As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hunter Renfroe.
As principal and co-founder of Orchestra Partners, Hunter Renfroe invests his experience and passion for real estate design, construction and finance into Orchestra’s mission to unite people by transforming the urban experience. To date, Orchestra Partners has completed over $40 million of real estate development projects with $150 million under development in key neighborhoods that now make up the fastest growing areas of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. Each Orchestra Partners project endeavors to create a unique sense of place by repurposing historic buildings and outdoor spaces into centerpieces of vibrant livable, walkable communities.
Among numerous accolades for noteworthy leadership and redevelopment efforts, Hunter was named a Key Person to Watch for the 2020s by the Birmingham Business Journal and a two-time honoree of the Top 25 for Excellence in Business award by the University of Alabama at Birmingham National Alumni Society. Hunter is also the founder of Maestro Maintenance, a building services provider that seeks to support commercial owner-occupiers with turnkey building and maintenance management. Hunter currently lives in downtown Birmingham with his wife Whitney and their two children Jack and Marley.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was fortunate to find my passion early when I took a one-month elective at Birmingham-Southern College called “Experiencing the City.” Our class of mostly suburbanites took daily walking tours of downtown Birmingham during which we met a variety of people who were considered pioneers of the area’s revitalization. At that time, downtown Birmingham was probably 80% vacant and, fortunately as it is today, still filled with many of its original historic buildings. The initial tour was the first time I had walked more than a block downtown, which I am somewhat ashamed to admit. I’ve since learned how commonplace it is for people from the suburbs to drive through their downtown but never walk it. I immediately loved the city and saw its potential.
This experience taught me two things that are guiding principles for the work I do today. First, humans are naturally drawn to beautiful and vibrant cities because we are social creatures who yearn to feel connected to one another. Second, real estate practitioners have a tremendous duty to design and build things that will reinforce and enhance that connection. The former is so much more important today than it has even been, and the latter has unfortunately been ignored by many real estate developers.
My business partner, John, and I met at Birmingham-Southern and spent a lot of time batting around ideas that stemmed from our shared desire to bring people together and to build better cities. After college, we both spent some time in thriving urban areas, he in D.C. and I in Boston. In 2015, we decided it was time to come back to Birmingham and put all our efforts toward making Birmingham the vibrant urban center that we knew it deserved to be. With that mission, we founded Orchestra Partners.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
John and I were invited to do our first news story about our first major project early one morning, and neither of us was excited about it. I had planned on being the subject of the interview, but as I was getting out of my car to meet the crew, I spilled coffee all over myself — I mean head to toe. John jokingly accused me of sabotaging the interview, but he was willing and ready to take my place without a second thought. He did a great job, and following that interview we both decided he would be the spokesperson for all media opportunities which ultimately led to him singlehandedly building an excellent brand for Orchestra.
I still hold onto two takeaways from this. First, surround yourself with people who have the will and confidence to back you up without pause. Second, if someone does something well the first time, step back and let them run with it.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
A couple years ago, Orchestra was really struggling through some growing pains. Our director of development, Sarah Miller, took it upon herself to research some structural and organizational solutions. Based on her findings, Sarah recommended looking into the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) model and read Traction by Gino Wickman. Since then, this book has served as the foundation for some game-changing improvements to our business. I recommend it to anyone starting a business, especially to business leaders struggling with the early stages of growth. We followed the EOS framework over the last 18 months, and it has enabled us to scale our team and create a sense of shared leadership which has driven some great success for us.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
John and I have been consistent in our vision to be thoughtful stewards of the urban ecosystem. At Orchestra Partners, our purpose is to unite people by transforming the urban experience in cities that need help rebuilding their core. We deeply believe that we have a duty to be intentional about the places we design and build because we hope that they will last for hundreds of years. Every project we undertake has a stated mission that ties into a bigger picture for the future of the city.
We are a very purpose-driven organization, and everyone in our company will tell you that passion is a prerequisite for working here. It is one of our four core values. This sense of purpose helps us turn down short-term opportunities that would ultimately become distractions and focus our attention on the long-term opportunities that build momentum.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Being purpose-driven enables us to see beyond the emergency of today, and our purpose is guided by a fundamental principle of human nature: people thrive when we’re together. Our society lost sight of this principle, and as a result has spent the last 30 years developing “new” city centers to attempt to rebuild a sense of place and connection and undo the damage done by suburban sprawl.
Data has shown that each successive generation feels more alone than the last. At Orchestra, we believe a revival of city centers across the country is the only long-term solution to our disconnectedness. We believe that the product of our work will be a more connected, diverse and creative society where our population interacts within hundreds of thriving urban city centers, each boasting its own unique features. We know that this vision will take many decades to achieve, so the short-term ups and downs of the market don’t phase us.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I am the most extroverted person I know. I get my energy from being around others, so having to sequester myself in my home has posed both personal and professional challenges. My role requires a lot of relationship-building with people, many of whom I am meeting for the first time. I learned to adapt and quickly and optimized my work area for video conferencing. Our leadership team has made it a priority to measure and actively improve employee engagement. I set up regular video meetings with my team for check-ins that are more frequent than our pre-COVID meeting cadence. I regularly call each person on my team to touch base with them. I spend more time during meetings just catching up and chatting.
Working from home has helped our leadership team focus on the little things that make employees feel connected to the organization. Those little things — the congratulatory text or the phone call just to check in — are easy to overlook when you are sitting right next to each other, but they matter even more when you’re apart. I hope we will keep these habits when things do finally get back to “normal” — whatever that means.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
At Orchestra Partners, our goal is to deliver unique social experiences and build connectivity in every neighborhood we transform. We exist to generate interpersonal connection through our restaurant and bar concepts that have helped breathe life into downtown Birmingham. It’s easy to see how these principles core to our philosophy have been directly impacted by COVID-19.
We’ve been working closely and communicating with our tenants weekly to understand their financial situation and meet them in the middle as best as we can. We’ve also helped them access PPP financing while working with lenders to get flexibility on loan terms.
With our tenants taken care of, we saw this challenging time as an opportunity encourage people to get outside and walk around the city. So, we partnered with City officials and local nonprofits to launch The Parkside Trail, Birmingham’s first Open Streets initiative. Every Saturday and Sunday in May, we temporarily closed a prominent downtown corridor to vehicle traffic to enable runners, cyclists and walkers to prioritize physical and mental health while practicing social distancing.
Research shows that being outdoors significantly mitigates the risk of transmitting the virus. Fortunately, outdoor elements are focal points of our projects, so as the economy reopens, we are well positioned to support our tenants and provide a safe space for people to feel connected with one another.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Anxiety stems from a sense of a loss of control. We fear these changes because we don’t know what the future will hold, and it has reminded us how little control we have over our world. Now is a time to be mindful of your locus of control. I recommend Stephen Nowicki’s Choice or Chance to better understand how to shift your locus of control from external to internal so that you can take ownership of your life and see change as opportunity.
To combat loneliness, purposefully connect with others. Schedule time with friends for a video call or a game over the internet. Go to a public place where you can see people while keeping a safe distance like an urban park or plaza. Seeing other people around you, even strangers at a distance, will remind your subconscious that you are not alone. Some sunshine can work wonders.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
We have already seen more than a few opportunities generated by this pandemic. The most obvious is the broad realization that working from home is not a death sentence for productivity, although it does present challenges for sustaining corporate culture. This shift in the corporate mindset presents opportunities for businesses to downsize office space and intentionally reserve space for team- and culture-building activities.
With this, I expect we’ll see new opportunities to work with business owners to remodel their facilities. I also expect to see long-term and widespread opportunities generated by the trend away from the traditional office experience. For example, remote work technology and home improvement industries will likely see spikes in demand as people spend less time at work and more time at home.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There will be some things that permanently change, such as operational adjustments, hygiene improvements and general safety precautions. However, I do not believe our intrinsic desire for human connection and shared experiences will ever change. On a macro-scale, I believe that the decentralization of the work environment will accelerate the migration from mega-cities towards secondary and tertiary cities that can deliver a similar urban lifestyle at a lower cost of living. We saw this trend speed up pre-COVID, and I suspect it will rapidly accelerate over the next 10 years.
I’m personally excited to see this change come about because as the next generation of entrepreneurs shy away from historic wealth centers like New York, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco and D.C. and instead put down roots in small towns and cities, this dispersion of talent will help mend the economic divide in our country.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-COVID economy?
Fortunately, Orchestra Partners is well-positioned to become a household name for partnering with local stakeholders, property owners and political leaders to help build the urban experience that will attract the next generation of talent. We are hiring now, and we have continued to build our business through the pandemic. Capital projects have historically been the most effective way for economies to recover from downturns, so cities and property owners, now more than ever, need to be investing in the urban experience to capitalize on these changes and recoup losses incurred during the shutdown. We are working hard to get the word out that we are a uniquely capable partner for stakeholders who want to deliver transformative urban projects.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Focus on the future and try not to be too reactive. If you can find meaningful ways that you are uniquely positioned to succeed post-COVID, embrace those components of your business and proactively weave them into your strategy in a comprehensive way. If you can’t, you may need to pivot. The truth is, you probably needed to pivot already, and this is the perfect time to do it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m not sure if this qualifies as a “Life Lesson Quote,” but there is a movie on Netflix called The Circle I watched a few years ago with a line that really struck me. During a job interview, the protagonist was asked, “What is your biggest fear?” She quickly responded with “unfulfilled potential.” This resonated deeply with me because I have always felt like there is so much waste in this world that could be avoided. Whether that is a vacant old building left to crumble or an extremely talented individual who never finds their calling, the world is not well-suited for bringing out the creative potential of what could be.
So much of our world incentivizes cheap, immediate solutions that we overlook the long-term consequences of our choices. I see this on a personal level with friends who choose a job for the salary and lose focus on a cause that really matters to them. Professionally, I see beautiful, promising buildings razed and structures erected that cheaply fill a short-term need but that we will all ultimately regret. My biggest fear is unfulfilled potential in all things. It keeps me up at night, and it motivates me every day.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on LinkedIn and stay updated on our exciting projects at Orchestra Partners by visiting our website and following us on social media.