2022 Executive of the Year: Mary Wright defines transformational perseverance

Feature Eoy Mary Wright Panel
Photo by Shawn Harper

Register to attend the Executive of the Year awards and reception on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Mary Wright’s transformation of the Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp. figured to be challenging enough, and then the pandemic struck like a bolt of lightning. Fortunately, the collateral damage was minimized and the COVID scramble yielded some surprising workforce benefits, but in March 2020, nobody could blame her for wondering what lay ahead.

Wright, who has served as the WHPC’s president since 2016, had already made the decision — described as both strategic and difficult — to move away from a third-party provider and to take over the management of its $500 million portfolio of properties. But when you lead an organization that acquires, develops, and preserves affordable rental housing throughout Wisconsin, those decisions aren’t made lightly — even if it did lead to an improved cost structure. A difficult transition was underway, but the pandemic served to sharpen her focus and that of her staff.

Sticking to her guns, and freeing resources for future property acquisition and development, earned Wright a 2022 Executive of the Year Award. She is one of six people selected for this honor by a judging panel of previous EOY winners.

Cool beans
Part the motivation for the transformation came from the importance of the organizational mission. “It’s a cool organization because of what we do,” Wright notes. “When I hired the C-suite, I said this is a turnaround with an entity that has $500 million of assets, $75 million of revenue, and we’re a rated agency, so we can’t screw up.”

COVID could have made the transition more difficult because Wright was trying to expand her staff just as remote working became a necessity, and she also had to be mindful of how the virus was impacting the people who reside in the properties the WHPC manages. Those properties house over 15,000 people statewide, many of them elderly and more vulnerable to severe outcomes from COVID.

“Where I felt the real effects of the pandemic was in March 2020,” she explains. “We had just moved into our new location, the Verex Plaza on the lake [Mendota]. Fortunately, we had just invested in all these technologies to allow us to connect remotely.”

Wright, who has a background in banking with Wells Fargo and Johnson Bank, knew her decision was right one, but also understood that it was emotionally difficult for some in the organization. “When I took the position, there is no way that I knew that I would have to do what I just did, which was probably good,” she states. “The fact that I had all this experience helped me frame it and project manage it. I made sure that I had good hires who believed this was necessary, that it had to be done.”

As the leader, Wright showed up in the office every day, which she felt was important for leadership presence. The rest of the C-suite was allowed to either come in and work with the appropriate safety protocols or work from home and meet with colleagues via Microsoft Teams. “I honestly feel like the pandemic made us more focused on what we had to do in a short period of time,” she states. “We didn’t get distracted.”

Hiring wasn’t as challenging as first thought. Through LinkedIn, the professional networks of staffers, the industry knowledge of what the organization was undertaking, and the career rethinking of many professionals during the pandemic, there existed a perfect storm of recruitment. “COVID kind of prodded people from home to think about their next career steps, and we benefitted from that,” Wright notes. “We actually picked up really good talent during that time.”

As soon as vaccines became available and senior populations were eligible for the shots, WHPC worked with its property management companies to set up vaccine clinics on the sites of its senior housing properties. To monitor COVID rates and cleaning and visitor regimens, the organization also instituted biweekly meetings with property managers.

“We’re just at that really exciting point to really get traction to stretch and do some innovative housing and yet continue to do what we always do, which is acquire existing affordable housing to preserve it for the long run.” — Mary Wright, Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp.

In a previous career stint with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Association (WHEDA), where she served as state director of the multifamily division, Wright knew about the WHPC through lending and tax credit allocations. She realizes the most important long-term question pertains to how the organizational change will serve the cause of affordable housing. Wright’s initiative resulted in a 35% reduction in operating costs; with this new cost structure, the organization is in a better position to make affordable housing more available.

“But the risk side of it was where I really jumped on and said we’ve got to change this and get it staffed functionally, organizationally, and have a hierarchy that has a long shelf life and allows younger generations to step into this organization and lead it after I’m out of here. So, I feel really proud about that.”

Focusing on the transition has slowed growth, but now the WHPC is ready to pick it up. In October, management had a strategic retreat with the board, and most its high-level goals and strategies for the next three to five years are connected to improving resident’s lives by establishing more connections to services. “We’re not service providers ourselves or experts in that, so we would work with the community to find good service provider networks to provide levels of need, mental health — everything,” she says. “There is a lot going on with that population, period.”

Wright is excited about the broader, more innovative housing solutions under consideration. One futuristic housing option, the WHPC’s Kestrel development in Middleton, provides desperately needed affordable housing for middle-income workers who earn too much to qualify for traditional affordable housing, yet not enough to afford to live in the attractive communities where they work.

“We want to think more about what the community wants for everything, so it’s more of a mixed-use potential where you bring in a library and residential above,” Wright explains. “The connections to health care are also important. Is there a way we can bring in health services to the building that helps manage people’s care better and keeps cost down? There are several national models where housing providers like us are doing that.

“We’re just at that really exciting point to really get traction to stretch and do some innovative housing and yet continue to do what we always do, which is acquire existing affordable housing to preserve it for the long run.”

Affirmative judgment

The Executive of the Year judging panel, which included three previous EOY winners, cited the “tremendous transformation” of the organization under Wright’s leadership. “I could not be more impressed with Mary,” stated one judge. “The challenges she tackled this year and the positive transformation she led at the Wisconsin Housing Preservation Corp. was spectacular. Not only did she face COVID issues, but she grew her staff sixfold and changed the entire operational structure.

“Her success is evidenced by a 35% reduction in operating cost of the organization. With a new cost structure, WHPC will be even more effective in its mission of making affordable housing more available.”

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