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Houston multifamily developer's unique journey to achieving the 'American Dream'

March 20, 2019

After more than four decades in the real estate business, apartment developer Martin Fein knows what to expect. Sort of.

“History always repeats itself but it never repeats itself in the same way,” said Fein, president of Houston-based Martin Fein Interests Ltd. “There's always a wrinkle that's different.”

Those wrinkles are what keep Fein still engrossed in the development game, more than 13,000 apartment units later. The real estate developer has seen Houston's economy go from boom to bust in the 80s, watched demand for apartments stretch beyond city limits and back, all while adjusting his plans to meet the current realities on the ground. Now, with his daughter and son serving as vice presidents in the firm, Fein said he doesn't plan to slow down any time soon.

Fein arrived in Houston in 1973 as a transplant from Kentucky. After taking the Texas bar exam, the law school graduate joined his then father-in-law Harold Farb in the apartment business at a time when Houston had a solid economy that Fein assumed was only getting better.

“By the time we got to the late '70s, it was almost a boom town,” Fein recalled to the Houston Business Journal. “Naively, I thought that was normal.”

After the boom

Then the 1980s came and oil prices dropped from about $30 to $10 a barrel almost overnight. Houston lost more than 200,000 jobs in about 18 months and the city's apartments had a tough time staying 80 percent occupied.

“There were just not enough bodies to fill all of the apartments,” he said.

Fein weathered the aftermath of the oil bust with Farb for about five years. In 1989, he decided it was time to branch out on his own. An immigrant and the son of Holocaust survivors, he thought the leap was a natural progression.

“In my case, this was part of the American dream, to work hard and start my own business,” he said. Several other developers also got their start around this time, “the first shoots of green grass after a devastating fire is how I'd describe it,” said Fein.

Despite seeing a lot of bankruptcies in energy and real estate at the time, “it felt to us that Houston was turning a corner. We were young, still young at that point in time that we decided to follow our instincts.”

By the mid-'90s, Martin Fein Interests decided to focus solely on multifamily projects. Today, the company owns seven projects in the Houston area including The Reverie, which broke ground last year and will be the company's most luxurious project to-date. The concrete-and-steel project will have a clubhouse on top of the building with views of downtown Houston and Memorial Park.

Martin Fein Interests' The Reverie, a 304-unit project at Post Oak Park Drive and River Hollow Lane, will be completed in 2020.

The company has five undisclosed projects in the planning stages in Houston, said Rebecca Luks, vice president of development for the company and Fein's daughter. Luks, who joined the company in late 2012, counts The Mark at CityPlace in Springwoods Village as the biggest project she's led for Martin Fein Interests from the start.

The company operates a bit differently than larger developers, said Timm Wooten, executive vice president of Martin Fein Interests. Instead of one person handling site development and another focusing on finance or construction, the same person oversees an entire project through from inception to leasing to sale.

“The business is a cyclical business,” said Wooten. “Sometimes there's a lot of stuff to do, sometimes there's not.”

Timm Wooten, executive vice president of Martin Fein Interests

Wooten has been with the firm since 1996 and knew Fein prior to that, as the two were next-door neighbors. He describes Fein as a total gentleman, insightful and “progressive for a man his age,” one who keeps people on the same page.

“But, he doesn't forget,” Wooten said. “He'll keep his list and if you don't get done what he wants to do, he won't raise his voice. But you will hear about it each and every week because he wants results.”

Fein says he prefers face-to-face meetings and doesn't like to overuse email. He likes to travel, picking up ideas for new apartment amenities along the way.

“People make fun of me in the company,” he said. “They'll say ‘OK he just came back from Nepal. What idea did he find in Nepal?'”

He's a fan of regular meetings but also likes to meet with people one-on-one, to bounce ideas off one another.

“Five days a week is just when the office is open,” Fein said, explaining he thinks about the work far beyond those timings. “I look at it as a passion. It's a part of me, part of my identity as a person. If I think about or have work to do on the weekend, that's fine.”

Growing up, Rebecca Luks and her brother Daniel Fein, who is also vice president of development for the company, found the business to be a part of their identity as well. Luks recalls riding around in the car, looking at construction sites and attending apartment clubhouse openings. Fein remembers visiting the basketball court at one of the apartment complexes, dreaming up amenities to add to the list.

“It was always in the background, part of our life,” Luks said. “Even though I went away and did something else for a long time, this was always something I wanted to do and come back to.”

After a career on Wall Street working at Goldman Sachs, Luks returned to Houston and joined Martin Fein Interests as a vice president of development in 2012. Daniel studied architecture and attended graduate school at Columbia University before joining the company in 2008.

Daniel Fein and Rebecca Luks are both vice presidents of development with their dad's company, Martin Fein Interests.

Leadership blueprint

The outcomes following the 2008 recession were different than what Houston faced following the oil downturn a few years back. While history may not repeat in the same form, the same problem-solving techniques Luks and Fein have learned from their father will come in handy. The ability to stop, take a deep breath and figure out what's next.

“I would say both Rebecca and Daniel have seen development from start to finish, but in their careers they will see many different permutations of the cycles,” said the elder Fein.

This year will be a busy one for the team, both on the business and personal side. Daniel Fein will be occupied overseeing construction for The Reverie and adjusting to life as a new father. His son was born in December. Along with her duties as a VP, Luks wants to find time to incorporate nonprofit work and hopefully some travel.

Martin Fein will watch the market and economy, keeping tabs on Houston as the city densifies. He expects to see more suburban projects come up as well, though Katy has “attracted a tremendous amount of supply.” He's also looking forward to the reopening of the Houston Holocaust Museum, where he was one of the founding chairs and heavily involved in the expansion and construction process.

Fein serves as a commissioner for the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission, a group that provides resources to educate students, to talk about when to take action and not be a bystander. “Those are things near and dear to my heart.”

The photography enthusiast also has some travel in the books. First, an upcoming trip to Mongolia planned with his wife. For Fein, those adventures not only let him explore different corners of the world, they also remind him what people have in common.

“I think it helps make me a better person, a better businessman.”

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Closer Look: Martin J. Fein, president, Martin Fein Interests

Age: 70+

Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky

Education: Bachelor's from Indiana University; J.D. from University of Louisville

First job: “I started helping my father in his dry-goods store at 8 years old, but my first paid jobs were selling LPs for $0.65 an hour and painting/cleaning the interiors of homes my father built. I also had a paper route at one point.”

Tell me about your family: “My parents were Holocaust survivors. Everyone in their families were murdered by the Nazis. I was born in Munich, Germany, after the war. We came to the U.S. in 1949 as immigrants when I was two. I came to Houston in 1973 after I married my first wife and we had three wonderful children. I then married Dr. Kelli Cohen Fein 20 years ago and had two more wonderful children. Our family's dream was to live the American dream and I feel we have done so. We came to this country as two Holocaust survivors and a toddler and today we have almost 20 members of our immediate family sitting around our table at holidays. This is our ultimate victory over Nazism and Fascism.”

Hobbies: Travel, photography, reading

Favorite Houston restaurant: Tony's

What are you reading right now? “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” by Francine Klagsbrun

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Timeline: Martin Fein through the years

1973: Martin Fein moves to Houston from Kentucky and joins then father-in-law Harold Farb in the apartment business.

1982: Oil prices begin to fall, which ultimately led to more than 200,000 jobs lost in Houston.

1989: Fein branches out on his own with Martin Fein Interests; breaks ground on first project, The Inverness, a 204-unit, three-story project at 3133 Buffalo Speedway.

1990: The Inverness, which is a joint venture between Fein and the Morgan Group, is completed. Martin Fein later sells the project in 2006 to Denver-based GF Properties Group LLC.

Mid-'90s: Martin Fein Interests begins developing apartment projects outside of Houston, including in Austin and Denver.

2008: Daniel Fein joins his father's business.

2012: Rebecca Luks joins her father's company.

2015: Martin Fein Interests completes the Willowick in Houston's River Oaks area, its largest development with three product types designed by two different architects around a one-acre park that preserved the site's 40-year-old live oak trees.

2017: Completion of The Mark at CityPlace, the company's first concrete and steel building across the street from the entrance to Exxon Mobil's campus in Springwoods Village.

2018: Martin Fein Interests breaks ground on The Reverie, a luxury apartment project near the first stop of the Uptown Dedicated Bus Lane project. The 304-unit project is at Post Oak Park Drive and River Hollow Lane. Steinberg Dickey Collaborative designed the project and Moore Design Group of Dallas will handle interior design. Eagle Realty Group provided the equity financing and Comerica Bank and Trustmark Bank provided the construction loan.

July 2018: Martin Fein Interests sells The Carlton at 3805 West Alabama LLC et al. The property was completed in 1993.

Late 2018: The company sold another development, The Belmont, at 3000 Bissonnet, to an undisclosed buyer The Belmont was completed in 1991.

Spring 2019: Expected reopening of the $49.4 million expanded Houston Holocaust Museum. Fein was the founding chair of the Holocaust Museum. The project expands the campus from 21,000 square feet to 57,000 square feet in Houston's Museum District.

2020: The Reverie will open sometime in the summer.