As the leader of Hillwood Communities’ Acquisitions Group, Brian Carlock knows a good deal when he sees one. Since the beginning of the recession, his group has been pursuing an aggressive land acquisition effort that has resulted in a vast portfolio of real estate assets. But Brian’s experience goes far beyond the initial real estate transaction. Once he closes a deal, he’s in it for the long haul as the executive in charge of managing Hillwood’s Central Texas and Houston-area projects.
Brian’s team is currently working on the development of Wolf Ranch, a 755-acre master planned community in Georgetown. Wolf Ranch is planned for a deliberately diverse product mix, including approximately 1,688 single family homes, 388 multifamily units, 336 age-targeted units, and 20.5 acres of commercial land. The Wolf Ranch team just celebrated a huge milestone this month – earning unanimous approval from the City of Georgetown on four key items: the community development agreement, comprehensive plan amendment, MUD consent agreement, and final annexation hearing. On the heels of this success, we thought it would be a good time to sit down with Brian and talk shop.
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background, and how did you come to work for Hillwood?
Well, I’m from Texas and went to college in New York at West Point. I graduated from West Point with an engineering degree. After college, I had an active duty army commission which had a 5 year obligation. I ended up staying about 7 years in the military as an Army Officer. Then I came back and got my Master’s Degree in Engineering. I was able to retire from the military as a Captain in 1999.
I ended up going to an engineering consulting firm – Carter & Burgess – for about a year at their corporate office in Forth Worth. Hillwood was one of Carter & Burgess’ biggest land development clients. They offered me the opportunity to come over and work on the development side, and it ended up being a really good fit. Hillwood has a strong connection with the military because Ross Perot is our Chairman, and there’s a lot of academy and prior service people who work here. I’ve been here for almost 15 years now.
I started in the business on the development side responsible for construction and coordination with cities and entitlements. As time went on, they let me handle most of the projects that we had from a project management and community management level on the west side of the DFW Metroplex.
Then maybe 5 years or so ago, when the downturn started, it became apparent that we needed to focus on strategic opportunities that were starting to emerge in the marketplace because of the downturn. So we committed a team that I led, and we referred to ourselves as the “Acquisitions Group.” We looked at hundreds and hundreds of deals during the downturn, and we are very fortunate that we ended up buying a lot of great deals during that time. It was really only because we were able to commit a team of people working on it – not just as a hobby but as an everyday part of the business for several years. We’ve been able to buy enough projects to “load the pipeline” for a decade to 15 years. It was an exciting time.
We were successful in buying properties in Central Texas, Houston, Dallas, Florida, Nevada – all over – but the challenge is: how do you manage these when you are a relatively small development company based out of Dallas? So, I ended up taking on the additional responsibility of running Central Texas and Houston projects that we had purchased. That’s how we stand today – I still run the Acquisitions Group and I manage San Antonio, Austin, and Houston.
You seem to be constantly traveling. How do you wind down and relax?
It’s really a matter of accepting the time that we’re in for what it is. I’m a father of 3 active kids and I’m at a point in my career where there is a lot going on, so I’ve acknowledged that this is just a busy time. You kind of put yourself to the side for a while.
The way I make sure we have some healthy balance in life is when my kids have events, I try to make them every time. My relaxation time is when I’m at the soccer game or the field hockey game. I refuse to be that dad who is never around because he thinks his career is so much more important than his family. It is a balance that can swing in either direction.
I also unwind by working out early in the morning before work, and I enjoy reading. I do love to travel, too – my wife and I try to get away a couple of weekends a year and we always take a great family vacation at least once a year. As a result, our kids have a great passion for travel as well.
What has been your greatest travel experience?
Probably my most memorable travel experience was a military deployment. When I was a Company Commander, I took my unit to Northern Africa for an operation. It ended up being remarkable in many ways. It was everything you ever thought you’d do in the military – being able to deploy to a foreign country, in the middle of the Sahara desert, dealing with a lot of NATO countries doing joint operations. It was memorable for sure because it involved everything from running out of water and food to having to deal with death and international politics. We probably didn’t take showers for about 3 weeks.
Hillwood has a pretty diverse portfolio – from industrial to retail to residential. How do you determine which projects to take on?
We have different business sectors that focus on different classes of real estate. So my team is singularly in charge of the community/single family business. But because we’re doing large-scale single family projects like Wolf Ranch, those projects often come with some amount of commercial/retail. It is important to understand that sector because oftentimes the commercial/retail is a substantial part of the value of that property. We are fortunate that Hillwood is a relatively small company (although now we’re at about 400) and from a senior leader perspective, we share notes across sectors. If I get an opportunity presented to me that is not in our primarily residential wheelhouse, it’s an easy shift over to one of our sister divisions. We share deals all the time.
As it relates to your master planned communities, do you have to go solely to your sister division Hillwood Commercial, or are you looking for the best deal?
First and foremost, if it fits our internal Hillwood criteria, we would absolutely give our internal group first shot at it. We all work for the same guy, Mr. Perot. We’re motivated to share. Because I do so much work outside of the Metroplex, it rarely is a good fit for our other sectors.
But I’ll tell you that Wolf Ranch commercial/retail is of interest because of its specific characteristics. It’s of interest to our commercial group, to our multi-family group, to our retail group. But that’s rarely the case.
Even if I know my commercial guys are not interested in being a part of a deal, they are a great sounding board on best practices and what we should do with the real estate, how we should market it, and who we should talk to. We’re better because of the resources we have across our disciplines.
What drew you to Georgetown and to Wolf Ranch?
This business has everything to do with relationships. In this particular case, I was introduced to the project through a relationship. The Wolf Family had put out a feeler to an individual, asking who they could talk to about partnering, selling, or developing this large piece of property that has been in the family for generations. Our name came up through that relationship that I have in Austin. That’s how it started.
From a real estate perspective, there are certain things you look for in a master planned community project. Good schools, proximity to employment centers, good transportation infrastructure in the form of highways, and good quality of life. When you can put a check next to all four of those, you have the basics of a great residential community project right off the bat. As it turns out, Wolf Ranch has strong marks in all of those regards.
Partnering with the Wolf family, the City of Georgetown, and other stakeholders has been key to the success of Wolf Ranch. Tell us about that process from your perspective.
We use the word partnership a lot, and we actually mean it. We think that makes us better than most developers because we have a sincere desire for partnership with the local community. Oftentimes it’s because our projects are developed in multiple phases over a decade or more. It’s difficult to have a successful project for that long if you’re not really in a partnership.
In this particular case we matched up well with the interests of all the parties. The City is interested not necessarily in rapid growth, but in quality growth. This works out very well with what we do, and with what a lot of the great master planned community developers do. We bring that value. All the way through the process we felt that the City really wanted to make this happen, but it just had to be under certain conditions.
The term partnership sometimes equates to a financial partnership, but you take it to a different level. You’re really in it for the interest of the community.
Absolutely. Now you’re talking about real financial partnership – where there’s give and take, and there’s risk and reward. At the core of all that, you have to trust who you’re doing business with. The entitlements we were able to achieve have a fair amount of trust built in. The believability factor has to be there.
The thing we have, that not everyone else does, is a 25-year track record. Our owner has deep capital and a deep commitment shown over a long period of time. We make the right long-term decision almost every time. We know there’s going to be a cycle – in a 10 year project, the question is just when and how deep. So you have to ask yourself, are you partnering with someone who will come out on the other end of that cycle intact? Do you believe in them? Are they going to perform? We hold up to our end of this bargain in terms of execution and performance.
What is your long-term vision for Wolf Ranch?
When you get down to the basics of what we do, there are some core tenets of every community. We saw during the recession and coming out of it, the deals that did well were the ones that held true to the core tenets of placemaking and community development. They ended up being a lot about this idea of genuineness and quality – the parks, the trails.
Part of the vision is also sustainability, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea of being genuine. We’ve learned a lot in Texas about the drought conditions. The idea of a sustainable community, from a basic definition of plant materials and environmental sustainability, is something we’re really focused on.
The idea of diversity is another component of Wolf Ranch. Being in Georgetown, we have the ability to touch on all the market sectors in terms of housing. A lot of communities are either “starter home” communities or “upper end” communities or “age targeted” communities…they end up only addressing one demographic. I see Wolf Ranch as responding to a multi-sector market made up of a slice of America. The project will certainly do well because of that – absorption and velocity are certainly keys to success of the community.
At the end of the day, the vision is to become a place where people are interested in buying homes, and living, and referring friends and family because they enjoy the quality of life. It’s a place that’s comfortable and sincere and offers everything you’d expect from a home.
How do you measure success? Obviously velocity and absorption play a part in it, but we think you probably measure success a little differently.
No doubt. There’s financial, there’s satisfaction, there’s pride – all of those things. Our expectation is that we’re going to be proud of this project on every level. Obviously this is a real estate investment, so one of our key focuses is the financial one, but success is also the ability to be spoken about in the Austin market amongst the professionals, the realtors, and the residents as a great master planned community done by a great developer that really cares about this community. At the end of the day, are you proud of what you created? It’s a big goal to be a top 20 community in the country, measured on both velocity and on quality. They don’t always go together.
In your opinion, what does RVi bring to the table?
We believe our consultants are some of the most important partners that we have. We pick them carefully. One of the key things in selecting the right landscape architecture and planning firm is whether or not they bring the right perspective to the project. RVi has a broad perspective that I love and I appreciate. You do business with my peers – other great developers who we try to learn from. I believe we can learn from RVi, too, because of your perspective and who you do business with. Our intent is to get better every day, and I think we are better for engaging with RVi. We as a company are better, and our projects are better. We’re not necessarily looking for the lowest cost provider. We’re looking for the perspective and depth you have.
I’ve also been impressed with the commitment of the RVi team. Team meaning plural, in terms of people. Oftentimes you’ll get one Principal or one Project Manager who really is the driving force, the one doing all the work. But then there’s not much depth behind that person. The attitude of the team and the depth of talent that I have worked with at RVi has really been impressive. Some of the things we work on – there are a lot of changes. It’s very fluid, and there are multiple ways to do it. I have been so impressed with your team – Noah and Chip, and the rest of the team – their attitude of pushing us, but not being arrogant or egotistical. The attitude is: what do we need to do? Is it Saturday? No problem. You need it by Monday? No problem. You need to make the hundredth change? No problem – I agree – it’s better for the project – let’s make the hundredth change.
What’s next for Hillwood? As a master planned community developer, what does your crystal ball say?
Hillwood continues to look for great opportunities. The great thing about being a part of a group like this is that we can take advantage of the market no matter where it is in the cycle – down markets, ascending markets, peak of the market – you name it. It may be that we’re acting a little differently now in this super hot market – we are reaping the benefits of the things we bought in the downturn – but that doesn’t mean that we’re not continuing to pursue projects. Right now is definitely a hot market, and we continue to pursue opportunities.
It’s really a matter of remaining disciplined. We are fortunate to work for a private owner. The benefit of being an experienced, well-known developer is that amazing, creative opportunities come to us on a weekly basis. So we will continue to do deals. We love Texas and California – I can tell you that. But we are also very interested in a platform on the east coast, specifically in the Carolinas.