Executive Spotlight, Wilfred Cooper Jr., WNC & Associates Inc.
- Mar 21, 2014
Wilfred Cooper Jr. joined his father’s 17-year-old pioneering affordable-housing company, WNC & Associates Inc., in 1988, taking the helm 12 years later as president & CEO. Assuming leadership of a company that was already noted for helping to develop effective use of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program, he tripled its portfolio while continuing to make inroads into the sector. WNC was the first company to apply for New Markets Tax Credits, receiving $50 million in credits and closing on $34 million worth of investments in the first 18 months of the program.
In 2003, WNC closed Kent Affordable, one of the country’s largest federal tax credit allocations; it provided $41 million for 140 units in Brooklyn, N.Y. WNC would receive an additional $215 million in New Markets Tax Credit in following years. Last year, it closed a $150.5 million institutional low-income housing tax credit fund, with plans to acquire 24 properties, including multi-family and seniors housing. Combined, the purchases will add 2,100 units of affordable housing to its portfolio, bringing the company’s total acquisitions to nearly 70,000 units.
Still a national leader in affordable housing, WNC today has more than $6 billion in assets, including over 1,200 properties in 45 states. And Cooper has plans to build on its heritage, with an eye toward steering the company in a new direction: exploring traditional multi-family properties as well as related businesses in the industry.
CPE: What facets of WNC most attracted you back in 1988?
Cooper: WNC ultimately improves the lives of people. We invest in and develop quality affordable housing for those who can’t afford this basic necessity. That is most gratifying to me. Another facet that I have grown to appreciate is that we are an autonomous, privately held company, so we control our own destiny.
CPE: What’s one challenge that you’ve overcome on your path to success?
Cooper: Learning to ask for and receive honest feedback on myself from other CEOs and the people I work with. I don’t think it is easy for anyone to hear about their weaknesses, but it is essential to grow as a leader.
CPE: Looking back, what’s one piece of advice you would have given yourself in the beginning of your career?
Cooper: In business, it is better to be respected than to be liked.
CPE: Who, or what, has been your greatest inspiration in life?
Cooper: One of my greatest inspirations would be my grandfather, John B. Lester. He came from a poor family that lived in a small Midwestern town. He left his home at an early age to find work in the oil refineries. He was a simple man with little education and flaws like all of us. But he worked hard and raised a family the best he could. Eventually, he became a partner and leader of a very successful refinery company. He came from a generation that really understood the value of hard work—that it builds integrity and character.
CPE: If you weren’t in real estate, what would you be doing?
Cooper: Probably working in another country and speaking another language. I studied international relations in college and worked for an international company before coming to work at WNC.
CPE: What role does technology play in your daily life as an executive?
Cooper: I love technology and try to use it to simplify my work life. My main objective is to eliminate paper. I store all my notes from my meetings with my direct reports on Dropbox. I can pull these notes and files from anywhere, which eliminates the need to be in the office. I’ve also become a big user of GoToMeeting and have been doing a lot of meetings via video conference. It’s not as good as a real face-to-face, but it beats the phone or not doing the meeting at all.
CPE: How do you feel about social media?
Cooper: I have mixed emotions on social media. On one hand, it has revolutionized communication. I write a blog, myself, on running (www.runlonger.blogspot.com) and I enjoy the process of writing about topics I’m passionate about. Getting information out to the world has never been so easy. On the other hand, I think people have been lulled into this belief and custom that any and all communication is somehow a good thing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. My gosh, looking at Facebook is like trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose. Do I really need to know how much someone paid for a cup of coffee and a muffin in Miami Beach?
CPE: What’s next for you and your company?
Cooper: Growth and expansion. We will continue to expand into new but related businesses by leveraging our partners’ expertise in real estate and affordable housing and our own intrinsic experience that has been built over 42 years. WNC has been successful because we have a very loyal base of investment and development partners. Of the 1,200 properties in which we have invested, 75 percent are with repeat developers and 50 percent are with developers we’ve made five or more investments with. Preservation of the aging tax credit and affordable housing stock is an area we, with the help of our partners, are getting more involved with. Another area we are moving into is more traditional, non-tax credit multi-family properties. With the demise of the idea that homeownership is the only ticket to achieve the American dream, we believe the future of rental housing is as strong as ever.
CPE: When you’re not traveling for business, what’s your ideal destination?
Cooper: The mountains. Any mountains.
CPE: Describe yourself in five words.
Cooper: Curious. Impatient. Driven. Adventurous. Different.