Joshua Bird – Hawkins Way Capital
Eight years into his legal career, Joshua Bird had met very few clients who’d even consider anything beyond a very cautious, low-risk tolerance—until he worked with the young men who started Hawkins Way Capital. Headquartered in Beverly Hills, California, the private equity real estate firm manages investments for family offices and institutions.
Bird recalls, the founders, Ross Walker and Karan Suri, were willing to take reasonable risks to grow and establish the firm’s name in a competitive market and primarily urban locations. At the time, the founders were represented by the Los Angeles-based Greenberg Glusker, where Bird was the counsel in its real estate group. One day, after resolving some complicated legal issues for Hawkins, he still had the founders on his mind around midnight, impressed with the way they worked and how they were cementing the company in Beverly Hills.
“They knew what they wanted and were going after it with niche focuses—and having fun along the way,” Bird tells Vanguard. “I wanted to be a part of that team.”
Listening to his instincts, he sent them an email, asking if they wanted a general counsel, someone in-house to constantly support the firm.
They did, and in May 2018, he became a member of the Hawkins team. He brought with him his legal and real estate fund management experience to help with projects and tackle all legal matters—not just for the firm but also its affiliates. Hawkins raises capital and then buys buildings, which it then develops and manages for use as hotels, multifamily and student housing.
“I have never looked back since that fateful email,” says Bird, who added managing director to his general counsel title in March 2022. “In the past five years, we’ve completed some amazing projects—and have many more in the works, and I get to ensure they all become a reality.”
Transforming hotels into housing
According to Bird, student housing projects have been a major focus for Hawkins over the past several years.
“It’s still a hugely untapped market and where we’ve found our niche,” he says. “There isn’t sufficient housing in New York right now, for instance, and this has made it difficult for colleges and universities in the area to increase enrollment.”
Responding to this need in 2021, Hawkins sought to purchase a Manhattan hotel with over 500 rooms, which had closed indefinitely in 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan was to renovate and convert the former hotel into student housing.
However, as Bird recalls, a lot of people in the industry, such as potential investors, contractors and even the hotel owners, were concerned about the firm’s ability to buy the building and execute on its business plans, which included managing employees, labor relationships, incoming capital as well as construction and development. So, he conversed with the hotel’s leadership as well as other potential stakeholders to get them comfortable and assure them of Hawkins’ expertise, history and proven abilities.
“We wanted to ensure we kept all our promises,” he says. “We weren’t going to leave anybody out in the cold, but we needed to get everybody on board first.”
He got on a red-eye flight from California to spend the day in New York with the hotel’s owner, sitting on the roof and walking through the bedrooms together.
“By the end of the day, I was able to gain a greater perspective from the seller’s side and also relay Hawkins’ intentions and abilities,” says Bird, who integrated comments from the meeting into the purchase agreement at the airport that night on his way home.
Efforts like this paid off, and the hotel’s executives signed off on the sale while stakeholders and investors signed onto the project. This allowed the firm to purchase the building in late 2021 and start executing its promises, though he adds it was a massive internal and external team effort.
By the end of 2022, the building and its 650 rooms were converted, and the location reopened as a dormitory. When Bird spoke to Vanguard in June 2023, he said it was almost 100 percent leased out with some schools taking several floors.
“I dove in and leaned into the discomfort from the start—and it’s been a highly successful project,” Bird says.
A niche and a need
In January 2023, Bird also helped Hawkins on a similar project to acquire a hotel that had closed due to the pandemic. Through a joint venture with Varde Partners, Hawkins purchased a hotel previously operated as a Marriott.
The designated landmark building in New York City was constructed in 1924. This project has both hotel and student housing potential; Ross Walker, Hawkins’ co-founder and managing partner, believes either use will give a new life and purpose to the building—and allow the investment firm to increase its footprint in the New York market. He expects the project to be completed within the next year.
This deal marked the firm’s ninth acquisition in the past year or so—and represents the newest of the approximately 10,000 beds Hawkins’ affiliated property management company currently oversees. Since December 2013, Hawkins has invested more than $1.3 billion in acquisitions and various properties.
The firm’s partners, Bird, his team and the rest of Hawkins have their hands full as they begin on this project and continue searching for prospective new acquisitions—all while working to fully lease out current units in its properties across the nation.
“We’re looking at a few more sites in New York City and in several major student housing markets and are hoping to execute a couple more interesting transactions by year end,” he says.
He also recently helped Hawkins complete an ongoing development project that they constructed from scratch: a dual branded AC Hotels and Residence Inn in Oakland, California. Opened on May 24, 2023, he says it was a huge milestone for the firm.
“Our projects are massive undertakings, challenging but enjoyable,” Bird says. “We can better engage with communities, and I converse with decision makers and educational institutions throughout the U.S.—a pretty good seat, if you ask me.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer IV 2023 Edition here.
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