Origin Stories: Camden CEO Ric Campo On Faking It Until You Make It
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Camden Property Trust CEO Ric Campo is one of Houston’s most well-known multifamily developers. The firm owns interests in and operates 166 apartment communities across eight U.S. states and is one of the largest publicly traded multifamily companies in the country.
If his day job wasn’t busy enough, Campo is involved with several national and Houston-based organizations. Campo is chairman of the board for Camden and the Houston Port Authority and is a board member of the National Multifamily Housing Council, the Greater Houston Partnership, the Coalition for the Homeless, David Weekley Homes and Baker Ripley.
Campo’s success wasn’t simply handed to him. For Campo and Camden co-founder Keith Oden, Camden represents decades of hard work, with a steep learning curve.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Campo: I worked at my father’s restaurant right out of college in Houston, a town I had never lived in. He went broke very fast — which was good for me. The Houston job market was booming in 1976 just after the oil embargo. I had three interviews: an oil company, accounting firm and a real estate development company. The real estate company seemed more interesting to me.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Campo: I started as a staff accountant at Century Development in Houston. I made $525 per month. It was my top choice even though it paid the least. I took it because building office buildings and hotels looked fun. It has been the only job I have ever had. My job has changed over the 44 years. I had to adapt and change as the world changed.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Campo: I got an accounting degree from Oregon State University and had no specific real estate training. I had mediocre grades in college but in booming Houston that did not matter. I got amazing on-the-job training. Business was booming so much that if you worked harder than everyone else (became the go-to person), never stopped learning and took risk to get out of your comfort zone, the sky was the limit. I did manage to get my CPA after taking the test five times — never studied.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Campo: Maybe some engineering, construction and architecture skills. I would have less remedial on-the-job training.
Bisnow: What were you doing before you got into CRE? If you changed careers, did you bring anything with you from your past career that has helped you thrive in CRE, or, on the flip side, anything you had to unlearn in order to succeed here?
Campo: I got into CRE right out of college after my stint in the restaurant business.
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?
Campo: I never thought the industry wasn’t for me, but there were many times I felt like it was over my head. I would just power through those feelings with a “fake it until you make it” attitude.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Campo: Early on, I thought that only people who were rich could be successful in real estate since it is such a capital-intensive industry. I asked one of my early mentors for advice on building equity in CRE. He told me to go borrow a million dollars and buy something. In those days the thought that anyone would lend me a million dollars was crazy. Today, however, I understand that someone who is honest, hardworking and has a good idea can raise capital for CRE.
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Campo: I have had many great mentors. They played huge roles in helping me build my self-confidence and my CRE pedigree. I have also had a few mentors that taught me what not to do by what they did. I call these my anti-mentors. They taught me that making money was not the most important thing in business (how many jobs you create is how I measure success) and that integrity was not something that changed in a down market.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Campo: One of my employees taught me that keeping an employee longer than one should was wrong for the employer and the employee. I had a land development business that was struggling and couldn’t support the staff level. I waited six months before I made the tough decision to reduce staff. One of the staff that was let go told me that I robbed him of six months of his life due to my weakness. He pointed out that he could never get that time back and he may have missed his dream job because of me.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Campo: CRE is a cyclical business. Never to finance CRE with short-term debt. When the CRE debt markets shut down you are bankrupt. Also, no personal recourse debt!
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?