Table of Contents
- After moving to Chicago for his first job out of college, Galvin leased apartments as a side gig.
- His brokerage and marketing business, Luxury Living Chicago Realty, has grown to 70 employees since 2007.
- Galvin’s next major career and business move is co-developing a 21-story apartment tower in Chicago.
Long before the days of Craigslist and Zillow rental ads, prospective renters would typically scour the local paper classifieds or connect with an agent to find a new apartment. There was also good old fashioned legwork: walking through neighborhoods and searching for the black and orange ‘For Rent’ signs on buildings.
When Cleveland area-native Aaron Galvin was in college in the early 2000s and found himself looking for an apartment for the first time, Craigslist was only just starting to take off in certain cities. He was a student at Miami University in Ohio, but looking for a short-term rental in Los Angeles, where his summer internship was based.
“Because I was a paid intern, I could find an apartment that was a little different than the student housing that was offered. And I took advantage of that,” Galvin told Insider. “I was looking at Craigslist and some other sites that we certainly didn’t have yet back in the Midwest, and that was definitely something that I enjoyed: solving the problem of finding a home for myself.”
After graduating in 2002 with a degree in public relations and marketing, Galvin moved to Chicago for a job with Anheuser-Busch that involved promoting the Bud Light brand. He and two roommates moved into a two-bedroom that they converted into a three-bedroom by building a makeshift wall. “We lived in the heart of downtown Chicago, in the Gold Coast, at a fraction of the cost of what it would have been for a true three-bedroom.”
Somewhat accidentally, he found himself spending time helping other people find apartments. The building he lived in had a referral program and was offering a free month of rent to tenants who referred someone to live there. At the same time, a number of his college friends were moving to Chicago and needed help finding apartments.
While searching for potential tenants to move into his building and potential apartments for his friends to move into, Galvin connected with an established apartment locator named Bill who would become his mentor and business partner. He’d been running newspaper ads in the Chicago Reader for years, and Galvin suggested he think about moving his business online: “I said to him, as a 23-year-old kid, ‘I respect what you’re doing. But if you’re not online in the next six months, you’re going to be out of business.'”
Galvin’s gumption resonated with the man, and he agreed to bring the 23-year-old on board.
The partnership was mutually beneficial. “He really started showing me the ropes around which buildings were going to offer the best opportunities to get the highest rents,” said Galvin, who was still working his full-time marketing gig but started helping Bill list apartments on Craigslist in his spare time.
“The first weekend that I really did this, I had put some ads on Craigslist and then put my flip phone away,” recalled Galvin, who happened to be playing golf with clients that weekend. “Part of my job in the corporate gig was to entertain our vendor partners and really try to keep the brands that I was working for at the time top-of-mind. I put my phone away and, 18 holes later, I had 23 voicemails. Of those 23 voicemails, everybody wanted to see the apartments.”
Over the next four weeks, “I leased 50 apartments, which had never really been done before,” he added.
Galvin did both jobs for eight months. He worked seven days a week and logged 100-hour weeks, he estimated: “I don’t even know how many hours I worked back then.” He got to the point where he was making more from renting out apartments than he was from his 9-to-5. That, coupled with the fact that he enjoyed working in the real estate industry more, made the decision to leave corporate America a relatively easy one.
He quit in early 2004 and started leasing apartments full-time with Bill, who went from his mentor to business partner.
“I presented to him essentially how much money I had made and how much money he had made off of me,” recalled Galvin. “I put together some data points to show why I wanted a raise. … And he said, ‘Forget all that. We’re 50-50 partners now.'”
Starting Luxury Living Chicago Realty in 2007
After three years of working alongside Bill, Galvin decided to start his own real estate brokerage firm and focus on the high-end rental market.
“The idea of providing a higher-level service experience for those seeking luxury apartments didn’t exist in the rental space at all at that time,” he said.
While leaving corporate America was a fairly straight-forward decision for him, starting a business felt riskier, as the stakes were much higher. “That was the scary moment,” said Galvin, who was in his late 20s at the time. “When you go off on your own, you don’t know where that next dollar is going to come from.”
He wasn’t completely on his own, though. He started Luxury Living Chicago Realty (LLCR) with his wife Amy in 2007. They’d been married for about a year. “We didn’t have kids yet. We had a mortgage but it was relatively small,” said Galvin. “It was the time to do it. We just sensed it.”
Neither of them had an extensive background in real estate — Amy, who started as a part-time employee, had a career in corporate PR — but they both understood how to build a brand, and that proved critical to their success.
“There’s no question that the marketing and PR background, and the understanding of brand is what helped us propel this company forward very quickly without a ton of real estate experience,” said Galvin.
He spent the first month getting the proper licensing to run a brokerage, meaning the business didn’t make any money during that time. But after those first several weeks, it was off to the races.
However, looming in the background was economic instability at the national level, as the Great
started to take shape in late 2007, right as Galvin was launching his firm. But it seemed that demand only increased as the economy started to falter, Galvin recalled.
A lot of condo buildings converted into apartment buildings at the time, he explained: “People had bought condos in the mid 2000s, thinking they were going to buy and flip them, which is what was happening before the Great Recession. But they ended up stuck with those condos because the value dropped, so they became what we call accidental landlords.”
These “accidental landlords” needed leasing services, “and we were ready for that,” said Galvin.
The company continued to grow steadily over the next six years. By 2013, “our phone was ringing off the hook with people wanting apartments and condos,” he said. “We had so much demand because we had built up this brand equity. We had been ahead of the curve as it related to the
, which started with Craigslist but very quickly evolved into SEO and the early stages of social media.”
Galvin focused on building out the strongest team possible. He hired the most experienced and successful brokers he could find. Another strategy that set his company apart was data collection.
“We thought, let’s not only rent some apartments and make money — let’s track the data. Let’s understand where renters are coming from and what’s important to them in their apartment search. Then, let’s create the best possible product that we can for them. That really worked and, in 2013, we had our best year ever up to that point.”
That year, the team grew from three employees to six. And, “from a volume standpoint, we doubled the number of transactions,” said Galvin.
Shifting his strategy and solving a key industry problem
Galvin didn’t rest on his laurels after a strong 2013. Rather, he decided to try something new.
Over the years, he’d observed a major problem in the real estate industry: apartment leasing and property management were typically linked together as one service.
“You hire a property management company, whose core responsibility is to manage day-to-day operations, tenant requests, reporting, and things of that nature,” explained Galvin. “But they’re also tasked with marketing and leasing, which is a completely different discipline.”
What’s more, “the property management company doesn’t make any money leasing the apartments,” he added. “They only make money managing the apartments, so that leasing service, which is so important and such a key driver to the revenue for an apartment building, was an add-on. It was a throw-in to what you were paying somebody to manage the property.”
Galvin had first-hand experience with this problem between 2008 and 2010, when he was personally still leasing apartments in the early stages of his company. “Property managers would have piles of manila folders on their desks, and in those folders were the names of the people that I had brought to them to rent an apartment,” he recalled. “I would ask them, ‘Where is this person at in their lease?’ And their response was always, ‘Oh, I didn’t have time to get back to them. They don’t have a lease yet. They’re not moving in for a couple of months.'”
There were too many instances in which Galvin provided qualified tenants who walked away because management couldn’t close the deal. “It frustrated me,” he said. “It angered me. It was not the right way.”
Galvin’s idea was to bifurcate leasing and property management — meaning, there should be a property management company to run day-to-day operations and a separate business to actually market and lease the apartments. LLCR would act as that separate marketing and leasing company.
“That concept really resonated with developers and owner-operators who had recognized, like I had, that their property management teams were overworked, understaffed, and undertrained,” said Galvin. “They do a very, very important job, but it wasn’t fair to ask them to do everything.”
As for the additional cost of hiring a company to do the leasing, it would be offset by the fact that Galvin’s company could fill apartments faster, with the most qualified tenants, and at higher rents.
He landed his first exclusive leasing contract in 2013. Over lunch with a developer, Galvin presented a four-page, Microsoft Word document outlining how he would lease 60 units in 60 days. “He gave us a shot,” said Galvin. “And we ended up pre-leasing all 60 units in 60 days. The building stayed full from September of 2013 through 2019, when that developer sold the property.”
That same developer is currently building a 738-unit building in downtown Chicago, and Galvin’s company has been involved in every aspect of pre-development consulting for that property.
“That relationship, which started back in 2013, will be a 10-year relationship next year, and that really speaks to what it takes to make it in real estate,” he noted. “It’s a lot about relationships.”
Co-developing a high-rise in downtown Chicago
Galvin’s real estate brokerage is now 15 years old and employs 70 people. The company sees revenue from a few different sources: It earns a flat rate or a percentage of the rent that it drives from its leasing contracts. Plus, it’s still a traditional brokerage, in that the business represents clients looking to buy or sell real estate in downtown Chicago.
But there is also a 10-year, two-part financial goal for the company, Galvin described: $100 million cumulative revenue and 150% revenue growth between 2017 and 2027. Galvin said they’re on track to hit those numbers by 2027. He also set a workplace culture and retention goal in 2017: to have 50 LLCR employees celebrate five-year anniversaries. Currently, they’re at 13.
LLCR saw most of its growth in 2018. “We went from 20 to 50 people essentially overnight and did four times the volume from the year prior,” said Galvin. But the company has experienced setbacks, too. Right after its big moment in 2018, “we went through a lot of tumult in 2019. We just didn’t have the solid footing that we thought we did. We lost a lot of people, we had to deal with some legal situations, and it felt very messy and very hard at the time.”
A business book called “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky helped him during that time. “It talks about the growth of a company and how you are going to have significant ups and downs,” said Galvin, who reads the book often, including when his company is doing well. “It can sometimes get very messy running a business.”
Galvin, now 42 and a father of two, considers himself “financially secure.” He works less — six days a week instead of seven — and takes about three family vacations a year.
He can’t envision himself retiring anytime soon, he said: “I don’t know that I’ll ever fully retire. I think that I’m always going to be involved in something, but the day-to-day of running a 70 plus person company will have an end date on it. It’s not today. It’s not in the next couple of years. There’s just so much more that I have to give.”
The next big phase of his life and career is co-developing a 21-story, 248-unit apartment tower in Chicago with partners Mavrek Development and GW Properties. It’s a heavy lift, however. To be a developer, you have to have endurance, he said: “The average project, from inception to stabilization, on a 250- to 300-unit building is five years.”
There’s a ton of legwork before a shovel even goes into the ground. And despite what some may believe, developers are not impervious to the ever-changing winds of the economy.
The process involves land acquisition, zoning, underwriting the deal, creating capital, identifying a construction company, and more. “Then, it takes about two years for that project to be built, depending on the size,” he said. “It’s about a year to get it leased up; and then you have another year of stabilization to really be able to bring that building all the way to its full potential, at which point you determine whether you’re going to sell the building or refinance it and hold onto it long-term. The market ultimately dictates that over time, and quite honestly, you have no idea where the market’s going to be five or six years from now.”
There’s inherent risk that comes with development projects, but Galvin feels well-equipped and prepared for the job.
Since his first leasing contract in 2013, his team has executed about 50 exclusive leasing assignments, he said: “Those have ranged in size from 30-unit buildings to 700-unit buildings, and they’ve ranged from the mom-and-pop developer to institutional, multinational developers like Hines.” Those years of experience have positioned him to become a developer himself.
In a way, that means he’ll also be competing with his clients for tenants for the upcoming upscale residences. But he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I believe in an open source world,” said Galvin. “I believe in shared knowledge, and the more that you can share and be open and come from a place of abundance versus scarcity, the better off society is going to be. The developers we work with recognize that. They know that the experience that I’m gaining as a developer is only going to help if I’m leasing the property.”
Plus, “I have a level of respect, humility, and empathy for what other people are doing,” he added. “I’m really just trying to align with them to help solve problems and help find solutions.”
If you focus on doing great work and helping others, chances are, you’ll be successful, said Galvin, who says that he can always link things back to a quote by comedian and late-night television host Conan O’Brien: “He said it on his send off when he left his show: ‘Work hard and be kind, and amazing things will happen.’ And that’s really what I do.”