Winning -- An Interview With Arthur Winn


Entrepreneur, leader and real estate powerhouse, Arthur Winn, is the founder of WinnCompanies, a multi-faceted real estate development and management pioneer. In addition to its ownership of 12,500 residential units, some of the company's better known commercial work includes a four diamond hotel, a premier medical office property, retail space in leading cities and a corporate headquarters building. Due to the breadth of WinnCompanies work, in order to understand its entrepreneurial founder and principal, I have chosen to focus on its specialty as the nation's largest manager of affordable housing and privatized military housing, and the fifth largest multi-family property manager in the country. The company's 23-state management portfolio includes nearly 97,000 residential units, half of which are affordable.

What kind of tenacity, drive, and ambition must it take to move from nothing at the start of Arthur Winn's career in the early 1970s to snowballing a massive real estate empire over four decades boasting owned or managed assets worth $5 billion? You are about to find out. Walking into the interview, I expected to go toe to toe with a staunch, Gordon Gekko style, business tycoon sitting in an ivory tower in the financial district of Boston. Because, isn't that who you need to be to build such a massive business? Turns out, the answer is no. The Arthur Winn I met with on two occasions for this interview was anything but Gordon Gekko. He was humble, unassuming, friendly, forthcoming, and smart. I walked into the meeting skeptical, and walked out an Arthur Winn fan. Apparently it is possible for good guys to win in business too.

Here are the four lessons to winning in life and business I learned from real estate magnate Arthur Winn.

Do Well By Doing Good: This is the motto that Arthur has lived by his entire life. He was very forthcoming about the fact that he was an awful student growing up, always barely getting by. His mentor back then was his older cousin, Norman Cahners, a major American publisher and philanthropist. Winn's father had died from a heart attack when Winn was just 16 years old, and Cahners stepped in to do things that Winn's dad would have done had he been alive. Cahners was an extremely successful business tycoon, and he recognized something in Winn, something akin to Cahner's own entrepreneurial spirit. Although Winn struggled in school, he was launching small businesses at a young age. While studying for his undergraduate degree, he formed a tuxedo business with a couple of fraternity brothers. From there, he launched a photo business. It was Cahners who helped the struggling student, Arthur Winn, get into Harvard Business School after insisting that Winn take a placement test, which would prove that Arthur was much more intelligent than his grades represented. Winn eventually found his way to Harvard Business School and he said this was the first time in which learning became interesting. He said that the business curriculum was easy to understand because it was logical, as opposed to the confusing stuff like periodic tables and other science and liberal arts teachings he could never quite wrap his head around. While attending Harvard Business School, Winn launched even more businesses, including an event management business. When there was an event coming to town, it wasn't unusual for Arthur to receive a call asking for help booking the main act, whether it be a performer, a live animal act, or a band. Looking back on his history, Arthur said it was these early days of entrepreneurship during which he formed a very basic but deep rooted belief about life, business, and making money. He learned that it was absolutely possible to build a solid business by doing good things for people. Winn said that his entire 40 plus year career is rooted in one solid truth; you can do well personally by doing good for others.


Put Quality Before Profit: Arthur Winn says that when you put quality before profit, it won't take long to build a reputation for caring. When I asked Winn what he is most proud about in his career, he says it is the work he's done in affordable housing. Roughly half of the 97,000 units his company owns or manages are affordable units. Arthur said that the absolute focus of his affordable housing business is to build quality units. He said that his entire career has been concentrated on reframing misconceptions about "affordable housing." Forty years ago, affordable housing was synonymous with sub-standard housing, aka housing projects, and Winn has spent every day of his career fighting an uphill battle to create a world where affordable is synonymous with quality in the housing industry. Winn noted that the core business model of Winn Companies is rooted in the significance of the role they play in providing not just a housing unit, but a real home for 97,000 families across the country. Ed Cafasso, Senior Vice President of Communications for Winn Companies, said, "You can't really appreciate the impact of the work Arthur does until you go out to one of his Boston housing communities with Arthur in tow. The residents come out to greet him. Even little kids come out to say hello to Mr. Winn. People appreciate that he treats them as human beings -- as residents, not tenants." Michael Carucci, Executive Vice President of Gibson Sotheby's International Realty, agreed saying, "Arthur Winn has changed what it means to live in affordable housing. By focusing on delivering high quality units, he has created not just housing, but homes... he has created not just projects, but communities." Carucci went on to share an example of a Winn housing community in Lowell, Massachusetts, where a tenant driving into the complex turned down his car radio as he turned into the driveway. Said Carucci, "Winn has set a standard that these are homes and should be respected as such, and the occupants have followed suit by demonstrating pride in where they live."

You Are Only As Good As...: Friendly, down to earth, and soft spoken, Arthur looked at me and said, "You are only as good as..." He was waiting for me to fill in the blank. "Your last deal," I answered. "Wrong," said Arthur. "You are only as good as all of your deals. There is no room for error. Every housing community, building, or management project we take on must be as good, or better, than the last." Arthur says that there are a couple of ways in which he judges the success of his companies. One is in the feedback of the residents. It seems almost unfathomable that this massive company has never been the subject of a significant lawsuit, but they haven't. This is a testament to the quality of the relationships they've built with their tenants. The other way Winn measures his success is by determining whether each project is considered a community asset. "If the surrounding community doesn't see us as an asset to the neighborhood, we have failed." With these principles set in stone as the cornerstone to success it is no surprise that Winn has been honored with numerous awards for professional achievement and community service, including the Excellence in Affordable Housing award from the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation; the Distinguished Service Award from the Real Estate Finance Association; the Corcoran Award for Excellence from the Board of Trustees of the St. Mary's Center for Women & Children; and the Community Leadership Award from the Boston Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. Winn explained that too many developers insert ego into their finished project. For example, when Winn built the Bostonian Hotel overlooking historic Quincy Market in 1982, it would have been easy to go overboard and build something large, ostentatious, and visually unforgettable, but instead, Winn focused on building an understated landmark that would easily blend into the historic community.


Vulnerability and Failure: What does a business mogul who has built a firm with $5 billion in assets owned and managed worry about each day? Failure. Winn explained that his biggest fear in life has always been failure. He says this is one of the reasons he's always stuck to property development. He noted that when you are backed by the proper core values, there's no risk in developing real estate. I asked Winn if he still worries about failure today since it seems that failure would be impossible for an award-winning national company with more than 2,600 employees and 97,000 units owned and managed. Winn explained that he's even more fanatical today than he was 40 years ago. He is as committed as ever to doing well by doing good. He said that what motivates him daily is a quote from George Romney when Romney (who was Mitt's father) was President of American Motors, "There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success." Winn says that when you realize that failure is always possible, you remain vigilant when it comes to serving the communities and people who depend on you for their homes. Winn says that his job now is to wake up each day a better person than he was the day before for the benefit of the thousands of families he serves.

So, I didn't get to meet Gordon Gekko, as I had originally expected. Having been studying and interviewing wildly successful business leaders for my entire business career, the closest I can come to in comparison to Arthur Winn is Walt Disney. Both men redefined their industries and built massive empires via their uncompromising commitment to quality. What is most refreshing of all is the realization that in business, occasionally the good guy wins.

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