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VOL. 126 | NO. 120 | Tuesday, June 21, 2011

MAA Targets New Acquisitions

By Sarah Baker

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Seventeen years ago, when Mid-America Apartment Communities became publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, it was among 34 apartment real estate investment trusts.

Company chairman and CEO Eric Bolton said only 12 remain, and he said MAA’s performance per shareholder has been better than any other apartment REIT over the last 10 years, with an annual compounded shareholder return of 18.4 percent.

Over time, Memphis-based MAA, 6584 Poplar Ave., has shifted its focus and footprint to the Sunbelt region of the U.S. – from the East Coast throughout the Southeast all the way to Phoenix. To better reflect that transformation, it rebranded as “MAA” in March.

“For some time, we had felt that the name Mid-America Apartment Communities was going to become a little bit limiting in terms of defining sort of who we were and who we’ve become,” Bolton said. “To some degree, when people think of Mid-America, they tend to have initially sort of thought we had a bunch of apartments in a wheat field in Kansas somewhere or something.”

Because close to 60 percent of the leasing traffic the company gets originates over the Internet, MAA also rolled out a new website in March with the help of the Memphis-based marketing and advertising firm archer>malmo inc.

“It’s amazing how much the business continues to evolve and change as a result of what the Internet and the Web are doing,” Bolton said. “Increasingly, when people are looking to make a decision to move and get an apartment, they sit down in front of their computer and start their search process. We also are finding that more and more customers want to transact their routine business with us and we have close to a third of our customers now who simply pay their rent to us via the Internet.”

MAA currently owns and operates about 49,000 apartments and employs 1,300 employees across the Sunbelt region.

So far this year, MAA is approaching $200 million in deals, including recent acquisitions in Gainesville and Jacksonville, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; and Savannah, Ga. The firm expects its buying activity to continue to stay robust for the remainder of the year, with expected acquisitions to reach $350 million.

“We’re acquiring in most cases brand new properties that we think will further enhance the quality of our overall portfolio,” Bolton said. “These additions continue to drive more operating efficiencies for our operating platform. Most importantly, we acquired these properties at a price that we believe is going to deliver really strong investment return for our shareholders over the years that we’ll really wind up exceeding their expectations.”

The crisis in the credit market over the past three years has made for overall weak business across the board, both within the U.S. and worldwide, Bolton said. A lot of the new properties that were built and financed during that period of time ran into distress, which has created buying opportunity for MAA.

“The apartment business is quickly improving and expected to be quite strong for the next couple of years,” Bolton said. “As a public REIT, our company is in a very strong position with a very strong balance sheet – our debt, our leverage is low and we have pretty good access to investment capital and financing is available to us.”

What ultimately makes a particular city a good market for MAA’s business is potential and existing employment. Because employment growth is the main driver in household formation, it in turn drives the demand for housing.

MAA also weighs heavily the steadiness of the major employers and the various industries that provide the existing employment in a given market. The firm characterizes Memphis as a “very stable situation,” Bolton said.

“I wouldn’t put the growth dynamics in Memphis as strong as some of the other markets that we are in, but Memphis does provide a degree of stability that’s an important attribute we think also to have in the mix of markets that we’re invested in,” he said.

Given the cyclical nature of the apartment business, MAA recognizes that long-term relationships are vital to success. It has an initiative in place to direct local business to minority and women-owned businesses to the best of its ability.

“We go through boom-bust cycles over seven- to 10-year periods of time and those cycles create stresses and that’s where relationships can be very useful and helpful to both sides,” Bolton said. “We think that all we can do to continue to support local businesses in Memphis continues to help the unemployment picture overall, which of course is helpful to our business.”

Also contributing to MAA’s durability are its employees and board of directors. The top 25 people with the company share an average tenure of more than 12 years, Bolton said.

“All of these long relationships build value over time,” he said. “I’m not sure people understand that kind of longevity of performance.”

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BUILDING PERMITS 201 554 15,915
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396