As part of our Coffee Chat series, a Capstone employee will be interviewed each month and featured in our monthly newsletter, The Erudite. For the September issue, the editors of The Erudite sat down with Walker May.
Walker has been with Capstone for 18 years. His journey into the real estate development industry was influenced by several mentors that he acknowledges he has been fortunate to have throughout his career. He is energized by seeing a project transform from a watercolor rendering to a real building that holds the initial character and vision that was intended from the initial napkin sketch. Busy raising three daughters with his wife Heather, Walker does not have much free-time but when he does you can find him on the golf course, skiing or at a music concert.
Walker May, Executive Vice President
Rhodes College, 1999
Bachelor of Science in Political Science, Minor in Religious Studies
Where are you from originally? I was born in Tupelo, MS but my parents were living in Memphis at the time when I surprised them 6 weeks early while they were visiting my grandparents for Christmas (I was born the day after!). Shortly thereafter, we moved to Charlottesville, VA so my dad could go to law school at the University of Virginia. We moved to Birmingham, AL when I was four. I grew up in Birmingham and I’ve been in Birmingham ever since, except for college and the year and a half that I spent out in Telluride, CO immediately after I graduated college.
Why did you choose to go to Rhodes College? I was looking at schools all around the southeast, focusing on Virginia south and then west to Ole Miss. I knew I didn’t want to stay in-state in Alabama but I also wanted to be close enough to be able to drive home if I wanted to. I ultimately narrowed my choices down to Vanderbilt, Sewanee and Rhodes and I chose Rhodes.
That’s interesting that you are a Political Science/ pre-law major. Capstone has several team members with Political Science or law degrees. How did you end up at Capstone? I started out as a chemistry major and loved the labs, but hated organic chemistry as it was just memorizing compounds. I also had interest in law and decided to switch to a Political Science major. Upon graduating I moved to Telluride and got my start in real estate and development, and when I left Telluride and moved home to Birmingham to pursue law school I got a job with EBSCO for a couple of years and I ended up loving the development side of real estate. More importantly, I was working with some of the top real estate lawyers in the State and observed their work in the creation of all the legal documentation, PUD filings and entitlement hearings and thought that it didn’t look like too much fun. Where I found the most enjoyment was working with the architects and our project executive on planning the actual project and the financial models. With this realization I decided to put my pursuit of a law degree on hold and keep learning about real estate development with a great mentor that I had at the time. We were working on a large, $200 Million retail/mixed-use project, but the impacts of the dotcom bubble, 9/11, and accounting scandals during this time caused a stock market decline that led to the retail market tanking, which led to our project being tabled. Before leaving EBSCO I was fortunate to travel to the Florida panhandle to participate in the design charrettes for Alys Beach with the Stephens family and DPZ, the architecture firm that did the master plans for Seaside and Rosemary Beach. The project was moving at the slow and measured pace of the Stephens family initially, so I interviewed all around the southeast and ultimately landed at Capstone, where I started out working with Kent Campbell developing gameday condos, but then shifted to the on-campus student housing division to work with Jeff Jones.
Did you live on-campus? Yes, freshman year I lived in a double-occupancy res hall-style room with my best friend. The room had a bathroom that we shared with 2 guys from Wynne, AR. What was your dorm like? It was smaller than most doubles, as it was typically set up as a single, but because my roommate decided to come to Rhodes very late in the process, and the fact that housing supply was short of demand, Rhodes was forced to increase density.
So you only lived on-campus your first year? Yes, at the time I just wanted more space after my freshman year. When you’re in a bunk situation with a 2 pipe mechanical system, the heat stayed on at all times and just blew hot air on me all night. It was not for me. There weren’t too many on-campus apartment housing options offered when I was there, nor were they offered to sophomores. So I moved just ½ mile off-campus, so we could easily walk to campus or drive. Our apartment community was a mix of Rhodes students and other older residents. We stayed in that apartment community for the rest of my time at Rhodes.
Did you work during college? Not in traditional jobs, as I ran track freshman year, which took up a lot of my free time outside of class and on weekends. I ran the 200-meter dash and the 4×100. Did you set any track records? No, but we won conference! I made the finals in the 200-meter dash and I re-injured my quad and I jogged the end to get my points. I had the 5th fastest qualifying time – and the skinniest legs of all the finalists! I ended up retiring from track after my freshman year because it was too much to balance my studies, practice, meets and social life and my grades suffered. I decided to focus on my academics going forward.
What job did you have during college? I had a number of unpaid internships in my upper division years, my favorite being with the Memphis Public Defender. They had holding cells behind the courtroom and we would meet with clients. It was a pretty intense experience. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do criminal law, but I wanted to see what a court room was like. The Memphis Public Defender was another great mentor of mine. I’ve been really lucky throughout my career to have several great mentors. He taught me a lot about it and encouraged me to find an area of the law that I was interested in because you spend so much time digging into it, it should be something you enjoy. This led me to start looking at real estate. Real Estate law was something that would be applicable forever since they aren’t making any more land. Plus, I liked the idea of seeing a real estate project come to fruition.
What was your experience at Rhodes and did you have a favorite class while in college? Whew, really taxing my memory 22-25 years later! I had two favorite professors. One was Professor Cullen, who taught Justice, Equality and Liberty, a hybrid Politics/ Philosophy course. It was a very interesting, challenging and thought-provoking class dealing with all sides of politics, employment, ethics and civil liberties. We would spend every class debating in a productive manner, and every time we thought we had argued all the bases, Dr. Cullen would turn the topic on its head and blow our minds. It was really one of the more intellectual experiences I had at Rhodes. I am very happy with my choice to attend a small school like Rhodes. It allowed me to connect with the teachers, even outside of class. The Rhodes student body comes from all over –a hodge-podge of so many different people, with different life experiences, socioeconomic backgrounds and perspectives. I had one friend whose dad was a truck driver and another who came from royalty in Spain. This dynamic opened my eyes, especially once I studied abroad at Oxford University one summer, to how small our corner of the world was and caused me to be more open-minded.
Is there a podcast that you are you listening to right now or book that you are reading? I’m not a big podcast listener yet but I was able to read on our beach trip this summer. I read Hard to Handle about the Black Crowes. It is an autobiography written by the drummer that details a behind-the-scenes look from when the band first started making it and the challenges they encountered as they got wrapped up in fame and fortune. Next up on my reading list is Skydog, which is about Duane Allman.
Before working at Capstone, what was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had? I’ve only worked two places prior to joining Capstone, which is what happens when you stay in one place for 17 years! The most interesting / fun job was my first job after college working for the President and Managing Broker of Telluride Real Estate Corp., T.D. Smith. T.D graduated from Purdue in the 70’s and at 22 years old lucked into becoming the VP of Real Estate for the developer of the Telluride Ski Mountain. He helped master plan the entire Mountain Village, was a wealth of knowledge and history about the town, had over $100MM in listings in a town of only 1,500 people, and managed some exciting development properties for high net worth investor clients. It was just such a special place and time in my life, and led to my interest in real estate development. Lunch breaks on the slopes wasn’t so bad either!
One of the developments T.D. was managing was called the West Meadows. With investors Joanne and Jon Corzine (former top exec at Goldman Sachs and later Governor of New Jesery), they turned a piece of land located on the mesa across from the Telluride Mountain Village and turned it into a collection of 9 and 40-acre home parcels. They designed and built streams with circulating pumps and berms that would allow you to have 360-degree views from your home without seeing another home nearby. During that project I got to meet with the investors, legal counsel, and engineers to plan the property and with TD and his team to get the approvals pushed through the Town Council. It was a real eye-opening view into the challenges and opportunities involved with real estate development. I was still thinking of pursuing my law degree at the time, but between this experience and my time at EBSCO I was convinced I would be much more fulfilled on the real estate development side.
What do you do in your free time? I raise 3 wonderful daughters with my wife, Heather, golf as much as possible, see live music, and try to find time to snow ski once a year!
What do you enjoy most about working on college campuses? College campuses are where young adults move on from the ‘bubble’ of the parental home, learn to balance freedom with personal responsibility, and put in place the building blocks of their education that will eventually launch their careers. Beyond simply getting to see and experience new cities and campuses (which are almost always bustling with activity, creativity and youthful energy), my favorite part about working on college campuses is the fulfillment that comes with seeing students’ and parents’ reaction on move-in day as they are ushered into our newly delivered housing facilities. To see their excitement at the beginning of the school year, which typically is the culmination of 2-5 years worth of our P3 collaboration and planning, is just so satisfying. I love to reflect back to the start of the project when we see the first watercolor renderings or the back of the napkin sketch of the project, and then see how it comes to fruition in the built environment — it’s such a great feeling of accomplishment!
If you could choose to do anything for a day, what would it be? Music, skiing and golf are my passions. So if I could do anything / trade places with someone for a day I would love to either: 1) play a rock concert in front of tens of thousands of people, 2) play a round at the Masters as a PGA tour golfer, or 3) race the downhill skiing even in the Winter Olympics!