How developer Marvy Finger built a career and a company on ‘Main and Main’

How developer Marvy Finger built a career and a company on ‘Main and Main’

Marvy Finger thrived for more than 63 years in the real estate industry by following a simple strategy of developing and operating apartment complexes in prime locations, but hardly ever selling them.

But last year, with apartment values ​​soaring 50 percent and an institutional investment group on the lookout for acquisitions, Finger revised the strategy that had built a portfolio of properties nationwide. He thought of his own investors and wondered: Would it be irresponsible not to consider a sale?

“We’ve never had this kind of growth overnight,” he thought at the time. “It is a unique opportunity.”

Last month, Finger closed a deal with a company led by Greystar Real Estate Partners of Charleston, SC to sell 20 of its properties for $ 2 billion, a reward for more than six decades of patient investment, smart development and careful management. Over the years, his properties grew to more than 28,000 units, anchoring a real estate empire informed by a perfectionist approach to detail, an instinctive eye for design, and the patience to acquire only what he considered prime sites. level.

Finger, 86, could have sold all of his apartments, but decided against it. “Well then what would I do?” I ask.

His company continues to own and manage 14 properties, including several new buildings in Houston, apartments in Denver, Chicago and Los Angeles, and the first complex he built: a two-story property in Bellaire called Colony Oaks.

“The apartment development business has been a way of life for me for these 60 years,” he said.

Long trust

Finger’s life in the apartment development was far from planned. Growing up in the Almeda area near Hermann Park, Finger assumed that he would be joining Finger Furniture, the company co-founded by his father, Hyman. However, when he was a teenager, his father sold his share of the business, leaving Finger to consider other careers.

After graduating from San Jacinto High School, Finger earned a degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin in 1957. He then went to work for a small homebuilder, a brief experience that would prepare him for his future as a developer. of apartments.

After the builder died unexpectedly, Finger was asked to complete a 32-unit apartment complex. Finger, who knew nothing about apartment building, said, “Well, of course I can do that. That is my specialty! “

The mortgage banker who financed that project was the late Ben G. McGuire, who became a prominent figure in the Houston real estate finance industry.

“As I finished this little apartment, he took me under his wing and said, ‘Let me be your mentor. Let me show you how to build your own development, ‘”Finger says. “That was really my being in the right place at the right time.”

With a newfound confidence, Finger launched his own company. He built his first complex and charged a 3 percent management fee, which at the time was around $ 3,500 per month. He said he never thought of selling because he literally lived off the fee.

As Finger expanded, he focused on finding and developing the best locations that would be appreciated over time. He built near parks, high-end supermarkets, and office towers.

Finger has always prioritized location. You will only buy the ones that you think are the best sites, the ones that you consider to be “top” locations. If there are five available in a year, he will buy them all. If none are available, it will wait.

Part of what makes Finger different from other developers is that it focuses on long-term real estate values, not the fees or profits you can make from building and selling properties, business partners said. You enjoy running the business and making decisions about the layout and amenities that make your units stand out.

For Finger, each project is a badge of honor, said Barry Nekritz, Finger’s longtime attorney. “I think he falls in love with his projects.”

Details, details, details

Finger, President, CEO and President of Finger Cos., Has maintained the same routine for decades. He goes to the gym around 5:30 am (although he now rides a stationary bike instead of playing racquetball or squash) and then heads to work for the rest of the day.

His work schedule includes regular meetings with property managers, his executive team, and the firm’s architects and designers. He remains involved in marketing initiatives and is often on calls with attorneys, bankers, and construction supervisors.

“If it’s Friday at 6 o’clock and you need to speak to Marvy Finger, call his office.” said Scott Galloway, CEO of JLL Capital Markets. “He will be there in a tie.”

Finger often finds it difficult to separate from work. Nekritz recalled walking with Finger down a street in Aspen, Colorado, years ago. They came to a corner, Main and Main, you might say, and Finger stopped. He began to describe an apartment complex that he could build there. He had it all planned out in his head.

“His genius is in the imagination to see things that others cannot see,” Nekritz said.

Finger thinks big, but he also cares about the smallest details. Michael Morgan, president of the Houston-based apartment development firm Morgan, has always looked to Finger as a mentor. Years ago, while having lunch, Finger discussed the benefits of gas ranges over electric ranges, noting that electric ranges can be easily scratched if not cleaned properly.

Morgan recently moved into one of his company’s apartments because he is renovating his family’s home. He chuckled at what he found.

“It has an electric stove and it’s all scratched,” he said. “He was correct.”

Morgan met Finger more than 30 years ago, when Morgan was just starting out in his family’s apartment business. When Morgan considered buying his first complex, a building at the Galleria that he wanted to renovate, he asked Finger if he could take a look.

“He spent two hours with me touring the property,” said Morgan, who decided not to buy because Finger encountered too much trouble. “He’s the best real estate agent in town in my opinion, so his feedback was worth getting.”

Against the guy

If Finger is a real estate mogul, play against the guy. His last car, he stopped driving after partially losing his sight due to infection, was a 10-year-old BMW sedan. Amid the sprawling River Oaks mansions, he lives in a three-bedroom house with his wife Elaine and their cat Esther.

“He’s wearing penny loafers and his cuffs are frayed,” Galloway said. “He will be very happy to tell me about this great $ 20 wine he found.”

What you don’t spend on yourself, you spend on others. You are generous with both your time and money, and you genuinely care about others. In negotiating the sale of his properties, Finger insisted that Greystar retain maintenance personnel, some of whom were on Finger’s payroll for 25 years.

In 2013, Finger and his wife Elaine launched a family foundation to help high school graduates from low-income and primarily minority households learn a licensed or certified trade. Graduates of the Houston Independent School District earn scholarships to cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and program equipment for two years at a Houston-area community college.

In the first year, the program awarded eight scholarships. This school year, the foundation will award 100 scholarships.

“We do not offer an exchange that pays less than $ 25 an hour at the beginning of the salary,” Finger said of the program.

In 2019, the foundation also added a food component to the scholarship program through a partnership with the Houston Food Bank. Scholarship students can receive 60 pounds of food twice a month.

Finger said the foundation has been the most rewarding experience of his life because it is helping young people with “real needs” and changing the outcomes of families that might otherwise have been trapped in a cycle of poverty.

While philanthropy has become more of your attention lately, that doesn’t mean you’ve stopped chasing after the next major deal or property.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we will be developing in some real estate phase immediately after the sale,” Finger said. “I’m just looking for another prime and prime location.”

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