused on residential opportunities in Philadelphia. We caught up with Chris to hear his story. 

Tell us how you got started.
About a year and a half out of school, I joined a company called A&E real estate in New York. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue a career in the real estate investment space, but I heard about this young investment firm that was growing rapidly and jumped in.

The role gave me the opportunity to learn the nuts and bolts of the business, because most pieces of the business model were in house. A&E was buying multifamily assets in neighborhoods that were gentrifying like Jackson Heights and Sunnyside. They then invested heavily in the buildings, replacing boilers, roofs, all the windows and for example. They would put a professional management company in place and start treating tenants better, operating the buildings more efficiently. 

I started out working in asset management, putting on the “owner’s hat” and managing the capital plan for each building through a construction company we owned. Some of the projects were quite creative.  On one, we had a budget to do some facade and roof work. One of our contractors helped us to allocate some savings to really improve the front of the building and restore a hundred-year-old metal facade detail. 

You also learned about acquisitions there?
Once I understood the mechanics of how we made these investments, I got more involved in the acquisition side. I learned how to do financial modelling and think through the lifecycle of these investments, and how to actually go out and buy something. 

People think that acquisitions are the sexy part of the business. It’s true that a lot of the opportunity in the transactions is how well you can buy something – finding a diamond the rough. But, in essence, once you find the thing you want to buy, there is a project management side to it, to get the offer in and work with the attorneys, banks, mortgage brokers etc. 

Any other lessons from that experience?
I was there for 4.5 years. When I joined we had 3,500 units under management, but we grew it to over 10,000. We were very growth driven, so it was exciting to be a part of. It wasn’t always extremely organized, so there were gaps to do creative things. I figured out nobody was in charge of the laundry rooms in our buildings. I went out and bid the management of all our laundry rooms to the three biggest laundry operators in the country, adding about $25k per month in revenue. I also had the opportunity to do some investor relations. Some of the groups we worked with were quite sophisticated so that was challenging, but I learned how to deal with institutional money.

I pitched a business plan to these investors: if they would invest, I would quit my job, move to Philadelphia and take on this deal.

How did you launch Bryant Park Holdings? 
While I was working at A&E, I was trying to put a deal together on my own in the background, looking for small multifamily deals in commuter towns in Hudson Valley and New Jersey. 

I had a friend who lived in Philadelphia, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. Property is much cheaper down there. Prices haven’t been bid up like in NYC but it has the trajectory of bigger East Coast cities. If you look at students graduating from UPenn, a higher and higher share of each graduating class is staying in Philadelphia. I started thinking about raising the money, and realized I could buy a really crappy building in Brooklyn, or 5 quite nice buildings in a much nicer area of Philadelphia. I found a deal that was 30 apartments in 5 buildings, with a 70 year old owner who had taken good care of the bones of the buildings. He ran them as his lifestyle business, with a partner who managed the apartments with him. It looked like an ideal deal – he had been a good custodian, but he had left a lot of upside on the table. Really fortunately I had made some connections while at A&E, and there was a guy I worked with connected to some family offices. I pitched a business plan to these investors: if they would invest, I would quit my job, move to Philadelphia and take on this deal.

One of the hardest things in the business is finding someone who will sponsor you when you have no track record. I ended up partnering with this coworker of mine who had the capital connections, and they were sold on the opportunity. 

Real Estate is a funny business, because you have to put things together 100%, then have to wait ninety days to close. A week before we closed, I quit my job, moved into my friends’ spare room in Philadelphia and got to work! 

How have things progressed?
I let tenants move out naturally, found a contractor to do new kitchens, bathrooms, door hardware, lighting, and learned a much greater appreciation for the construction process. I decided to put laundry into every unit, improved common areas, installed proper building entry systems with buzzers so renters could let guests in. We started hitting our projected numbers. I was profitable from day one because I had to feed myself. 

The family office that invested was pleased, so I started letting them know about new opportunities. Fortunately, they’ve helped us with three more deals and we now have 11 buildings with 80 apartments. 

And what’s the long-term vision?
The bones and infrastructure are set up, but it can be very limiting to be spinning your wheels in the weeds. I want to scale up to around five hundred units, at which point I’ll feel more comfortable that I’ve built something self sustaining. 

The bigger goal is to enhance the occupant experience in upper-mid tier rentals. I think trying to be transparent with people and build a brand around better experience and better-designed spaces will make a more exciting product. 

What parts of this field do you most enjoy?
I enjoy the necessity of working with lots of different types of people. I have to work with general contractors and bankers, with tenants and vendors of all sorts. It’s a very human business where you are creating space for people. You need a lot of trust and strong, positive relationships.

Green St Project, Philadelphia, PA