How Developer Marvy Finger Built a Career and Business on “Main et Main”

Marvy Finger has thrived for 63 years in the real estate industry following a straightforward strategy of developing and operating apartment complexes in prime locations, never selling them.

But last year, with apartment values ​​up 50% and an institutional investment group on the prowl for acquisitions, Finger revisited the strategy that had built a portfolio of properties to scale. national. He thought about his own investors and asked himself: would it be irresponsible not to consider a sale?

“We’ve never seen this kind of growth overnight,” he thought at the time. “It’s a unique opportunity.

Last month, Finger struck a deal with a company run by Greystar Real Estate Partners of Charleston, SC to sell 20 of its properties for $ 2 billion, a gain for more than six decades of patient investment, smart development and prudent management. Over the years, his holdings have grown to over 28,000 units, anchoring a real estate empire enlightened by a perfectionist approach to detail, an instinctive eye for design and the patience to acquire only what he saw as real estate sites. first order.

Finger, 86, could have sold all of his apartments but decided not to. “Well, then what would I do?” ” He asked.

His company continues to own and manage 14 properties, including several newer buildings in Houston, apartments in Denver, Chicago and Los Angeles, and the first resort he built – a rambling two-story property in Bellaire called Colony Oaks. .

“The apartment development business has been a way of life for me for these 60 years,” he said.

Long trust

Finger’s life in apartment development was far from planned. Growing up in the Almeda area near Hermann Park, Finger assumed he would join Finger Furniture, the company co-founded by his father, Hyman. As a teenager, however, her father sold his share of the business, leaving Finger to consider other careers.

After graduating from San Jacinto High School, Finger graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1957. He then went to work for a small homebuilder, a short experience that would prepare his career. future as an apartment developer.

After the builder’s sudden death, Finger was asked to complete a 32-unit apartment complex. Finger, who knew nothing about apartment building, said, “Well, sure I can. Its my specialty !

The mortgage banker who funded this project was the late Ben G. McGuire, who has become a prominent figure in the Houston real estate finance industry.

“Because I finished this little apartment, he took me under his wing and said, ‘Let me be your mentor. Let me show you how to build your own development, ”says Finger. “It really was my being in the right place at the right time.”

With newfound confidence, Finger started his own business. He built his first resort and received a 3% management fee, which at the time was about $ 3,500 per month. He said he never thought of selling because he was literally living on fees.

As Finger grew, he focused on finding and developing the best locations that would be appreciated over time. He built near parks, upscale grocery stores, and office towers.

Finger has always prioritized location. He will only buy what he thinks are the best sites – the ones he considers to be “prime and prime” locations. If five are available in a year, he will buy them all. If none are available, it will wait.

Part of what sets Finger apart from other developers is that he focuses on long-term real estate values, not the fees or profits he can earn from building and flipping properties, said. partners. He enjoys running the business and making design and equipment decisions that make his units stand out.

For Finger, every project is a badge of honor, said Barry Nekritz, Finger’s longtime lawyer. “I think he falls in love with his plans.”

Details, details, details

Finger, president, CEO and chairman of Finger Cos., Has maintained the same routine for decades. He goes to the gym around 5:30 a.m. (although he now rides a stationary bike instead of playing racquetball or squash) and then commutes to work for the rest of the day.

His work schedule includes regular meetings with the property managers, his management team and the architects and designers of the company. He remains involved in marketing initiatives and is often in contact with lawyers, bankers and construction supervisors.

“If it’s Friday at 6 a.m. and you need to talk to Marvy Finger, you call her office.” said Scott Galloway, Executive Managing Director of JLL Capital Markets. “He’ll be there with a tie.

The finger often has a hard time detaching from work. Nekritz recalled walking with Finger on a street in Aspen, Colorado years ago. They came to a corner – Main and Main, you might say – and Finger stopped. He began to describe an apartment complex that he could build there. He had it all planned in his head.

“His genius is in the imagination to see things that others cannot see,” Nekritz said.

Finger thinks big, but also sweats in the smallest details. Michael Morgan, president of Houston-based apartment development firm Morgan, has always viewed Finger as a mentor. Years ago, while having lunch, Finger discussed the advantages of gas stoves over electric stoves, pointing out that electric stoves can get scratched easily if not properly cleaned.

Morgan recently moved into one of his business apartments because he is renovating his family’s home. He laughed at what he found.

“He has an electric stove and everything is scratched,” he said. “He was right.”

Morgan first met Finger over 30 years ago, when Morgan was just starting to run his family’s apartment business. When Morgan considered buying his first resort, a building in the Galleria he wanted to renovate, he asked Finger if he would take a look.

“He spent two hours with me browsing the property,” said Morgan, who decided not to buy because Finger was finding too many problems. “In my eyes, he’s the best real estate agent in town, so getting some feedback from him was well worth it. “

Counter type

If Finger is a real estate mogul, he’s playing the guy. His last car – he stopped driving after partially losing his eyesight due to an infection – was a 10-year-old BMW sedan. Amid the sprawling mansions of River Oaks, he lives in a three-bedroom house with his wife, Elaine, and her cat, Esther.

“He’s wearing penny loafers and his cuffs are frayed,” Galloway said. “He’ll be happy to tell me about this great $ 20 wine he found.”

What he does not spend on himself he spends on others. He is generous with his time and his money, with a real concern for others. When negotiating the sale of his properties, Finger insisted that Greystar retain the maintenance staff, some of whom had been employed by Finger for 25 years.

In 2013, Finger and his wife Elaine started a family foundation to help high school graduates from low-income, predominantly minority households learn a licensed or certified trade. Houston Independent School District graduates earn scholarships to cover program tuition, fees, books, and equipment for two years at a community college in the Houston area.

In the first year, the program awarded eight scholarships. During this school year, the foundation will offer 100 scholarships.

“We don’t offer a trade that pays less than $ 25 an hour at the start of wages,” Finger said of the program.

In 2019, the foundation also added a food component to the scholarship program through a partnership with the Houston Food Bank. Scholarship students can be given 60 pounds of food twice a month.

Finger said the foundation has been the most rewarding experience of her life as it helps young people in “real need” and changes the outcomes for families who might otherwise have been stuck in a cycle of poverty.

While philanthropy has grown in importance lately, that doesn’t mean he’s stopped looking for the next deal or the first real estate.

“I am cautiously optimistic that we will develop a certain phase of real estate immediately after the sale,” Finger said. “I’m just looking for another primary and primary location.

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