An interview with Craig Stevens, Principal & CEO of Mar West Real Estate…
“I asked myself a question and it changed everything about my life—everything!”
I’m interviewing Craig Stevens, Principal & CEO of Mar West Real Estate, based in Tustin, CA. He’s explaining the moment that changed his life. It began with a single question…a question that led him on a journey from being VP at a respected global corporation…to working out of his bedroom sharing a laptop with his wife…to becoming an Owner and CEO leading his company to meteoric growth.
Here’s his story…
Like many entrepreneurs, Craig’s instincts for business made an appearance in his teens.
“I always worked. Since I was 13 when I started my own lawn care business.”
But then came college, marriage and shortly after, children. Craig set aside his entrepreneurial instinct and began climbing corporate ladders. Tax advantaged investments in the eighties, then commercial real estate in the 90s. By early 2000s he was a VP at CB Richard Ellis with a substantial pay package.
All wasn’t well though. Craig disagreed with his superiors on the trajectory his future with the firm should take following another global acquisition. They parted ways. He found himself with a nice severance package and two of CBRE’s competitors courting him.
As he considered his future, he asked this fateful question, “Why can’t a 40 year old man take a two month sabbatical?”
Instead of jumping right back into the corporate game, Craig took two months off. And some amazing changes began to happen.
“I was healthier than I’d been in years. My relationship with my family strengthened. My thinking gained new clarity. I began to consider how I wanted to spend the next half of my life.”
Over the two months Craig asked himself what he really wanted out of life. As the answers came, he wrote out his personal manifesto of the ideal life. He named it “Craig’s Personal Path to Freedom.” Just some of the elements it contained are…
“ I want to take time off at all the major holidays as long as the kids will have us.”
“I want to work hard Labor Day through Memorial Day, then take it easy in the summers working only until 2 p.m. June and July”
“I want to bike, surf and sail more.”
“I want to take the entire month of August off every year European Style.”
And as Craig worked through his ideal life, he had another realization, “There’s not a company in America that is going to give me that deal. I have to be in business for myself.”
So, he ran the numbers. Mortgage, kid’s school, cars, etc.. “I had to get my ego out of the way. Forget about title and prestige and expense accounts. What was the number I had to clear each month to make my ideal life possible?”
Craig now had his vision. He had his numbers. There was just one more step. “I came home from the beach one day after working all this out. I tell my wife, ‘Honey, we need to talk.’”
He laid out his vision to April, the numbers they had to hit. How they could combine their resources and contacts in real estate. How they could do a mix of commercial consulting, property management projects, brokerage and investing and. . . hopefully. . . make it.
“It’s now or never. If I don’t do this now, I never will.”
On October 1st, 2003 Mar West Real Estate was officially launched.
Craig’s launch plan was simple: send out an email to their contacts and let them know the range of services Mar West Real Estate was offering. They got back a lot of “Congratulations!” emails and one email asking if he was interested a small, unconventional property management project. It was a small building “for sale” business park with an owner’s association that had elements of both the legal requirements of residential homeowner’s association management and the maintenance requirements of traditional commercial property management.
Cash flow is cash flow, so he took on the business. Soon, another of these property management deals came through. Then another.
Craig began to research the market. What he discovered was an underserved market segment.
So, he packaged his “Secret Sauce” — a mix of unique legal and property management knowledge/solutions needed by these associations — into a turn-key system. He then trademarked “Commercial Property Owners’ Association™”
Now he had two choices. Go after existing associations and take the business away from inferior competitors or go after new associations by targeting developers. He chose the latter. The strategy was spot on. The developers loved the turn-key services as did the small building owners.
The result? Meteoric growth. In just three years Mar West was managing 155 business parks/associations.
Since the real estate crash in 2008, Mar West has grown another 40%, managing over 250 associations. They have shifted their marketing focus from working with developers, to working with banks who found themselves owning big pieces of these types of properties after the 2008 market carnage.
What are the lessons Craig’s learned along the way?
1. Relationships are everything. Period.
When Craig starts talking about the importance of relationships to business success, he gets passionate.
“Relationships are everything! Look, by the time you are 40 you have your experience and expertise. So do all your competitors. The only thing that sets you apart are the strength of your relationships. Those relationships leap frog you above everyone else.”
How does Craig nurture relationships?
“I have a huge database of contacts. I know everyone of those people and work hard on my relationships with them. I can tell you who’s kids are going to college, who’s getting divorced, who’s having grandchildren. You can’t fake this. You truly have to be interested in them as people and friends. They know if you are sincere or not.”
2. Outside perspective
Craig points out that no one knows it all. That getting an outside perspective on your business and challenges is important.
“I have a inner-circle of friends who are all successful business owners. Many are in real estate, but are not direct competitors. We meet either as a group or individually and discuss our challenges and issues. There are times one of them has a problem I have an answer for — and in turn, they have insight to some of my challenges. I also attend the industry association meetings to keep my finger on the pulse of the larger market. I also constantly monitor and learn from other industries.”
3. Time for creativity
How does Craig keep fresh ideas and creativity coming into the business?
“You have to get the noise out. It’s impossible to do at work when you’re dealing with people and problems. In my work, I drive all over Southern California. I turn the radio off and just spend time thinking. Or, late at night, after everyone has gone to bed I’ll jump in the spa, stare at the stars and think about the business. Or, I go surfing. However you do it, you have to shut out all the noise and think about your business”
What Lies ahead for Craig and Mar West Real Estate?
“I’ve hired a very smart man, John Strockis, to be President of the company. He knows real estate. His mandate is to help us drive expansion into the Western States.”
And giving back…
“I have more time now to work with young entrepreneurs in the Entrepreneurship Management Center at San Diego State University. And I’m on the SDSU College of Business Board of Directors, the Corky McMillin Center for Real Estate and the Alumni Chair for Orange County as well. And I love speaking to groups of entrepreneurs about the lessons I’ve learned.
“Well, maybe some sailing. I’m looking forward to racing Lightning Class boats on Mission Bay in San Diego.
Craig Stevens is CEO of Mar West Real Estate and can be reached by phone at 714-210-6390 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert Stover is author of Strategy Matters and can be reached by phone at 714-357-9267 or email email@example.com