Interview with Christopher Nelson of Thrive Communities
Updated: Nov 15, 2022
Listen on Apple Podcast here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/interview-with-christopher-nelson-of-thrive-communities/id1520681893?i=1000564672791
Welcome back to the Passive Mobile Home Park Investing Podcast, hosted by Andrew Keel. On this episode of the Passive Mobile Home Park Investing Podcast, Andrew talks with Christopher Nelson of Thrive Communities. Andrew and Christopher discuss Thrive Communities and how Thrive uses certain strategies for growth in the manufactured housing community space. Christopher also shares his journey into real estate and why mobile home parks are a good investment opportunity.
Christopher Nelson is the Co-Founder and Principal of Wealthward Capital, a real estate private equity investment firm. Wealthward Capital invests in cash flowing, institutional grade assets - such as mobile home parks, apartment buildings and ATM's. His focus is meeting with operators and finding the next investment opportunity. When not looking for cash flowing investment opportunities, Christopher is spending time with investors educating them on building thriving passive income portfolios.
Andrew Keel is the owner of Keel Team, LLC, a Top 100 Owner of Manufactured Housing Communities with over 2,000 lots under management. His team currently manages over 30 manufactured housing communities across more than ten states. His expertise is in turning around under-managed manufactured housing communities by utilizing proven systems to maximize the occupancy while reducing operating costs. He specializes in bringing in homes to fill vacant lots, implementing utility bill back programs, and improving overall management and operating efficiencies, all of which significantly boost the asset value and net operating income of the communities.
Andrew has been featured on some of the Top Podcasts in the manufactured housing space, click here to listen to his most recent interviews: https://www.keelteam.com/podcast-links. In order to successfully implement his management strategy Andrew's team usually moves on location during the first several months of ownership. Find out more about Andrew's story at AndrewKeel.com
Would you like to see mobile home park projects in progress? If so, follow us on Instagram: @passivemhpinvesting for photos and awesome videos from our recent mobile home park acquisitions.
00:21 - Welcome to the Passive Mobile Home Park Investing Podcast
01:30 - Christopher's story and journey into real estate and mobile home parks
04:08 - Christopher's background in technology
06:28 - Thrive Community Fund and Christopher's current portfolio
10:48 - Park-owned homes versus tenant-owned homes
12:47 - Christopher's first park and where they are now
13:30 - Christopher's process for growth
15:36 - The toughest hurdle in the MHP space
17:24 - Getting educated in the mobile home park industry
20:00 - What should passive investors look out for when investing in the MHP space 23:13 - Christopher's perfect mobile home park
24:30 - The future of mobile home parks
27:50 - The long term plan for the Thrive Community Fund
31:00 - Getting a hold of Christopher Nelson
31:46 - Conclusion
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Links & Mentions from This Episode:
Thrive Communy Fund: https://www.thrivecommunity.fund/
Keel Team's official website: https://www.keelteam.com/
Andrew Keel's official website: https://www.andrewkeel.com/
Andrew Keel LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andrewkeel
Andrew Keel Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PassiveMHPinvestingPodcast
Andrew Keel Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/passivemhpinvesting/ Twitter: @MHPinvestors
Andrew: Welcome to the Passive Mobile Home Park Investing podcast. This is your host, Andrew Keel. Today we have an amazing guest in Mr. Christopher Nelson of Wealthward Capital. Before we dive in, I want to ask you a favor. Would you mind taking an extra 30 seconds and head over to iTunes to rate this podcast with five stars? This helps us get more listeners and it means the absolute world to me. Thanks for making my day with that review of the show.
All right, let's dive in. Christopher Nelson is an experienced technology executive, real estate investor, author, and co-founder of Wealthward Capital. Wealthward Capital is a real estate investment firm with a diverse portfolio of over 3000 multifamily units, mobile home parks, and ATMs. Christopher shows technology employees how to achieve financial independence through education on creating passive income portfolios. He is currently editing his book From No Dough to IPO.
Christopher, we are excited to welcome you to this show.
Christopher: Andrew, I have to let you know that I am super excited too. I'm a long-time listener and excited to be a part of the podcast.
Andrew: Awesome, man. Can you start off by telling our listeners a little bit about your story and how you got into manufactured housing communities?
Christopher: Sure. My story was one of sudden wealth. I think it's something that does happen to a lot of employees who do work in technology where I was heads down working for a number of years in a larger company then I made a decision to go work for a startup company and really try to get some equity that I can then turn around and invest into real estate.
As it goes, I wasn't 100% sure what I was doing so the first one was an abject failure, made no money, but I had a lot of healthy scar tissues. I went back and actually used an investor's lens to choose my second company and that one turned out to be a home run. It went through multiple seven-figure IPO.
What I didn't realize is that there is a psychological syndrome called sudden wealth where when you go through that experience, while it's exciting, it is also very nerve-racking. For myself, I didn't want to be the person that made it and then lost it all. That was really part of my journey at that point to realize how to turn this into a financial fortress for myself and my family and set us out to be financially independent.
That journey then led to how do I actually underwrite real estate? How do I become a passive investor? I wanted to be the best LP possible. While I was doing that, I found some phenomenal investments working for some great operators. I had a lot of friends back in Silicon Valley that raised their hand and said how do we get involved too? I realized that finding passive income is something that plagues a lot of us now that the bond market is fundamentally broken.
I started off in multifamily. In 2017 and 2016, even before that, I was investing in multifamily where you had phenomenal yields of 8%, 9% 10% cash on cash return. There could even be some cash-out REFIs as we saw interest rates go to historic lows. What started happening in the last two to three years is that as asset prices continue to rise, all of a sudden, that income level shrank.
For myself being this passive income-focused investor and really understanding that I needed to get 7% or more out of my investments, that's what took me on the journey from multifamily to mobile home parks.
Andrew: I think a lot of our listeners can relate to you so I'm really excited to dive in today. Do you mind if we step back a second and talk about your technology career? I saw Splunk, which looks like data analytics. Could you share a little about your time there, your role, and then maybe how some of those characteristics carried over into what you do today?
Christopher: Sure. I play a role in the information technology or IT department at technology companies. I actually implement and manage the business system—the financial systems, the CRM systems, and the marketing systems. I usually build out the teams that implement these systems for these businesses and help them grow in scale.
When I was at Splunk, this was a real opportunity to help a company that was 18–24 months from an IPO. It turned out to be 11 months after I joined, but to really help them understand how they can be more efficient and grow faster in scale because in technology companies, the faster that you can go from $100 million in revenue to a billion dollars is really going to impact your stock price. We were able to accomplish that in five years.
I learned that being able to, number one, be nimble in your processes, understand how you iterate, how you do a level of work, and then you actually make it incrementally better every time you do it again, and then also being exposed to the financial systems. I think that's what's really translated for me being a very astute passive investor in being able to start underwriting investments to being able to partner with operators, understand, and dig in, how are they running their business? Where are they actually getting their reports? What are their key performance indicators or KPIs?
I would say that that W-2 experience translated very well into being a passive investor. Quite honestly, this is where I want to be in the sense that I love being somebody who is an executive of my portfolio, overseeing it, and partnering with the operators and helping them be better versus being the person who's actually in the park or in the facility doing the work myself.
Andrew: That makes a ton of sense. Maybe you can tell us about your current portfolio, maybe tell us about Thrive Community Fund. I just looked at your website and looked at some of your returns from some of the multifamily and projects you had on there and I saw that the mobile home parks had the highest equity multiple in terms of return standpoint. I always like to point that out because mobile home parks give us a little more.
Christopher: Yeah, equity multiple, and I think what's even more important is the cash on cash return. Right now, The Thrive Community Fund is returning 10.5% cash on cash return today. That blows people's minds. I will say that number one, the journey from multifamily to the mobile home park has been tremendous and I think it's been a great learning experience.
I think the key takeaways for me is, let's not mince words, when you think of a passive income portfolio, multifamily is really sort of the meat in potatoes. People then look at mobile home parks and say, well, could that really be the main course? Is that something that's really more of an appetizer or it's more of a dessert? How do I bring that in?
I think the more that I understand and analyze the asset class and I realized, wait, this is a shrinking asset class. As we go in, people are buying up mobile home parks to build multifamily, to build a class multifamily. You have this shrinking asset class. We're not building parks as fast as we are taking them out.
Then you actually have this huge demographic, this need for affordable housing, that all of a sudden just blew up my mind with this sort of supply and demand. I also realized that they're a lot more efficient to run. When you look at the expense ratio of a multifamily or multifamily value add that can be 50% plus expenses, all of a sudden, you look at a well run mobile home park and you are 35% or below expense ratio, all of a sudden, I realized this is where the cash flow is.
I also realized that it was very similar to multifamily four or five years ago where not a lot of people are in this space. While you hear a lot about it, and there are a lot of institutions in there, they're very focused on a niche of these five-star parks that are in these very specific locations and specific sizes. That's where they're going and fighting over versus for us, the Thrive Community Fund, we wanted to, number one, look at markets that were getting the benefit of growth from primary markets that were just booming.
This is where we chose Fayetteville, North Carolina, which is right outside of Raleigh Durham, not too far from Charlotte or even the triad itself—Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. It has a huge military presence so it has this really established population and growth. From that, you also have three small universities, and you have a medical center that's developing there as well.
We realized there was a huge influx of population and a great need, but there was also geographic density. Fayetteville, North Carolina has 400 mobile home parks. When you think about it, 100 of those are the hundred pads and above where there's a lot of big money chasing it.
Our strategy was we wanted to be a blue ocean, sort of coming from tech. How do we disrupt? Our goal was how do we get some three-star parks that are 75 pads or less. We go and we acquire 150 to start with and then continue to add from there. We run it as a single portfolio where we actually have the efficiencies of operations because of that geographic colocation.
That's essentially what we've done and is the model of the Thrive Community Fund. Also really partnering with our tenants to make sure that we are allowing them to thrive, so we do have a post stabilization where we have an optimization phase. We want to bring in social services and we want to really allow the community to lean in and help those residents thrive.
Andrew: I love that. Tell me, park-owned homes or tenant-owned homes, which model do you prefer?
Christopher: We prefer to buy park owned and then we want to transition the park to tenant-owned. You'll find that we're finding mom and pop owned smaller parks that usually have the majority as going to be parked on homes. They usually have an occupancy that's probably 70% or less. Why? It's a cash-run business. These owners are making their number, they don't need it.
We find that the majority of the owners that we're talking with are of retirement age and they're looking to get out. They're tired and so they're running it in a way where it's very easy for us to not pay market for that particular property, and then to quickly update some of those homes, get new tenants in there, and start running it at a 95% occupancy. That's a value add phase one versus then doing infrastructure updates to value-added phase two.
Andrew: Very cool. It's a conversion model. Park-owned homes are then converted with a lease option.
Christopher: A hundred percent lease option to buy. We want to make sure that we are partnering with our tenants and ensuring that we're getting the right tenants in our park that truly want to partner with us. At the end of the day, we want to have long-term relationships with our tenants. We do want to help them thrive in our parks and then in life in general.
You'll find that my operating partners come out of Fort Bragg, come out of the Special Operations services, and our primary focus is physical safety. We want to make sure that all of our parks are beyond none. People feel like their kids can be running around the park. They can go to the bus stop, and there is nothing unsavory or untoward going on in the park so that everyone feels, first and foremost, physically safe.
Andrew: That's great. When did you guys buy your first park?
Christopher: Bought our first park in July of 2021.
Andrew: Awesome and how many are you up to now?
Christopher: We purchased 11 parks so far. We're actually closed out our first fund. In our first one, we were bringing together our partnership team. We wanted to do a $3 million fund and it actually had a $5 million ceiling. We raised $4 million, 300 pads with 250 homes. There is an opportunity for some infill there. We literally closed that out last month and that was through 11 parks.
Andrew: Wow, 11 parks since July 2021. What type of systems, processes and teams do you have to support that amount of massive growth?
Christopher: The interesting thing is, as far as the team goes, we have three main partners. We have ourselves. I have Bo [...], who is our on-the-ground operating partner. Then we have our senior partner, Ryan Noris, who a lot of people know through the Archimedes Group, who is coming in and providing us.
Our focus is really on automation. How do we actually leverage pay near me so that we actually have cashless operations. That is a huge component to convert the park over. The other opportunity that we had is as we were acquiring these different parks, taking the best operators that were in the different parks and creating sort of a dream team. We had the chance to assemble our own Avengers to actually have park operations then we have somebody who's really over collections.
From my time as a technology executive, I always look at what we can actually back office and have a centralized team that can manage outbound calling that can respond to a lot of the sales versus who do we actually need in the parks. That's really what we've done through a series of offsites is broken down each operation step by step. Make sure that we know what we need in the park versus what we need in our operation center if you will.
Quite honestly, we're building that out in one of the parks and we're actually looking to employ some tenants there so that we can really actually create this community of people that are, hey, I'm not just calling you to check on this or do that but I'm actually a resident in this park too and we're in this partnership of parks that can really help you grow.
Andrew: Very cool. Yeah, I didn't know Bo and Ryan were a part of your group. That's really cool. That's a good little triad you have there.
Christopher: Yeah. Great group and we just have a ton of energy together.
Andrew: Very cool. What has been the toughest hurdle for you so far in the mobile home park business?
Christopher: It's so interesting, I think when you partner with the right people, it makes things easier. I would say that the two challenges, number one, have been educating my investors that are fed on multifamily by educating them on mobile home parks. I think that there is a level of wait, what is this, not understanding, not getting clear. I think overcoming that by just education, education, education.
This is truly what I believe in as an investor is that you have to see it. You have to understand the nuts and the bolts of how it works, break it down for people so that they understand the thesis, and then get the result. That's also why we started with a smaller fund first so that we could actually be producing results very quickly for our investors and then we actually have a clear track record of what we're producing. Here's how we're executing. I would say that's number one.
Then I'd say number two like any venture is teams coming together and moving into position. Knowing Bo, Ryan, and myself, strong personalities, leaders who lead-in. It's been a blast, but figuring out how to move everyone into their position, turn the crank and get everything moving has been uber fun. I think that's also where we've also had some of the most passionate conversations too.
Andrew: I bet. I assume your introduction into the mobile home park industry is fairly new, compared to your multifamily, which you have quite a lot, quite a few units. How did you get educated in the mobile home park industry?
Christopher: Actually, while I am a big passive investor, I like to laugh and say we're a house divided. My wife is also my partner in Wealthward Capital. She also has Wealthward Realty and she is a huge active investor. She likes to buy and own things. The way that this happened, I think, is serendipitous in that we were getting great returns in our single-family home portfolio that we bought here in Central Texas in 2017 is 15% cash on cash return. It's just crushing it.
My wife said, where can we invest? What can we do more here? I see you're growing this whole passive thing, I want to get into something. She started looking around and she found RV parks, she found mobile home parks. When we looked at the operations, we thought mobile home parks would be easier.
The only mobile home park guy that I knew at that time in my network was Bo, so I called Bo thinking we are going to go remote to buy a mobile home park. He just really started asking some very open-ended questions and thinking about this and what about that.
At the same time, I emailed a friend of mine in California who bought an out of state mobile home park in Memphis, Tennessee. He sent me back this email that I'm happy to share with you that reads like a horror movie script of the tenant burns down a home, charging me, and moving things in. I was just like, oh my gosh.
Then I leaned into Bo and went, what exactly are you doing with mobile home parks? How can I participate? That's really how I got into it from an investment perspective. I've been watching the asset classes. One of the things that I do as a passive investor is I always have what I am investing in. What I invest in and then what I bring to my team is always different because I'll make investments where I'm trying to vet operators and do other things.
Mobile home parks were always on my next list to go to. I really wanted to invest in somebody like Ryan Noris, but he didn't take accredited investors at the time so this also then created the opportunity where we could create a vehicle where my family and I with Ryan are actually lead investors on what we're doing here and Thrive Community Fund so we're getting the opportunity to get exposure to it. Then we're also in the operations team.
Andrew: I love it. From a passive investor standpoint, what are the most important things that these limited partners, passive investors need to look out for when investing in mobile home parks?
Christopher: I think like anything else, operator, operator, operator. At the end of the day, the operator is either going to make or break it. When I think about operators, I always look at either the track record of success in real estate or they've done something else that sets them up for success in real estate. They have a track record of success on one thing or the other.
The other thing I look at is what is their passion level? What is their commitment? Why are they doing it? Are they doing it because they truly believe in the asset class? Are they really just trying to turn a dollar I believe that the passion of the operator has to be deeper than the dollar because when things get hard and you may be losing money at that time as an operator because you're trying to take care of your investors, that's when the faint of heart are going to retreat. Those are the things that I look for.
As a passive investor, I think it is so important that passive investors understand the mechanics. You don't need to understand all the details like do you need to know how to go in and change your furnace? Or replace a water heater and a mobile home? No, you don't.
Do you need to be able to look across a P&L and go, how is the income is generated? Why is a lot of rent versus home rent different? Why is that important? Understanding the expense line and knowing, okay, what should that normally look like? Then also understanding the fundamentals of debt and why is this debt better than that debt.
I think that as a passive investor, if you know that, and then you have the strength of an operator that you have a good solid relationship with, you can then put that together because the operator is going to be coming with the thesis of why this market, why this asset class that you can then understand. Does that meet your criteria or not?
Then I think the other component is transparency. That's something that we're very bullish on. From a technology perspective, I'm a few iterations away, but I want to be able to get to the point where investors can actually click in and see what's happening in park operations in real-time because they're partners and they should be able to. I believe that that level of transparency is also what separates good operators from great operators because the more transparent you are, the more that you create yourselves as a partner is important.
One of the things that we've done to support that and move in that direction is we've created an investor advisory board at Thrive Community Funds. I take key investors that I know are very experienced. I bring them in, we sit down, and we go through the books, the business plan in minute detail. We pay for them to come on-site every year and host them. We'll be doing our first one here in September. We're going to host them on-site, show them, walk them through the operations, and have a big party.
Andrew: Wow, that's fantastic. That's really cool. That's a good idea. What does the perfect mobile home park look like in your eyes and why?
Christopher: I think the perfect mobile home park, I'll tell you right now, does not look beautiful in the sense of aesthetics. I think what it looks like is you have residents who are in there who are doing very well. They are able to be on top of their rent, they're able to feel that they're physically safe, that they are emotionally supported in their homes, and they don't feel at risk. I want to make sure that we're helping them move up Maslow's hierarchy.
Then you have an operations team that is careful and diligent in the way that we're managing, being very respectful of those tenants, and we're executing a business plan that is making it a day over day, month over month, look better. As a result of that relationship of good healthy operations, a nice healthy growing tenant base, we're kicking off unbelievable returns to investors that are able to then look at this and say, we're helping other people in our country who are struggling to find a good solid safe roof over their head, live very well, and as a result of this, we're doing well. To me, that's the ideal investment.
Andrew: That's a win-win truly. Tell us about the future of mobile home parks and where do you see this going? How do you see them fitting in with the inflation, a possible recession on the horizon, and interest rates rising? How do you think mobile home parks will be affected?
Christopher: There's such a huge need for mobile home parks. Where do I see mobile home parks? I see there's a huge opportunity to really aggregate more mobile home parks, complete infill, get more homes in those parks, and run those efficiently. When I say run it efficiently, this to me is the partnership. We want the tenants to own the homes, we want them to be homeowners, and we want them to be able to ultimately lower their overall cost of living, but we do want them to be responsible for the utilities.
Our partnership is helping them understand what it means to be a renter and a homeowner in the United States so that hopefully they can graduate to somewhere else where maybe they ultimately own their own home somewhere else. We want to be in that partnership. I see us continuing to evolve that.
I do see that we are in a period right now where I do believe that there still is a large opportunity to buy. I do see that there is. When I think about the silver tsunami and the baby boomers retiring, I see a large swath of mobile home park operators that are looking for an opportunity to turn over their park to somebody else. Quite honestly, a lot of these people are legacy-minded. They built it so they want to turn it over to a company like the Keel Team, like Thrive that is going to really take care of what they've built and evolve that.
I do think that we have to be very cautious and aware of interest rates. But at the same time, I think that depending on how you buy in mobile home parks, I don't think that interest rates are going to be as impactful as they are in multifamily. I do think that when you think about recession resistance, if the economy goes down, more people are going to come out of apartments that are going to be looking for mobile home parks.
Where we are in Fayetteville, we've put our last home online and we had—in less than 24 hours—no more than 200 applications. The need for this is off the charts and where we're operating right now, we can't meet demand fast enough. Obviously, you have to go through and vet. Out of the 200, there's probably a subset of that that you really want in, but the demand is huge. I do think that from a recession-resistant perspective, it's there.
Where do I see the future? I see owners like us should be looking to own our parks in perpetuity and we should be looking to leverage new technology like real estate tokenization so that we can to actually take the parks that we own, fractionalize them, and let people get liquidity if they need to, but the people who want the income from these cash-producing assets can own it as long as we want.
Andrew: Very cool. That brings me to the next question. What's the long-term plan for the Thrive Community Fund? Is it buy and hold forever? Is it buy, aggregate, and then sell off to a bigger group? What does that look like?
Christopher: We do believe that we want to buy and hold in perpetuity. We believe that we want to create the Thrive Communities to be a brand, to be a place. Our long-term vision is that somebody sees a Thrive Park and they'll be like, I may not be in the most optimal situation, but if I go live it at Thrive, I'm going to set myself up so that I can get on to what's next. I can graduate out, I can move on, or I can live there and feel that I'm actually living below my means. I'm actually saving money, I'm actually doing very well here in the park. We want that brand to live in perpetuity.
This is where I think you have the fusion of you have these ex veterans that operate at a very, very high level coming from the Special Operations. You have a mobile home park operator who says, how do we make our operations more efficient and we tokenize it. We basically take these large PPMS, turn them down into these smart contracts, and then float them on an exchange so that if I own 200,000 of these tokens and all of a sudden, I want some liquidity because I want to send my kids to college, I want to go buy a boat, whatever I want to do as the investor, I can then get the liquidity.
As the park owners, we can get liquidity too, but we can own that park in perpetuity and then give all of the benefits of ownership to our [...].
Andrew: That’s very cool. The tokenization theory is pretty cool. What do you think about the timeline on something like that before it becomes reality as well?
Christopher: It's happening right now. I've done a lot of research and we are planning and have in our PPMs the ability to tokenize in the future. I believe that the timeline is three to five years before that is something where you can take any asset that you have and say, okay, I'm ready to tokenize it, you're moving off your PPMs and platforms, and everyone gets these tokens that they can then go and trade on the market.
We're not that far off and this is where I'm trying to encourage, especially owners that have great cash-flowing assets to start thinking about the future. Let me take a step back. The only reason great owners sell these properties is so that we can do the right thing for our investors and provide them liquidity.
I also believe there are other operators here that are motivated because they say, wait, me selling these properties is actually me becoming a millionaire even if I have millionaires on the other side that love the cash flow. Our incentives aren't aligned and I need to turn this property so that I can get my seven, eight figures and then go buy my boats versus how do we actually serve everybody and say, let's actually move this to this platform where we're getting liquidity.
Ultimately, the goal is how do we actually just bring good viable income products back to the market. I also believe that those of us who are able to hold on to these cash-flowing assets in the long term are going to win the game.
Andrew: Awesome. Christopher, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. This has just been a really awesome value-packed episode, so thank you.
Christopher: My pleasure. Anytime.
Andrew: Christopher before I forget, if people would like to get a hold of you, what is the best way for them to do so?
Christopher: Thrivecommunity.fund. If you go to the website thrivecommunity.fund, you'll be able to get a free webinar, see what we're doing in the Thrive Community, and then you'll be able to be notified of anything that's upcoming as it comes up. We actually have right now a portfolio under the contract that's roughly going to double the size and we're going to be opening our second fund in late April or early May.
Andrew: Awesome. Again, Christopher, thank you so much for coming to the show.
Christopher: My pleasure, Andrew, thank you so much.
Andrew: All right. That's it. Thanks for tuning in.