Biz New Orleans CEOs of the Year, Matt Schwartz and Chris Papamichael are transforming New Orleans one project at a time.
How do you choose the top CEO in Southeast Louisiana? Years ago it would have been an easier job — likely someone in the oil-and-gas industry. But today, with the post-Katrina diversification, there is no shortage of business leaders paving new pathways in an effort to strengthen the region and the economy.
That being said, as the editorial team sat down to brainstorm names for our first-ever award, it turned out to be an easier task than we had anticipated. Matt Schwartz and Chris Papamichael were the natural standouts for all of us — the first names on everyone’s list.
Not only do they embody the city’s youthful entrepreneurial spirit (Schwartz is 39 and Papamichael is 42), they do so mixed with a good dose of altruism that together is transforming the region. Of course their high-profile project, the South Market District, has become a beacon of success, managing to stand out among the crowd at a time when New Orleans is experiencing a boom in urban development not seen in more than a decade.
Really there are five reasons we felt Schwartz and Papamichael deserved this honor: they have a strong connection and love of New Orleans; they are changing the landscape of the city; they have portrayed that New Orleans “never say die” tenacity in their desire to fill a need; they are committed to giving back; and they are focused on the future of the city and the region.
Strong NOLA connection
While they both may hail from the same town of Syosset, New York (32 miles east of Midtown Manhattan), Schwartz and Papamichael actually didn’t meet until they became Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers at Tulane University.
“He was a senior, I think, when I was a freshman, and we just hit it off,” Schwartz says. “Before there was any talk of business at all we had established a close friendship.”
“We have similar personalities, similar senses of humor,” Papamichael adds. “But I’d say our personalities are more complementary than the same. I tend to take a more laid-back approach and he tends to be more hard-charging.”
While Papamichael grew up around real estate — his father was an investor — Schwartz says his interest in the business only came after taking a class with Rodolfo J. “Rudi” Aguilar, a professor of practice in the finance department at Tulane.
“I was looking for something entrepreneurial, and I liked the idea of creating something, so real estate seemed like a good fit,” Schwartz says. “Rudi was great — in fact, I still have a friendship with him.”
In addition to finding his future occupation, Schwartz also met his wife, Christa, while at Tulane’s A. B. Freeman School of Business. Also from the East Coast (Pennsylvania), Christa is the founder of Studio Interior Design, which has offices in both Manhattan and New Orleans.
The first to graduate, Papamichael returned home to New York and got a job with W&M Properties (now Empire State Realty Trust). Schwartz later followed and the friendship continued.
“I helped Matt secure his first job after graduation with Related Capital,” Papamichael says. “We actually lived in the same building.”
While working for others, Papamichael says the two friends always knew that someday they would branch out on their own. “We wanted to create our own brand, make our own mark, and we both had this strong desire to focus more on community development.”
“I had built up experience with developing public/private partnerships, and Chris was working with large-scale community assets,” Schwartz says. “Together we wanted to work on mixed-income/mixed-use projects.”
In 2004, the two made the leap, forming the Domain Companies. “We played around with a lot of different names,” Papamichael says. “In the end we decided that with a primary focus on multifamily, we were building what would be our customer’s residence, or domain. It just stuck.”
Within a year of launching, the duo decided to add to their team, bringing in Aaron Amitin as executive vice president of the Domain Companies and president of Domain Management.
“I financed the first couple of deals for the company — Overlook at West Hill in Ithaca and Spring Creek Gardens in Brooklyn,” Amitin says. “Both Matt and I had worked at Related Capital together. I then left Related and joined Domain.”
Amitin says he was drawn to Domain because it “was going beyond the bounds of development to really enhancing the community and giving back. Who we were at the outset is still who we are today.”
Amitin runs the management arm of the company — no small task. “We operate almost every asset we own,” he says. “At first we had third parties managing, but we wanted to create such a strong sense of culture and identity in our products — we had this clear objective to achieve. In order to do that, we realized we had to take control.”
Changing the landscape
While Schwartz and Papamichael continued their work in New York, Schwartz says New Orleans was never far from their mind.
“We would come back down any chance we got,” he says. “Christa and I actually got married the April before Katrina hit.”
Just before Katrina, Schwartz and Papamichael had been looking at a project in New Orleans. While the storm changed everything, it did nothing to dampen the two men’s interest in the city. Instead, it energized them.
“We came down on the first commercially available flight about a month or so after Katrina,” Papamichael says. “We wanted to be part of the rebuilding effort.”
The two had set their sites on the Tulane corridor, but the road was not going to be easy.
“When we first came in we were working with the recovery programs,” Schwartz says. “From the end of 2005, through 2006 and most of 2007 we were largely in Baton Rouge working to develop those programs. Once that was done, we used them to help finance our development.”
Being the first mixed-use developer on the scene post-Katrina was not easy. While Schwartz and Papamichael were far from the only ones drawn to the city’s possibilities, they were one of the few that ended up staying.
“To be successful in this business you can’t give up easily,” Schwartz says. “In this case, post-Katrina, this was more challenging than most, but we were just so passionate about what we were trying to do that we decided we weren’t going to give up, not under any circumstances.”
Both men realized that in order to make a real difference, they had to think big.
“We were able to pick up large parcels of land through economies of scale, which enabled us to really change the neighborhood,” Papamichael says. “All in all, it was close to 800 apartments [for the Tulane corridor revitalization, which includes the Crescent Club, Preserve, Gold Seal Lofts and Meridian]. We started construction in 2007 and completed in 2009.”
About the time construction began on Tulane, Domain rounded out its executive team with the hiring of Vinny Keeler, executive vice president and chief financial officer. Keeler was serving as CFO of Metro Loft Management, which specializes in the conversion of historic Downtown New York City structures into mixed use. Prior to that, he had eight years of public accounting experience focusing on complex development incentive programs.
“My buddy Tony came to me one day and said, ‘You’ve got to meet these guys, they’re just like us,’” Keeler says. “They were sharp, hungry and eager. When Matt laid out the business plan to me, it was all about being a stakeholder in communities. It was what you hope to do, really, once you reach the level of success we’d all achieved.”
Keeler says Schwartz and Papamichael lead by providing guidance, then “they rely on us to put the actions forth.”
“There’s a lot of collaboration,” says Amitin. “We really work as a team to develop strategy and guide the direction of the company.”
Although the executive team is split — with Schwartz and Papamichael based in New Orleans and Amitin and Keeler based in New York City, they manage to keep in close contact.
“We talk on a daily basis,” Amitin says. “We have telecom or video conference meetings on a weekly basis, and we’ll fly down to New Orleans and they’ll fly up here at least once a month. Every year we also do a strategic planning meeting offsite. This year it was four days in Seattle.”
Buoyed by the success of the Tulane corridor, the now complete executive team turned to the needs of a city now in recovery.
“We saw the city shifting from primarily energy- and tourism-based to a much more diverse economy.” Schwartz says. “With that shift came the entrance of a knowledge-based workforce that created a demand for downtown housing with high-quality amenities that was in short supply.”
Within 18 months, Papamichael says the company had acquired 5 acres of land for what was to become the $450 million South Market District.
“It involved negotiating purchase deals with more than 25 landowners, but it gave us the ability to create 200,0000 square feet of retail and a neighborhood of 1,000 luxury apartments and condominiums.”
As of mid-December, Domain has completed five of the seven planned buildings, 75,000 square feet of retail and 334 apartments in what is the first mixed-use, transit-oriented development in Downtown New Orleans.
The latest addition to South Market is The Standard, a 15-story condominium development that Schwartz promises will be “the finest residential building in New Orleans.”
“We saw a need through our luxury rental properties for a luxury for-sale condo product,” Papamichael says. “This is going to be the highest level of luxury you will find in the market.”
True to Domain’s tendency to “go big,” The Standard will feature a lobby that doubles as an art gallery, nearly 30,000 square feet of outdoor amenities — including a pool with private cabanas and a pet play area — a library and clubhouse featuring a full chef’s kitchen and a full-time concierge. All of this will sit atop 24,000 square feet of retail space geared toward art galleries and boutiques.
The 89 one-to-three-bedroom residences start at $575,000 for a one-bedroom and boast floor-to-ceiling windows, solid white-oak flooring and nothing but top-of-the-line finishes and features. Sales have already begun and the first move-ins are anticipated in the spring of 2018.
This past year Domain also opened the $76 million Ace Hotel, completed in March 2016. Taking advantage of both state and federal historic tax credits, the Art Deco boutique hotel was created by marrying two historic building with a brand new structure. In addition to 234 rooms, it features 15,000 square feet of retail, plus restaurant, entertainment and meeting space.
From Domain’s inception, Schwartz and Papamichael’s vision of creating communities, not just developments, has meant a focus that goes far beyond the bottom line.
“We have always aligned our primary business with the interests of the community,” Schwartz says. “This means that when we look at our footprint, we’re looking at more than what we can do financially.”
Schwartz says the company’s My Community Program is “now a part of anything we do.” The program encompasses both a resident and employee component.
“For every property, the staff chooses three organizations that they feel are having an impact on their community,” he says. “Each time a tenant signs or renews a lease, that tenant can choose where we will donate $25.” Each property has its own resident service director, and the company just hired a community engagement manager. Employees are permitted, and even encouraged, to use work time to volunteer with any organization they like.
And that work is outside of what the company does together.
“Our conference room is actually filled right now because we’re working on creating cards for kids in the hospital as we speak,” says Keeler from Domain’s New York offices.
“Tonight we’re working with the Ronald McDonald house,” Schwartz says of the New Orleans branch. “We support them financially but tonight some of our employees and residents are coming together to cook a holiday dinner for those in need.”
Schwartz and Papamichael personally walk the walk when it comes to giving their time. Among their many projects, Schwartz serves as chairman of the board of Liberty’s Kitchen, while Papamichael serves on the board of the Louisiana Children’s Museum.
“When we look at partnering with an organization, we’re always looking beyond just making a financial contribution,” Schwartz says. “We want something that can align with our unique capabilities. For instance, we were able to help rebuild Comiskey Park in Mid-City. It was a perfect fit for us because it’s a park just off Tulane Avenue that is used by our staff and residents and our access to construction materials and skilled labor means we could come in and knock it out.”
Since Domain developments frequently include a component of affordable housing, the company also works to provide services needed by these residents, which can include distributing “Back to School Bags” to students, providing workout programs for elderly residents, and offering free tickets to operas, ballets and concerts.
Just getting started
Papamichael says the company has a lot to look forward to in the new few years.
“Of course we’re excited about the opening of The Standard,” he says. “We’re also going to be opening a co-working space at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans (CAC).”
Set to open summer 2017, The Shop will serve not only as the center of operations for The Idea Village, but as a hub of entrepreneurship for technology, arts and cultural-based businesses in Downtown. Envisioned as the missing “village” part of The Idea Village, The Shop will play host to educational and social meetups and events year-round, and the CAC will serve as the new home to New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.
“With this project we’re bringing a different kind of product to market that will provide that networking outlet that really helps complete what we’re doing with the South Market District,” Papamichael says.
Looking beyond what is currently in the works, Schwartz says Domain will continue to look for challenges.
“Our projects require years of planning and work, and that path is always filled with many obstacles,” he says. “Sometimes that means there’s people telling us left and right why something will never work or can’t be done. When that happens I know we’re on the right path.”
Schwartz acknowledges that as a leader he is a bit “intense,” but insists it all comes from excitement over what they do. “I try and communicate that excitement with our employees, and I set high goals for both myself and the business. You have to foster that confidence — it’s essential to overcoming the challenges we face every day.”
Perhaps the easiest example of the differences between Schwartz and Papamichael lies in how they choose to spend what little downtime they enjoy.
“Well, being intense,” Schwartz laughs, “I’m drawn to intense sports like hockey, boxing and skiing. I also have three beautiful daughters — ages 8, 6 and 8 months — so as a family we’re always out enjoying the city. We’re big music and food fans.”
Papamichael, on the other hand, typically opts for a quieter retreat.
“My wife and I have a farm in Folsom,” he says. “My wife is really into animal rescue so we’ve got everything up there — pigs, goats, chickens. I love to go up there on the weekends. Getting out of the city just for a bit is a real stress reliever.”
Fast Facts: The Domain Companies
Employees: Just over 120, split between offices in New Orleans and New York City
Total Current Units in New Orleans: 847
Total Current Units in Baton Rouge: 331
Total Investment in Louisiana: Nearly $500 million either completed or under construction, with $200 million in the pipeline
Estimated Completion Date Spring 2018
The Standard at South Market (New Orleans)
Estimated Completion Date Summer 2017
The Shop at the Contemporary Arts Center (New Orleans)
April 2016: The Addison (Baton Rouge)
March 2016: Ace Hotel (New Orleans)
March 2016: The Beacon at South Market (New Orleans)
Dec. 2014: Eleven33 (Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY)
Dec. 2014: The Paramount at South Market (New Orleans)
Oct.: The Park at South Market (New Orleans)
Sept.: The High Grove (Baton Rouge)
Jan. 2012: Gold Seal Lofts (New Orleans)
Sept. 2010: The Shop at Crescent Club (New Orleans)
Dec. 2009: Markham Gardens (Staten Island, NY)
Feb. 2009: Park Lane at Sea View (Staten Island, NY)
Feb. 2009: The Meridian (New Orleans)
Dec. 2008: The Crescent Club (New Orleans)
Nov. 2008: The Preserve (New Orleans)
July 2008: Spring Creek Gardens (Brooklyn, NY)
May 2007: The Overlook at West Hill (Ithaca, NY)