Most Admired CEO Marshall Burton’s focus on ‘flow’ finds success

As seen on The Denver Business Journal

By Associate Editor, Denver Business Journal
Confluent Development’s name means “flowing together,” and this philosophy of unification informs President and CEO Marshall Burton’s leadership style as well as the company’s ethos.
Confluent Development co-founder, President and CEO Marshall Burton has 25 years and billions in development experience under his belt.

Since the company’s birth in 2014, he’s overseen more than $1.5 billion in development and most recently successfully developed and executed its Covid-19 playbook. His philanthropy partner is Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation.

This Q&A has been edited for style.

People are watching the commercial real estate space closely as the pandemic causes entire office buildings to essentially shut down and downtowns across the country have cleared out. What’s your No. 1 focus right now? The No. 1 focus for landlords and employers in all asset classes is to assure a safe, healthy and productive environment

As many companies and individuals have learned to work productively remotely, leaders will be challenged to drive culture and assess morale without a common physical footprint. So much important information is shared casually at the office’s water cooler and in hallways that cannot be as easily conveyed and absorbed through Zoom. While these interactions remain an integral part of company morale and productivity, I do believe the office environment going forward will become less dense and the percentile of associates working both remotely and hoteling will accelerate.

While there is short-term disruption and uncertainty for office environments, industrial development and senior living are two asset classes where we are still seeing steady growth, with strong indicators the demand will only continue to climb.

The past year has accelerated the boom in e-commerce, which has resulted in greater opportunities for industrial assets like warehouses and distribution centers. Large and midsize business-to-consumer companies are looking for facilities that can accommodate their evolving supply chain operations and logistics-related needs, and we are investing in and focusing heavily on this sector to keep pace alongside businesses while they adapt to the new climate.

Senior living will also continue to see demand, as the industry is two to three years away from the oldest baby boomers aging into senior-housing accommodations. Despite some negative perceptions amid Covid-19, senior living communities have proven to better contain the spread of infectious diseases due to the high standards for testing and sanitization, and the layouts accommodating social distancing. There is no safer place for senior residents than a community where their well-being is the No. 1 priority.

How are CRE executives talking about this situation, and how are you working together to overcome industrywide obstacles? I’ve had the pleasure to engage in the local and national real estate industry for 25 years. There is so much to learn from my peers, and I am grateful that our community is open, welcoming and transparent. As a past president of commercial real estate association NAIOP Colorado, we focused on education, networking and policy guidance; it is so rewarding to watch the next generation of increasingly diverse leaders emerge in our community during these turbulent times.

Our industry is filled with friendly competitors who eagerly collaborate to support each other in times of need, such as the senior living community’s effort to source and secure funding for the essential needs to keep our most vulnerable individuals safe and healthy.

However, at the core, developers are visionaries and we dream big. Throughout the past year, I’ve witnessed remarkable examples of human ingenuity, collaboration and resilience as fellow developers have had to pivot plans and/or put projects on hold. Through the power of information sharing, industrywide virtual events, focus groups and published thought leadership, we are all helping each other navigate the obstacles that we face today and will likely face for the foreseeable future.

How do you see the next three years playing out for the Denver metro’s CRE sector? Denver is in a remarkable position to lead the national economic and real estate recovery. Real estate fundamentals simply follow employment and population growth. As ranked by many national publications, Denver is consistently voted as one of the best cities in the country to live, work and recreate.

Over the next three years, there will continue to be a shift from dense environments like Chicago, New York and San Francisco to cities like Denver that still offer robust recreation, entertainment, education, employment and relative affordability. Denver is ripe to experience additional corporate relocations and in-migration.

Large companies like Palantir will capture the headlines, but many more small businesses and entrepreneurs are selecting Denver with equal impact. The result will be a healthy real estate sector.

Of course, our generational success means we must face head on the challenges that inevitably follow our continued economic growth. Affordability and inequality are of particular concern to me, and it will take ingenuity, broad collaboration and a long-term commitment to resolve these challenges a create a healthy, balanced and morally responsible economic expansion.

Tell us about the five key areas of focus in your Covid-19 playbook and why you chose them. The development of our Covid-19 playbook was designed to help anchor our organization through these uncharted waters and guide the day-to-day decisions we make through this rapidly changing landscape. Our playbook allows Confluent to be agile, yet steadfast in our values and priorities while adapting to market cycles.

For our team, our five key principles are: prioritize team safety; establish a financial game plan to prepare for the long term; over-communicate to make sure our team and stakeholders feel confident, supported and engaged; maintain a commitment to giving back to communities to show support; and remain intentional for the future through the designation of internal strategic task forces who are dedicated to identifying new areas of opportunity.

Your nomination form talks about your business approach mirroring the definition of Confluent’s name. What should our audience know about the importance of that approach and how empowering employees plays into it? The name Confluent means flowing together, and this philosophy of unification is central to the ethos of our firm. Confluent brings together the best possible team, project stakeholders and capital partnerships, and we work and flow together to deliver best-in-class real estate solutions for the communities that we serve.

Equally important, however, is the acknowledgment that flowing together resonates movement and forward progress, which is central to our desire to get better each day.

I’m tremendously proud of my team, who live this philosophy every day. Mutual trust, respect and a team approach are instrumental to Confluent’s success. I’ve witnessed the power of collaboration through each of Confluent’s development projects. And now, I’ve seen a heightened sense of team-mindedness as we’ve come together through Covid-19.

Our give-back campaign was particularly meaningful: I saw first-hand how our team truly values our ability to help and protect those in need.

Why did you pick Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation as your philanthropy partner for this honor? What is it about their mission that speaks to you and the work that you’re doing? Advancing Children’s Hospital Colorado’s mission of caring for and curing children is a cause I feel personally passionate about and became heavily invested in more than 15 years ago. Now, more than ever, we must do all we can to protect our youth and support our frontline workers through the provision of high-quality care, education, research and advocacy.

As a long-time supporter of Children’s Hospital Colorado, I am also an active participant on the foundation’s Corporate Leadership Council, which brings together corporate leaders across the Colorado community to advance Children’s mission through philanthropy and special event fundraising.

Early in my career and marriage to Kristi, who has worked at Children’s Hospital for over 20 years, our dinner table conversations ranged from my success in delivering “brick and mortar” real estate to the human health and development of a precious child with cerebral palsy taking their first step. I am grateful for the opportunity to place our real estate achievements into perspective many years ago. Both of our passions are important and I know that my fulfillment at Confluent is not complete without helping others in need, starting with children and youth in our community who deserve the best of opportunities.

What’s next for Confluent Development? As we look ahead as a firm, Confluent will continue prioritizing a diverse suite of asset classes, meanwhile keeping a finger on the pulse of the latest industry data to examine development opportunities in emerging assets. We have the experience, passion and energy to help lead the industry’s next chapter. In 2021 and beyond, we look forward to exploring further asset diversity within our portfolio, and to further investing in applicable, cutting-edge technologies for our development projects as we spearhead the push for increased innovation in the industry.

Real-life superheroes: It’s important to recognize the everyday heroes in our own system. My real-life superheroes are the hardworking construction crews who serve in an inherently risky workplace and have been vital to business continuity for the real estate industry during the pandemic. I also greatly admire and appreciate the team members in our senior living communities, who unselfishly put themselves on the frontlines to ensure senior residents are protected.

If you could be any superhero: I would want to be Clark Kent/Superman. He is heroic, selfless and anonymously helps others without asking for anything in return.

Super-achievement of past year: Developing the Covid-19 playbook has been a major achievement of mine this past year, as we worked to create a roadmap for our team and the larger industry to navigate the challenges presented by the virus.

I am also extremely proud of the updates our team made quickly, efficiently and safely to enhance our senior living communities during the pandemic. From UV cleaning to furnished vestibules enabling comfort and socially distanced visitation, we have worked diligently to protect the health of residents, both physically and mentally.

Advice for young execs: My advice for young execs would be to remain focused on your community. Especially when times are hard, this is the time to invest even more in your community and those who have supported you along the way. In doing so and in your professional career, have the courage to fail acknowledging that our greatest growth comes during the toughest of times; flow forward with momentum and curiosity.

Marshall Burton

Title: President and CEO

Company: Confluent Development

Philanthropy partner: Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation

Real-life superpower (according to Children’s Hospital): Time travel