Origin Stories: NRP Group's Jennifer Baus On How She Hounded Her Way Into Development
This series delves into the myriad ways people enter the commercial real estate industry and what contributes to their success.
Jennifer Baus was interested in engineering her entire life. She got a Bachelor of Science in civil and environmental engineering from Cornell University and a Master of Engineering from Case Western Reserve University and began the career she had always wanted.
In 2005, eight years into her career as a civil engineer, she abruptly changed her mind. She decided she wanted to enter development and decided she wanted it to be at The NRP Group, a national multifamily developer particularly known for its affordable and workforce housing. She enrolled in a real estate development and finance program at Cleveland State University and applied to NRP at the same time in August, and then for five months, she called the hiring manager at NRP weekly asking for a job.
In December 2005, he finally offered her the position. Despite Baus' single-minded focus on getting there, the role didn't feel like an immediate success, and for the first few years, she thought about quitting constantly. But 16 years later, Baus is still at NRP, now as senior vice president of design and entitlements overseeing all development project management for the firm, and through the Women’s Inclusion Network she founded in order to hire, develop and advance female talent at The NRP Group, she is hoping to bring other women into the industry she loves.
Bisnow: How did you get introduced to CRE?
Baus: It’s sort of an odd story. In the spring of 2005, I was driving with my parents from Cleveland to Columbus and going to see some family. I wasn’t the one driving, so I had a moment to just stare out the window, an opportunity which I didn’t have often. I looked out the window and saw some real estate development under construction off to the side of the highway and said out loud: “I think I want to go into real estate development.”
My mom goes: “What are you talking about? Like, you want to be a real estate broker? What are you saying?”
And I said: “No, I think I would like to take the things that I know from engineering and put them to use in real estate.”
I’m sure she thought this was strange, since I had been interested in engineering basically my whole life.
A very good friend of mine worked at The NRP Group at the time. A job opportunity came up at the same time that I decided to enroll in a real estate development and finance program at Cleveland State University, just a four-class program through their College of Urban Affairs. So in August 2005, at the same time that I applied for the job at NRP, I went back to school.
I didn’t get offered the job at NRP until December. Between August and December, I would call Ken Outcalt, who was director of development project management with the company at the time (he has since been promoted numerous times and is now a principal with the company and president of development). I called him every week until he finally offered me the job. By the time he did offer me the job, I had been learning about the real estate world through the very good CSU program. That ended up being a nice complement to my engineering and project management background. The job was development project manager.
Bisnow: What was your first job in CRE?
Baus: That role at NRP — development project manager — was my first job in commercial real estate. It paid $72K a year. I didn’t pursue other opportunities. If I hadn’t gotten that job at NRP, I most likely would have continued on the engineering career path.
Bisnow: What kind of education, certification or official training do you have in CRE? How critical was it to landing your first big role?
Baus: Ken Outcalt was hesitant to offer me the job at NRP, but once he saw that I had made the commitment to go to school and learn and pay for it on my own, I think it pushed him over the edge to offer me the position.
Bisnow: What is one skill you wish you had coming into CRE?
Baus: It isn’t a skill, per se. I wish I had had more experience in title and survey work. In short order, I had to ramp up and learn quickly how to read a title commitment that the title company provides and match it up with either a site plan or an ALTA survey. I had to be able to reconcile this written document (the title commitment) and the survey (a detailed depiction of land parcel). I had to learn how to identify title “exceptions” that could be a detriment to a deal. For example, if you have an easement that you don’t know about that is running through the middle of a site you are looking at, which means you wouldn’t be able to put your building there, that is a big problem.
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?
Baus: Before I came to The NRP Group, I was at a global, 3,000-person engineering firm called CDM Smith. It had a lot of resources and devoted those resources to training its employees. During my time there, I received significant formal certifications in project management skills, which I took with me to NRP.
A lot of the tools we use at NRP today are based on those courses I completed at CDM Smith. I initially developed them in Excel and then in 2010, my colleague at NRP, Chief Information Officer Rachel Johnson, created an in-house information management system-based platform that really expanded those project management tools even more.
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?
Baus: Those first two or three years, I probably thought about quitting every day. What I found most challenging was that real estate is an industry where things are incredibly hard to anticipate when you are green and haven’t seen a whole lot. I didn’t really know what the next day would bring, and I struggled with that and wondered if I was in the right place.
But after those first few years, after I got my feet wet, I started to see different scenarios and learned to come prepared with Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. I started to be able to read situations, know how they would play out, and to have the internal confidence of knowing I would always have a solution and path forward. It is hard to learn that in the beginning, to know what you don’t know.
After I spent more time in the industry, I started to have the vision for how to problem-solve. The leadership at NRP convinced me to stick it out. I enjoyed working with Ken and with Taylor Brown, The NRP Group’s head of construction, and David Heller, NRP’s co-founder and CEO.
Bisnow: What were your early impressions of the industry, good and bad? How has your impression changed?
Baus: My early impression was that it is a tough industry to be in. It is hard work, fast-paced, unpredictable and stressful. It is also incredibly exciting, fun and rewarding. I don’t think my impression has changed. I still think those things. Real estate is not for everyone. It’s not for the faint of heart. What’s the saying? If everyone could do it ...
Bisnow: Have you had a mentor or sponsor? How did that person shape your future in CRE?
Baus: Ken Outcalt, who currently serves as principal and president of development at The NRP Group. He’s the kind of boss who guides you but doesn’t tell you exactly what to do. By providing a lot of freedom and flexibility to those that Ken mentors, he enables them to have success. That approach might not work for all mentees but it definitely worked well for me.
Another mentor of mine when I first started out was Mark Shoemacher, a former vice president of development at The NRP Group out in Arizona. Working on affordable housing deals with him allowed me to cut my teeth. I was given a lot of autonomy out there, worked really hard for Mark, and he helped me and guided me as well.
Bisnow: What is a key lesson someone taught you, either kindly or the hard way?
Baus: So many lessons. Ken taught me two things. 1) Not every day is going to be a great day, but you just have to make the best of every day. One day, you might learn some really bad news on one of your deals, but tomorrow, after you sleep on it, you might come up with some good ideas for how to move forward.
2) Trust but verify. There is a lot of information you are given in the real estate world, but you can’t believe everything everyone says. You are an information and fact gatherer, but you always have to verify that information.
Bisnow: What do you warn people about when they join the industry?
Baus: If you really think you like it, meaning real estate as a career path, be kind to yourself and forgiving of yourself. If you make a mistake, own it and learn from that mistake.
Bisnow: If you could do your career all over again, what would you change?
Baus: Hard question. The truth is that if I had not studied civil engineering, I never would have ended up in real estate. I would have studied chemical engineering, which I started out studying in undergrad at Cornell, with the hopes of owning my own chemical company. This had been a dream of mine. Or I would have studied operations research, which is process-focused and would have most likely enabled working on Wall Street or for a large corporation like Procter & Gamble. Then I would have gone on to get an MBA. I found my way in real estate after coming to the realization that I didn’t love my job in New York, right out of school. I needed to get out of New York, and Case Western had a dual business and engineering program that was a nice fit for me at the time. I was able to attend for free and did not need to take the GMAT to get into.