Weekend Interview: Blue Onyx Cos. CEO Levi Kelman
This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.
Levi Kelman founded Blue Onyx Cos. in 2009 to develop, invest in and own transformative projects in its home state of New Jersey and throughout the greater Northeast region. Blue Onyx looks for overlooked and underutilized properties and has built up a portfolio topping 1M SF and $100M. Kelman said many industry leaders are overlooking their responsibility to their communities and, more to the point, that developers should remember they don't just build assets, they serve human beings.
His tip for CEOs: Allow yourself to have a certain vulnerability, which helps you to recognize ways you need to evolve.
The following has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way.
Kelman: My philosophy is pretty simple: I don’t micromanage, and I focus on building high-performing teams working toward a unified goal. There is immense value in having a clear vision and strategy for the company that aligns, motivates and inspires people; at Blue Onyx, we focus on creating a culture around “profit with a purpose” that encourages our team to look toward the long-term success of the business, the communities we impact and all of our stakeholders.
When it comes to mentorship, I am lucky to have had and still have many great mentors throughout the course of my career, and I think it’s important for every leader to learn from those who are more experienced to help develop their skills and shape their way of thinking. As a CEO, I have an advisory board of seasoned professionals who help guide my thinking and strategy around the company. I believe the sign of a good leader is someone who always has a thirst for more knowledge and a desire to consistently grow.
Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now?
Kelman: In the early days of Blue Onyx when the company was primarily focused on property management, my role as CEO blended more with the other members of the team — I was more involved in the day-to-day business alongside everyone else in the organization. As the company has grown, my role has evolved more into that of an enabler with a concentrated focus on building out the infrastructure to support our mission and strategy. That is to say, it is my job as CEO to cultivate an environment that breeds effective professional collaboration, innovation, empowerment and success for my team on a daily basis while I’ve turned my focus toward more strategic efforts.
Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?
Kelman: Elaborating a bit more on what I previously said about my leadership philosophy, good leaders are vulnerable in the sense that they consistently seek personal growth and are comfortable with not having all of the answers; they’re constantly seeking input and diverse thinking from the team to problem-solve and drive the business forward. So, while CEOs have historically been more stoic with less personal leadership styles, it is important for the leaders of today and of the future to recognize the great importance of their teams. Knowing, appreciating and truly empowering the team builds confidence within the organization and facilitates stronger, more impactful work.
Additionally, I think that — in line with recent history — CEOs will need to continue assessing and leveraging new technology and emerging data to deliver the highest quality services and maximizing returns.
Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?
Kelman: I’ve always felt that being my own boss was the best way to fulfill the goals and maintain the values that my parents have instilled in me since I was a child. They consistently preached the importance of helping others. Our company’s mission, vision, positioning and strategy is built around “a better life through connected communities.” To that end, my senior leadership team was recruited by looking for people who shared similar values.
Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?
Kelman: I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my time as a leader is how different everybody is. It may seem simple, but for a long time I made the mistake of applying my own work style and way of thinking to the members of my team. When you build diverse teams and your values encourage diversity of thought, you create a culture of innovation, problem-solving skills and an empowered team.
Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?
Kelman: Personally, my style has not changed much in response to the pandemic. I have always believed in giving people the latitude to get their job done in whatever way they do it best. Broadly speaking, I do think Covid-19 has accelerated some existing trends and ways of thinking about technology in the office space. For example, many companies were already utilizing Zoom for meetings, but it’s really over the past two years or so that the industry has become more attuned to unique opportunities for productivity in remote work. At Blue Onyx Cos., we’re working with vendors we normally would not have considered using because of geographical challenges — in that sense, the pandemic has really allowed us to broaden our horizons.
Covid has also supported a better work-life balance than we’ve experienced in the past, giving us real flexibility in where we do both our quiet and collaborative work. However, I do believe that traditional office space will always be in the picture. It is my conviction that we do better together, and there's a certain energy and magic about a full room with a great team that is difficult to replicate online. There’s a chemistry that comes with working collaboratively in person that does not resonate through remote work. I think this is especially true for young people who are emerging in their careers — there is ultimately no better way to grow than to engage with mentors and peers in person.
Bisnow: There is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?
Kelman: Having a naturally collaborative personality and growing up in a diverse, melting-pot neighborhood in Brooklyn, I have always inherently approached things through a lens of inclusivity. Blue Onyx has a team that is diverse in thinking, background, culture and gender, and that’s been critical for our success from day one. We recently hired a new female vice president of development (which is rare to see in this industry), but to be frank, the decision was not actively borne out of any specific diversity initiative. What trumps everything for me is a person’s integrity, talent and skills, so naturally my team remains diverse as a reflection of this. Where we do take a more active role in supporting inclusivity is not just by bringing a diverse team to the table, but enabling everyone to have a voice at that table. At the C-suite level and throughout the company, we place great value on equity and inclusion.
We also see the need for diversity and inclusion efforts that extend beyond the confines of the Blue Onyx team itself. In line with this, we look at our company culture more holistically and ensure that we take an equally thoughtful approach when partnering with vendors, suppliers, consultants, or any other third-party engaging with the firm.
Bisnow: What do you think about the recent focus on sustainability and climate change? Is it overblown? Insufficient? Is your company tackling climate change in any way or taking it under consideration in your planning?
Kelman: I’m no scientist, but it’s obvious that things are changing, and it would be unwise to get stuck in the past continuing to do things as we always have. Just as the role of technology continues to move and evolve within the industry, we have a responsibility to move forward and think about how to evolve our approach to sustainability and our impact on the environment. If we learn that the building materials we used 40 or 50 years ago are terrible for the environment and for the people residing in our developments, we have the responsibility to update our practices based on what is most sustainable. We have to care about the environments within which we operate, which means staying cognizant and up-to-date on research that can help us create better business practices. We don’t have all the solutions yet, but we can still incorporate new changes and guidelines into our building and design practices to make sure we are working toward having the most positive possible impact on the environment. We cannot lament over the past, we can only learn from it and decide to move forward together, to make hard decisions and forge a path forward to better deal with climate change. Sustainability and climate change are both important topics that are top of mind as we plan, design and build for the future.
Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong in your eyes?
Kelman: One concept I believe to be overlooked is the idea that industry leaders have a responsibility as property owners, operators and builders to change the way they think about development. As developers, we are not just building assets — we are serving our residents and the surrounding communities. From my perspective, you can almost view CRE as operating in the service industry because we should always be putting the consumer first. I believe this is a change in thinking that needs to continue to happen, and consumers are expecting and demanding a higher-level experience. Leaders that don’t recognize this will most likely be left behind. Reducing turnover by extending the life cycle of a resident, accomplished through better support, and building connected communities improves asset values and quality of life for our residents.
Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?
Kelman: It’s my opinion that New York City and Northern Jersey in particular will continue to overperform. Circling back to my thoughts about the future of the office, cities will always have an allure because we perform better together. There is also a housing shortage in these urban areas, so the focus right now is on multifamily and how to make good housing affordable for everybody in these regions. I think this is especially true in Northern Jersey because of its proximity to the economic driver that is New York City. Educational opportunities, professional opportunities and diverse demographics draw people to urban areas — as such, our units have always been full.
New Jersey has been referred to as the first “fully built-out state,” which means there’s very little green space to build brand-new projects. This area has a much older housing stock, so you have to strategize your developments around repositioning existing buildings in ways that will serve that community. This is a continuous need, especially in underserved areas that have not seen the same level of investment as “Class-A” neighborhoods. Underserved neighborhoods adjacent to highly developed areas we believe are ripe for continued growth investment.
Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?
Kelman: A book I really enjoy is The Speed of Trust by Steven M.R. Covey and Rebecca R. Merrill. What I find fascinating about it is how simply the authors lay out the benefits of trusting relationships when team building and running a business. The book uses a term called “trust tax,” which essentially means that in an environment where there are high levels of trust, things take less time and, in that sense, incur less of a “cost.” On the flip side of this, environments with low levels of trust result in more time wasted and higher costs, similar to the process for getting charged a tax. I have found that viewing business relationships and productivity through this lens has been very unique and insightful.
Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?
Kelman: Honestly, I'm not much of a TV guy.
Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?
Kelman: Saturdays are family days. With my schedule as hectic as it is during the week, I make sure to carve out exclusive family time on the weekends, spending time together in each other’s company, planning activities and eating as many meals together as possible.