Small business spotlight: Conifer Realty

Alan Morrell, Rochester-based freelance writer
Democrat & Chronicle / www.democratandchronicle.com 

“Conifer Realty started 40 years ago as a real estate company dedicated to lower-cost housing.

That continues to be the mission that drives Conifer, a Rochester-based company that has branched into other states. Conifer owns and oversees 18 properties in the Rochester area and more than 200 overall.

Conifer tapped into a market that has only grown since its founders, Richard Crossed and Richard Pine, founded the company in 1975, said company CFO Tom Johnson.

“They saw an opportunity and a real need,” said Johnson, who also is a Conifer executive vice president. “As an industry, the demand for affordable housing far outstrips the supply and has for a long, long time. It’s not an easy business to be good at.”

Conifer does it with a lot of help from federal regulation passed in the 1980s. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit was created under the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which provides incentives for private investment in such housing. Other programs also are available, but Johnson said the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit is “far and away the most successful … We’re really selling these tax credits to investors.”

Conifer labels itself a “full-service” real estate company and is involved in development, construction, management and ownership of affordable housing communities. On the local front, one of the company’s newest projects is Market Apartments at Corpus Christi, a redevelopment of the old Corpus Christi School. Other local holdings include Erie Harbor, a Mount Hope Avenue complex overlooking the Genesee River, as well as Keeler Park Apartments and Rochester Highlands Apartments.

Crossed and Pine had experience working with the New York State Urban Development Corporation before they started what was originally called Conifer Development, Johnson said.

“They started the company from scratch,” he said. “They did a lot of consulting with towns, too. They slowly built the company up.”

After Pine died, Crossed took on other partners and grew the business. In 1995, Conifer Development merged with Home Properties, a local real estate investment trust. Five years later, Crossed was part of a management-led buyout of the Conifer Realty affordable-housing division. “They bought a piece of the business back, and we’re not affiliated with (Home Properties) anymore,” Johnson said.

Crossed had served as president and CEO until 2005 and as chairman until his retirement in August. Those titles now are held by Timothy Fournier, who has been with Conifer for 28 years.

Johnson, who as CFO laughs when he says he’s “the numbers guy,” freely tosses out figures about Conifer’s business: the company’s portfolio is about 45 percent affordable senior-living apartments and 55 percent for families, he said. Rents are typically 60 percent those of “similar market rate,” he added. The 18 local properties comprise 2,430 apartments (or “units”); nationwide, Conifer’s 217 properties amount to roughly 14,300 units.

Conifer was named to the Democrat and Chronicle’s “Top Workplaces” list this year. Johnson attributed that in part to an investment in technology to increase internal communication and efforts to foster long-term employment with the company.

“We generally encourage promotion and movement from within,” he said. “We have employees who build careers here. We find out what their passion is so they can move within the company to what matches their passions and skills.””