Fast-Growing Multifamily Firm Cortland Hires 'Culture Warrior' from Retail World

"Cortland, one of the largest multifamily owners in the United States that's also growing aggressively in the United Kingdom, has picked a former grocery chain executive for a key human resources position.

Atlanta-based Cortland has hired Alison Smith to lead the firm's hiring, development and workforce engagement programs. As Cortland's top human resources officer, Smith's position covers more than 2,000 employees in the United States and United Kingdom. "She basically is our CHRO," or chief human resources officer, Cortland CEO Steven DeFrancis said.

As the company adds to its portfolio and workforce, DeFrancis said Smith's position as head of talent is a critical one at Cortland. 'We're recruiting constantly and trying to grow the ranks of our talent.'

Smith joined Cortland from a professional training and management consulting firm, but she's spent most of her career in the retail world, where she worked for 22 years for Publix Super Markets, a Florida-based grocery chain with stores across the Southeast. When she departed Publix in June 2018, Smith was senior vice president of human resources, a role in which she led the entire human resources function and reported directly to the CEO.

Smith's career at Publix, which stressed the importance of customer service, meshes with Cortland's strategy of providing the best possible living experience at its apartments, DeFrancis said.

'Her background working for a customer-centric company, that definitely played a big part,' of Smith being selected for the position, DeFrancis said in an interview. 'If we get somebody from another apartment company, we're not going to learn anything there. Apartment companies aren't very customer-centric historically.'

Hiring top talent is very competitive, DeFrancis said. Though the "war for talent" has taken somewhat of a pause because of the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic, DeFrancis said it will pick up again, and that the battle for the best people is won on culture."