Groundbreak Carolinas

LyonJay is a real estate development and investment firm based in Greenville, S.C. The three main pillars of their business are investment, development and construction, and property management. They focus primarily on opportunistic investments in the housing sector, including lot development for publicly listed builders, build-for-rent communities, and single and multi-family rentals. With billions of dollars’ worth of experience, the LyonJay team has developed a deep understanding of how to maximize value in each investment class.

GroundBreak Carolinas recently chatted with LyonJay Founding Partners Jennings Lyon, CEO, and J.K. Jay, President, on what brought them together to form this unique partnership and their plans to continue building best-in-class communities throughout the Southeast and beyond.

Q. LyonJay has its origins in a long history of real estate investment, land development, homebuilding, and multi-family general contracting. What learning experiences have you carried forward that you feel make LyonJay resilient in any market conditions?

J.K. JAY: I believe our extensive knowledge and field experience differentiates us when it comes to planning and budgeting for a site. We plan for the worst and underwrite to what those costs could be. This goes to our overall conservative approach towards our investments and being wise as to how our company strategically navigates through markets and economic cycles.

JENNINGS LYON: Our background as a General Contractor specializing in multi-family construction has been a differentiator in our recent success. That experience allows us to anticipate potential problems and plan accordingly. Perhaps the most valuable lessons were learned in the 2008 financial crisis. Working through the challenges of salvaging our own projects, while developing new relationships with less traditional lending partners, forced us to change our focus and become a more opportunistic company.

Q. During the great recession of 2008, how did you create opportunity for yourselves and your business as much of the housing industry struggled?

J.K. JAY: During 2008, my business partner, Jennings Lyon, cashed in his bonding portfolio, and used cash to buy distressed assets off of banks’ REO sheets. A lot of those assets happened to be defunct residential developments, below replacement costs. Had the access to capital that we have today been in place, then he certainly would have bought as much as he could have back in 2008.

Q. In 2016 you met while working on a project. What did you see in each other that made you decide to become partners and how has the partnership changed the trajectory of your business?

J.K. JAY: I admired Jennings’ transparency, fairness, brilliance and incredible understanding of anything having to do with development. Not to mention the husband and father he is, and our mutual love of Clemson football. As time has passed, Jennings is still one of the most kindhearted and generous people you will ever meet. He and his family are more than a business partner. They are family to me and my wife, Katie, and he is a brother to me. So much so, that he and his wife, Nicky, are the godparents of our two boys just as we are to their two daughters.

JENNINGS LYON: JK is a doer! He never makes excuses and doesn’t allow circumstances to dictate our success. Nothing stops this guy; he is the first one in the office every day without fail. My partnership with him has been the best business decision I have made thus far in my career. His energy challenges me and keeps me focused and his friendship has proven to be true. 

Q. Jennings, you spent 4 years in South Africa. How does that experience influence how you see the current housing market and where it is headed?

JENNINGS LYON: Yes, spending time in South Africa, where my wife Nicky is originally from, was an opportunity and experience that I will treasure for a lifetime. This time gave me the ability to see through a lens that I had never used before, realizing the direct correlation between safe places to reside and thriving communities, towns, and cities. I am not sure that my time in South Africa had a direct influence on my current profession and where I am today; however, it is where I first realized that reliable housing is essential for healthy communities, regardless of the geographic location.

Q. JK, you competed at a very high level in collegiate football, do you see parallels between your days of college athletics with how you approach business?

J.K. JAY: I was very fortunate to be a part of the Dandy Dozen, Coach Swinney’s first recruiting class at Clemson. He only had a dream, vision, and belief to sell then and I was hooked immediately. Clemson was the best school for me because Coach Swinney is one of the greatest CEOs and leaders that you will ever encounter. He taught me so much about life, relationships, and leadership that translate daily into business. I know that was very fortuitous and something that I did not truly appreciate or understand until later on. Competing at a high level, you learn to believe in yourself, have discipline, work with a team, lead others, and most importantly, persevere. Dream Big, Believe, Work Hard, All In, Best is the Standard, Just win the day.

Q. LyonJay has a strong network across the industry. How do you view strategic partnerships and their role in the evolution of your company?

J.K. JAY & JENNINGS LYON: We are extremely thankful for our partnerships and the wonderful people who are on the other side of these partnerships. Dwight Capital, the largest HUD lender in the country, is an incredible partnership we have with our rental housing company, Hudson Oak. Adam and Josh Sasouness are young, hard charging guys that are seeing incredible success. We are extremely thankful for our relationship with our lenders, especially R2R Capital. It has been a great relationship for 8 years that has allowed us to grow and move decisively in the market.

Q. Considering the current economic climate, how have you approached business decisions in volatile times?

J.K. JAY & JENNINGS LYON: We are conservative in nature and do our best to plan for all worst-case scenarios. It is impossible to time market cycles with how long it is taking to get properties entitled these days. We stay informed daily and make decisions that if the worst were to occur, we can navigate through those challenges and be in a position to maximize the opportunities that are created within that environment.

Q. What advice would you give other small business owners to thrive in times of significant economic change?

J.K. JAY: Be very conservative in your planning. Always plan for the worst-case scenarios, no matter what your current circumstances are. Remain unwavering in the belief and dream you had when you started your company. Never quit. Focus on winning each day and taking one task at a time. Make time for yourself and family. You cannot control everything, and your family are the people who will always be there for you.

JENNINGS LYON: Don’t fear change and most importantly, don’t wait for others. It is as simple as that! I have found that the right relationships come along while we are actively engaged in developing the concepts for our next phase of growth.

As Founding Partner and CEO of LyonJay, Jennings Lyon is responsible for establishing corporate policy, developing and implementing the company’s strategic direction, and creating profitable, synergistic corporate relationships. Formerly, as the VP of Business Development at LML Construction, Lyon spearheaded the firm’s expansion across nine states, driving annual gross contract volume to over $100M. 

As Co-Founder and President of LyonJay, J.K. Jay’s responsibilities include creating and maintaining relationships with the company’s capital partners, selecting sites, overseeing project development, and underwriting new projects. Before joining LyonJay, J.K. Jay worked at a regional private equity firm where he acquired, developed, and redeveloped distressed residential and multi-family communities and single-family rentals. Later, he and his father founded The Jay Company, specializing in the development and brokerage of commercial properties. 

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