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Houston Travel Guide

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© Larry White / DNA Seattle

Camden Property Trust’s chief executive, Richard Campo, gives a tour of the not-so-typical Texas town of Houston.

 

Richard Campo doesn’t own a cowboy hat or live on a ranch. And he doesn’t speak with a Texas drawl. In other words, he’s a regular Houstonian.

“I think people are really surprised when they come to Houston because it’s a growing, urban, cultured city,” says Campo, whose ready laugh reflects the friendliness of the town he’s called home for more than 30 years.

Campo, 57, landed in Houston after college and built Camden Property Trust into one of the largest multifamily real estate investment trusts in the country, with assets valued at $7 billion. Along the way, he turned Camden into one of the country’s best companies to work for. It ranks seventh in Fortune Magazine’s 2012 list of top U.S. employers.

Campo clearly likes to have fun. At annual company meetings, he’s performed skits for employees dressed as Indiana Jones and even Dolly Parton. When in the field, Campo remains low-key, wearing a company shirt that he says makes him look like an air-conditioning mechanic.

His approachability has worn off on employees, who uniformly call him Ric and follow his friendly lead. It’s not unusual for a leasing manager at one of Camden’s properties to fill a prescription for a resident, or for employees to help each other by cooking meals for a colleague when their spouse has lost a job.

Campo credits much of Camden’s familial environment to the city’s openness and diversity—not exactly the first qualities that come to mind when thinking about Houston. Many still view the city as a stereotypical Texas town, complete with cowboy boots, arid weather and, of course, oil. Those outside of Texas often can’t guess that Houston is the fourth largest city in the nation, naming Boston or San Francisco instead.

Houston, though, exists in contrast to convention and, as it continues to grow, remains difficult to stereotype.

Founded on the banks of the Buffalo Bayou in the early 1800s, Houston is lush and semitropical (i.e., blazing hot and humid) and defies the bone-dry landscapes that typify Texas terrain. Houston’s history is inextricably linked to the oil industry, and it’s still the energy capital. But its economy has grown beyond oil, with healthcare, aerospace and high-tech industries luring job seekers. The Texas Medical Center is a city unto itself, employing more than 93,000 people and drawing patients from around the world for cutting-edge treatments. And while other cities such as San Francisco visibly wear their progressive mantles, Houston is the largest city in the country to elect an openly gay mayor.

It is progressive in other ways too. Lacking a racial majority, the city is a plurality of ethnicities, cultures and languages.

“We’re 50 years ahead of the rest of the country in terms of diversity,” says Campo, who attributes the city’s melting pot to its inherent openness. “Houston is very welcoming.”

The city, though, doesn’t readily reveal itself to visitors. Some of the coolest neighborhoods, restaurants and shops lie hidden beyond Houston’s maze of malls and freeways. One of Campo’s favorite restaurants, Arturo Boada Cuisine, is buried in a strip mall.

Houston’s lack of zoning has helped turn it into a seemingly never-ending sea of suburbia. Because of its sprawl, some joke that Dallas is just another suburb of Houston. The city’s snarled traffic and pollution rank among the highest in the nation.

Campo, though, is quick to defend his hometown. He points out that New York and Washington, D.C., are hot and humid, too. But unlike those cities, Houston’s weather is sublime in the winter. He also notes that Houston has as much culture as any other metropolis. Primed by oil industry benefactors, the city’s theater district houses the fourth largest ballet company in the country, along with several theaters and the symphony. What’s more, people in Houston eat out more than residents of any other U.S. city, creating an eclectic restaurant scene. Asked if Houston has an inferiority complex because of its relative metropolitan anonymity, Campo demurs.

“I think people in Houston love Houston,” he says flatly.

The city’s hindrances have flip sides. The lack of zoning has birthed inventiveness. Where else but in Houston could a house made up of 50,000 beer cans be deemed a city landmark?

More important, Houston’s freewheeling nature is reflected in its economy, which has been more resilient than most. When the federal government shut down the space shuttle program, some feared job losses at Space Center Houston would cripple the city. But many of the aerospace industry’s engineers and software programmers crossed over into the oil business. Meanwhile, despite the national downturn, Houston continues to create jobs at a quicker pace than other cities.

A less tangible element of Houston’s growth is its prevailing can-do attitude.

“People in Houston don’t give a lot of credence to bloodlines,” says Campo; they care more about whether you can get the job done.

That’s proven to be true for Campo. After a failed start helping his dad open a Houston restaurant, in the mid-1970s, he turned to real estate, founding Camden’s predecessor in the early 1980s. The company has grown to oversee and develop nearly 200 apartment buildings with 70,000 units.

Like other businesses, Camden faltered during the Great Recession. At the worst of the downturn three years ago, Campo got on a company-wide conference call to tell employees he needed to eliminate 100 jobs and cut expenses. Employees tightened their belts, reducing their pay and cutting costs to save $6 million in expenses. Campo and other executives slashed their incentive-based pay by as much as 70 percent.

Buckling down paid off. Camden rebounded from a loss of nearly $51 million in 2009 to a net income of $49 million last year on revenues of $656 million. With lower homeownership rates and demographic trends shifting favorably into rental properties, Camden’s business continues to accelerate.

Campo acknowledges, though, that the apartment industry is inherently cyclical. Being headquartered in Houston has helped him understand economic whims better than most. During the oil boom and bust of the 1980s, Houston’s economy was leveled.

“It showed me that prices can’t always grow to the sky,” he says. It also taught him to diversify, which is why Camden has only 8 percent of its property investments in Houston.

Nonetheless, Campo is very much part of the city. He chairs Houston First Corp., an organization that oversees management of downtown’s convention center area. And he stays close to the city’s action, living in a condominium not far from the shining glass towers of downtown. From the 29th floor of his condo, Campo has a clear view of the city’s evolution. More than once, he’s watched in awe as a thunderstorm rode into Houston and fell away.

“Every day, Houston feels like a new city,” he says. “It feels like the Wild West.”

Richard Campo’s Address Book

Play

Unlike other cities with attractions that fit into obvious itineraries, Houston takes patience to discover. But there’s plenty to do. Just eight years ago, city leaders mobilized to create the 12-acre Discovery Green park in downtown. Campo says the park, which hosts more than 400 events a year ranging from “slow flow” yoga to flea markets and concerts, has become a destination for residents.

Space Center Houston ranks as a top attraction for business executives who might be traveling with their families. The center houses the world’s largest collection of astronaut flight suits and a five-story-high theater screen that immerses viewers in space exploration.

Along with the ballet, symphony and theater, Houston has a quirky art scene. The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art showcases folk art made from found objects. Its annual car parade features vehicles bedecked with everything from seashells to globes.

Another surprise is that Houston is full of foodies. The city recently ranked on a LivingSocial survey as one of the best in the country for dining. Campo says Houston’s diversity carries over into its cuisine as chefs mix in flavors from their ethnic origins.

And, of course, no recommendation from a top CEO would be complete without mentioning golf. Campo likes to play the wooded course of Redstone Golf Club, where the PGA Tour’s Shell Houston Open is played.

Eat

Arturo Boada Cuisine
6510 Del Monte Dr.; 713-782-3011
Italian food with a twist.

Reef
2600 Travis St.; 713-526-8282
Bryan Caswell, one of the country’s top chefs, creates endlessly inventive seafood dishes.

El Real Tex-Mex Café
1201 Westheimer Rd.; 713-524-1201
Serves up traditional skirt steak fajitas as well as bacon-wrapped shrimp.

Stay

Hilton Americas
1600 Lamar St.; 713-739-8000
A Triple-A, Four Diamond hotel connected to Houston’s Convention Center.

The Houstonian
111 North Post Oak Lane; 713-680-2626
The hotel’s floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto wooded vistas. The concierge can book tee times at nearby Redstone Golf Club.

Hotel ZaZa
5701 Main St.; 713-526-1991
A trendy boutique hotel known for its friendliness and convenience to downtown.

Travel Tip

Campo is a 100,000-mile-per-year traveler who’s gotten his packing routine down to 15 minutes. His best advice: Keep duplicates of what you always travel with—toiletries, cell phone chargers, etc.—in your suitcase. “I leave a lot in the bag,” he says. As a result, he’s always ready to go.

Kelly Barron is a Money Makeover columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Her work has also appeared in SmartMoney, Entrepreneur and Fortune Small Business.


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