Thomas W Toomey speaks at the ULI Europe Conference 2017, 7-8 February 2017

Thomas W. Toomey speaking at the ULI Europe Conference 2017.

The chairman and chief executive officer of multifamily real estate investment trust UDR becomes ULI global chairman in July. He discusses ULI’s evolving global structure—and the virtue of constant self-improvement for individuals and organizations alike.

ULI’s incoming global chairman, Tom Toomey, is the first chief executive of a publicly traded company to serve in a chairmanship for the Institute. Toomey leads UDR, a real estate investment trust (REIT) invested in more than 50,000 apartment homes—including units under development—in targeted U.S. markets. The S&P 500 company makes its headquarters in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

Entering a conference room at ULI’s Washington, D.C., office, Toomey settled in with a few accessories: a black leather cigar case, a cigar trimmer, and a paper coffee cup. He snips a generous inch off the cigar, discards the tip in the cup, replaces the lid, and chomps on the cigar.

Q: What are your thoughts about the business and economic climate?
We are now living in a world of extreme transparency and volatility. And, like every organization and every individual, we can shy and retreat from it, or we can look at it as an opportunity. Volatility creates opportunity for those who are resourceful, can tap other knowledgeable people, and are excited about development and proper land use. ULI is about how to improve yourself and the things that you build.

There is a wide variety of opportunities for ULI and its members. We can start with looking at our membership and our mission. The mission means different things to different members. In my 30s, when I came to ULI, mission was about connecting with individuals about the next deal. In my 40s, that became connecting to peers, looking for the next idea. Into my 50s, mission has drifted to the impact I have on those who I care about, my company, the proper use of land, and the planet—the people that live here and their quality of life being elevated for all. Later in my career—and I’m not quite there—mission will be about giving back and how I can extend my legacy. ULI has been at all three of the four phases of my career so far, and I hope that it will be there for the fourth.

Q: What led you to ULI?
My first ULI experience was when [former ULI Foundation chairman] Jeff Stack extended an invitation to come to a product council meeting and present a deal. I came with this proud deal that I had done, a rehab of a garden community in southern California. I thought I was pretty damn smart and had done a pretty good job. All of a sudden I started getting questions from the council members: What were the numbers? Why did you do that? They dart-throwed me to death. What was entertaining about it was I didn’t have all the answers, okay? I was in my 30s. It was challenging, intellectually, to hear other people who had done much more than I had demanding to know if I could do more. Could I do better? Why did I do things? It was an environment that you couldn’t get in your own company in any shape or form.

Then in my 40s, participating in ULI became a decision to become more involved in a product council, in a district council, in leadership, in running a Spring Meeting. It was about responding to invitations to engage, whether it was to be the treasurer or to be a jurist on a committee, or a member of an Advisory Services panel. And so at every juncture of interaction with ULI—and there are so many different channels for so many different stages of your career—the experience was always about being around really smart people who had been there before or who were thinking ‘what’s next?’—how I could learn from them. Now that I’ve reached my 50s, I’m on the other side of the table: how can I help teach, educate, engage, and let other people have the same experience I did, but more?

Q: You will be the second global chairman under ULI’s new structure. How will you shape your chairmanship?
I think we have put in a global structure which drives the impact of ULI to national and district councils and to an individual. The global leadership is here to protect the Institute’s mission and to allocate resources among regions that are in very different states of evolution. But all of them are impactful. The idea behind the global leadership is not to dictate to the national councils, but to enable them to act from the bottom up for the benefit of the members and the regions and the districts and the product councils—all of the channels—to ensure a good experience for members.

There are a couple of things that make me unique in this role. First, though, I’ll note that I’m following a hell of a man: Randy [Rowe] is an extremely intelligent, decisive, thoughtful individual. We will build on the foundation he laid in terms of governance, staffing all of the leadership roles, improving communications. My strength starts with listening. I’m more of an operational, process-improvement kind of guy. My time in office is going to focus on our priorities, about operational issues. We will be building recurring processes so we can continue to self-improve.
Process always starts with listening to your customer. In this case, the customer is ULI’s members. What we want to do is enable our members to do more. And how do you do that? You listen to them. Prioritize their feedback. Communicate that. Define what you’re going to accomplish. Then fund it, resource it, and execute. And then do it again. Continue to gather customer feedback, establish that process again, so it becomes a constant process of self-improving the experience at ULI—to the benefit of our members’ experiences throughout all our channels.

Q: You also are the first public-company CEO to be a ULI chairman.
Yes. The benefit of leading a public company is that it has given me experience about governance and broad-based constituent management. I have to understand and be sensitive to a broad base of shareholders and constituents. There are sensitivities around transparency. You have to build processes that elevate the facts and the options so that the process starts to inform a decision before the question even arrives at your desk. As the CEO of a publicly traded company, you have to be sensitive to how the image is going to appear to a broad constituency. On one level, you’re trying to move faster in business: if you’re not running hard, you’re being run over. But on another level, you’re trying to consider a broader audience.

It’s similar to ULI: we’re trying to consider the broad audience—not just the member, not just our individual delivery mechanism, and not just our mission and the constituents. We’re trying to weigh all of those and gain momentum. And momentum leads toward success. It all amounts to this: would you recommend a friend to ULI?

Q: Is that your definition of success?
It is. Some people say success is engagement, and I think, I could be engaged and interactive, but would I recommend ULI to someone else? If the answer is yes, that is success. I would only recommend something if I thought other people could get something out of it. And that, I think, is a big part of success at ULI. Different people at different points in their career are going to measure success differently. At my age, success is about impact. If I will be able to look back and say, we were really good at listening to our members, that all parts of ULI worked in unison, and that we are always self-improving, that’s my personal definition of success.

Q: You have often noted that you are very family focused. How do you strike a balance between work and family?
Yes, I am. I think it’s always a challenge. One of the things I do with the company is have a monthly breakfast or lunch with new associates and we talk about culture and balance. The balance is about priorities and sensitivities, so I often tell people: we agree on what the job is and what the goals of the job are. Then manage yourself. Don’t miss the soccer game. Don’t miss it—but be very careful about how you allocate your time. How do you keep work and family in balance? It’s about communication. Just get your job done; hold yourself accountable. But manage the balance as an individual.

Q: One more question: You have chewed a cigar throughout this interview. Is this routine?
It’s a really bad habit I picked up 30 years ago. I used to work for [ULI trustee] Preston Butcher, and we’d be at the office way into the night working on these deals. He’d be at his desk with his cigars, and I’d be thinking, you’re killing me! How much coffee can I drink? And so I said, ‘Give me one of those.’ I started chewing it and I haven’t stopped. It’s now an expensive habit. You know, people always want to give me a cigar; what they don’t understand is I’ve been going to the same cigar shop for 30 years. They’re handmade in Miami Beach.