Becoming Urbane: A Q&A with Eric Brown

Urbane Apts isn't Eric Brown's first spin on the entrepreneurial merry-go-round, but given his past experiences it's a little surprising he got back on.

The middle-aged apartment manager and social media maven first took a stab at being his own boss when he was in his 20s, constructing apartment buildings. But the then-young Brown soon found he was in a bit over his head. The enterprise "didn't go very well," he admits. Brown swallowed his pride, took a job with Farmington Hills-based Village Green as an apartment developer, and provided for his young family.
Flash forward twenty years. The older, more successful Brown sits on the porch of his downtown Northville Victorian with his now-grown children. It's Father's Day. He muses about taking one more shot at owning his own business but doubts his ability to do so. His kids set him straight.

"My kids looked at me and said, 'Dad, that was 20 years ago. You're different now. Things are different now. You have learned things.'" Brown says. "The more I thought about it the more I decided I am going to take the leap. We ended up doing it."

By 2003 he and his wife Kim, both still employees at Village Green, made moves to buy and run their own apartment building in Clawson. They created a business model that focused on rehabbing stodgy apartments in city centers into trendy downtown living spaces. Thus Urbane Apts was born.

But Urbane is more than just buildings and leases. Brown is innovating new ways to use social media to fill his growing apartment empire (today it stands at 14 buildings and about 10 employees). The downtown Royal Oak-based firm has become so successful that Brown now counts apartment buildings across the U.S. and even outside businesses, like Gardner-White Furniture, as social media clients.

Brown, who now lives the 'Urbane' lifestyle in a high-rise apartment in downtown Royal Oak, agreed to sit down with Metromode's Jon Zemke for an interview about social media, entrepreneurship, and where housing is heading in the 21st Century.

How does someone go from apartment building manager to social media maven?
You have to market your product. I thought if we could figure out a way to drive people to our website, we should have a better chance of getting a tour and then a rental. In late 2004, we started fooling around with social media and we really started to gain some traction with that. By early 2005, we abandoned all traditional marketing. (Click here for Eric's full, in-depth answer)

Social media and search engine optimization services are all the rage now. Could we reach a point where more money is spent on that sort of marketing than on more traditional means?

Whenever you get the customer to talk about your product, you believe it. If your friend tells you that, then it has a much-higher value. If you read it online from someone you don't even know, it has a much-higher value. We're all numb to traditional marketing.

You have been hiring former reporters to serve as bloggers. Give an example of how hiring a reporter provided an unforeseen benefit for your company?
Our blog is what really drives results for us. That is where we focus our resources. I want people who love to write and can crank out interesting stories. People who have worked in newspapers know how to do interviews. They know how to report on things accurately. They already know how to craft stories. They're used to deadlines. We're not a newspaper by any stretch, but there are elements of that. Some of those skill sets align directly with what we're trying to do.

Urbane Apts' brand incorporates a lot of modern design with trendy touches. Are you ever afraid of not keeping up with the fashions of the day and being left with a bunch of apartments filled with the new Millennium's version of shag carpeting and wood paneling?

Of course. Will the crazy colors always be popular, probably not. When that happens we'll change them to a different color. More of the issue is, are you staying on the edge? We have been able to do that, but it's something you need to stay on top of.

What opportunities in southeast Michigan do you see that other developers are missing?
Development anywhere requires a whole lot more cash than ever before. The lenders have gone absolutely mad. There are companies and very successful people who are sitting on a war chest of cash. They are able to take advantage.

Are there opportunities in Detroit proper that you'd like to take advantage of?

We've started working on a project called MoveToDetroit.org, and we are asking ourselves where is the tipping point? Is it when 1,500 people move to Midtown? Is it 15,000? At some number there is a tipping point. If you put people on the streets, crime goes somewhere else and commerce always follows people. We think if we help create some connections and community, it will make a difference.
 
If you had $200M but had to invest it in developing living spaces in Detroit what would you do?

What I worry about is keeping our young people here. I would work to connect those dots and build actual communities in Detroit. Create a product that is more aimed at someone's first apartment or incubator space to attract that young talent. You can start filling in the stuff if you have the people living there.

Urbane Apts now focuses on properties in vibrant downtown areas. However, a huge percentage of Metro Detroit's rental units are more suburban and car reliant than urban and walkable. That doesn't seem like the right combination for growing an apartment business like Urbane here?

I'm a huge supporter of public rail transit. I don't care what form it's in or whether it comes down the center of Woodward or along the sides of it. We have got to have public transportation. You go to any other city and they have public transportation. Once we do that all kinds of things will change.

Something more than buses. More options.

Absolutely.

So would more mass transit change the rental dynamic here from Office Space-style rentals by the freeway to more downtown-oriented spaces?
Absolutely. You buy a building in downtown Chicago and the first question is how close is it to the L?' That makes a difference. Minneapolis just put in its light rail line and it's making a huge difference. The benefits would be unbelievable

Name an urban area in Metro Detroit but outside of where your apartments are located that you like, and give a reason why that most people might not recognize?

Lansing. They have an extremely vibrant downtown area. There is some spillover from Michigan State, there are some law schools and the state capitol isn't going anywhere. There are huge opportunities for an apartment community there.

Name a city outside of Michigan that represents the ideal market for what Urbane offers. What does it have that we don't? Can we ever achieve that?

Columbus. There appears to be a lot of job diversity. When you have that diversity, you're stronger as a whole. We need to make it easier to start and expand small businesses in Michigan.
Michigan is losing the very population your buildings are oriented toward, namely young professionals. What do you think our state should be doing to increase this demographic?

Jobs. The young people aren't going to go down the same path their folks did. They're going to do something different. To be just a manufacturing state isn't enough. We need other things, too. We have to be out there on the edge doing that stuff.

You obviously have an affinity for vintage-style apartments. But there are some who argue that until Michigan gets over its fear of change, including a fear of new development and urban density, we'll struggle to keep and attract young talent who prefer that kind of living. How does your strategy for revitalizing the old fit in with a need for the new?

There are lots of things you can do that resonate with that demographic. You might not be able to get LEED certification but you can do a lot of green things with the building. We're working with a local urban farmer to farm some of the area in our apartment communities and sell the produce in the Royal Oak and Birmingham farmers markets. In exchange our residents each get a sack of organic vegetables a week.

Hardwood floors, built-ins, or high-coved ceilings, which do you choose and why?

Hardwood floors. They're a huge selling point in our rentals. It wears much better than carpet. We're a pet-friendly company and its definitely easier to take care of a pet on a hardwood floor than carpeting.
 

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Metromode and its sister publication Concentrate. He edited and condensed this in-person interview. His last story was Becoming the Boss: A Q&A with Paul Bartlett.

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