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John Williams’ post-mortem on the Post Properties buyout

By Doug Sams and Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Aug. 26, 2016

It’s been 15 years since John Williams ran Post Properties Inc. Since then he’s started one of the country’s fastest-growing real estate companies. But no matter what he does, Williams may always be known best for the apartment company he started when he was 26 years old.

“Everywhere I go people introduce me as the founder of Post Properties,” Williams says.

That’s why the buyout of Post by Mid-America Apartment Communities announced Aug. 15 stung Williams so deeply. Although Post will keep a large presence in Atlanta, hundreds of employees, and thousands of apartment units, the headquarters is moving to Memphis, Tenn.

Asked how he reacted to the news,

Williams said he felt “incredible sadness.”

“It was just an extraordinary, unique company — nothing like it anywhere,” Williams said of Post in an exclusive interview Aug. 19 with Atlanta Business Chronicle.

PAC closing bell

Preferred Apartment Communities participates in the closing bell of NYSE on Nov. 13, 2015 to honor its July 17, 2015 public offering (Special: Preferred Apartment Communities)

MAA is buying Post to create the largest publicly traded multifamily real estate investment trust, with a combined 317 properties and 105,000 apartments. The deal, estimated at nearly $4 billion, is expected to close by the end of the year.

For decades, Post has been arguably the most recognizable name in Atlanta’s apartment business — interwoven with the region’s go-go years in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s when the city’s most iconic companies such as The Coca-Cola Co. and Delta Air Lines Inc. were expanding rapidly.

Post’s gated communities dotted most major highways across metro Atlanta from the city to the suburbs. The properties always featured tulips as part of a meticulous landscape design and often served as the first residence after college for generations of Atlantans.

Williams said it’s sad to think of that Post brand and cachet going away. MAA and Post executives say it won’t.

“We respect the Post brand a lot,” Eric Bolton, chairman and CEO of MAA, said in an Aug. 15 conference call with analysts. “It means a lot in these markets and in this region.”

“John created the business,” Post CEO Dave Stockert told Atlanta Business Chronicle Aug. 23. “I give him all the credit. I’m very proud of Post Properties, its place in Atlanta, and its legacy. It’s going to continue to mean a lot to this city.” Look at Post Centennial Park — the company’s first project in downtown Atlanta in 45 years, Stockert said.

Williams counters that, “Just because their name is on the sign, it does not mean they are ‘Post.’ ”

Williams started the company over the Thanksgiving weekend of 1970, scratching out a business plan for an apartment company on one of his yellow legal pads. It started with an observation of the changing demographics.

“People were getting paid more, people were postponing getting married, postponing having children,” said Williams, adding that as more women were entering the workforce, they wanted a secure place to live.

He saw chance to create a new kind of apartment company — and Post was born.

Instead of cookie-cutter apartments, Post projects would look distinct. They would feature quality landscaping so residents would want to take better care of the property and keep living there.

They would emphasize safety, leading to some of Atlanta’s first apartments with security gates.

And, every member of the staff would look professional, from the leasing agents to the maintenance workers. That meant everybody wore uniforms.

“Culture. Associates. Reputation. Brand. All those things that were truly unique,” Williams said.

The company saw explosive growth during the 1980s. In the 1990s, Williams began to shift the company’s development from the suburbs to central cities with mixed-use projects. By 1993, Williams took Post public.

“I’ve been told that it was probably the most successful REIT IPO in history,” Williams said, adding the company had $900 million shares on the order books.

Williams ran Post until 2001, when he had open heart surgery. Afterward, he suffered from arrhythmia and was forced to take a medical leave. During that time, he says, some board members began to orchestrate his exit. When he returned to Post, there was a clear division among board members, and they eventually entered into a very public battle for control.

“I lost the proxy contest, not by much, but lost it” Williams said.

After that, he said, “Well, you know [it’s] time for me to go do something else.”

Today, Williams is off and running again. In 2009 he and Lenny Silverstein launched Preferred Apartment Communities, which could end the year with $2.6 billion in assets and 540 direct employees. It also has several partnerships with companies affiliated with PAC.

“This has been an incredible success story,” said Silverstein, PAC’s president and chief operating officer. “We’ve grown it with vision and with strategy.”

Williams is also creating a similar culture to the one he developed at Post.

Consider the strong sense of loyalty among his longtime employees. As he took some visitors on a tour of his offices, he pointed out the people who’ve been with his since his days at Post. “Almost 37 years, he said. “28 years. 32 years and counting. All of them ex-Post,” Williams said, adding, “Is that a pretty remarkable thing?”

Asked what he would say to people who think he has an ax to grind over Post Properties, Williams says, “Well, I’d just say let the facts speak for themselves. It was a great company and it’s not there anymore. And you look over here and we have a great company and we’re doing great. I think there will be people who say that. They’ll say it. But you know, the facts are the facts.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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