VALDOSTA , GA.—You wouldn’t think a company barely a dozen years old would need to reinvent itself. But Ambling Cos., Inc., has changed directions twice since its founding in 1994. While at some companies making course corrections so frequently would signal some serious missteps, Ambling’s moves were aimed at turbocharging growth.
The company, which started as an affordable housing developer, expanded into student housing in 1997 in response to congressional threats to end the low-income housing tax credit program. By 2002, though, increasing risk and shrinking profit margins in the student housing business prompted the company to get back to its affordable housing roots. It ramped up both development and acquisition efforts in that line of business, starting with the purchase of a 4,700-unit portfolio of Sec. 8 housing.
At the same time, it reorganized to make each division of the company a separate affiliate, with three established at that time: Ambling University Development Group, which handles student housing; Ambling Development Partners, which develops affordable housing; and Ambling Land and Resort, which acquires, entitles, and develops land and for-sale properties. The company’s affiliates, or partially owned subsidiaries, now number six.
“We wanted to keep to reinventing ourselves to stay ahead of the curve,” said Rhett Holmes, president of Ambling Property Investments, the company’s asset-management arm and the newest affiliate. “Our company has grown tremendously by diversifying and focusing on market segments.”
Over the past decade, Ambling’s workforce has exploded 110-fold, growing from 10 employees to 1,100, even as the company has developed more than $2.5 billion worth of real estate, when projects currently under development are included. Ambling owns 4,407 affordable housing units and manages nearly four times that many, while also managing more than 26,000 beds in the student housing business.
And the company plans to continue its aggressive pace of expansion, steadily increasing its market share. It’s in the midst of acquiring the 8,000-unit affordable housing portfolio of Jackson, Miss.-based Park Development, and within the next five years, expects the number of affordable housing units it owns and manages to more than triple, according to Holmes.
Gaining market share will help boost Ambling’s visibility, making it more attractive to both clients looking for property management services and potential employees, said Bill Barkwell, president of Ambling Management Co.
“The opportunity to have more market share allows us to attract really good employees, team members, to our organization,” he said. “Many times, in our industry in particular, people are very wary of working for small companies because they tend to be acquired by larger companies, so we’re able to attract really qualified people and keep them. That’s one of our primary goals.”
Even as the company expands, Ambling’s leaders say they are constantly on the lookout for ways to improve efficiency. Ambling Management, for instance, is set up so that it can add as many as 20 properties to its portfolio before having to increase its management staff, and the company’s accounting division can handle up to 30 extra properties without needing to add employees, according to Barkwell. As Ambling acquires new assets, it also takes a careful look at the processes and procedures they have in place to see how they might help the company improve its own operations.
In addition to serving the property owners who purchase the company’s management services, Ambling focuses on providing a sense of community for the residents at its properties, its executives said. “We want to be financially successful,” said Barkwell, “but we also know we’re not just making widgets here; we’re providing homes for people.”