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High standards make Hodges Ward Elliott leader of the pack

Some companies are defined by numbers; Hodges Ward Elliott is defined by principles.

That's not to say the Atlanta-based hotel brokerage firm doesn't have some numbers worth noting: Nine brokers working in a single office closed 52 hotel sales or financing transactions in 1995 -- more than any other U.S. hotel brokerage firm -- and is on its way to closing 60 deals in 1996. Last year, the 21 -year-old organization, which only represents sellers, closed 87% of all the hotels it listed and 100% of all deals over $10 million.

But impressive as those figures are, the interesting story about Hodges Ward Elliott isn't really the numbers, it's the people and the high standards they adhere to. In fact, CEO William M. Hodges recalls that "excellence" was imprinted on the letterhead when he and president Jack H. Ward first went into business together in February 1975.

Bill Hodges, who was doing site acquisition for Days Inns, sold some sites to Jack Ward, a former Presbyterian minister who was in real estate with a Days Inns franchisee. When Ward's company decided to sell its hotels, the two formed Hodges Ward Associates.

"We felt there was an opportunity to bring a higher level of professionalism and quality to the industry," Hodges says. "We always have tried to do quality work. Anything we do, we do right. We've always been almost fanatical about maintaining a high degree of integrity."

Senior vice president Al Calhoun says these ethics were the reason he chose to join the firm five years ago.

"Ethics are critical," Calhoun says. "When you're handling a $40 million purchase, ethics have to be beyond reproach. That's why people stand in line to work here."

The firm has attracted some of the industry's best and brightest, including managing director Mark W. Elliott, who closed the sale of 17 hotels in 1995 and secured financing for 12 more for a total transaction volume of $191 million.

In the early-'80s, Elliott had decided he would try commercial real estate for one year, then choose a specialty. He zeroed in on the hotel industry and "since Hodges Ward was the best in the city," Elliott recalls, "I begged Jack to hire me."

As executive vice president Robert J. Webster says, "Mark Elliott had never sold a hotel, but Jack and Bill saw in him the ability to sell. Now he's sold more hotels than anyone else in the country."

Elliott joined the firm in 1983 and bought one-third of the company nine years later in 1992, at which time the name became Hodges Ward Elliott.

Currently, HWE is adding about one new broker a year and has virtually no turnover. "We're becoming very heavily staffed, with one support person per agent," Ward says, adding that the dramatic ratio "underscores the complexity of the work we do and how much help we need."

"One thing I'm proudest of is the level of leadership in the young guys coming in," Ward says. "I'm only half joking to say I learn more from them than they learn from me. Each has a new set of talents."

As HWE executives are wont to say, "Outside, Hodges Ward Elliott looks like a law firm, but inside it has warmth, too."

While Webster, who joined the firm eight years ago from Ritz-Carlton, stresses that all members of HWE are very good salesmen, he says that the organization does not so much have a "corporate culture" as a "family culture."

"These are highly focused people with high integrity," Webster says, "and that integrity comes from the top down. They're great family people."

Members of the firm tell stories about each other like old friends. They laugh about jokes they've played on each other, talk with pride about their children and speak compassionately about another broker's sick family member. And unanimously admired is Jack Ward, whom others describe as a mentor, a second father and a friend.

"When you're with Jack," Webster says, "you feel like you're with your father."

Ward returns the compliment, saying: "It's almost unfair that I have this much fun. This is a second family. l enjoy the relationships; I can't think where you'd find a more loyal group of people."

Just so you don't think this bunch of brokers is too good to be true, they're also a competitive group of independent contractors.

"Everybody is very entrepreneurial," notes vice president Mark G. Fair, who came to HWE a year-and-a-half ago from Westinghouse Credit. "You can satisfy that need with the firm supporting you. Social interaction is a big part of this company, but it's very, very competitive."

Calhoun points out this rivalry is a friendly one, as evidenced by the fact that none of the doors in the office have locks. "The culture is not 'every man for himself,'" insists senior vice president Dana Michael Ciraldo, who left Hospitality Valuation Services to join HWE in 1995.

"There's incredible competition among ourselves," Hodges acknowledges, "but we're able to do that seeking the best interest of our fellow associates."

One way HWE has maintained this "esprit de corps" is by making the conscious decision to have all brokers work out of a single office, instead of out of many locations around the country. "Often, separate offices make separate companies," Ciraldo warns.

But at HWE "we're all here," Calhoun points out. "The expertise is not unlike an emergency room. It's the true definition of synergy."

"The way to maximize everybody's growth is to do it together," Ward says.

Although all HWE brokers are based out of Atlanta, it's a truly national company, Elliott says, pointing out that so far this year the firm has closed eight hotels on the West Coast.

Part of HWE's success can be attributed to remaining focused on obtaining the highest price in the shortest time with the least disruption, Ciraldo says.

"The industry views us as a very reliable service provider in selling hotels," Hodges says. "And the purchasing side of the industry sees us as a reliable, quality source for deal flow."

The firm declines to work for buyers, though it's not uncommon for an owner who bought a hotel from HWE to come back to the firm when they're in a selling mode, and it is selective in the listings it will take. "We try to avoid overpriced listings," Hodges says.

"Our philosophy is that the ultimate sales price of a hotel is more directly related to the demand created for the hotel than the intrinsic value of the hotel," Elliott says. HWE brokers say their job is to determine the greatest realistic potential for a property and then "sell the story." "Recognizing pitfalls at the outset" is one of the firm's traits, Elliott adds.

"There's a tremendous need for our services," says Webster. "Some people will save several hundred thousand dollars to lose a million. We hope to show owners what the true need and value is in using a broker."

"We have a tremendously refined skill set at evaluating, explaining, selling and marketing," Hodges says.

The firm seems to take particular pleasure in handling complex transactions. "I personally get tremendous satisfaction in taking complicated and difficult situations and trying to come up with the best solution and best plan to complete the task at hand." Hodges says. "We love to dig in and look out for a client's best interest."

Apparently larger transactions are ahead for HWE, too. Ciraldo mentions a recently landed listing of a $500 million, four-hotel portfolio that includes the partial sale of a hotel company, as well.

The firm did expand its services and began arranging financing during the credit crunch of the early-'90s. "With our high deal flow," Elliott says, "it makes sense to source capital to create value." Investment banking is one of the areas HWE is targeting for future growth.

While HWE will help clients formulate a business plan, the firm doesn't consult for a fee but as a means to an end. And they will never become involved in hotel management or development, or stray from the hotel industry.

"It's not about getting wider," Calhoun says, "it's about getting better and better and better."

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