By: Kevin Oklobzija | September 30, 2019 | Rochester Business Journal
It’s amazing how the sense of smell can engage the mind and trigger the play button to the library of childhood memories.
For some, it might be the sweet aroma of a linden tree that sends their mind free-falling back to the innocence of yesteryear.
For others, it’s the scrumptious smell of an apple pie baking in the oven, or the scent of freshly extinguished candles.
For Joan Hoover, the new president at Conifer Realty LLC, onions bring her back to the Wayne County town of Wolcott. Back to a time when her father was overseeing Upstate New York manufacturing operations for the Durkee Famous Food Group.
“He ran the plant that made the French fried onions that you put on your green-bean casserole at Thanksgiving,” Hoover said, “and we all had to work there. And we all smelled like onions.”
They’re fond memories. Of life in a small town. Of life at the small high school of North Rose-Wolcott. Of a life that eventually led her to the University of Notre Dame, to a degree in accounting and to what has been her passion — creating affordable housing — for nearly a quarter century.
Which is actually a deviation from what Hoover initially envisioned her work life would entail. With a strong aptitude for science and math, she went to South Bend, Ind., to study engineering. She also made her first significant contribution to the Durkee plant by applying some of what she’d learned.
In the summer of 1977, Hoover returned to Wolcott after her freshman year at Notre Dame and, given her course study at school, filled the role of engineering assistant. Her first task: to determine whether the blueprints for the new potato storage barn were accurate, and to ensure the construction crew was adhering to those plans.
“So I looked at the plans and looked at the site and looked at the plans again, and I told my boss, ‘Something’s not right,’ ” she said.
To the job site they went, where, with the contractor getting ready to pour concrete, they inspected the work and realized the rebar had not been tied to the foundation. A critical error was avoided.
“I made a difference that day,” Hoover fondly recalled.
Now, four decades later, she’s still making a difference and the shining moments are many.
From engineering to accounting
Hoover traded her engineering aspirations for a degree in accounting from Notre Dame, and then along the way during her life as a certified public accountant realized the affordable housing sector was calling.
From advising clients on best practices in affordable housing development, to three years as deputy commissioner for community development at the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal, and finally to Conifer in the summer of 2007, Hoover has found ways to make housing-project concepts become reality and department heads blossom into leaders.
“I don’t know too many people that say, ‘I’m going to work in affordable housing when I grow up.’ There are some, but not many,” said Hoover, a 60-year-old mother of two. “I started out as a CPA.
“But affordable housing is a little bit of an illness; a happy illness. People who are attracted to it could make more money doing something else, but they’re curious and energetic and they want to do good. And they’ve got that analytical side on steroids.”
Indeed, Hoover has an ability with numbers, a complex understanding of bond syndication and tax-credit programs, and a desire to guide a project to fruition in order to help those who need quality housing.
“Joan shares the same values that I do, and that Conifer has,” said Tim Fournier, the firm’s chairman and CEO. “To us, housing is at the core of a family. On a professional side, Joan is well-known nationwide in the industry. She’s probably been involved in affordable housing for 25 years.
“And important for Joan is that she also has a really stellar senior team that embraces her leadership and she allows them to be true leaders as well.”
That ability, and desire, to nurture and empower others in the company is a special quality Hoover possesses. She’d rather say, “I like it,” than “You need to do this.” She wants to be sure employees are captivated and refreshed, not catatonic and indifferent.
“She has a desire to grow people at every level within the company,” said Sandra Gorie, vice president of marketing and communications at Conifer. “It’s just not the company, it’s the people piece — which is unique. I’ve been in this industry 34 years and you don’t meet a lot of people who talk about people, you just don’t, and Joan talks about people all the time.”
That all plays into Conifer’s strategy of providing more autonomy, and with it accountability, for its 600 employees. The firm has implemented leadership development programs and consults with a leadership coach.
“Accountability isn’t something we do to people, it’s something we do for them,” Hoover said. “We’re probably somewhat unique in that, in how seriously we take it. We invest in it, we invest in our folks.”
Some of her leadership applications come from the studies by University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci, who wrote the book, “Why We Do What We Do.”
“He said two things that humans need to be happy and fulfilled, but also to perform at their best, are, one, autonomy, and two, be positioned in a place where they feel competent,” Hoover said. “You can have one without the other, but the best performance will happen when you have both.”
She also draws on personal experience in providing advice. During her own deep dive into employee betterment training, she studied the imprints of multigenerational family emotional patterns and the family systems theory put forth by the late Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and researcher.
“Families, organizations, even countries, are emotional systems and there are patterns of how that emotion bounces around, how anxiety is managed or isn’t, and what a leader’s role is in all of that,” Hoover said. “It taught me a lot about how avoiding feelings instead of processing them is not the best way to live. I’m a much happier, more peaceful person than when I started. And I want that for everybody.”
It’s very much a focus, too. She’s no longer arranging debt financing for the latest Conifer multi-family housing community, of which the firm has many. Conifer is the largest owner of affordable housing in Rochester, with around 2,000 units, and is the 13th largest developer of affordable housing in the country.
Conifer likes a challenge — so it can show off the finished product. Erie Harbor between Mt. Hope Avenue and the Genesee River is one of the crowning achievements. The firm turned a run-down housing complex into a thriving community with both market rate and affordable housing, spurring redevelopment throughout the neighborhood.
They have similarly ambitious plans for the Southeast Tower Apartments that sit along Manhattan Square Drive next to The Strong National Museum of Play.
Then again, dream big seems to be the company motto. The company’s 10-year plan is heavy on growth, with a goal of serving 100,000 people. “A Home for Possibilities” is the slogan.
Oh, Hoover still enjoys the financing numbers; determining which government programs are applicable for a project or calling on Conifer’s strong tax credit equity relationship with M&T Bank to make the financing work.
“I grew up in transactions but at that point those guys can go do, and I’m very happy to let them,” she said. “But I am a geek and I can get drawn in to that pretty easily; the complexities of deals or the crisis-du-jour that always occurs in development.”
From ‘best job’ to real ‘best job’
Before she arrived at Conifer, she was working her ideal job as New York State’s deputy commissioner for community development.
“I used to say, ‘This is the best job I’ll ever have,’ ” she said.
But then George Pataki’s run as governor ended, there was a change at the top of the housing and community renewal agency and Hoover decided to move on as well. She returned to Rochester to work as a CPA, but then Fournier called.
“I told her, ‘We have a great opportunity in a growing company for somebody with your talent,’ ” he said. Hoover accepted the offer.
“And this is the best job I’ll ever have,” she said. “It was an opportunity to grow emotionally as a human being and to understand why I do the things I do that are just automatic functioning,” she said. “It’s really a well-regarded company in the industry, right up there in the top tier.
“And a great team, great people. We may be a for-profit, but we’re largely mission-driven. People believe in what we’re doing.”
Title: President, Conifer Realty LLC
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration/accounting, University of Notre Dame, 1982
Family: Daughters Chelsea, 30, and Michelle, 27
Hobbies: Walking, hiking, cycling, kayaking, traveling with her daughters and “pursuing friendships and relationships that are meaningful to me”
Quote: “One of the things we’re really working on is being braver in conversations and candor. Growing that kind of courage in our leadership is great, and it’s happening.”