JF1940: Investor Gets Into Real Estate On Accident, Scales To $750M AUM with Don Wenner
Don got his start in the industry by knocking doors to sell security. An investor told him to do that same thing with real estate. He took the advice and ran with it, knocking on doors to find properties to buy, eventually getting away from the door knocking and scaling a large real estate investing business. If you enjoyed today’s episode remember to subscribe in iTunes and leave us a review!
Best Ever Tweet:
“When people lose money on an asset, usually it’s because they couldn’t execute internally and over extended themselves” – Don Wenner
Don Wenner Real Estate Background:
- CEO of DLP Real Estate Capital, a family of real estate solution companies w/ 350 team members, 750MM in assets under management, and 100MM plus in annual revenue
- 10k units owned, 12k homes and apartments acquired
- Based in Allentown, PA & St. Augustine, FL
- Say hi to him at https://dlprealestate.com/
- Best Ever Book: Turning the Fly Wheel by Jim Collins
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Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Joe Fairless, and this is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast, where we only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any of that fluffy stuff. With us today, Don Wenner. How are you doing, Don?
Don Wenner: I’m doing great, Joe. How about yourself?
Joe Fairless: I’m doing great as well, and looking forward to our conversation. A little bit about Don – he’s the CEO of DLP Real Estate Capital, a family of real estate solution companies with 350 team members, 750 million in assets under management, and 100 million plus in annual revenue. They’ve got 10,000 unit owned, 12,000 homes and apartments acquired, and based in a couple places: Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Don, where are you located?
Don Wenner: St. Augustine, Florida. Just south of Jacksonville.
Joe Fairless: Just south of Jacksonville. First, Don, do you wanna give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your current focus? And then we’ll go from there.
Don Wenner: Absolutely, so I’ll give the one minute or two version. I started in real estate probably like most people; I was a college student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and I was actually spending my days knocking on doors… Literally, all day, knocking on doors while I was in college, for ADT Security. I became the number one sales rep in the country for ADT, and I was making 5k to 8k every two weeks; I thought I was on top of the world, I was 19-20 years old… And the guy who owned the company was in real estate. This was 2006. Everybody was in real estate in 2006… And he told me if I could sell alarm systems knocking on doors, I’d do great selling real estate.
So I got my real estate license, started selling real estate. That led to very quickly starting to flip real estate, which then at the bottom of the market led to building a real estate portfolio of single-family homes, scattered multifamily, all the commercial food groups… That led us to build a construction company to handle all the renovations, it led us to build property management to handle all the management, it led us to need to open private investment funds to bring in capital to fund all the growth… That led down a path of starting to lend capital to other investors and growing a large lending business, and then further writing equity and partnering with other operators.
To fast-forward all that now to today, we have a family of 350 team members across eight total companies, headquartered, as you said, in Pennsylvania, Florida, offices really throughout the East Coast… And having a lot of fun at it.
Joe Fairless: What do you miss about door knocking?
Don Wenner: [laughs] It was a lot of fun. The simplicity of the one appointment sale, the simplicity of you know on the door, you put your head down and shuffle and walk in that door, and you walk out with a signed contract and a commission check. The simplicity of that type of sale was pretty awesome. It was a great way to cut your teeth and learn the basics of sales… I’ve been having a lot more fun since then, but it was a great experience.
Joe Fairless: So how many units does your company own right now?
Don Wenner: We own somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 right now.
Joe Fairless: And where are they located?
Don Wenner: We’re heavy in the South-East. We’re in a total of 15 states. We’re heavy from North Carolina down to Florida, we’re also heavy in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, because that’s where the company is headquartered, and we have a lot of relationships and assets… But we’re out as far West as Arizona, we’re as far North as South Bend, Indiana, but we’re in 15 total states and we own anywhere from 200 to 3,000 apartments and homes.
Joe Fairless: And how are you able to manage that process?
Don Wenner: Great question. It starts, of course, with great people. If you asked me where do I spend most of my time, the largest segment of my time is spent on hiring and developing leaders. We really build a culture of — our mantra is “Leaders made here.” So we build great leaders throughout the individual businesses, empower them to grow and take ownership and lead, and that’s been really the key to our ability to scale, both geographically, and the new business lines, and sitting in different seats with any of these different business lines and transactions.
Joe Fairless: And I’d love to talk more about that, but first just so I’m wrapping my head around this correctly… You said you have 350 team members. How many of those are W-2 employees?
Don Wenner: 325.
Joe Fairless: So you have 325 W-2 employees across eight companies. What company of the eight has the most employees?
Don Wenner: Property management.
Joe Fairless: Yes, of course…
Don Wenner: We have about 150 in property management.
Joe Fairless: Okay. And why have your own property management? Because I’m sure you did some pros and cons of starting your own management company.
Don Wenner: Yeah. To be honest, in the beginning, the types of properties we were buying – it was hard to find good management. When you’re buying 20-unit, 40-unit, 60-unit type properties, there’s really not good professional management out there. Or at least not that we were able to find in the secondary and tertiary markets we were in. So in the beginning, there really wasn’t any other option. And then as we grew, we evaluated and we’ve used third-party management, and we have some of our portfolio today, about 2,000 of our apartments we do a third-party management. But we still provide the construction management and the asset management.
But really, at the end of the day, your job running a business is operations, and your ability to execute is the key in any business, and certainly managing real estate is no different. I believe that my interest, my alignment and then the interest in generating profits at the asset level is always gonna be much greater than the interest level in the management company whose goal is to drive his bottom line.
So the alignment of interests are in place when you own your own management company, and then we believe strongly that by executing what we call our elite execution system, which is how we run each of our businesses, and the disciplines of executing, of hiring, of laying out our strategy and business plans and then doing the things every day, building the right forms of communication, solving issues, managing your top priorities – the way we’ve built that throughout our organization allows us to get significantly better results than any other management company we’ve been able to come across.
Joe Fairless: And since that’s the case, why have 2,000 units be with third-party management?
Don Wenner: When we go into a new market – for example, we’ve gone into Arizona, and we didn’t own anything within six or seven hours of this new community we just bought in Arizona… So in that specific case we didn’t have any infrastructure in place yet, we didn’t have any relationships yet, we didn’t have any contractors yet… So it was in easier — in that case, actually, it was one of the rarest situations where we bought a property that already had pretty good management in place… So it was just a lot easier to keep that third-party manager in place initially. They already had the knowledge of the asset, the knowledge of the market, the knowledge of the people… Than to force change, and with all my senior leadership being remote – it made it a lot more challenging.
So generally we’ll bring in third-party if it’s a new market to us, we don’t have experience… And then if they do an incredible job, we’ll keep them. If they don’t, then we take over the management.
Joe Fairless: So let’s talk about the Phoenix portfolio or property. Can you tell us some details about it?
Don Wenner: This property is actually right outside of Tucson, and…
Joe Fairless: Oh, Tucson. Arizona — I made a poor assumption.
Don Wenner: [laughs] So this is a 196-unit built in 1997, class B community, in a class B+ neighborhood.
Joe Fairless: Okay. And how did you find the deal?
Don Wenner: I actually bought it through an auction platform. So we’ve actually done pretty well buying through auction platforms, because generally, especially this platform, you have to wire a 10% deposit, and it was a 14 million dollar deal… A 10% deposit within 24 hours of winning the auction, and you have to close in 21 days with no contingencies.
So generally, what we joke is smaller operators generally don’t have the ability or the confidence that they can pull the money together that quickly, and the big guy, the guy sitting in New York, generally the big Wall Street funds, they generally can’t get the contract signed in 21 days, let alone close on the asset. So we’ve generally done very well on those types of deals, with very short timetables and very hard terms.
Joe Fairless: That’s interesting. What platform is it?
Don Wenner: Real Insight Marketplace.
Joe Fairless: Okay. How many deals have you bought from Real Insight Marketplace?
Don Wenner: Five or six.
Joe Fairless: And the first one, how did you get comfortable with buying the first one off of an online auction? …I assume it’s an online auction platform.
Don Wenner: Correct. You have to be willing to invest and do your homework upfront. So you have to be willing to invest, and doing your due diligence, getting out to the asset, doing everything upfront when you know there’s a good probability that you’re not gonna win the auction. You have to make that investment to get to the point of 100% confidence before the time of submitting your offer, so that then you’re confident in the asset and in your underwriting, but also in your ability to close quickly, and understanding all the hair that could come up as you’re finalizing up your capital structure and getting the deal closed.
Joe Fairless: So what do you do, tactically speaking, to get 100% comfortable with purchasing a property where you’ll have 21 days to close with no contingencies?
Don Wenner: I’d say the first place for most people who start is you have to confident you have your capital in order. That’s the first thing that we focus on. Beyond that, it’s understanding the asset and the market at a high level. Generally, our due diligence process consists of a team going out to the asset, or an acquisition team, our construction management team, our asset management team… In this case, this property didn’t have a heavy redevelopment component, but when they do, generally bringing contractors, and often bringing — our third-party is bringing an engineer out right away, if there’s not already one. In this case there was. Getting the phase one done on the property before you even have it tied up…
But bringing a full team out there, spend a couple days, walk through every single unit, dive deep into the asset, do your full lease audit and evaluation of the financials upfront… And then getting out to the competition. That’s really a big part of it. Truly understanding the market… This was, again, our first deal in a new market, so getting to know the market, getting to know the competition, getting to understand the demand, getting to understand the larger employers in the market, understanding the demographics, understanding the tenant base, and getting comfortable that we’re gonna be able to continue to execute over the 5 or 7-year business plan that we’re laying out for that property.
Joe Fairless: Approximately how long does it take to complete this part of the process for you? I know on the ground you said a couple days, but I imagine the lease audits, and looking at the financials – that takes a little bit longer.
Don Wenner: Yeah, if we’re under a short timetable, like on a deal like this, we’re generally gonna complete the whole process, start to finish, in about seven days. Like most, we’d prefer to have a little more time, but when we’re operating under a short timetable, generally we’ll complete the majority of our due diligence in about a week.
Joe Fairless: And what part of what you’ve just said — are there still some lingering things that could bite you in the butt, just because you were having to compress your timeline to seven days?
Don Wenner: Yeah, it’s a great question. Like any deal, we look at it as — a deal or an asset can be a great asset at one price, and a terrible buy at another price… So one of the great parts of buying on auction platforms generally is you’re picking up assets at a lower basis, that gives you a little bit more room. So anything we’re not 100% confident we’ve nailed down, then we just assume the worst in our underwriting. We’ll assume the worst on what it’s gonna cost us, or if we’re not 100% confident with what rents we’re gonna be able to drive through an upgrade package, we’re gonna assume the most conservative side of our analysis, and max out our max bid based on a more conservative underwriting.
So generally, the more holes we have in our underwriting at the point of the auction, the lower our bid is gonna be, which can result in us getting a better buy, or of course, can result in us losing out, because we weren’t able to complete and check every box in our underwriting, so we came in more conservative.
Joe Fairless: I believe you said you’ve closed on six properties on that auction platform… Did I hear that right?
Don Wenner: On that specific auction platform, yeah. We bought many, many on multiple different auction platforms, but on that specific one – yeah.
Joe Fairless: Okay. On that platform, approximately how many bids have you put in to get those six closings?
Don Wenner: We’ve probably bid on 15 assets to win those 5 or 6.
Joe Fairless: Oh, so 15 which includes those six, or 15 that you didn’t get? Wow…
Don Wenner: Correct. So we have a 33% to 40% hit rate generally on auction deals that we decide to bid on. We feel we have a good chance at it, and we do all our homework upfront to determine what the whisper price is, what the reserve price is, really where is the thing gonna shake out, to know if it’s something we’re gonna put forth all that energy and effort around.
Joe Fairless: If you mobilize your crew to go do that 7-day exercise and go visit the property, and do the lease audits, do you generally then move forward with making an offer?
Don Wenner: Generally, yes. There’s certainly exceptions to the rule. You come up with something you just don’t wanna tackle or deal with. It’s usually less about the physical asset, and it turns out that an issue with the neighborhood that we don’t wanna tackle, whether that be crime, or drugs, or just we see negative trends in population growth, or socio-economic changes going on that we don’t feel confident in the basis, that we didn’t have the most accurate assumptions before we got out to the asset. That’s generally what happens. It’s less about the asset than the neighborhood.
Generally, we like to buy C+, B- assets, in B+ or better neighborhoods. So if it turns out to be a neighborhood that we don’t think we’re gonna be able to control or change, then that can be what turns us away from an asset.
Joe Fairless: What online platform have you bought the most properties on?
Don Wenner: In terms of multifamily communities, we’ve bought on many of them. But I’d say the one we’ve historically been the most active on has been 10X.
Joe Fairless: How many would you say you’ve closed on that?
Don Wenner: Maybe 15.
Joe Fairless: Any recent ones?
Don Wenner: I don’t think we’ve won any in 2019. In 2018 we definitely bought a number of assets. I know we’ve been the bridesmaid on a few this year, but I don’t think we’ve won any this year.
Joe Fairless: And any nuances that you’ve identified from one auction platform compared to another, that you think would be relevant to share?
Don Wenner: I’d say some of them have more flexible terms, but the more flexible the terms are, generally the higher the price is gonna go. For example, on 10X they’ve started providing debt options, or giving you time to place debt… Which, as an operator, of course, that’s a great thing. We actually, on the lending side of our business, have funded a ton of auction deals for other operators, because we’re one of the few lenders who will close loans in 20 days. So it’s actually been a huge source for us not only to buy deals, but actually to fund deals to other operators. And some of the auctions that we’ve lost out on, actually we’ve ended up funding the guy who won the auction. And because we already underwrote the property, we were comfortable with it and we could close in 21 days. That’s happened many times. More times that we funded other guys buying deals than we’ve bought them ourselves.
But when auction platforms start saying “Hey, we’ll give you a 30-day extension, we’ll give you 60-day terms to place financing”, or sometimes they’ll say “Hey, we’ll give you unlimited time, as long as you’re working with our lending partner” – that’s generally when everybody realizes “Hey, I can have a lot time. I have time to go place debt, I can go get financing.” Then that opens up the buyer pool times three, four, five or ten. If they had to close in 21 days, or even 30 days, they wouldn’t be bidding. When that happens, generally we’re not able to be the buyer, because people are gonna be willing to overpay, when they can go out there and place some CMBS debt, or something that operators will use to get interest-only 10-year paper, and they can justify paying prices that to us don’t make sense.
So we actually love [unintelligible [00:16:52].15] as an operator, and we love it as a provider of debt and equity. The other guys — when there isn’t time typically to place financing, that’s where we can excel and get the best deal and bring value.
Joe Fairless: And what makes you like a deal as a lender, but not like the deal as an operator?
Don Wenner: That’s a great question. I’d say if one of our partners or borrowers comes to us with a deal that they wanna fund, we don’t compete against them. A lot of times we do like the deal a lot as a lender, but in many cases we’ll go and provide equity to them as well. A big majority of deals where we provide debt to, we end up providing the majority of the equity as well. So a lot of times when deals do come to us for debt, we really do like them and we provide them with capital as well.
We just had a deal – it was an auction deal – this past week that we were bidding on, and then we found out one of our close partners that we do a lot of business with was bidding on the same deal. We didn’t bow out, but we strategized with them and we still put out an offer, but we purposely put out our offer to be inferior terms to the partner, to help his offer actually look better, and we actually helped him win the deal. Then we ended up coming in and we’re providing both the debt and we’re providing 90% of the equity on that deal, but we’re doing it with another operator; we’re allowing him to run and manage and execute on the property.
Another case is we’ve had situations where we’ve put offers in on a deal, we lost out, because somebody else was willing to pay a little more, and then we found out who the winner is and we come and offer them capital into the deal. We’ve operated that way as well many times.
Joe Fairless: Tell us about the deal that you’ve lost the most amount of money on.
Don Wenner: Yeah, good question. I can’t really say I had a deal that I’ve lost a lot of money on. We certainly had some single-family flips, we’ve done a couple thousand single-family flips… One that comes to mind – we’ve renovated a house, start to finish, beautiful house, sold it; it was like a 350k house. And a week before closing, a realtor or an inspector doing the inspection – we never identified who did it – turned off the emergency heat switch and shut off the heat, and the whole house froze. It was a long story, but the insurance company didn’t cover it… So we ended up having to re-renovate this entire house, to the tune of about 80k. So it turned it from a 40k profit to a 40k loss. That’s the biggest loss that I can think of on any property we’ve had.
We don’t have a lot of times we’ve lost money. When I think about bad deals, where my mind goes with deals gone bad is generally doing deals with people I don’t wanna be in business with, and I think that’s the mistake that people often make. A deal can go bad because you’re stuck with a partner who restricts and doesn’t provide the capital, or doesn’t agree with the business plan, or slows things down, or won’t make decisions, or whatever the case. Or just makes your life miserable.
In the early days, like a lot of people, when we first got going, we would partner with anybody who had capital… And we worked with some lousy partners in the beginning, that really made deals unenjoyable, and sucked some of the profits out, because we had to move so slow, answering questions, and getting their feedback, and getting their approval on decisions… It really slowed us down. So that’s been the bigger challenge in our early days, and why we really committed to raising our own private funds that we had complete discretion and control of, and then being able to go out there and offer capital to others with complete control. It’s been a huge reason why we have not dealt with those issues since our early days, and why we haven’t had issues of major losses on deals. It’s a big part of it, because we do business with people we wanna be in business with.
I think building relationships with people is a huge part of success, but the other point I wanna make is I think generally when guys lose money on a property, generally it’s not that the property was a bad piece of land, or a bad asset… Generally it’s not that they bought it at a bad price. Generally it’s not that they didn’t understand construction, or they didn’t understand property management. Generally it’s not that the market turned on them. Usually it’s that they couldn’t execute internally. They tried to take on too many projects at once, and they just couldn’t handle them. They over-extended themselves.
They didn’t have any structure in their organization to stay on top of the important things, and time started going by, and things didn’t get done, they forgot to pull their permits, and then they had to go backwards, they hired a new project leader and put them in charge of the project and he completely screwed up because they hired the wrong person; they didn’t really train them, they didn’t really manage them… They didn’t have a way to scale. And what I’ve seen is when guys go from being successful home flippers or whatever type of investor and wanna scale and grow a business, they tend to struggle not because they don’t understand real estate, but because they don’t know how to scale a business. They hire the wrong people, they don’t partner with the right people, they don’t build the internal processes to execute in their organization.
They don’t have a way to drive communication as their organization grows, they don’t have a way to set priorities, they don’t have a way to solve issues, they don’t have a way to keep out the noise and stay focused on what really matters, and they end up overextending themselves. And even though they may be doing a decent amount of business, they end up starting to have losses, they end up starting to be inefficient, they end up starting to take longer than it used to take them, and they start running a business that’s no longer profitable like it was in the beginning. That’s what we see more times than not, especially over the last number of years, where the market has been so great.
Joe Fairless: Based on your experience, what’s your best real estate investing advice ever?
Don Wenner: My best real estate advice ever kind of ties to my last comment, and it’s two parts. Number one, be in business with people you like. The Chug Test I heard recently by Steve Sims, who wrote Bluefishing, the Chug Test – don’t hire anybody or do business with somebody you wouldn’t wanna go and grab a beer with. So be in business with the right people.
And focus on building the internal operations of your business, and it’ll take care of everything else if you focus on execution in your organization.
Joe Fairless: We’re gonna do a lightning round. Are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?
Don Wenner: I’m ready.
Joe Fairless: Alright, I know you are. First, let’s hear from our Best Ever partners.
Joe Fairless: Okay, best ever book you’ve recently read?
Don Wenner: I read 3-4 books every week, but my best one I’ve read recently I’d say is Turning the Flywheel by Jim Collins.
Joe Fairless: And what have you implemented in your business from that book?
Don Wenner: Turning the Flywheel is a little monogram, as he calls it, an add-on to Good to Great, and I’m a huge Jim Collins fan. He doesn’t really teach anything new in this book, but what he does is he crystallizes a lot of his teachings – Good to Great, and Great by Choice, and How the Mighty Fall – and really lays it out in a really clear basis.
The biggest thing I’d say I implement is he [unintelligible [00:23:26].28] that you need your organization to be discipline-centered. He calls it disciplined thought, disciplined action, disciplined people. He just does an amazing job of crystallizing and explaining that, and then he breaks out all his different tools and things he teaches: the hedgehog principle, the flywheel etc. and breaks them out in a really organized fashion. It’s a tiny little book, it takes an hour and a half to listen to, but his strategy simplified in a little tiny book – it’s amazing.
Joe Fairless: Best ever deal you’ve done?
Don Wenner: The next one I’m gonna do.
Joe Fairless: What deal have you made the most money on, and how much did you make?
Don Wenner: I’d say a deal we’re actually selling in 3-4 days is gonna be the most profitable single deal. We bought a property for seven million dollars in Orlando, and we’ve put about a million dollars into it, so eight million total cost, we put two million equity and six million debt, and we’re selling it for 15 million. We’re gonna return an 8 million-dollar profit on a two million dollars investment in a little over two years.
Joe Fairless: A couple things that you did to increase the value that greatly are what?
Don Wenner: Management was the big play there. Really, really poor management, and a really, really poor tenant base. So we’ve spent a lot of energy and effort to turn over the tenant base, and put the right people in place there on our end, on the management side, and changed it from — when we bought the property, there were multiple shootings on the property the previous year, there were a lot of drug issues, there was unfortunately a rape on the property… And we really focused heavy on putting security in place, not allowing that type of behavior to continue, getting rid of all the troubled tenants. We turned it around over the first year and really drove up not only the occupancy and the quality of tenants, but the rents as well.
Joe Fairless: Best ever way you like to give back to the community?
Don Wenner: About two years ago I launched a foundation called DLP Positive Returns Foundation, and we focus on two epidemics that we believe to be epidemics in America. One is the affordable housing epidemic here in America, that’s frankly getting worse every day, and second is attacking the job epidemic; that we’re losing jobs to technology at a rapid pace, and I believe the only way to solve for that is through entrepreneurship here in the States.
So we’re really focused on those two causes, supporting a lot of other great organizations, both in terms of monetary capital, but then also I teach our operating system, our elite execution system – which I’ve just finished our book called Building an Elite Organization – and I go and I teach that to social entrepreneurs and help them grow their causes. It’s been incredibly rewarding.
Joe Fairless: How can the Best Ever listeners learn more about what you’re doing and get your book, Building an Elite Organization?
Don Wenner: Email is the fastest way to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, you can find us on all the social platforms and such as well. Our website is dlprealestate.com.
Joe Fairless: That’s how they also can get the book?
Don Wenner: Yeah, so you shoot me a quick note to my email address, and as soon as the book is going live, which is gonna be January 1st, you shoot me a note and we’ll send you out a copy of the book.
Joe Fairless: Awesome. Congratulations on the book, and also clearly congratulations on the real estate business. I really enjoyed learning about the approach you’ve taken to acquisitions on the online auction platforms, and what you do to mitigate risk as much as you can, what would be a reason why you would pull out – not necessarily about the property, but really about the market, because it’s very challenging to change that… And then the approach that you take from a mindset standpoint, and how you’re continuing to learn, you’re annihilating books on a weekly basis. Very impressive.
I really appreciate our conversation, I enjoyed it. I hope you have a best ever day, and we’ll talk to you again soon.
Don Wenner: Awesome. Thanks, Joe. I appreciate the opportunity.