CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER
Bryan appears in the Top 100
People in Real Estate magazine
Bryan Smith is betting on technology to transform the future of housing.
Bryan Smith recalls graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1996 without a computer, email address, or cell phone. “Technology’s importance in our daily lives has grown exponentially since then, and it’s empowering change,” he says. “The companies that adapt and innovate are flourishing by delivering new solutions to age-old problems. The real estate industry, however, was slower to embrace technology.”
As the chief operating officer at American Homes 4 Rent, Smith has been on a tireless mission to change that. Since 2012, American Homes 4 Rent has grown to become one of the leading single-family rental companies and top homebuilders in the nation, operating over 57,000 homes and 100 built-for-rent communities across 22 states. Under Smith’s leadership, the company now services nearly 200,000 residents nationwide, through a technology-driven platform that allows customers to manage their entire rental experience online.
“Our goal is to provide working households access to the benefits of single-family living by delivering high-quality homes, with the added convenience of professional maintenance and technology-enabled customer support,” says Smith. “We work to simplify the experience of home so that our residents can focus on what’s important to them. That’s part of the evolving American Dream. And, like all great dreams, it’s powered by creative entrepreneurship.” Creative entrepreneurship is the theme of the narrative of both Smith’s career and the burgeoning industry he helped pioneer within the real estate landscape—that of the professionally managed single-family rental space, or SFR, as it’s commonly abbreviated today.
Growing up in Northern California, Smith flexed his entrepreneurial muscle early and was determined to become financially independent at a young age. He juggled multiple jobs throughout his adolescence, inspired by his father, whom he credits for setting an example of hard work and high integrity. As an undergraduate at UCLA, he worked at the racetrack and waited tables to fund his studies. After graduating, he became a licensed CPA and joined the ranks of Deloitte. Later, while pursuing an MBA, he started an online traffic school and worked as a teaching assistant. In short, he believes in creating and seizing opportunities, ascribing to the principle that “things easily attained are of little value.”
This mindset proved instrumental when he met B. Wayne Hughes, the late business icon and founder of Public Storage and American Homes 4 Rent. Smith was working in commercial and residential real estate when The Great Recession hit. Soon after, in 2011, Hughes and David Singelyn, current chief executive officer of American Homes 4 Rent, approached Smith with a bold opportunity: to evaluate single-family rentals as an asset class. While the leasing of homes had historically been a mom-and-pop industry, Hughes envisioned professionalizing this business for the first time, to bring institutional backing and elevated quality to an industry notorious for unpredictability.
But the challenge they faced was how to build scale and a best-in-class operating platform to efficiently and consistently manage properties spread out across the country. In September of that same year, Smith joined the start-up, which then had only a few dozen homes in its portfolio, to accomplish just that. We asked Smith to walk us through this journey.
Tell us about how you mobilized technology to first operationalize the business.
In 2011, Wayne Hughes set out to do something that was thought to be impossible. He established a national company to transform the largest real estate class in America. At that point, there were no national players. The first step was to figure out how to acquire these homes at scale. To assume this tremendous undertaking, we developed an underwriting platform that included an auction and inspection app that empowered our first employees to screen, inspect, and underwrite 50,000 potential acquisitions monthly, as well as manage millions of dollars in cashier’s checks. Our custom acquisition platform enabled us to distribute data to a team who, at its peak pace, was responsible for buying thousands of homes a month across 40 markets in the U.S., allowing us to expand our footprint rapidly.
What innovations did you implement to improve the leasing experience?
Once the acquisition and renovation machine was in motion, our focus moved to leasing. We knew we needed to throw out the property management playbook and redesign the traditional leasing model, which presented challenges in information collection, property showings, and the lease transaction itself. This cumbersome process could take weeks. So we completely reimagined it. We developed and deployed technology solutions to remove friction from the touring, approval, and signing process. Strong IT partners were pivotal in eliminating a key bottleneck in our business: the scheduled house viewing. Through our proprietary Let Yourself In® mobile leasing technology launched in 2013—well before our competitors and the COVID-19 distancing mandate—prospective renters could drive to a home at their convenience, tour the property at their own pace, and apply, get approved, and sign a lease all within a day.
How does technology support your customer service for existing residents?
As our business matured, it became about more than just homes, more than just product. It became about people: about improving the resident experience, and about building the right team to execute that. We set out to design an operating model with the resident in mind, leveraging technology to eliminate inefficiencies and simplify leasing a home. As an example, from our headquarters in Las Vegas, we started expanding our maintenance operations. Initially, we utilized third-party vendors for this work. But we soon realized that we could apply technology here, too. We established a national in-house maintenance team and developed a logistics system to manage their work orders, inventory, schedules, and routes. The result was a more effective way to serve and deliver convenience to our residents.
We were able to provide a customer experience that had not existed in the single-family space: easier leasing, reliable maintenance support, disaster response services, continuous investment, and stability. After move-in, residents could now pay rent, request maintenance, and communicate with their property managers seamlessly online. Today, we use data and analytics to continually optimize this platform and really listen to what our residents want, to needs that have been historically ignored by our industry. These needs represent key opportunities to service the housing industry into the future, and they point us today to where we’re going next.
What promise does technology hold for the future of housing?
Moving forward, we continue to explore new tools through which we can unburden our customers of the bureaucracy and logistics of their home. We’re creating an integrated ecosystem of tech-enabled services that will modernize the resident experience holistically, simplifying consumers’ lives so they can sleep easier at night and spend more time doing what makes them happy. To accomplish this, we remain focused on both internally developing custom applications, as well as engaging in long-term strategic investments with key proptech partners and third-party innovators who we believe are transforming the space.
For instance, we recently announced our investment in Vesta Ventures, a leading proptech fund that supports emerging businesses at the intersection of technology and residential real estate, and shares our ESG objectives to promote quality, sustainable housing. The pace of innovation in our industry has dramatically increased in recent years, and we’re staying close to the marketplace to shape and leverage those trends. By combining our in-house resources and capabilities with cutting-edge advances and select solutions from our partners, we’re meticulously curating a tech-forward microservices architecture designed to pillar transformative innovation in housing. Thanks to this unique approach, we’ve already begun improving the way we communicate with residents, optimizing vertical construction, implementing additional efficiencies internally, and creating data-driven knowledge-sharing opportunities with our maintenance vendors.
Looking ahead, we’ll continue to bet on technology that is not only beneficial to our customers, but is also mindful of the environment, to remain at the forefront of both innovation and sustainability in our industry, which I believe are inextricably bound. It’s rewarding to see these efforts already recognized by our recent ranking on lists like America’s Most Responsible Companies 2022 and America’s Most Trusted Companies 2022 by Newsweek and Statista, and Top ESG Regional Performers 2021 by Sustainalytics, which confirms what I’ve always envisioned: technology has the potential to unlock a greener and brighter future for housing, with easier communication, lower costs, more reliability, less maintenance, and greater resident satisfaction.
Chief Operating Officer
American Homes 4 Rent
Instagram https://www.instagram.com/americanhomes4rent/ (@americanhomes4rent)