Habitat Metrolina Partners focuses on collaboration

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte saved $36,200 when it switched insurance vendors, and another $2,200 when it switched vendors to handle credit-card processing, thanks to vendor lists and prices it shares with eight other Habitat affiliates in the region.

Those nine affiliates each contributes 2 percent of net annual revenue from the 11 ReStores they operate, or a total of $75,000, to support joint marketing for all those stores.

And at least five of the affiliates will be partnering with Habitat for Humanity Michigan Fund, an entity that handles mortgage servicing and originating for 68 Habitat affiliates in Michigan and now is licensed to do business in North Carolina.

All those efforts are among a growing number of initiatives underway or in the works that have been developed by Habitat for Humanity Metrolina Partners, a network that local Habitat affiliates formed in 2010 to “collaborate and consolidate business processes whenever possible,” says Meg Robertson, executive director of the partnership.

“We want to serve more families by working smarter, not harder,”  says Robertson, who joined the partnership after working for 12 years at Habitat Charlotte, most recently as associate director.

Habitat Metrolina Partners was formed in the wake of a 2010 study by California consulting firm La Piana into whether eight local Habitats should merge.

The study, which was funded with a grant from the Catalyst Fund managed by Foundation for the Carolinas, recommended that the Habitat affiliates, which later were joined by the affiliate in York County, S.C., should not merge but should create a “shared services network.”

With a second grant from the Catalyst Fund, the newly formed partnership hired Robertson as executive director and contracted with Apparo, at the time known as NPower Charlotte Region, to study opportunities for the affiliates to collaborate on their mortgage servicing and their purchasing.

Operating with an annual budget of $90,000, the partnership hired Rachel Sutherland Communications to handle news releases, develop Facebook pages for member affiliates’ ReStores, develop a website at metrolinarestores.org and a blog, and work with ad agencies to make marketing buys on television, radio and billboards.

The partnership contracted with the Habitat for Humanity Michigan Fund after a study it commissioned from Apparo to identify software the affiliates might use to handle mortgage servicing and found outsourcing the work would be more cost efficient.

The partnership also has held training sessions for its member affiliates on topics such as construction safety, ReStore safety and construction of Habitat houses abroad.

And the partnership recently received the 2013 Technology Innovation Award from Apparo, including $10,000 to create marketing videos the 11 ReStores will use to promote themselves, to buy iPads so they can shoot and load onto their websites and Facebook pages their own videos about their products, and receive training on how to use the iPads.

The partnership also is looking into the possibility of joint purchasing of construction materials for its member affiliates; purchasing a software system to consolidate member affiliates’ accounting and construction management functions; sharing a donor management software system; and coordinating donations for their ReStores.

Strategic partnerships represent a fundamental way of doing business, particularly in an increasingly competitive marketplace, Robertson says.

“For-profits do this to make more money,” she says. “Our profit is to serve more families.”

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Habitat a ministry for real-estate veteran

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Six months ago, Frank Spencer was sitting at his desk, translating Hebrew Scripture, when he received a call, literally and figuratively.

A recruiter had phoned to ask Spencer, retired CEO of Cogdell Spencer, a publicly-traded health-care real-estate investment trust, about taking the top job at Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte.

Spencer, who had spent most of his career in the real-estate business and in May 2011 enrolled in the master of divinity program at Union Presbyterian Seminary, interpreted the phone call as a spiritual calling as well as a professional one.

“I view this really as a ministry, not simply as a housing enterprise,” says Spencer, who joined Habitat in May, succeeding long-time CEO Bert Green, who has taken on the newly created role of director of strategic initiatives.

Formed in 1983, Habitat Charlotte has served 1,149 families with affordable housing, including 936 new homes it has built, 101 homes it has refurbished, and 112 critical repair projects it has handled.

Habitat provides families with “decent, safe and affordable housing,” says Spencer, whose career has focused on finance, real estate and construction.

The agency also serves as a ministry to its 12,000 volunteers, as well as other agencies, the city of Charlotte, the community, and its employees, all part of a larger effort to stabilize housing, Spencer says.

Habitat buys foreclosed houses, rehabilitates them and sells them in an effort to help stabilize neighborhoods, and it provides critical home repairs for homes, mainly owned by elderly families in financial need.

Now, it aims to develop more partnerships and serve as a more public advocate for affordable housing.

It is part of a larger effort in Reid Park to define neighborhood goals, has teamed with the Green Building Council so every house it builds will be LEED certified, and is partnering with Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont to provide job training for Goodwill clients.

And as an advocate, it aims to be “part of a broader solution” by providing a “leadership voice” on affordable housing options, Spencer says.

Operating with annual budget of $14 million, Habitat is self-sufficient, he says, with a $2 million operating margin that is recycled into housing.

The agency also raises $3 million, all of it used to create new housing.

Still, Spencer says, “we have to find more financial resources.”

The strategic initiatives Green oversees include developing partnerships among the eight Habitat affiliates in the region that have saved nearly $100,000 through joint servicing of mortgages, shared purchasing builders risk and liability insurance, joint grant proposals, and shared purchasing of construction materials.

Spencer, who started his career working for John Crosland at The Crosland Group, now works in the John Crosland Center for Housing, named for his former boss, who was the founding chairman of Habitat Charlotte and remains a mentor to Spencer.

“I’ve now come full circle,”  he says. “I couldn’t have conceived of a better fit.”