A Cup of Coffee with…Dee Pizer

Cup-manufacturedhomepronews1) Who, What and Where: (Your name and your formal title at Zeman Homes and Neighborhoods).

Debra Pizer, Chief Executive Officer at Zeman Homes & Neighborhoods.  Everyone calls me Dee.

2) Background: (Educational/Professional snapshot before entering the factory-built housing arena. Specifically mention any work experience prior to Zeman’s MHCs is welcome.).

I started working at Alpine Village Mobile Home Park in Lynwood, Illinois in August 1983, when I was 22 years old.I have not worked professionally anywhere else.  All of my education has come via trial and error at Zeman Homes.

3) When and How: (When and how you began Zeman Homes and Neighborhoods.  Also tell us how you worked your way up through the ranks in the Zeman organization to become CEO).

When I started at Alpine Village in August 1983, it was as a secretary in the sales department.  The Zeman family purchased Alpine in December 1986 (their fourth MHC purchase) and inherited me.  As the years passed, I began to go to each community we owned to evaluate the staff and train them on the way we had been doing things at Alpine in order to ensure there were consistent policies, procedures and reporting throughout the entire company. Over the years, as Zeman continued to acquire communities, my role with Zeman grew until I became the CEO in January 2007.

4) What are your personal interests or hobbies? How do you like to spend non-work time?

I try to spend as much time with my two granddaughters Madison (14) and Brooklyn (2 ½) as I can, and also do things with my three sons and their significant others, including a yearly vacation that we all take together.  I love to read, watch sports, and go to a few NASCAR races every year in my RV.

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5) You are widely known as a person of passion who sets and achieves high goals. You set the strategic direction through functional steps. During the big crash of 2008, for example, you charted a growth path for the Zeman organization. Please give our readers a snap shot of the philosophy you bring as CEO.

Zeman has a set of Core Values that Ed and I hammered out several years ago.  In order to fit with our company vision, our teammates must be cooperative, devoted to our team and customers, honest, have self-respect and respect for others, and be able to deliver a “WOW!” with great service and value.  Having a staff full of people with these attributes helps us to be a strong company that ensures we continue to move forward and grow.

I think communication and teamwork are key to any successful organization. We do simple things like sales contests and congratulations emails every time someone closes a deal.  I make sure I introduce myself to every new employee at meetings.  Maybe some people don’t think it means much, but I believe our team appreciates our acknowledgment of their hard work.  I also lead by example; nothing is beneath me and if one of our teammates needs help, I am always there to lend a hand if needed.

6) People in business talk about establishing a good corporate culture.  There are Zeman team members who askthe question of themselves or others, “WWDD?”  That is short for What Would Dee Do?  Tell us how you go about creating that kind of leadership and such a ‘can do’ corporate culture.

“What Would Dee Do” started at one of our Managers’ meetings a few years ago.  Whenever we were discussing an issue or a lapse in following policy, I would ask the team, “If I were standing behind you, how would you handle that situation?”  Most of the time I heard answers that were more in accordance with policies or philosophies.  After that meeting, it just stuck.  I have managers telling me all the time that when something happens and they need to make a decision, they will ask themselves, “What would Dee do?” and that’s what they do.

I believe in treating everyone the same way that you would like to be treated and I have never put myself above anyone.  I have spent a lot of time developing my relationships with our team and by doing so, a “What Would Dee Do” conversation is easy to have.

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7) Usually one of the hottest topics in manufactured housing revolves around financing and the CFPB landscape. In more recent years, renting manufactured homes has become popular for many MHC owner/operators.  Please give us your high level view of issues like reforming Dodd-Frank (in the last Congress, via bills such as HR 1779 and S 1828).  And what do you see as the role of rental homes in the foreseeable future of MHC operations when it comes to filling vacant sites?

One of the most important things we must do is to adapt quickly to any exterior or interior road blocks that are put in front of us.

In 1999, we saw the need to start our own finance company.  Over the years, our model for this entity has changed and morphed with the ever-changing landscape of our industry.  While the start of this business was one of necessity, we have found it to be a good business and intend to continue it in some form.

With the arrival of rentals into our industry, we decided to jump in early.  We set a max to lease of 10% of our sites and I implemented a minimum 3-year lease.  I hoped the word “lease” instead of “rent” and the 3-year term would suggest to our customers the mindset of a car lease, instead of the more transient rental mentality where they are always looking for the next promotion and moving almost yearly.  We also offer a 2-year lease renewal rather than the standard 1-year renewal, which has kept us at an 80% renewal rate.  I believe rental homes are here to stay because when done right, they are a great way to pump up our occupancy while providing accessibility to a new customer base that we were not servicing before.

8) Problem solving and team building are two of the keys that CEOs and C-Suite level leaders deal with routinely. What sort of process do you use in your leadership role and why?

We have created teams from within the organization that meet either monthly or bi-weekly to ensure we have a diverse group to pull opinions and ideas from.  One of these teams is our Capital Meeting group, where we discuss refinances, communities that are struggling, new big picture ideas, etc.  This team has teammates on the supervisory level from finance, accounting, operations and maintenance. 

Another team meets bi-weekly so we stay laser-focused on our sales goals and how well our marketing is doing.  We also develop our quarterly promotions and insure full implementation of our ideas.  Input from multiple departments ensures everyone’s opinions are heard and you have complete buy-in because they were involved.

We all know how an idea can look good on paper but when implemented, there are issues that no one thought about.  By having multiple departments involved, you hopefully eliminate the majority of those issues in advance.

9) There is a rather wide divide these days between those who think we need to move beyond or ‘trailer house’ and ‘mobile home’ image, and those on the far end who embrace those terms for reasons beyond just Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  We’ve just seen the $1.3 billion deal with SUN Communities of a respected community operator who took rebranding, positive resident relations and projecting a good modern image.  Tell us your thoughts on the whole “terminology” and image issues, if you would, please.

I feel there is room for and the need for every level of housing within our industry.  Zeman, for instance, has always been a company that owns and provides affordable housing in clean and well-maintained 3- and 4-star communities, while others have focused on the more high-end housing and the senior market.

As far as terminology is concerned, I feel we have confused our customer with all the changes we have made.  Residents still come into an office and want to talk about their trailer, while others will ask, “What is a manufactured home?” and when answered, they say, “oh, you mean a trailer.”  I am not sure what the answer is, but I do agree with what Gary McDaniel said last month that as an industry, we are providing a much better product on every level.

10) While there are dozens of women at the state association executive director level, we don’t see very many female CEOs in manufactured housing.  Marguerite Nader at ELS comes to mind, there is you, some women who own their own companies, and then…? A male CEO told us that this is common in other forms of real estate too, that it isn’t just MH or MHCs.  What are your thoughts on the role of women in manufactured housing industry leadership positions? 

Twenty years ago, there were very few women in the MH industry above the Community Manager level, so the possibility of a women becoming CEO were slim.  But today, I see all types of young, bright, eager and talented individuals joining our industry that twenty years from now will be the leaders.  I hope as an industry that we continue to seek out and attract great talent.  If we all look for the best candidates and not concern ourselves with male or female, I have no doubt that we will see more and more women in executive and CEO roles.

11)  Some say the Zeman family business began with smaller MHCs, and only latter started acquiring larger
Properties.  When the company buys a property, you begin to improve it.  Are investor dollars a key to turning around older MHC properties?  Please paint a picture of the growth of the company and what you thinks some lessons are for the investment community.

Zeman has always had a strategic vision that we stuck to and were able to execute extremely well.  We would continually discuss new trends, other industries, etc., but at the end of the day, we were always comfortable with our vision and felt it provided the best atmosphere for our team to excel.

When we are working on a possible acquisition, we make sure we have a plan outlined for that specific community that includes our expectations, a plan to implement with time frames, and capital to execute the plan and create the desired results.  This is all done as part of our due diligence process, so we are all on the same page and there are no unrealistic expectations after closing.

Ultimately, and probably most importantly, you must have a good operations person that understands our business at the ground level that can handle all of the day-to-day.  All the plans in the world do not mean a thing without the right person to implement the plan.

12) While some still see doom and gloom, Zeman Homes and Neighborhoods continues to grow.  The company you lead are one of the top MH retailers of new homes in the U.S..  Your industry colleague, UMH CEO Sam Landy, said in an interview with MHProNews that given the large and growing need for affordable housing in the U.S., he sees how manufactured housing could return to new home shipping totals of 300,000 to 400,000.  Others inside our industry think we ought to be happy to return to shipments in the 70,000 to 100,000 annual shipment levels.  What say you?  Why?

I have never been one to watch and count shipments, but I do think it is important to continually upgrade your communities with new homes.  Dodd-Frank and the lack of mortgage lenders, as well as the economy, really hurt us for a while, but the resilience of our industry continues to amaze me.  It seems that no matter what is thrown at us, we find a way to work through it.

Starting in 2014, you could see that we all had a new resolve; we had weathered another storm and were optimistic about the future.  I’m not sure where our shipments will end up, but I do believe things are looking much better.

13) Industry veteran and Green Courte Partners Chairman, Randy Rowe, called for a 5 point plan for industry recovery.  It included the following: A) Better Warranties and Customer Service, B) Dealing effectively with Chattel Financing Issues, C) Economic Security for Our Customers, D) A Multiple Listing Service(s) (remarketing system for individuals, lenders) and E) A National Marketing (Image) Effort.  What would you say about these bullet points?  Do you think that other possible ideas, like more “best practices” and professional sales training – which Tim Williams at 21st said is always a good idea, are also needed?  What say you on the keys for moving ahead?

Randy’s 5 point plan, as well as Tim’s suggestions about sales training, seem to hit most, if not all of the key aspects that would help accentuate all the progress that has been made to date.  I believe if we can find a way to have a program similar to IREM that everyone supports and our staff strives to achieve the designations, we will put ourselves in a much better light.

14) What do you consider the largest challenges facing the industry in general today?  Where do you see our largest opportunities?

Challenges to date are still capital, capital, capital.  There seems to be a lot of money coming into our industry (purchasing communities), but no one appears to be willing to take that same money and provide the financing that is needed to keep those same communities fully occupied.

Opportunities: The need for affordable housing is growing every year.  As long as we continue to find solutions to whatever current problem faces us, I believe opportunities will continue to present themselves.

15) While thousands of firms are members of state or national associations, others seem content to sit on the outside and reap the benefits of association lobbying without realize there is more to association membership than lobbying alone.  As the leader of an organization that is involved at the state and national level in association work, what would you say to those who haven’t been involved in an association, or who have dropped out for whatever reason?

Zeman has been involved heavily in associations and state politics for a time, but also chose to be uninvolved for a time.  We are currently active in the national and state associations and I believe it is something everyone should do.  Even if you are a member and only read the newsletters, you are staying connected to the industry and are aware of legislation that can affect your business.

17) The Zeman family name and the company has drawn a lot of positive recognition over the years.  Please take a few minutes and share some examples with our readers.

I have always tried to create an environment where our team is proud of where they work, not just because of our communities and their appearance, but also because we care about our team and our residents.

Over the years we have provided site fee discounts (that I am sure many of us do) for seniors, the Armed Forces, and police and fire personnel.  During the worst of the economic downturn, I worried that many of our residents would either become unemployed due to the lack of construction work or be part of the many layoffs or terminations.  I developed a rent assistance program that allowed for a rent discount in lieu of us evicting residents in finance trouble.  This program allowed us to retain many residents that we would have lost due to temporary issues.

We provided housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina, held company contests that resulted in the donation of money to a charity chosen by the winning team.  We sponsor local children’s sports team and have donated old company cell phones to a battered women’s shelter. ##

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