By: Kevin Oklobzija September 19, 2019, Rochester Business Journal
During his 13 years as president, chairman and/or CEO of Conifer Realty LLC, Tim Fournier has helped the Rochester-based firm make a significant impact in the affordable housing industry.
One project, Erie Harbor, revived a three-block stretch of Mount Hope Avenue in the city of Rochester. Another, Market Apartments at Corpus Christi, turned a vacant school building into a thriving residential property abutting the Neighborhood of the Arts.
In creating new apartment communities in the region and across four states, Conifer has grown into the 13th-largest developer and 19th-largest owner of affordable housing in the nation, according to Affordable Housing Finance Magazine.
But there comes a time when change is good, when the leadership team you put in place is allowed to take the wheel.
For Fournier, that time will be Jan. 1. He will hand off all day-to-day operations to President Joan Hoover and the management staff so he can fully concentrate on growth and expansion for the firm.
This transition isn’t something Fournier just dreamed up, though. Hardly. He said he has had this succession plan in his mind, and on paper, since 2010.
“I turn 60 in 2020 and on Jan. 1, 2020, when I arrive at Conifer, I want to show up differently,” said Fournier, who will remain Conifer chairman and CEO. “Showing up differently meant having an opportunity to do something different with the company in a good way, and be able to pass on the leadership to a strong team.”
That team starts with Hoover, who assumed the role of president in July, and includes: Robert Lampher, executive vice president of portfolio management; Sam Leone, senior vice president of development; Tom Johnson, partner and executive vice president; Susan Sturman Jennings, senior vice president and general counsel; Barb Ross, senior vice president of human resources; and Sandra Gorie, VP of marketing and communications.
“Our real focus over the past eight years has been growing the company geographically, but also putting the right people in the right seats that would prepare us for a seamless transition in our succession plan,” Fournier said.
“The senior team has a consensus that we would like to grow this company from beyond where it is today. Rochester will always be our home, and will be our resource center, but we know we have the ability to grow geographically with the platform we have built.”
Conifer currently employs around 600, with housing communities in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The plan is to expand into New England as well as throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, specifically Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia.
“So that’s a role I am going to assume now: Looking for portfolio acquisitions within the affordable housing space, to be a solution for those who are looking for a succession plan or exit strategies for their own companies,” Fournier said. “We think we provide all the right ingredients for that; people and culture, the ability to obtain investor and regulatory approvals, and financial capacity to effectuate a true portfolio acquisition.”
Conifer’s 15-year joint-venture construction company with LeChase Construction Service LLC, will make expansion a little easier.
“LeChase has offices in Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham, so that positions us well to go south and north from there for construction operations,” Fournier said. “They have also been building significantly in the New England area, and that is supportive of our expansion thoughts in Massachusetts and Connecticut.”
Hoover, who has been with Conifer since 2007, will oversee day-to-day operations. But the leadership team will be empowered to act.
“It’s really important to us,” Hoover said, “that Conifer outlasts us both and continues on and provide a lot of opportunity for some really, really talented and committed folks we’ve recruited and worked to develop.
“We’ve grown quite a bit and we need to decentralize our decision-making process, bring along our leaders, give them a little bit of autonomy, some accountability. As we grow, we need to have that local decision-making developed.”
Of course, with what he sees as the ideal leadership team now in place, it’s easy to wonder why Fournier would turn over the reins.
“We’ve finally gotten to where we’ve got this awesome team; why wouldn’t I want to still lead this team?” he said. “And my wife (Susan) says to me, ‘Remember, this was your goal; you attained it.’
“For me as a leader, it’s important to know when to get out of the way, and when I can get out of the way. Because of Joan’s leadership and the strong senior team that we have, I can do it.”