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My New Normal: 9 Questions With Rockspring President Michael Ross

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael Ross has been in the business of real estate acquisition and development for years, but the coronavirus pandemic gave him a chance to try something a bit different: home renovations. Uncertain of when contractors could come out and begin the remodel of his backyard and garage in this environment, Ross took on the project.

He had experience in a similar field: Ross served as vice president at Todd Land Co., a residential development company in the Houston metro area. In that position, Ross was responsible for the acquisition, financing and development of six residential communities. Ross also worked for Royce Homes, where he managed sales, marketing and construction activities in 12 separate communities throughout Houston.

Ross joined real estate investment firm Rockspring in 2006 as senior vice president of entitlements. In August, he took on the roles of president and chief strategy officer, where he manages the day-to-day operations of the company.

Rockspring President Michael Ross working in his home office.

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.

Ross: Initially it was a little awkward trying to set everything up and operate from home. Once I was able to get my workspace set up it was quite efficient. Not having to waste two-plus hours of my day commuting to the office allowed me to work longer and keep energized. My lunch hours were reduced to the time it took to throw together a turkey sandwich and get back to the computer.

As for the spare time, at around 6 p.m. I would shut down the office and work out on the back porch and get back to work on my home improvement projects. We were about to pull the trigger on a big remodel of the backyard and garage space. Not knowing if we were going to be able to have contractors out anytime soon, I started the work myself and hope to have it completed by 2030.  

Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan?

Ross: We are fully operational as of [last] week (May 18).

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally? 

Ross: The team did a great job of working from home and keeping things moving along. As it became more apparent Houston wasn’t going to be the next New York, the team started coming back to the office. At first it was in shifts, we would keep it to two or three at a time; as of [last] Monday we are all back to the office. We will be having our pre-Memorial Day party on Thursday the 21st. As a company we usually have an organized outing, however with most of the venues shut down and trying to be reasonable with our social distancing we are having to improvise. We plan on going to a park and play games, cornhole, capture the flag (modified for COVID) and team-oriented board games.

Michael Ross and his wife, Jill, at home.

Bisnow: How will you manage the homefront as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?

Ross: My youngest is 17 and pretty self-sufficient. The hardest part has been and will be keeping him from trying to run around all summer long; this has been the longest spring break ever. 

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Ross: Rockspring and its investors are in great shape. We own all of our assets debt-free, Rockspring is built to weather these types of storms. Our existing assets are well-positioned for the recovery, and we are excited to be able to go shopping in a distressed market.  

Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?

Ross: I was highly dubious of the stay of employees wanting to work from home before this event. Having experienced it firsthand I have a new mentality on the subject. I know it is not possible for a company’s entire workforce to work from home all of the time; however, many employees would be ideal candidates for a stay-at-home work program. We could write an entire article on the economic and social virtues of working from home.

Michael Ross and his son Taylor, working on a home renovation project.

Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?

Ross: Rockspring had weekly Zoom meetings to keep everyone involved. Each of these meetings would start off with a contest with $100 prize to the winner such as: best Zoom meeting background, worst bedhead and the most unprofessional attire. Our accounting manager won the unprofessional attire contest with a sublime dinosaur onesie.  

Bisnow: How do you think coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Ross: I think the office markets will be the most permanently impacted, the work-from-home model will become more prevalent. It won’t happen overnight, but as leases renew or companies are shopping for new office space, the size and structure of those spaces will change to accommodate a workforce that isn’t forced to be in the office from 9-5, five days a week.  

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

Ross: I’m hopeful that my children will continue to grow and learn that obstacles can be opportunities. This has been a very eye-opening experience for them and they have adapted to the change very well. As we emerge from this, I expect they will continue to think outside the box and find ways to achieve their goals. Sometimes you have to get knocked off your path to see that there are many more roads to travel.