For Suzanne Hillman, leading a $5 billion company began with mastering the art of drywalling—and a distinctive approach to finding opportunities and realizing potential.
Her parents renovated single-family houses in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. Each of their seven children developed a specialty, and Suzanne gained more than lifelong renovation skills from the experience. “Those properties helped pay for my education,” she said.
A degree in accounting and finance led to co-ownership of a small accounting firm. Over the years, Suzanne helped grow the company’s clientele to include top real estate builders and developers and expand its services into acquisitions and financing deals.
Throughout her career, she applied her family’s approach to business: see value in places that others may overlook, then bring these possibilities to life by investing for the long-term. In the mid-2010s, Suzanne brought this philosophy to Southern Management Companies. To this day, Southern Management still owns the very first property it acquired, and it continues to be one of their top-performing assets.
Real estate, to me, is not a quick ROI. It is a timeline of potential.
Across Maryland, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C. metro area, more than 67,000 people live in a Southern property. The vast majority is workforce housing. “We build for the people who keep America running,” Suzanne says.
Her mission is to turn every multifamily property in her portfolio into “a great place to call home” for its residents. “Our gardens and our grass are pristine. There are flowers. You can tell the difference.”
The physical facilities are not Suzanne’s only focus, though. To build a thriving community at her properties, she also helps her residents unleash their potential. Southern offers services like support with resumes and job applications and partners with area schools and local organizations to create communities where people want to stay. “Communities love having our properties in them,” she says.
The journey has not always been easy. As an executive and business owner who was often the only woman in the room, Suzanne recalls the occasional raised eyebrow throughout her career. But she used such situations as an opportunity to quietly gather useful information—and these listening skills have helped her keep Southern ahead in a constantly changing industry and housing market.
“You really have to pay attention and take care of your properties, your residents, and your team,” she says. “When you keep investing in your portfolio and your people, the growth will naturally follow.”
An unprecedented opportunity for growth arose in 2020, and Suzanne faced one of the biggest decisions of her career: how to refinance $2.4 billion of Southern’s portfolio. Knowing the importance of the right partner, she brought in the three top capital providers in the industry. The final selection was Walker & Dunlop, “a big company with a small-company feel,” in Suzanne’s words.
The transaction refinanced more than 22,000 units across 67 properties. “Now we are set up for the next 20 years—finding more promising properties for our team, homes for our residents, and profits for our investors.”
That’s the beauty of the multifamily real estate industry, she says. “You bring potential to life and touch people's lives forever.”