Southern resolve: a true Southern gentleman, Jerry Wilkinson's humble and hard-working leadership style will shape his year as NAA's 2012 Chairman of the Board.
Jerry Wilkinson can still hear those three words, recited and repeated daily as he grew up working on his grandfather's cattle and tobacco farm in rural Tennessee. They were meant to be both literal and figurative, but at the time, they just reminded Wilkinson of his never-ending, no-paying job. When he left for college at 17, he says there was no better sight than that of the farm in his rearview mirror.
Wilkinson quickly traded in his overalls for a suit and tie and made a name for himself in the business world, but his grandfather's favorite expression stuck with him.
Nearly 50 years later, such words of wisdom have served him well. As President of The Wilkinson Group in Atlanta, Wilkinson has stayed true to the course, worked hard and persevered through the inevitable ups, downs and frustrations of the apartment industry.
"I'm driven deep down by the concept of work," he says. "I believe it's fundamentally good and necessary to some degree/'
With such a strong and steady work ethic, Wilkinson has slowly nurtured his company from the ground up. Under his humble leadership, the portfolio has grown from 79 units to more than 8,000.
While his own company was expanding, Wilkinson became an active member of his local associations, serving as President for both the Georgia Apartment Association (GAA) and Atlanta Apartment Association (AAA). Later, he would go on to chair NAA's Legislative and Budget & Finance committees, among other roles within the association.
Described by colleagues as composed, genuine and uncompromising in his morals, Wilkinson is expected to fill the role of NAA's 2012 Chairman of the Board with the same character.
"Jerry is unflappable and his ability to work through situations calmly is a true sign of a great leader/' says Buddy Patrick, Association Executive of AAA, who first met Wilkinson almost 20 years ago and was immediately struck by his graciousness and humility. "He's an honest listener who offers a balanced approach. In his year as Chairman of the Board, I expect he will continue to simply be himself and lead by example with style and grace."
Active in Atlanta
As an active member of various community and church groups his entire life, it's no surprise that Wilkinson has also volunteered much of his time and talents to industry associations.
He became involved in AAA nearly 20 years ago and stepped into the role of President in 2002. Four years later he accepted the same position for GAA. It was during these leadership years in Atlanta that Wilkinson impressed fellow industry members.
"When Jerry is leading a meeting, he demonstrates a keen ability to actively listen, seek input and build consensus," Patrick says. "He puts everyone at ease and makes all feel special. As a meeting participant, Jerry speaks little, but when he does speak, he is right on and people listen."
According to Patrick, AAA had the highest membership renewal rate to date under Wilkinson's leadership, as well as key victories in the fight against local annual inspection fees and over-regulation of water metering. In 2006. Patrick says, Wilkinson also lead GAA to its most successful annual conference as of that date.
"Jerry's willingness to serve the Industry through these various associations has been an example to other volunteer leaders, and his enthusiasm for involvement carries over to his entire company." Patrick says. "Jerry willingly dressed up as Gene Simmons from KISS, a leather-clad biker and a NASCAR driver, all in the spirit of getting his team and the members of AAA motivated/'
After making a big--and memorable--impressior in Georgia, Wilkinson was appointed Chairman of NAA's 2007 Legislative Committee, as well as Chairman of the Education Conference & Exposition. It was during Wilkinson's tenure as Chairman of the Budget & Finance Committee in 2009, though, that he made an especially significant impact on NAA. The association had the biggest surplus in NAA's history that year.
Michael Tompkins, CAPS, CPM, CCIM and NAA 2008 Chairman of the Board, is confident Wilkinson will accomplish each goal.
Jerry has a history of devoted service and thoughtfulness "Tompkins, Managing Partner of Tribridge Residential, Atlanta, says. "He is a pillar of experience and stability and his leadership should provide balance as he advances the objectives of NAA."
NAA 2011 Chairman of the Board Mike Gorman, CAPS, CPM, CCIM, agrees. "Any time Jerry speaks, I pay particular attention to what he has to say," says Gorman, President of Rose Property Group LLC, a division of Edward Rose & Sons in Indianapolis. "He is a leader that commands respect and I can't say enough good things about him."
Born and raised near Alcoa, Tenn., an aluminum manufacturing town outside of Knoxville, Wilkinson came from humble beginnings. His father, Gordon, was a machinist for Alcoa Aluminum and his mother, Myrtle, taught at the local elementary school. Together, they never earned more than $20,000.
As products of the Great Depression, Wilkinson's parents stressed the importance of education and worked tirelessly to ensure their five children went to college.
In 1963, Wilkinson was the third in the family to do so. The high school basketball and baseball star was accepted to Duke University--a "major stretching experience" for the small-town boy, who says he was underprepared both academically and socially. He graduated four years later with a degree in electrical engineering and set his sights on an even greater academic pursuit--the Wharton Graduate School of Business and Finance of the University of Pennsylvania.
Studying alongside classmate Donald Trump, Wilkinson earned his MBA in finance. In 1969, he was named a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and moved to Atlanta to accept the position of Assistant to the President of Spelman College. Soon, the city became home.
After making the leap from assistant to acting Chief Financial Officer (CFO) after Spelman's CFO was fired, Wilkinson ventured out on his own and bought Central Plumbing Supply with a Duke classmate. It was in this role that Wilkinson got his first taste of the apartment industry.
"We were selling our plumbing supplies in LaGrange, Ga., and I noticed that the town had a real shortage of apartments," Wilkinson says. "In 1984--10 years after we opened for business--we sold Central Plumbing Supply, formed a partnership with Jordan Co. of Columbus, Ga., and developed 104 apartment units in town. "
Just like that, The Wilkinson Group was born. Nearly 30 years later, Wilkinson says he has come a long way from his childhood days in Alcoa.
"I know how fortunate I am," he says. "I've gotten opportunities and breaks my entire life."
One Big Family
In the early-to mid-'80s, The Wilkinson Group expanded its portfolio by developing communities throughout the Southeast. After 1986, though, the company went in another direction--buying existing properties with a value-add and repositioning strategy.
Since then, the company--which currently owns and manages 35 communities in five states--has purposefully flown under the radar, driven by profit rather than portfolio size.
Wilkinson has operated much the same. With a general phi-losophy of "controlling a lot of assets without a lot of people" and promoting from within, he has surrounded himself with a small but trusted group of employees. His youngest daughter. Hilary, serves as the Vice President of Marketing and sons-in-law Chad Brammer and Phil Deguire are the President & COO and CEO, respectively.
Although others may be hesitant to mix family and business, Wilkinson says he gets along wonderfully with his daughters and sons-in-law, who will eventually take over the business.
Brammer says the feeling is mutual.
"Jerry has been my mentor and role model for the past 10 years," says Brammer. who first met Wilkinson in 1996 when he started dating his daughter. Hayley, and began working for him fulltime in 2001. "He has one of the sharpest financial minds of anyone I have ever worked with, along with having an uncanny understanding of dynamics within complex business transactions. He truly cares about the people who work for him and makes an effort to know all 223 company employees. He takes a genuine interest in their personal lives."
Wilkinson says he has a diverse but cohesive group of employees and strives to create a family friendly environment with a focus on continuing education. The company also offers need-based scholarships--named the Myrtle Coker Wilkinson Scholarship Fund after Wilkinson's mother--to employees' children.
Deguire has worked for Wilkinson since 2008 and says his concern for oth ers has strengthened the company.
"He has put good people in the right places to make sure we are prepared to succeed, but he is also personally willing to take on any challenge we might face," he says. "He also has a remarkable memory for the details of our team members' personal lives and his example has helped build, an intense sense of loyalty within our organization."
With such a close-knit and talented group of employees, Wilkinson is confident in the future of his company.
"In five or 10 years I'll be more involved in the overall strategy of the company, and less so in the day-to-day operations. I love this business but I could leave todat and it would run just as well.'
Passion for People
For all Wilkinson has accomplished in the apartment industry, his proudest moments have happened outside of the office.
Wilkinson met his wife of 41 years, Bev, on a blind date in Atlanta. They have three children--all girls. Despite long hours at the office, work trips and meetings, Wilkinson coached his daughters' basketball and softball teams for 13 years and encouraged each of them to be well-educated and independent.
"I've always told my daughters they could do anything they wanted to," Wilkinson says. "I wanted them to leave home and eventually move back of their own choosing."
All three did just that, attending Wilkinson's alma mater before settling in Atlanta. Today, Heather, 35, and Hayley, 33, are both stay-at-home moms. The youngest, Hilary, 30, established herself at a PR company out of college and now serves as Wilkinson Real Estate Advisors' Vice President of Marketing.
When Wilkinson isn't spending time with his family and serving as an assistant basketball coach for his grandchildren's team--"a truly humbling experience when teaching 5-year-olds"--he enjoys traveling the world.
A self-described "faith-based" person, Wilkinson Has gone on mission trips to nearly every corner of the globe, including Moscow, South Korea, Kenya and South America. He says the most transformative trip was to Northern India, where he had the opportunity to visit leprosy orphanages with his hero, Mother Teresa.
"Looking back, those trips were incredibly influential," Wilkinson says. "Each hour, each day, each week, I try to do what I know is right. Life is fragile and I live my life with that in mind/'
In addition to his volunteer trips, Wilkinson is a board member for St Joseph's Hospital and the Atlanta Community Food Bank and has taught Sunday School to a group of single seniors at Dunwoody Baptist Church for over 20 years. He also has served as Chairman of the Board of Visitors for Duke University-School of Engineering and Chairman of the Board of Deacons for his church.
In his rare spare moments, Wilkinson enjoys the occasional fly fishing and golf outing. He also considers himself a voracious
Reader--a hobby he inherited from his father--and loves reading biographies, spy thrillers and the newspaper.
Balancing so many personal and professional pursuits has always been a challenge for Wilkinson, but he remains devoted to all of his passions.
"I may not be home at 5 p.m. every night, but when I do walk in the door, I'm home--no distractions."
Brammer says Wilkinson is true to his word.
"Jerry is steady and unwavering in his principles and morals. His devotion to his church and his family shows every day in his personality and actions. He is truly a genuine person," he says.
Improving the Industry
With the apartment industry finally bouncing back after several challenging years, Wilkinson says NAA is in a "sweet spot." As the 2012 Chairman of the Board, his goal is to take what's good and make it better.
"Nothing needs to be created," Wilkinson says. "Renting is a very good, desirable option right now and the industry must make the most of that."
At the top of Wilkinson's agenda is strengthening NAA's relationship with NMHC and formalizing grassroots efforts.
"We're the only association that has the grassroots to fill out the map in each state," Wilkinson says. "A vote in Montana is equal to one in New York--and what happens in regulation, right or wrong, affects everyone. In local municipalities, the apartment industry is viewed as a source of revenue through taxes and inspections. People think owners don't care about their residents and that residents contribute to overcrowding in schools, traffic problems and crime. We need to have a powerful voice in Washington to change that perception. We must encourage our members to unite, mobilize and write to their elected officials"
In addition to supporting legislative efforts, Wilkinson says he wants to solidify the direction of NAA's Education Institute (NAAEI).
"NAAEI was put together correctly and has evolved, but it's still viewed with some uncertainty in terms of funding," he says. "I want to participate in a fundraising campaign. NAAEI needs to be central to NAA, not incidental."
Wilkinson's predecessor, Gorman, says he is leaving NAA in good hands.
"Jerry always has the best interest of NAA and its constituents in mind," he says. "He's focused on making sure the needs of the members are met and also recognizes the importance of the relationship we have with our supplier partners. I know he's going to work very well with staff to help them stay focused on meeting the strategic goals that have been put in place for the year. He's just always impressed me as a warm, caring and thoughtful individual."
Although Patrick anticipates some industry-wide challenges as the market continues to recover and financing remains difficult to secure, he has no doubt Wilkinson will be able to tackle such obstacles with tact and grace.
He'll just keep plowin'
Laur en Boston is NAA 'g Staff Writer. She can be reached al lauren[congruent to]naahq.org or 703/797-0678.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2011|
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