A Journey and a Destination

7 minute read

Don Brunner, President and CEO of BRG Realty Group in Cincinnati, is NAA’s 2022 Chairman of the Board.

There are certain skills required to become a leader, and the capacity for success centers on hard work and the ability to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves. There is a journey many take, whether it is working their way up the corporate ladder or gaining continuing workplace education and professional experience. Not all voyages to a successful career and leadership positions are the same.

The journey that Don Brunner, a lifelong Ohioan, has traveled in the rental housing industry thus far is nothing short of remarkable. Brunner started on the multifamily supplier side 24 years ago, and after six years, he transitioned to the property management side of the industry and is now President and CEO of BRG Realty Group based in Cincinnati.

When asked what he values most as a leader, Brunner said, “My favorite thing is the growth and the success of our team members. Watching employees grow their career; providing them opportunities to grow; giving them the tools to grow; as well as seeing them grow financially, that’s the number one satisfaction. As a result of these actions, business thrives.”

Brunner’s commitment and leadership in the professional world and at his local industry associations have culminated in his installation as the 2022 National Apartment Association Chairman of the Board.

“Don understands that success is all due to the hard work and effort of our team members, and since he has served in every role in operations, he understands what it takes to be successful, and he believes strongly in education and career advancement,” says Jeff March, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of BRG Realty.

A Brief Overview

Brunner began his career in the rental housing industry with Globe Furniture Rental. Globe was eventually acquired by CORT. Brunner transitioned to property management with Towne Properties from 2004-2012 as a District Manager. Following his time with Towne Properties, he started Denizen, a third-party management company. He was President for several years before selling his interest and joining his current employer, BRG Realty Group, as Chief Operating Officer in 2015. In July 2021, Brunner was named President and CEO.

Throughout this time, Brunner held an active presence in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern KY Apartment Association as Past President, Greater Dayton Apartment Association as Past President, Columbus Apartment Association as Vice-President and Ohio Apartment Association as Past President. He served on the Board of Directors for the Indiana Apartment Association. During the same time, Brunner served as NAA Region 3 Vice President for seven years. Brunner said he is very appreciative of BRG’s Executive Chairmen, March and Bruce Hellman, who support his association efforts unconditionally.

While outwardly modest about his accomplishments and achievements, Brunner remembers his roots as a rental housing industry newcomer and how he climbed to become a leader in the industry.

“Don is a strong leader who is not afraid to take charge and make the right and sometimes difficult decision,” says March. “He is also a collaborative leader who works to build consensus, and he expects high standards and excellence from both himself and his team members. While an imposing physical figure, Don is extremely caring about all BRG team members and their families, and he will be the first one to be there for them in their time of need. Don is a man of action who works with the team to achieve our goals, but not just as a delegator—he is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Challenges Along the Way

“It was a challenge transitioning from the supplier side of our industry to the property management side,” says Brunner. “There was much to learn about the business—I am still learning. A couple examples are the understanding of landlord-tenant laws, fair housing and ever-changing local ordinances.”

Other adjustments Brunner faced surrounded operations and understanding what data points translate to at certain times. “In 2008-2009, if you were at 85% occupancy, you were considered really good and 90%, you were amazing. Now, at 95%, I’m concerned. I want to know what’s going on at 95% versus years gone by.”

Another challenge Brunner sees is that not everyone understands what working in the rental housing industry means. “Many people that I talk to don’t understand what we do,” he says. “I think it’s because we’re in it, we just assume people do. There are so many career paths available. As an industry, we need better communication about who we are, what we do and what we have to offer.

“I think we can all agree that the last two years have been challenging in many ways. One way has been navigating our political environment. This has highlighted the need for lobbying at the local, state and national levels. I have appreciated the opportunities presented to me to speak on behalf of our industry. I encourage others to communicate with their legislators.”

Family, Friends, Business

There is a rigid order in Brunner’s life. “It’s family, friends and then the business,” he says. “Family is always first. I have an amazing wife who is my true partner. We have a mutual love of our industry. She has been a supplier with RentPath for 17 years.”

Brunner has a blended family. His son, Jeff Brunner, is also a supplier in the industry with Rite Rug. He has five stepchildren (he likes to call them his bonus kids)—Bobby Minelli, Mark (Emily) Minelli, Sammy Minelli, Katie Minelli Roark (Tyler) and Mollie Minelli Flynn (Joe). He has four grandchildren: Tommy and Nico Minelli and Walker and MaryKate Roark.

“No matter how busy you are you have to make time for family,” says Brunner. “I had the privilege of being installed as Chairman in November with my wife at my side by my dear friend and business partner, Jeff March. I was so proud to have my family, my BRG family and my friends witness this monumental occasion.”

Brunner also is confident that his time with local and state associations and NAA have provided him the guidance and knowledge needed for success. “My first involvement with an association was with Greater Cincinnati/Northern KY as a member of the Associate Council,” Brunner says. “I would be remiss if I did not thank Mark Franks. Mark is my dear friend. Throughout the years, he has been my advisor and always offered 100 percent support and encouragement. I thank him for that.”

Being present in the association world has allowed BRG to stay up to speed on industry trends. Whether it is products and services, technology or legislative issues, the associations are always a good resource. “As a leader at BRG and NAA, it is my goal to use these resources for the growth and success of both BRG and NAA.”

Future and Legacy

While Brunner and BRG are competitive in the market, they are currently selective in their new business ventures. “It’s hard given the economy to purchase today, so based on that, we’re holding our cards and waiting for the right time,” Brunner says. “We are always looking for new opportunities whether it is to build, buy or improve.”

BRG also started a construction services business where they provide rehabs for currently owned communities as well as HVAC and plumbing services. This is one side of the business Brunner hopes to expand to better serve communities and a way for maintenance teams to grow their careers.

Brunner has mentored many in the industry and provided opportunities to assist people with career advancements. “When I attend events and witness the successes of those people who I have crossed paths with over the years, it is fulfilling,” he says. “Watching the growth of an individual and knowing that I helped in some small way is very satisfying. Examples of this are: Jen Illanz, BRG’s Marketing Director, has been elected President of the Greater Dayton Apartment Association for 2022. Mike Marcus, BRG’s Director of Maintenance, will be filling my seat on the Greater Cincinnati/Northern KY Apartment Association’s Board of Directors for 2022. Nichole Wiley, BRG’s Senior Community Manager, was appointed as Co-Chair of the Greater Cincinnati/Northern KY Apartment Association’s first ever Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. I am proud of their accomplishments. I always want to encourage the best in everyone. As a leader, I want to see all of my team members happy and successful.”

Perhaps most telling, when asked about his legacy, Brunner says, “I want it to be work hard, have fun and end each day knowing that I have done my best.”

Michael Miller is Managing Editor for NAA.