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Origin Stories: Brian McLaughlin On The Road To The Top Of A National Affordable Housing Nonprofit

This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.

When Brian McLaughlin began his career in real estate in 1997, he lived in a low-income housing community that his nonprofit organization, the Crispus Attucks Community Development Corp., served in York, Pennsylvania. 

He now serves as president of the nation's seventh-largest nonprofit affordable housing developer, Maryland-based Enterprise Community Development, a role he took on in August 2019.

In between these two nonprofits, McLaughlin has worked for a variety of private and public organizations. He spent three years with Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development, 11 years with Fannie Mae, three years with Commercial Development Inc. and five years with Lantian Development

As a special assistant to the CEO at Fannie Mae, he had a front-row seat to the Great Financial Crisis in 2008. And he has now navigated a pandemic with Enterprise Community Development, which owns more than 100 apartment communities and employs more than 360 people. 

Enterprise Community Development President Brian McLaughlin

Bisnow: How did you get introduced to commercial real estate?

McLaughlin: I spent a small part of a summer in high school volunteering to build wood-frame homes on an Indian reservation in California. We’d spend the hot days hammering and then escaped the heat by swimming in their nearby river. I learned a lot about land, how it gets used and who benefits from its use. I was hooked.

Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?

McLaughlin: Fresh out of grad school, I spent three years in York, Pennsylvania, as assistant director and later director of the Crispus Attucks Community Development Corp. I lived in low-income housing — in the neighborhood we served — and walked two blocks to work six days a week. I was a bigger fish in a much smaller pond than those I saw in Boston and D.C. Since it was my first-choice job, I had immense opportunities, ones I would have never seen in other settings. I wore many hats from AmeriCorps volunteer to youth mentor to homeownership class van driver and, of course, real estate developer.

I had the best mentors: Bob Kinsley (founder of Kinsley Construction), who invited me to crunch pro forma numbers in his living room; Tom Wolf (now Pennsylvania’s governor), who was a board member, direct coach and still a friend; and Bobby Simpson, who still leads Crispus Attucks after more than 30 years and continues his daily fight for the voiceless and overlooked.

Enterprise Community Development President Brian McLaughlin

Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?

McLaughlin: My academic preparation was key. It taught me mathematical thinking, which I think is foundational to CRE decisioning and problem-solving. I received a master’s degree in planning from MIT. I had great flexibility in charting a course of study focused on econometric modeling and real estate finance. MIT has a cross-enrollment policy with Harvard, so I ended up taking about a third of my classes from different parts of Harvard including the graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government. I enjoyed economics enough that I eventually enrolled part time at American University and received a master's in economics a few years later.

Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?

McLaughlin: Figuring out what genuinely win-win collaborations look like and understanding better how to get there. Looking back over almost 25 years, some of the toughest challenges I came across could have been solved by bringing more smart minds to the table, rather than pushing overtaxed smart minds to think bigger and better. Having the right teammates matters. But as complexity in real estate increased, it was knowing when to reach beyond my organization.

While I saw a lot of winner-take-all attitudes and behavior, there was always a cohort of open and supportive joint venture partners out there. When I was starting out, I wish I had been better at seeing that and being able to structure partnerships to get to the higher outcomes that they make possible.

Enterprise Community Development President Brian McLaughlin at the groundbreaking of the Lake Anne House development.

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?

McLaughlin: In 2008, I worked for Fannie Mae as special assistant to then-CEO Dan Mudd. We were conducting a speedy, five-country investor tour in eight days. Somewhere while in the air between Beijing and Taiwan Fannie Mae’s stock went into freefall, starting around $40/share, dropping by the hour, and within six months ending under $1. When we touched down in Taipei, I had more messages on my phone than it could hold, and so began the acceleration of the 2008 financial crisis.

I ended up later leading the company’s short-sale product line starting from a base of just a few hundred per month from our biggest partners, and then went on to help lead management of almost 100,000 delinquent loans for the company’s second-largest servicer. Those were tough days. This pandemic has felt similar at times in the toll it takes on everyday people, especially the most vulnerable among us, and a pain that lingers on for years after the technical “crisis” is over.

Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?

McLaughlin: I’ve been blessed to have had an opportunity to work in so many aspects of the industry, from nonprofit to for-profit to government, from boutique startup to corporate giant. My impressions (and understanding) have changed many times over. At Lantian Development — as employee No. 1 and founding CEO tasked with building all operating protocols, investment strategies, branding, etc. — I had a chance to put it all together.

I acquired five assets amounting to 1.1M SF of space across 403 acres and did it all in 18 months with a team of three people (including myself). I worked with a spectrum of lawyers, brokers, landowners, developers, banks, elected officials and planning boards, every major discipline that touches CRE. And we did great work; one deal made the Washington Business Journal’s Best Real Estate Deals of 2017.

There were some tough and ugly moments in that journey, especially as a young-ish African American male at tables where few on the other side looked like me. I’m pleased to see the industry becoming more inclusive in terms of race, backgrounds and genders.

Enterprise Community Development President Brian McLaughlin

Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?

McLaughlin: I worked for Victor Hoskins as assistant secretary at Maryland’s Department of Housing & Community Development. Victor was the governor-appointed secretary, later becoming D.C.'s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and then went on to lead key economic development roles in Prince George’s County, Arlington County (where he helped lead the successful effort to secure HQ2) and now Fairfax County. Victor taught me that you do your best work when you find joy in it, and if you can’t find joy, oftentimes it’s you and not the work.

Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?

McLaughlin: It’s a big field, a lot to see and do and many places to contribute. Find your passion, and don’t get stuck in one corner too long while looking for it.

Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?  

McLaughlin: Believe in myself enough to negotiate better carried interest clauses!