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Weekend Interview: CA South Founder And CEO Meg Epstein

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.

Meg Epstein launched development firm CA South in 2016, when she was 28 years old.

She started out buying residential projects in Nashville in 2014 and since founding CA South has expanded to industrial, residential, office and mixed-use development across Tennessee. The firm has $1B under development across 10 projects topping 1M SF. 

Still, CA South's primary focus has remained on Nashville, in particular reimagining residential projects along the waterfront to appeal to the influx of people to Nashville from the coasts. Epstein can bring her own experience to bear in this strategy; she grew up in California and began her development career there before moving to Nashville. She is driven to build unique buildings with a focus on creative architecture and said too many institutional investors “crank out the same unimaginative buildings over and over.”

Though her work keeps her busy on land, Epstein also loves to take to the skies and seas through her private pilot's license and bareboat charter sailing certification. 

The following has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

CA South founder and CEO Meg Epstein

Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way. 

Epstein: My leadership philosophy can be summed up as wanting to create a “super meritocracy.” That means we reward results alone and not how many hours you work, popularity or how great you are at navigating office politics. There should be no ceiling on what someone in our organization can accomplish and therefore no ceiling on what they can earn. Competence, loyalty and hard work will always win, and they thrive in an environment where they are boldly rewarded. 

Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now? 

Epstein: When I started out as CEO of my own company in 2016, I was working in the business day and night. It was all up to me, as I was the only employee. I didn’t have a lot of help and I couldn’t afford to pay for quality consultants, lawyers and outside professionals. That makes it very difficult to navigate safely, as real estate development is really made up of one-third legal, one-third finance and one-third construction. So, if you don’t have good legal help, you’re doomed from the start if you’re not super careful. Through hard work and persistence, things worked out for me despite not having the best help, but today I can afford to hire the very best lawyers and more importantly an incredible chief operating officer, chief financial officer and broader team. I’ve always invested very heavily in high-quality service providers, contractors and team members, and it’s always paid me back 100 times over. Now we have 15-plus employees, employ an army of lawyers and accountants, and work with numerous contractors and hundreds of subcontractors. It’s great to see the evolution of a business through the lens of who you are able to surround yourself with. 

Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?

Epstein: I hope I’ll be working on deals and raising money in 10 years. I love both of those aspects of my job. I also like creating the company culture and transferring our core values of hard work, giving back to the community and frugality to my team, and providing honesty, considerateness, great design and great value to the end consumer. I think we will be an enormous company in 10 years, and I’ll have my hands filled with new problems that make my current problems seem insignificant.  

CA South's Meg Epstein

Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?

Epstein: I didn’t want to be a leader so much as I wanted to build tremendously cool projects and transform the built environment of Nashville. I wanted to do a billion dollars’ worth of projects, and I’ve now achieved that goal, but it turns out this goal requires a big team and that requires being a leader and CEO.

Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?

Epstein: Not hiring the right people. The old saying “hire slow and fire fast” is very true. Be thoughtful about who you let into your organization. I think trusting people too much is another mistake I can honestly say that I’ve made. Personnel drive every decision in an organization. The more drama you have, the more distractions you have, and the less productive work gets done. So, you have to really know and understand personnel to make an organization work.  

Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?

Epstein: We purchased an office building about one year ago which we’re renovating from top to bottom. I find we need to be physically working together in close coordination: We review architectural plans, go through project budgets, collaborate on financial underwriting, so I don’t believe we can be as productive or effective working remotely or doing part time in the office. We’ve seen a decline in morale and productivity when people needed to work from home during the height of the pandemic. So, we’re all about the traditional way of doing office work, but we don’t subscribe to the open-floor plan model. You need quiet space to work also.

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?

Epstein: We believe in building an organization around your product and service, keeping your end customer in mind and hiring the best staff in order to make that happen. Consumers are smarter than they’ve ever been: Yes, they care about what you are providing them, but they also care about companies who align with their values. I mentor at a local nonprofit called Braintrust which empowers women and teaches them how to get into the entrepreneurship pipeline. It is a passion of mine to showcase local artists and architects, as well as help people who are new to our industry find their way in real estate if they’re willing to do the work. 

CA South's Meg Epstein

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? 

Epstein: I think green buildings are critical to supporting a sustainable community that is both walkable and livable. I think cities that embrace, reward and incentivize this type of construction and urban architecture are the cities of the future. These are the places that will win the hearts and minds of people who can now live anywhere by working remotely. I’m a big fan of doing everything green and sustainable wherever you can make it work financially. The government needs to do more on the tax incentive side to help subsidize this, as it's very expensive to do it correctly and most projects can’t support it on their own.  

Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong in your eyes?

Epstein: The lack of creativity in architecture kills me. Institutional developers crank out the same unimaginative buildings over and over. It doesn’t cost any more money to do design that is strong, compared to something that is stale and weak. Even if it costs a bit more, it looks so much better and the rents, the sales prices and the values increase exponentially. We strive to create an affordable luxury product in industrial developments, condos, office buildings and apartment buildings, and we always see a terrific return on investment on great design.  

Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?

Epstein: I think locations in the Sun Belt will dramatically outperform the gateway cities and coastal cities from which people are currently fleeing. California used to be the envy of the world, but now cities like Nashville, Austin, Huntsville and Tampa are taking the country by storm because they are livable, fun and pro-business, and have great weather and the taxes and political environment is very moderate.  

CA South's Meg Epstein

Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?

Epstein: I love Atlas Shrugged. You can read it and understand the world today. Ayn Rand has shaped my philosophy on life and business. 

Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?

Epstein: Yellowstone is one of my favorite shows. There is a lot about real estate development, and I just love the cowboy spirit that it encompasses. 

Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?

Epstein: I like to read, relax, go for a walk with my husband, go out on the lake and swim, and most of all cook and shop at the farmers market (supporting local agriculture and local farmers is something I’m passionate about). A farm-to-table dinner on an actual farm somewhere is my all-time favorite weekend activity, followed closely by a spa day.