Working in real estate with Justin Gress


Justin started his career with KPMG in the audit practice. He followed his passion in real estate and landed at Maxus Properties, where he has been exposed to all aspects of accounting and finance. Read on!


  • Maxus Properties
  • Obstacles in the real estate market
  • Preparing for IPO/Acquisition
  • Advice to current public accountants

Justin, thanks for joining. Can you tell us about yourself?

I was born and raised in Kansas City and attended college in Los Angeles, California at The Master’s University. 
I decided to move back to Kansas City after graduation to take a position with KPMG in the audit practice. I worked there for about three years where I had a good mix of public and private clients; primarily focused in the financial services industry. My time there was great, and I learned so much more in my time there than I realized. Some of my mentors still work there and give me great advice to this day – and I’ll be forever indebted to them. 
After KPMG, I landed at Maxus Realty Trust where I’m currently the Director of Financial Reporting.

What was your reasoning for leaving public accounting?

Like a lot of people early on, I concluded that I didn’t want to have a long career in public accounting. My interest in real estate began growing through my personal experience renovating a few houses and dealing with renters, but I didn’t get a lot of exposure to the real estate industry at KPMG.
I wasn’t necessarily looking to leave KPMG, but I ended up making a connection with Maxus and had a mentor that really encouraged me to pursue the opportunity. For me, it was a bit of a leap of faith to take somewhat of an ad hoc analyst role, but ultimately, I knew it was the space I wanted to be in.   
I started my time at Maxus doing quite a bit of non-accounting work ranging from low-income housing tax credit development to investor reporting. There has always been a vision of Maxus re-entering the public markets, so we have been focused on refining our financial reporting process and the content in our public filings since I started. During my time at Maxus, my role has grown into our Director or Financial Reporting and Technical Accounting. In this role, I primarily oversee all our filings, manage the audit process, and prepare our technical accounting memos – which requires quite a bit of researching nuanced guidance since we tend to structure some complicated deals.

What does Maxus do?

Maxus is a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), but we also serve as a property management company. Within the REIT, we have approximately 35 to 40 assets valued at about $2 billion. Almost all our assets are multi-family residential and encompass around 10,000 units in total. Outside of the REIT, we own 15-20 other assets and third-party manage a total of about 20-25 assets - mostly in Kansas City and the surrounding areas.

What did you learn during your time at KPMG that helped you transition to your current role?

For me, I learned a lot from observing. Being around an entire firm of high performers allows you to see how others prioritize work and interact with clients. You learn how they ask questions in the right way to get to the answer 10 times quicker than I would as a first year. Ultimately, I was just trying to leverage other people's experiences and skillsets, apply them to myself, and learn along the way.
Additionally, the technical and problem-solving skills I developed within public accounting helped translate to the fast-paced environment of real estate. Everyone on our team is asked to do a very wide range of tasks depending on whatever pressing projects we have going on. Someone from that public background can naturally step in and figure things out. I think public accounting is one of the best training grounds to develop these skills because you are inherently exposed to countless types of issues and dynamics when you’re working on multiple clients. This experience makes you well versed in so many different areas that are translatable to industry.
Public accounting also provides you with the opportunity to develop business communication skills much faster than you typically would in industry. It’s rare to have the chance to have one-on-one meetings with director level employees conducting walkthroughs and asking questions at such an early point in your career. I’ve found that those communication skills are extremely beneficial after leaving public accounting.

You alluded to potential plans for Maxus to go public. That hasn’t materialized, but can you provide some more detail on how that has changed the scope of your work?

Primarily I’ve been on the financial reporting and technical accounting side, but over the last couple years I’ve had a lot more exposure to the transaction world as we’ve explored going public or potentially an M&A path. It feels like half my time has been spent with investment bankers and lawyers navigating those waters recently. It’s crazy the level of detail it entails. One day you’re answering high level valuation questions and the next you’re going line by line through the general ledger discussing $500 variances. Coming from public accounting, I thought our level of diligence was significant, but it doesn’t compare to the efforts when you might enter into a transaction.
You learn to start seeing the forest through the trees so you can quickly speak to what the investment bankers are trying to resolve. You can easily get bogged down in the minutia of a due diligence request that is 30 tabs long. At the same time, I’ve been exposed to people and processes that I never would have imagined at this point in my career, so it’s been a very valuable experience.

What’s been your biggest takeaway from learning in that type of environment?

I've really seen the value in being able to take a complex set of circumstances or numbers and explain it in a way that’s easily digestible. We get involved in a lot of complicated deals and never seem to have any two deals that are the same. Learning how to navigate these complexities and getting whoever is involved (bankers, lawyers, auditors, etc.) focused on the right set of facts and circumstances makes the process easier for everyone. 
For me professionally that's been a huge thing. Oftentimes in public accounting, it's easy to sit behind your computer, not ask questions, and get through testing. However, most of the headaches that come from that field of work stems from not realizing things you should have flagged on the front end. When you understand how to simplify the problem, you learn to focus in on the things that could really impact an audit, or in my case now, a deal. It helps you raise awareness on the real problems when they arise.

What are some obstacles you all are trying to overcome? 

In real estate, especially in the last few years, things change so quickly. Asset values are fluctuating based on various factors - interest rates, market conditions, etc. - so we’re trying to do whatever we can to not be reactionary and find ways to move a half step ahead of somebody else in the market.
One way we’ve been able to get ahead is by finding creative ways to structure our deals to stick out in an environment where there is so much competition to deploy capital. We don’t operate under the mindset that just because something worked well for the past 18 months, that it will keep working in the future. Kudos to our executive team for always thinking ahead of the curve. 
It’s been great to get a front row seat to that outside of my accounting and reporting responsibilities. I’m programmed to be backwards looking, but I’m now able to look through the lens of what’s the next thing around the corner and how we prepare for it.

If a public accountant came to you looking for career guidance, what advice would you give them? 

For me it was helpful just to follow what interested me. If you have something that you're passionate about and you want to try it out, then go do it. I'm glad I did. 
Anyone I've talked to who's left public accounting before making manager - which is the common misconception - seems to always turn out well. We all have passions that we’re naturally inclined to want to do, and if you follow them, it’ll give you a more fulfilling career. If you lead with that conviction when deciding on a career change, you’ll be hungry and eager to work hard which in turn will lead to plenty of opportunity, regardless of what year you left public. You may not start out doing exactly what you want to do, like I did, but there’s always room to grow into something you want if you put in the work.

To close, any forward-looking insight?

When I first started my career, I was a big proponent of having defined plans laid out. Since leaving public accounting and being at Maxus longer, I've thrown that out the window in some ways. You see how fast things change in the business world. One day, I think ‘X’ might be my role here at Maxus for the rest of my career and we’re going to be this large $5b public company. Then those plans change, and we start to go down a different path. I've learned many times that you can develop a plan and then that plan tends to fall apart quickly. 
I've changed my approach and now I simply keep an open mind about what's going on and ask a lot of questions along the way. Pursue what it is that interests you. Network with people who have gone through something similar and pick their brain. All those things will help you figure out what the next step is to get to where you want to go.
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