The CEO of CA South, which develops office, industrial and residential properties in the Nashville area, discusses her vision of leadership in commercial real estate.
Development: What attracted you to a career in real estate?
Meg Epstein: I originally started building high-end homes for celebrities in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Napa and the Bay Area. I entered the industry through working for a homebuilder, which is not the usual path for a woman or developer. I worked on the construction side of the business for many years, learning how to manage various trades on the jobsite. I’m a licensed commercial contractor, which is surprising to people. They often assume that I must have been a real estate agent or interior designer to start with. I’m passionate about design and architecture, and I feel strongly that people should live in spaces that inspire them and facilitate an efficient and minimalist lifestyle.
Development: When and how did you start CA South?
Epstein: I started CA South in its present form in 2016 because I wanted to build condominiums in Nashville. I saw that condos weren’t being supplied to new incoming urbanites who were moving from California, New York or Illinois. These people wanted the urban walkable lifestyle experience and weren’t getting it. So, I decided I would fill an important gap. Prior to that, I built several high-end homes here, similar to what I had done in California, but the high-end home market in Nashville was nothing like California and didn’t have the margins I was looking for. I moved to commercial real estate and have never looked back. Building large-scale condo and multifamily buildings and even industrial projects is far easier from a construction standpoint than what I was doing prior.
We are currently doing over $1 billion worth of projects, so we are a fully institutional middle-market developer.
Development: How did you — a relative newcomer to the commercial real estate business and to Nashville — put the financing together for your first deal?
Epstein: I literally cold-called a list of private equity investors that I purchased from Richard Wilson’s Family Office Club, an association of more than 2,000 wealthy families and their family offices. I pitched my first condo deal at least 100 times before I found the right person. I convinced him and his fund to back the project by promising them a 30% preferred return, so long as the developer (us) got to keep 100% of the upside. He loved it because it was a lower-risk deal for them. I loved it because we hit a 70%-plus internal rate of return and got paid as much as the investors did. It was a home run deal! The money we made here was reinvested into hiring and growing our company, and the rest is history. This investment group has done three additional projects with us since.
Development: Tell us about your favorite project that you have developed to date?
Epstein: My favorite project is Eve. The Nashville waterfront is an underutilized amenity for the city. Building Eve, which was the first condo project on the river in decades, set a standard for design that I’m proud of, and I showed everyone that riverfront real estate can indeed command a premium.
Development: What do you attribute your strong growth and success to?
Epstein: Hard work, persistence, ambition, and more hard work and persistence.
Development: You obviously have strong leadership skills to have achieved your level of success. What does leadership mean to you?
Epstein: Leadership means setting a very strong vision for the company, hiring the best people you possibly can, and being uncompromising with your goals and demands for excellence.
Development: What is your primary role as CEO of CA South today?
Epstein: I prefer to spend my time sourcing new projects, raising capital and working with organizations like Nashville Civic Design Center.
Development: Speaking of hiring, what qualities do you look for when hiring senior leadership?
Epstein: Intelligence, hard work, a good attitude and tenacity. If you have these things, you can be successful at anything, including working for me.
Development: How do you resolve internal conflict or mistakes at the company?
Epstein: Hire people who are willing to take responsibly for their mistakes. When problems come up, solve them and move on. However, if someone is a repeat offender, let them go.
Development: What are your greatest challenges in the years ahead?
Epstein: Land prices and construction costs are escalating very quickly. Marginal projects won’t be getting built soon. Inflation concerns me, but we expect Nashville to continue to be the darling market for investors.
Development: What has been your greatest challenge as a woman in the commercial real estate business?
Epstein: Being a woman in this business has been a positive experience for me. Sometimes people underestimate me because I don’t have a traditional finance or legal background, but that can work to my advantage. I’d say that this industry is wide open to women who are persistent, assertive and work hard.
Development: What is the best advice you have been given over the course of your career in real estate?
Epstein: Pay attention to the data. You need to dig deep and look at trends. Just because a market or neighborhood isn’t proven, doesn’t mean people won’t want to live or work there. You must be on the cutting edge to make superstar returns for your investors. We’ve done that by always being a step ahead of the market. That comes with deep local insight into Nashville and the surrounding areas that we’ve been focused on for seven years before any of our competitors even came to town.
Development: What crucial lessons have you learned during your time in the business?
Epstein: Never give up on a project, even when things seem hopeless. There’s always a way out if you work hard enough and are determined enough to solve problems. I’ve also learned that being first into a new area is a major advantage. It allows you to visualize the potential of an underdeveloped area and play a role in its transformation.
Development: How do you like to relax during your off hours?
Epstein: Spa days, reading and cooking. I love being a wife and spending time with my husband Stephen. We like to sail and travel.