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How a banker from Ohio became a successful real estate developer

  • Brett Kaufman became a banker in Ohio after graduating from college and he “hated it.” For a long time, he says, he thought “this is just what people did, they worked.”
  • Years in, when he gave banking advice to a real-estate developer, his interest was piqued, and he left in 2000 to take a shot at becoming a developer himself.
  • In 2011, he launched his own company, Kaufman Development, which has since developed over 2,000 units and in developments across the Midwest.
  • Here’s how he did it.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Brett Kaufman has been redefining community living through art and innovation for over a decade. 

Currently the founder and CEO of Ohio-based Kaufman Development, Kaufman’s story begins as a banker, first as an analyst then as a mezzanine lending team member.

“I hated it. I was not a good banker,” he told Business Insider. “I thought for the early part of my career that this is just what people did, they worked.”

His interest in real estate was piqued when he began banking for a developer in Texas, a job where he learned some of the economics of developing real estate. 

In 2000, he quit banking and landed a job at Schottenstein Real Estate Group in Columbus, where he spent six years growing the company’s development arm. 

It was during that same time, he started taking on some of his own side projects.

“I started to do some things on my own, just little rehab projects here and there, and experimenting with a thesis that I had developed, which was that I thought you could bring really high design to affordable price ranges in urban settings,” he said.

Kaufman said he was always an avid fan of the arts and creative pursuits, and this was the first time he was able to indulge his passion as part of his work. 

“I grew up with the belief that creativity and the arts were things that you did as hobbies,” he said.

In the late ’90s, he bought a duplex and renovated it using things like granite countertops, glass backsplashes, and stainless steel appliances. These are all features that you’ll find in most new apartments in the country, he said, but they were rare at the time, “at least in Columbus.”

Kaufman said that after success on his own, he took his ideas to his company, and they were incorporated into its designs.

Branching out on his own

In 2011, Kaufman took his creative touch to his own company, Kaufman Development. 

Since then, Kaufman has worked to develop over 2,000 units in 10 developments across the Midwest.

The communities created by Kaufmann Development are sustainable and wellness-driven. Back in 2011, this meant implementing things like meditation centers, yoga, community gardens, events and clubs, features that are now quite common.

Kaufman said he’s constantly on the lookout to find unique ways to bring things from people’s daily lives into their living spaces. “There’s a big focus on the mental health side of things, he said.

“We’re offering coaching and counseling, and backing various entrepreneurs in ways that can hopefully help people and the experience they have as a human being,” he said. 

Kaufman’s conscious community

Kaufman isn’t just paying lip service to mental health-driven development, either, it’s at the heart of one of his newest developments: Gravity, a 230-apartment development with office and retail space in Columbus. 

“Gravity is our fullest dive into the world we’re calling ‘conscious communities,'” he explained.

Kaufman describes the design as “funky” and “creative,” decorated with with huge light sculptures and art from local artists.

The look of the development is just one aspect of this consciousness. Along with housing the Columbus Transcendental Meditation Center, Gravity offers programming and services from mental health professionals including psychiatrists, life coaches, nutritionists, massage therapists, and acupuncturists, to name a few. In addition, the development offers office space to these professionals.

Gravity also allows its tenants to become stakeholders in the development. Kaufman has cofounded Rhove, a company that allows renters to to earn a return on their rent. Gravity is the first community Rhove has launched in.

“We, as the owner of the community, Gravity, sell a small portion of the overall community to Rhove. Then Rhove offers the residents an opportunity to buy into the community through their rent,” he explained. “Then, when there is a liquidity event, a refinance, or a sale, [the renters] benefit from it.”

Rhove, along with the other features the Gravity community offers, has made it one that people really want to live in, Kaufman said. 

“It’s one of many things that come back to the reason I started the company, and the reason we build these communities,” he continued. “That equity stake is meaningful for some people, and some people are happy that we have a mediation center, and some people are happy that there’s art everywhere. It’s a lot of things.”

The key to his success

“Underneath all of our developments, everything we do, there’s a fundamentally strong real estate project,” Kaufman said, but he said for his conscious communities, strength can look different than for most real-estate developers.

“I’ve got to be in what I think are the best locations,” he said. “And that can mean different things to different people.”

For Kaufman Development, that has meant sourcing out locations that are good for his sort of clientele.

For example, Kaufman explained, Gravity is located in an up-and-coming creative arts district. Beyond that, it’s located on a main street, half a mile from downtown, surrounded by things like coffee shops and microbreweries, which points to a developing neighborhood.

“We put it through a really strict filter, it’s got to check every one of those boxes,” he said. 

“And that’s where the artists were,’ he continued. “To me, where the artists are is where the creative energy wants to be, and that’s probably the most important thing for us. We’ve been very careful about how we’ve scaled our company. We could have built 10 times the amount of projects that we have, but I only want to build projects I feel really energized by.”

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