Now more than ever, how we communicate with our business partners matters. Leading with empathy and shared values can tighten teams and help solve complex challenges. It can also help leaders forge critical partnerships that stand the test of time. That’s been the case for affordable housing organization Mercy Housing Southeast, whose team has relied on Truist to help them build better lives and communities since the early 2000s.
Here, the nonprofit’s president, James Alexander, shares how communication between their teams has grown—and how that has paid off for their newest community in Atlanta, Thrive Sweet Auburn.
- Supply disruptions that threatened the completion date
- Construction costs that skyrocketed beyond initial projections
- Complex financing sources and funding gaps
- Seeking diverse insights outside the region and industry
- Providing transparent updates to investors about emerging issues
- Developing caring relationships that foster creative problem-solving
Mercy Housing Southeast
Mercy Housing, Inc., a national nonprofit founded in 1981
501(c)(3) nonprofit providing affordable housing and resident services
11 to 50
Truist client for 15+ years
Truist Community Capital and Mercy Housing Southeast: Beyond the bricks and sticks
The needs of residents in affordable housing are deep and diverse—and so is the expertise that Truist provides to help clients in this complex space. One example is our relationship with Atlanta-based Mercy Housing Southeast (MHSE).
“Truist helped launch the first Mercy Housing Southeast development in the Atlanta area, called Orchard Grove,” says James Alexander, president of MHSE. Over the past two decades, with help from Truist, Mercy Housing Southeast has created more than 1,000 affordable homes in more than 10 developments in the Atlanta area.
The vision for their most recent joint venture came from one of Mercy Housing’s nonprofit partners, Project Community Connections Inc. For more than 20 years, PCCI has been working with partners like MHSE to help Atlantans experiencing housing insecurity. So it’s no surprise that when renovations were needed at PCCI’s offices (located in the city’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood), the nonprofit went above and beyond.
In the new building, their first-floor headquarters will share space with a community kitchen and other amenities, and the three stories overhead will contain 117 affordable apartments for households earning 30% to 80% of the area’s median income. To put this in perspective, James notes that these residents are often the essential workers of our economy. “They’re people making less than $50,000 a year. They’re working in retail. They’re working in healthcare. They’re delivering food to our apartments and homes,” he says.
After hearing PCCI’s plans, MHSE was more than happy to lend a hand—and take the project to the next level: enriching the housing with services that can help residents thrive. Access to transportation, nutrition advice, academic help, and job coaching is part of the framework for MHSE developments like this one, which has been aptly named Thrive Sweet Auburn. “We want residents to be successful in whatever way they define that,” he says.
“Truist has seen it all before, so it’s less about whether there will be bumps in the road and more about how we’ll deal with them together.”
President, Mercy Housing Southeast
Going above and beyond has always been a challenge, notes James, especially since traditional financing often won’t cover service-related costs. But with Thrive Sweet Auburn, which broke ground at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, additional challenges arose. Construction costs skyrocketed and supply chains crumpled.
Thanks to the trust built during the decades-long relationship between Mercy Housing Southeast and Truist, James didn’t feel he had to hide the struggles from his partners at the bank. He reached out to Colin Whittier, his Truist Commercial Real Estate relationship manager, and asked what Truist Community Capital was seeing with other clients. What was happening in the region? With construction costs across the board? What has been the impact on the global economy? How were others navigating it—even in other industries and countries—and how could Mercy Housing Southeast adapt that knowledge to help the nonprofit thrive?
Watch the video to see some of the creative solutions that emerged in the process, and read on for their insights on how to have the kinds of conversations that can help you and your partners be successful, together.
James’ and Colin’s tips: Caring topics can build stronger business ties.
“These affordable housing deals aren’t one and done,” says Colin. “Among other things, Truist has provided low-income housing tax credits, which have a 10-year investment period, and a 15-year permanent loan. When you know you’ll be working together for that kind of time, it becomes even more beneficial to connect on deeper levels.”
For James and Colin, that means spending a good portion of each conversation empathizing with all stakeholders involved: the community, Mercy Housing Southeast residents, and each other. Here are a few topics they say have helped them bond.
Find common ground in your mission and purpose.
More companies are communicating their mission statement and purpose to clients and their communities. But many leaders still don’t discuss these drivers with other partners, such as lenders and investors.
“Our partnership with Mercy Housing Southeast starts with a shared purpose,” says Colin. “Before the Truist purpose was put into words—to inspire and build better lives and communities—their organization was doing that. So James believes in our purpose as much as we do, and vice versa. It’s hugely powerful when you find a partnership that fulfills your purpose and your client’s as well.”
Share personal passions to promote professional openness.
It’s natural to be guarded at first. “Over the past three years, Colin and I have gotten past that,” James says. “Both of our daughters are musically inclined, so we talk about music and piano and singing lessons almost as much as business.”
“Building that personal connection really makes a difference,” says Colin, “because when there are issues, our clients feel like they can pick up the phone and talk to us in a more personal manner.”
Bonus tip from Truist Leadership Institute: Try using the Listen-Ask-Tell approach to show you really care what others are saying. That means listening (without judging or commenting), asking open-ended questions, and then telling the other person something that can help direct their next steps.
“It’s not about the return on this one deal. It’s about how we can help each other be successful so our community can be successful.”
Truist Commercial Real Estate Relationship Manager
Be transparent about challenges to get to solutions fast.
“The more we know about our clients, the better we can help them,” says Colin, who appreciates candid conversations like those he has with James. When a client becomes more open and honest with you, it’s a good sign that they see you as a caring partner.
James has found that being straightforward about challenges—as well as staying in touch when things are going well—can open the door to surprising insights. “Truist has been helpful with everything from underwriting deals to offering insights on the economy overall to helping us find the best project managers, which are the people who really drive these developments along,” he says. “For our organization, which is based in Atlanta, to have that kind of relationship with Truist, which has connections throughout the region as well as a global understanding—that’s really invaluable to us.”
Stay focused by discussing the people you’re helping.
It’s easy for businesspeople to get lost in the numbers, says Colin. But he tries to stay grounded by remembering the very real human beings who are impacted by what he does. “It’s why I love to get up in the morning and come to work,” he says.
James agrees. “The one thing I’ve loved most about working with Truist is that they understand that, at the end of the day, what we do is about people. Our residents are our North Star. That’s something we return to when making tough decisions. And that’s not something that we had to educate Truist on. They were already there from the beginning.”
How your business can get there
James’ advice: Consider how you might use everyday communications to show partners and stakeholders that you care about more than the bottom line. What topics are comfortable places to start? What questions might you ask? Keep in mind that your partners may have a greater depth and breadth of expertise than you think—or connections in areas you’re not aware of. Putting care at the center of communications in these ways can help leaders make groundbreaking advances, whatever their industry may be.
President, Mercy Housing Southeast
“I live in the neighborhood of Thrive Sweet Auburn, and I see homelessness every day when I walk down the street. When my children grow up, I hope they feel like the neighborhood they grew up in is better than it was—and that their dad had an impact on that.”
Truist Commercial Real Estate Relationship Manager
“True collaboration is where both sides are trying to help each other perform at their very best. In this case, the new residents of this building and the people in the surrounding community are going to benefit from that.”