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30+ years of not being a landlord

Despite owning 57 properties and housing over 3,400 people in the Madison area, Steve Brown never considered himself a “landlord.”

In his 30+ years of owning real estate, he always avoided that term. His early experiences in the Madison area soured him on bad landlords, and left him with a determination to approach the rental business in a new, and much needed way.

Steve Brown in his early days

The early days

Back in the 1970s, after earning a law degree, Steve landed a position in consumer protection for the State of Wisconsin here in Madison. His job: Combat poor housing conditions.

At the time, a glut of renters on the Madison market had led to some slum-like apartment buildings. “The approach back then was to raise rents and put up a management sign in front of a place,” Steve explained. “The attitude was: ‘Who cares about the kids?'”

Steve did. He went after and prosecuted a number of those slumlords. Eventually, he resolved he didn’t want to go after property owners. He wanted to become one. And he wanted to do it right.

Doing it differently, and having fun in the process

Steve began to buy properties, and in 1980 he founded Steve Brown Apartments. He took a very different approach than other property owners. 

The first step was to put his name on the front of the building, and not hide behind a management company.

The second was to establish a different kind of relationship with the people who rented from him. “I wasn’t a ‘landlord’ with ‘tenants”. I was the owner, and they were the residents,” he said. That meant there were rights and responsibilities on the part of both parties.

His residents loved the approach. He was invited to parties, and established long-term friendly relationships with his residents.

Steve Brown's first development – Victory Court, June 1998
You're known for how you treat people. It's as simple as that.

Steve Brown

"Honor the employee"

He also used the same approach with his employees, establishing a culture in which every employee was honored.

No job was considered less worthy than the other. The approach proved successful. In 2008, in 2012, in 2015 and again in 2018 Steve Brown Apartments was voted a “Best Place to Work” in Madison.

Today, Steve Brown Apartments employs an average of 90 people, many of whom are former residents that have worked for Steve since their renting days – including its CEO, Margaret Watson.

The key to the company’s success remains a commitment to service that Steve pioneered.  And in many ways, it started with a phone call.

SBA Staff

A defining moment

On a typical move-in day in August, Steve received a phone call from his staff. A parent wanted to speak to him personally.

He met with a mother who wanted to know who was going to make her daughter’s bed that evening. “She’s never made her bed before, and she’s not going to start now,” the woman said.

At first, Steve was incredulous. Isn’t college all about becoming independent, he thought. But then he realized that the woman’s perspective was different than his own. She felt that making the bed was part of her role as a parent.

Steve quickly realized that the business of renting living space was not about buildings and houses. It was about service – making the living experience a pleasant one that meets a resident’s needs.

His staff handled the girl’s bed making chores.  And it led to a service-first approach that continues to evolve.

Building on the legacy

It’s not surprising that one of Steve’s former residents would preserve and grow his legacy. CEO Margaret Watson today leads Steve Brown Apartments, but she’s never lost sight of the lessons learned from Steve during the company’s early days.

“Our goal is to be an owner who provides exemplary service to its residents,” says Margaret Watson. “To be an employer who honors its employees. And to be a part of the community that never stops giving back.”

“As Steve always said, ‘You’re known for how you treat people. It’s as simple as that.’ ”