Sumner Billingsley’s introduction to the real estate industry came long before she was old enough to hold down a job.

Her parents worked together at their family-owned development firm, “and were passionate about the business,” she recalled during a discussion at the ULI Fall Meeting in Dallas titled “The Evolving Legacy of CRE Leadership: From Industry Titans to Tomorrow’s Leaders.” “It’s something we grew up with and talked about every night at dinner,” said Billingsley.

The discussion was a “leadership session,” said moderator Michael Jackson, a principal at Wynne/Jackson. “The idea was to have a titan in our industry here in Dallas/Fort Worth, and two young leaders.” The discussion covered the legacy of working in a family company, as well as the challenges of leadership today, including how to lead a changing post-pandemic workforce and prepare for lean times.

The “titan” was Sumner’s mother Lucy Billingsley, who with her husband Henry Billingsley in 1978 founded Billingsley Company. The couple still leads the firm, which has developed, owns, and manages numerous Texas properties. Three of the four adult Billingsley offspring now work for the company. George Billingsley is partner–industrial; Lucy Burns is partner–office; and Sumner is partner–multifamily, with responsibility for 8,600 apartment units. Lucy Billingsley herself ranks as Texas real estate royalty: her father was developer Trammell Crow, and she calls him her primary influence.

As she sat next to her mother on the stage, Sumner gave credit to both of her parents for inspiring her career. Her father “was always very concise,” she said. Among his sayings: “Show up on time, do what you say you’ll do, say please and thank you, and you’ll be surprised how far you can get in life.”

The other young leader on the panel, David Davidson Jr., cofounder and partner at Davidson & Bogel Real Estate, also cited his father as an early inspiration. The elder Davidson was a land broker; as a kid, Davidson Jr. would ride with him to check out possible deals. Long before the internet, he recalled, much of the job of a land broker was to track down owners—a task that required perseverance, as well as a lot of driving around Texas. And he decided he wanted to sell land, too.

During college, he interned with his father’s firm and another real estate company; for several years after school he worked for Venture Commercial, where he cofounded the land division. He started his own company in 2015, and it has grown to more than 40 employees and brokers. “As we’ve grown, there’s been more and more structure put in place,” Davidson said, though the company has not lost its sense of “being wildcatters.”

Working in a family business carries its own challenges. “The relationship is more important than the deal,” said Lucy Billingsley, which is why her three children who work with her all have distinct siloed responsibilities and their own separate assets.

When Jackson asked her whether leading her children is different from leading other workers, she said, “Oh, it’s totally different! Anyone who says, I treat everyone the same, that’s B.S.” You know your children best, she said, and that makes working as a family easy. But, she added, as the company has grown over time, “we’ve got a lot of leaders now,” and they are not all family.

Demands on corporate leaders have changed, Sumner Billingsley said, especially in the wake of COVID-19. “It’s an incredibly competitive market for retaining workers and finding new ones,” she said. Younger employees, particularly, want instant gratification, as well as flexibility to balance work with the rest of their lives, she said. Providing that flexibility, alongside expectations for quality, helps retain employees.

For most of her career, Lucy Billingsley recalled, companies expected workers to deal with human-resources bureaucracy and use a half day of leave just to go to a medical appointment. “That was a really ludicrous experience I should have risen above earlier,” she said.

The pandemic, with its staffing constraints and restrictions on interaction, improved the way the multifamily industry uses technology, Sumner Billingsley said. “Everything is running a lot more efficiently.”

Both Davidson and the Billingsleys said they are preparing for a slowdown in their business as the broader economy slows.

“You enter with caution. You go ahead and make projections with the worst case,” said Lucy Billingsley, speaking from the experience of past real estate cycles.

Transactions have slowed down in recent months, compared with the “hamster wheel” of the previous two years of a Texas land boom, Davidson said. That means it’s time to focus on other parts of the business, “to build more relationships,” spending time meeting with people face to face instead of via Zoom.

And the legacy? Lucy Billingsley said that of her eight grandchildren, one loves driving property with his grandfather and is working alongside her designing a playground. His twin sister, though, doesn’t care about the business at all.