COCM has consistently ranked as the top third-party management company of on-campus properties in Student Housing Business’ annual ranking of the Top Managers in the industry. The Birmingham, Alabama-based company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and some internal changes as well. Doug Brown, who has been president of the company since its inception, is retiring at the end of 2023, and Will Davenport, chief operating officer, will assume the president role.
COCM was launched in the early days of public-private partnership (P3) development on-campus. The model then was that management of properties in a P3 should be done by a party outside the institution, says Brown.
COCM was started as Capstone On-Campus Management, one of four companies launched under the Capstone Companies umbrella. From 2003 to 2011, Capstone On-Campus Management ran the properties that were developed by Capstone Development Corporation. In 2011, Capstone’s owner, Mike Mouron, retired and leadership of the company was handed over to long-term employees.
“My background before joining COCM was in university administration for 20 years, so I was brought in to create an on-campus management platform for Capstone’s on-campus development division,” Brown says. “We discovered very quickly that a lot of the skill sets used to manage off-campus properties were quite different than managing P3s on-campus. We began to develop an organization built by people who grew up in the on-campus student housing space and who understood the nature of developing relationships on-campus to make these projects work.”
The need for a strong third-party on-campus manager was there from the start, says Brown. When he joined, COCM only had a few contracts at first, but grew rapidly as it built its business by taking over troubled P3 projects and adding new P3 projects built by Capstone Development. The company’s growth has been impressive. Today, it manages 31,471 beds on 37 different campuses across the country [see sidebar for examples]. On 12 of those campuses, COCM manages all on-campus housing.
“Beginning in 2011, we started working with other developers and became very active in taking over properties when there was a need to replace a manager,” says Davenport. “While we were built upon the shoulders of Capstone Development, we experienced significant growth once we became independent in 2011 and could broaden the market that we served. We’ve taken over more than 14,000 beds from other management groups, including universities. Today we are the only independent third-party on-campus manager in the market.”
Many universities like the fact that COCM does not own or develop properties.
“They like that we are not developing, owning and operating and otherwise distracted by interests beyond their own in serving that university market,” says Davenport. “We are a fiduciary to the owner without any competitive interests.”
While COCM is brought in on many new developments, it also continues to actively take over P3 projects that are under-performing. “Typically, the deepest issue with the projects we take over is that there is not a healthy relationship between the manager and the university,” says Davenport. “Another issue we often see is the projects are not performing according to proformas and thus the bondholders enter the discussion. We are often brought in then because we have managed so many properties for bondholders that they see us as an entity that can have an impact immediately on operations.”
Because COCM has been active for 20 years, it has tenure on a lot of campuses; and because turnover is high in on-campus housing, in many cases the company’s community managers have been on-campus longer than those in the on-campus housing department. Often, in meetings, COCM employees will have more institutional memory than university employees. At some universities, COCM is brought in to hold orientations for new university staff to explain the P3 structure, who is involved and how it operates.
In addition to its operations business, COCM has a consultancy program called Fresh Eyes. The program looks at university housing programs in terms of performance and structure, making recommendations for improvements and cost savings. One important aspect of the program is educating the various university stakeholders about their role in the success of a campus housing program — even though they may not work directly with housing. COCM started this program with universities where it was currently managing properties.
“It’s a service that really helps every party involved in managing on-campus operations function better,” says Brown. “Our initial priority was to provide that service to universities we were working with at a limited cost, but the program has grown with other universities where we were not managing calling us and asking us to do the same for them. This has been beneficial for us as well, as we get to see how a variety of campuses operate. The program also gives our employees the experience of putting their expertise to use by doing consulting work.”
With the Fresh Eyes program, consultants spend about a week on-campus, meeting with university administrators and student groups. At the end of the process, the team meets with the university stakeholders to deliver the findings, which include actionable items that will have a positive impact on the housing system.
“They have a roadmap to create change within their organization by committing to a one-week process,” says Davenport.
In addition to Fresh Eyes, COCM is now taking on some longer consulting assignments that may last a year or more where universities need to redefine their housing programs or improve their leasing or marketing process.
“The asks from higher education are becoming more intricate,” says Davenport. “We want to be able to serve them in whatever capacity we can down the road.”
With Brown’s retirement this December — one-year after the retirement of longtime COCM Executive Vice President Sandy Hill in December 2022 — it’s time for a transition to take place at the company.
“Forty years is long enough to be on-call,” says Brown. “Sandy was the second person we hired, and with my retirement and hers, there has been a thoughtfully worked through structure so that other people can pick up the work and go forward. Our turnover is low, and our experience is so deep, I don’t think there will be any notice of a change whatsoever.”
COCM has already begun communicating the changes at the company, and says it has been received very well. Davenport started with Capstone Development in 1997, working in finance. He moved over to COCM in 2011 to serve as its chief operating officer.
“The past 20 years have been a great foundation for us to build on as we move forward as an organization,” says Davenport. “Our staff is excited about the road ahead.”
This article was originally published in the July/August issue of Student Housing Business magazine.