Origin Stories: Brian Crowell Began His CRE Career At The Tender Age Of 10
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Brian Crowell, partner and director of multifamily development at The Hudgins Cos., has been around the world of commercial real estate since he was only 10 years old.
The executive remembers his father exposing him to the industry in his formative years, assigning him various commercial real estate-related tasks in Crowell's childhood backyard. Now, a father himself, Crowell, 36, is grateful he received top-quality preparation and mentorship before even entering high school.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Crowell: I grew up in it. My dad was a civil engineer who transitioned to multifamily development, first in El Paso and then in San Antonio for a number of years. He linked up with some partners, built 3,000 units in Dallas, and they parted ways. After he developed some self-storage deals by himself, the partners got together again and started a real estate private equity firm, which is where he is now.
I’ve been around CRE since I can remember. My dad was the Mr. Miyagi to my Karate Kid. As young as 10, he would have me do projects for him for a bit of spending money. He would have me use surveying equipment to make an accurate topographical map of our backyard. When he had legal documents faxed to him, he would mark them up by hand and give them to me to type up from scratch. At the time, I just thought I was earning some extra money to get the drum set I wanted. Now I’m enormously grateful for those experiences.
The first time I got a partnership agreement on my desk, I knew the words —all the attorney jargon. It felt natural to me because I had already seen it and internalized the language. He had me do punch-out inspections on vacant apartments, inspect self-storage units, paint backyard fences on various apartment projects, fill puddles with sand so they wouldn’t be mistaken for “wetlands.” I gained a massive amount of applicable hands-on knowledge from him.
Some of the time, I hated it. I had to build a retaining wall beside our house instead of going to play football with my friends. Until I was about 20, I didn’t realize this would all be applicable knowledge later on in life.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Crowell: After finishing undergrad at Georgia Tech, I interned at consulting engineering firm C & P Engineering [formerly Cummings & Pewitt Inc.], making $1K per month doing traffic control plans and hydrology drainage design, and teaching myself AutoCAD over the course of two summers. It taught me how a firm like that works and how they interact with clients and developers, like what I am now.
Then during my second degree, during my junior and senior summers at UNT, I started as a financial analyst at private equity firm Phoenix Capital Partners making $10 or $12 per hour. That firm is now a Hudgins Cos. investor.
After all that on-the-job training and four years of internships, I had a bigger head than I do now. As soon as I graduated that second time, I was ready to start building projects myself. I interviewed at three bigger firms, where traditionally, to get where I wanted to be, I would have had to spend five years as an analyst, then five years as a development associate, then five years on a team of people managing a project. I knew I couldn’t sit around for 15 years, so I passed on all three job offers.
My dad was consulting for The Hudgins Cos. at the time and suggested I shadow him. Two hours into that first day, Buddy [Donald L. "Bud" Hudgins Jr., founder and principal of The Hudgins Cos.] asked me what I was doing that summer and told me I could work there if it was what I wanted, and that was that. We didn’t talk about pay, insurance or vacation — he just knew that I was hungry. In the end, I made $31K for my first three years there. But I was happy as a clam to be 23 years old and to be in that position. Luckiest thing that ever happened to me.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Crowell: My official education was critical. Georgia Tech is one of the best schools for engineering in the nation and I was fortunate to study civil engineering there. As soon as I graduated, I told my Dad I had no interest in civil engineering as a profession. But, as a formative experience, getting that degree was critical because it gave me a solid foundation for identifying good real estate. It gave me the instincts for evaluating a site and creatively assessing what you can build there.
Later, I got a BBA from University of North Texas, double majoring in real estate and finance with a minor in math. That degree made Buddy Hudgins more comfortable bringing me on board, given my young age.
My MS in real estate development was helpful in making potential debt and equity partners, along with municipal leaders, more comfortable with me. Being a younger guy in a field dominated by men in their late 40s and early 50s — when I was only 24 — I did a bunch of things to appear older. I grew out my beard as much as possible and I wore glasses instead of contacts. All in all, the education component was a huge piece of enabling me to get that first big job.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Crowell: Interpersonal skills. They are so vitally important in this business. I wish I had been better at that when I was 25. I’m more on the introverted side of the scale so I had to figure out how to modify my behavior. For instance, how to deal with an engineer twice my age, or how to behave when going to the 31st floor of the tallest tower in Fort Worth, to talk to the folks who own most of Downtown and explain a project I was envisioning. I was terrible at both making small talk and forming meaningful relationships that were also business relationships. But I worked to get better at it. It took time and repetition to learn the language that everyone speaks. Now, it’s morphed into establishing relationships with business colleagues who I would consider friends and look forward to going out for a Wednesday night beer with. There is no one on my team who I don’t want to work with and spend time with, and my life is more fulfilling today because of it.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE?
Crowell: It’s the only business I’ve ever been in.
Bisnow: Can you remember a moment where you felt in over your head or you worried this industry wasn’t for you? Did you ever think about quitting? What changed?
Crowell: No. The idea hasn’t even crossed my mind. Of course, I had a lot of trying times. The job at this level, as a principal, is unbelievably stressful. You feel everyone, your family, your employees, your employees’ families all counting on you to make it happen. Personally signing a $50M construction loan for three years, with all your assets except your house as collateral? That’s a lot of pressure. But pressure is kind of my thing. I don’t enjoy not having pressure. I’m a classic non-hyperactive ADD. I need a deadline bearing down on me and then I can focus on that one thing as long as it takes. Otherwise, I’m an excellent procrastinator.
I also can’t think of any role models or mentors who have left the business. Tenacity and persistence are quintessential attributes of being good at this job. You hear “no” a lot of times before you find someone to say yes.
Never thought about quitting, no. I can’t think of anything else I could do in life that would check all the boxes for me.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Crowell: It’s not all sunshine and lollipops. Some percentage of the real estate developers out there use profit as the sole motivation for what they’re doing, the rents they're charging and the chances they take on what to put into a building. Some people find one thing and then do that same thing for years and years. I don’t like that.
I don’t want to be comfortable by doing what I’ve always done. It’s not the impression I want to leave on this business. Once I find a place where I want to build, I want to put effort into learning who currently lives nearby, who may want to live there, and what they would want from the building. I deeply believe you’ll make more profit in the long run that way. I don’t like doing things just because they look better on paper.
For example, in our newest building on the Southside of Fort Worth, Ramble & Rose, we’re experimenting with robotic, space-multiplying furniture by Ori. That part of town, the Near Southside, is the perfect spot for an apartment building packed with tech-driven amenities and lifestyle features that make life easier, because the demographic there will see the value proposition of that and be willing to pay for it. If no one else is going to take a risk and try something, that’s what I want to do. At least it won’t be the same old boring thing.
I’m a firm believer that as a developer, I should leave people better off than when I found them, whether it’s the luxury rental bracket or those living in affordable housing. I want to build projects that advance the living quality of the whole neighborhood and create a sense of community cohesion.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Crowell: After my father, Buddy Hudgins is the best mentor I’ve had by far. Buddy helped me develop those interpersonal skills I mentioned earlier. I sat in the office next door to him, listened to him talk to people and absorbed everything, including how to make hundreds of calls during the financial crisis a decade ago and hear “no” from different equity providers roughly 130 times without seeing a drop of sweat on him. He is the quintessential fearless leader.
Our relationship was a natural progression. We started off as boss-employee, then boss-right-hand-man, and now we are partners.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Crowell: Another mentor of mine is a project manager for one of our construction companies. He taught me to treat everybody like they are the most important person on your job site — because they are. From the framing company boss to the guy who empties the Porta-Potties, if they don’t do their job, your whole job will go to sh*t, figuratively or literally.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Crowell: Development, specifically, is not for the faint of heart. You have to be comfortable putting all your money on the table. Also, if you don’t like hearing the word “no,” go do something else.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Crowell: I wouldn’t change anything. If any one thing changed along the way, I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today.