Kerri Davis, at the young age of 37, has taken a winding road to her current position as chief executive officer of Nashville, Tennessee-based property management software company Fortress PropTech
. She started her career working for a contractor with the U.S. Department of State and eventually became an accountant and lawyer before building the property management software company she founded. Here’s a look at her busy, and evolving, career.
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up and where did you go to school?
I grew up in Illinois, just south of Chicago, until the age of 12. Then my family moved to Clarksville, Arkansas, to be closer to my grandparents. I graduated as Valedictorian of the 2002 class of Clarksville High School and attended the University of Central Arkansas, where I received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a major in accounting. Following undergrad, I went to law school at Case Western University, focusing on its International Law program, and graduated with my Juris Doctorate in 2009. How did you get your start in the industry?
Immediately following law school, I spent a year working for a Department of State contractor in Baghdad, Iraq. There, I focused on accounting, logistics and HR management. After returning to the US, I worked as a recruiter in Nashville, specializing in recruiting and placing accounting professionals. The founders of Elmington, a now very sophisticated and multi-divisional real estate company known for multifamily and commercial investments, low-income housing tax credit development and construction, and a 35,000-unit property management company, were looking for a corporate controller and became one of my clients.
But, like any startup, they really needed so much more, and they asked if I wanted to join the team. I wore many hats, and the work was non-stop, but we were growing, and it was exhilarating at the same time. When I first started with the property management firm in 2013, our portfolio included 596 units, but we grew quickly to more than 20,000. Not surprisingly, our entire team encountered many challenges during this growth. During this time, I also became a partner in the business.
Armed with the realization that our tech stack was hurting more than it helped, we charted a path forward. Turns out, there was a solution to our unsolvable problems; we only needed to create it ourselves. Our experience led us to develop a property management software – Fortress
. It started as an internal tool, and successfully solved many of our problems using it while continuing to scale to 37,000 units under management. This caught the attention of Walker & Dunlop, which made an investment in the software in November of 2021. Today, I am the founder and CEO of Fortress
, and we are expanding nationally and onboarding new clients from affordable housing to Class-A and other commercial property types.Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?
This isn’t a proud answer, but an honest one. I still, to this day, have trouble asking others for support. I struggle with an inherent, self-imposed expectation and responsibility to accomplish things efficiently and without bothering others. I have, however, found two amazing groups of people who have helped and continue to help me push past this limitation.
First, my four business partners. They have supported me endlessly over the past nine years, emotionally, mentally and financially. I am incredibly lucky to know that they will always have my back when I need support.
Second, my team. My team has taught me, many times over, that I am never alone and that they are always willing and able to support me and the mission. Even more so, my team has taught me that by leaning on them, I give them the opportunity to grow and provide value to the company in ways I could not have imagined had I continued in my silo. What does an average day in the life of Kerri look like?
I start my mornings making sure my two boys (11 months and 11 years) get up and running, including eating breakfast and brushing their teeth (much to their dismay). If I’m not traveling for conferences, I typically work from my home office. My days are consumed with team meetings, strategic planning, product roadmap sessions, partner meetings (we don’t call them clients at Fortress) and demos. But I always find the time to meet with each new person my team seeks to add to the Fortress team. Our culture is incredibly important to me, and culture is not built or created … it surfaces with the team you cultivate. Every person is valuable and contributes to that culture, so every person is important to me. Since the Walker & Dunlop investment, our team has gone from 12 to 42 bad-asses.
Because of the incredible amount of time the team spends in meetings, I have to be diligent in reserving space to prepare, assess, review and hydrate! To facilitate this, Fortress has replaced the traditional 30- and 60-minute meetings with 25 and 50 minutes. This has allowed us to (1) breathe, (2) think, and (3) be on time and prepared for meetings. It’s been a game-changer for us! What do you like most about your job?
I love creating an environment where my employees feel empowered to do and be their best every day. Company culture is very important at Fortress, and it’s something I find exciting. At Fortress, a few of our core principles are: Know When to Grind, Know When to Breathe. Radical Candor. Make New Mistakes.
The one that stands out most to people is “radical candor,” but transparency is king when you work with numbers and data. We have a culture where the free flow of ideas is uninterrupted, and we trust each other. We aren’t afraid to have hard conversations, even when they are painful. Our entire company embraces this mentality, and it’s the gold standard our clients have come to appreciate and expect.
It’s also really exciting to be a disruptor in the industry and help companies improve their operations.Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you have not already?
Centralization and automation. Fortress has eliminated or reduced a lot of the pain points experienced with PropTech, but those pain points were all pre-covid. The pandemic has created new, interesting obstacles and opportunities that we look forward to overcoming and optimizing – most specifically, automation and centralization in multiple workflows. What kind of changes do you hope to see in the industry soon?
The PropTech space is fragmented. There are 100+ small products, each solving one specific problem or pain point. At face value, this seems like a great idea, and there have been many successful launches and acquisitions in this ancillary product realm. But these ancillary, disparate products are not supported by holistic integrations, which causes a lot of disruption and fragmentation for the end users – on-site teams, residents, applicants and property management corporate operations.
To truly improve workflow and efficiency, problems need to be addressed from a holistic or core perspective. Very few companies are thinking about creating one solution for all audiences: owners, investors, managers and renters/tenants.
The change I want to see in the future? A core operating platform that is easy to use, holistic, used by all stakeholders and that supports robust, complete integrations with all ancillary product partners. How do you spend your time away from the office?
Time spent away from my desk is almost always spent with my family, managing our household, in the gym, meditating or reading. Physical energy and meditation are excellent stress relievers, and I love to read/learn. But, mostly, our household is full of laughter from our beautiful boys, and I love helping to create that laughter and then basking in it every second I have the privilege. What are you looking forward to most in 2022?
This year, I’m excited to really spread the word about Fortress. We had exponential growth in 2021, and now we’re ready to get the software platform in front of decision-makers at properties across the country. We continue to celebrate new partnerships, and I know the momentum will only continue.