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There is no place like the family business

Rochester Business Journal
April 27, 2012

Painted on a wall in Catherine Sperrick's office at Home Leasing LLC is the phrase made famous more than 70 years ago in "The Wizard of Oz"-"There's no place like home."
 
Those words have come to represent several things for Sperrick, who serves as president and chief operating officer of Home Leasing, a company that specializes in the development of affordable housing.
 
"There's no place like home" is the firm's motto, which drives its mission of improving the lives of the people who live in the company's apartment communities.
 
"It's really not about just buying up as many properties as we can," says Sperrick, 50. "It's more about affecting the lives of the people who do live in the properties we own in the best way possible."
 
Though Home Leasing is less than a decade old, it has a longer and more storied history than that. Sperrick's father, Nelson Leenhouts, and his twin brother, Norman, started Home Leasing Corp. in 1967. The company went public in 1994 and changed its name to Home Properties Inc.
 
Home Properties has gone on to become a multifamily real estate investment trust. The company is one of the 50 largest apartment owners and managers in the country with more than 120 apartment communities and 42,000 apartments in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
 
The Leenhouts brothers stepped down as chief executives of Home Properties in 2003. The following year, Home Properties transitioned its affordable housing and commercial real estate operations back to the brothers.
 
Norman took control of the commercial business, forming Broadstone Real Estate LLC, while Nelson took control of affordable housing and formed Home Leasing LLC. Both companies have their headquarters in the Clinton Square Building downtown.
 
Sperrick came into the fold 10 years ago, first working under her father's wing at Home Properties before taking on several roles at Home Leasing. It has been under her reign as president that Home Leasing has flourished the past two years.
 
At the start of 2010, Home Leasing had eight employees at its downtown office and managed three properties in the Rochester area, totaling 239 apartment units, with two more properties under construction.
 
The company now has 23 employees in its downtown office with two more hires coming in the next few months, she says.
 
Home Leasing has seven properties throughout Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Properties include the city of Rochester's Voters Block Community and a 101-unit property in Elmira with a development cost of more than $6.5 million, the Eastgate Apartments.
 
Home Leasing has expanded outside of New York. Last July, the company purchased a property in Cambridge, Pa., and it closed on a property in Essex, Md., this year. The company now has nine properties in three states with a total of 831 units, and it could close on two more properties this summer.
 
Under Sperrick, Home Leasing has created a construction subsidiary, Home Leasing Services LLC. The subsidiary does single and multifamily residential as well as commercial construction.
 
In two years, Home Leasing Services has completed or begun work on a handful of construction projects as well as several rehabilitation projects, including Rochester's historic Frederick Douglass Apartments on West Main Street.

Family business
Adding to the "There's no place like home" atmosphere of Home Leasing is its status as a family business. Sperrick works with her father, still chairman and CEO, but she also works alongside her three children.
 
"I would have never imagined," she says. "Just a few years ago they were all headed in different directions, but now they have all come back to work here. It's such a blessing."
 
Sperrick's son Bill Struzzi works in development as a project manager for Home Leasing. One daughter, Sarah Werzinger, works as a resident services coordinator, and another, Megan Houppert, works as community leader for Home Leasing's Voters Block and Frederick Douglass Apartments projects.
 
Sperrick's children are among the key hires for Home Leasing during the past two years. She says the down economy benefited Home Leasing as it prepared to grow.
 
"I think, as the economy changed, some great people began to rethink their careers, which made them available to us," she says. "During the past few years we've added some tremendous people."
 
Those key hires include Cheryl Stulpin, who joined Home Leasing in 2011 as vice president of development. Stulpin, who served as vice president of Boston company Winn Development, has been in charge of Home Leasing's expansion into Pennsylvania and Maryland.
 
Home Leasing also hired Todd Goodwin to serve as president of Home Leasing Services. He previously served as vice president for Ryan Homes Inc. in the Syracuse market.
 
In February, Home Leasing hired Christopher Burgess as vice president of property management. He had been a property manager at Home Properties and now oversees all of Home Leasing's property management functions in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
 
"Joining this company has certainly given me the opportunity to start a new chapter in my career," says Stulpin. "To see how we're growing so fast has been exciting. I think Cathy deserves a lot of credit for putting together a team of people who are all on the same page when it comes to accomplishing our goals."
 
One of the more impressive things about Sperrick's leadership at Home Leasing is where she came from. By joining her father's business, Sperrick certainly found herself in a "We're not in Kansas anymore" scenario.
 
Prior to real estate and property management, Sperrick worked as a social studies teacher at the Charles Finney School in Penfield. Teaching was a lifelong ambition, along with raising a family, Sperrick says. She grew up in Brighton as one of three children watching her father and uncle thrive as entrepreneurs.
 
She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in government studies from St. Lawrence University in Canton, St. Lawrence County, and says joining the family business never crossed her mind back then.
 
"I was busy raising my family," Sperrick recalls. "I wasn't thinking in those terms at all."
 
Family remains a major passion. She says she often enjoys cooking big family dinners. And when she's not working, she spends time with her husband, Garry, either on their apple farm in Penn Yan, Yates County, or traveling, including a recent trip to France.
 
It was not until she underwent some changes in her personal life that Sperrick's father began to encourage a career change. She acknowledges there was an adjustment period. However, she says, it was a welcome change.
 
"What's exciting about working in this industry is that you're still able to be creative in what you do," Sperrick says. "And the affordable housing industry is a service industry. In years past I've been very involved in my church and various ministries. It wasn't too much of a change in that regard. It was just servicing people in a different way."

Big footsteps
Sperrick, who lives in East Bloomfield, Ontario County, says one of the biggest challenges has been following in the footsteps of her father, who was inducted into the Rochester Business Hall of Fame with his brother in 2002.
 
"He's an impossible act to follow," she says. "I don't look at myself as filling his shoes, because they can never be filled. I just want to make sure I stay true to the reputation he's established."
 
In terms of business, Sperrick and her father find a balance between his willingness to take risks and her more conservative approach. Leenhouts gives all the credit to his daughter when it comes to Home Leasing's recent surge.
 
"It delights me that Cathy constantly emphasizes our mission, which is to improve the lives of our residents." he says. "It has been a true joy for me to work with my daughter."
 
Sperrick projects Home Leasing to have as many as 13 properties with more than 1,500 units by the end of 2012. Her main focus is making sure that amid all the growth, everything comes back to Home Leasing's motto and mission.
 
"It's easy to get caught up in the to-do list, but I work very hard to keep everyone focused on why we're doing what we're doing," says Sperrick. "My father and my uncle really believed in that. It's what has driven everything they do. And that's the foundation for this company, too."
 
Catherine Sperrick
Title: President and chief operating officer, Home Leasing LLC
Age: 50
Home: East Bloomfield, Ontario County
Education: B.S. in government, St. Lawrence University, Canton, St. Lawrence County, 1983; M.S. in management, Liberty University, Lynchburg, Va., 2009
Family: Husband Garry; son Bill Struzzi, 27; twin daughters, Sarah Werzinger and Megan Houppert, 25
Hobbies: Cooking and traveling
Quote: "There are other great companies in this industry in Rochester, but what makes us different is that our team really believes our mission to improve the lives of those people who live in our communities. We're not doing it just because it's the mission of the company. We do it because it's something we're truly passionate about."

4/27/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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