This Former Mortgage Exec Is on a Mission to Make Modular Homebuilding Viable
“I’m not afraid of messing up or failing,” said Joanna Schwartz, CEO and co-founder of Quartz, a modular building company. “I’m confident that I can figure things out.”
This confidence led Schwartz to starting Quartz despite little background or knowledge of modular building, a nascent building method that has gained popularity in recent years for its sustainable, efficient approach to construction. Schwartz’s interest in the field developed after she noticed a modular house being constructed in her neighborhood.
“I thought it was the coolest thing,” she said, “so I reached out to the guy who ran the company.” Schwartz researched the industry and determined that modular construction has many benefits, including being more efficient and environmentally friendly. However, she discovered only 2% of houses at the time were constructed via this method.
Schwartz reached out to her former boss, Dave Quint, with whom she had become friends. “He wanted to start a business together and said, ‘Let’s figure out a business, and you can run it.’”
And so it was that the two co-founded Quartz Properties, a modular-centric homebuilder that uses offsite construction, a growing industry method, to develop entire communities of attainably priced, modern residences in growth markets.
Schwartz’s journey to modular homebuilder took many twists and turns.
Born and raised on Long Island, New York, Schwartz spent a lot of time in New England as a kid, spending summers at camp and winters skiing. When it came time to attend college, the University of Vermont seemed like a fit. While getting her degree, Schwartz met her future husband at the school.
Schwartz remained in the area as she earned an MBA from Harvard. The couple had every intention of staying in New England. However, her husband was offered a job in Panama, so the couple moved out of the country. While Schwartz didn’t know what she wanted to do, she began working in the telecom industry. When the couple moved back to Miami, she stayed in the industry.
The couple fell in love with the south Florida city and had two children there. Schwartz, meanwhile, left the telecom business. “Everyone from the CFO on down said you know nothing about marketing, so I thought I should learn marketing.”
In the next 2 ½ years Schwarz learned a lot about marketing. The biggest thing she learned: she doesn’t love it. What she did love was real estate and finance, so she got a job with Silver Hill Financial, a mortgage finance company. During the eight years Schwartz worked for the company, she co-founded a business that focused on small-balance commercial loans.
Silver Hill flourished. It grew into a market leader, making $1 billion in annual originations with more than 500 employees in 10 offices nationwide.
Boom and bust
Schwartz was in her happy place professionally. She loved her co-workers and what she was doing.
Then the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession hit. “The industry got taken down like a bowling ball,” Schwartz said. “It kicked my butt.”
After taking some time off, Schwartz took a job in the steel business, which took her to Texas oil fields to sell pipes. Despite some success, Schwartz had “zero passion” for it and left after 1 ½ years.
Schwartz then ran a real estate equity startup, which was “a huge learning experience,” she said. However, it still wasn’t what she was looking for, so she left the business.
Heeding the call
By the time Schwartz got back to Boston, she realized her passion. “I loved real estate and had been involved in multiple facets within the industry, including the debt side and the equity side,” Schwartz said.
It was at this time that Schwartz saw the modular home being constructed in her neighborhood that led her and Quint to create Quartz Properties.
Another challenge needed to be handled. Quint and Schwartz originally envisioned providing financing to existing builders who construct via modular construction. This fit neatly into Schwartz’s wheelhouse, and she was prepared to move forward contributing to modular building in this fashion.
However, despite a lengthy search, the two couldn’t find a builder they felt would be a good partner. Instead, they decided to adjust and became builders themselves. This was a “giant learning curve,” Schwartz said, but her confidence and the ability to figure things out and adapt have led to the growth of Quartz.
As she has grown Quartz, the thrill of development has been a constant. “I love seeing a piece of raw land grow into a neighborhood where people make their lives. Seeing the physical manifestation of construction is very exciting.”
While Schwartz said all her jobs have been entrepreneurial, Quartz has added pressure, risk and responsibility. This ratcheted up when the company pivoted, as Schwartz had to learn a whole new industry.
One thing the construction industry has in common with Schwartz’s past work: it’s male dominated. That doesn’t stop Schwarz, who’s determined to follow her interests. “I’ve almost always viewed being a woman as an advantage. It makes me more memorable and adds visibility,” she said.
From Schwartz’s perspective, one challenge women face is raising money. “I’ve found women are held to a different standard,” she said. “It’s hard to change, but over time as more women raise money and women-owned businesses outperform the market, it will get easier.”
There are also benefits to being a woman in the industry. Women often find it easier to show humanity and tend to be emotionally intelligent, which Schwartz believes is equally important to subject matter when leading organizations. “People tend to share more, including what drives them,” she said, “so I understand them and bring out their maximum productivity.” Many experts believe modular/industrialized construction is at a tipping point, yet structural challenges persist. No matter for Schwartz. She’s always up for a challenge and believes she can figure things out.