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Traditionally, the cutthroat world of corporate real estate has been no place for nice. When CPAs Ric Campo and Keith Oden first met in 1981, they were both toiling at a Houston-based commercial developer that Oden describes as “rotten to the core.” After surviving the pirate-ship culture, they bought its troubled condo business, turned it around, and reorganized as a real estate investment trust.
Their new rental venture (named for an amalgam of their surnames) cut out the middleman by being both property owner and manager, with local support staff and facilities crews. The REIT grew quickly by acquiring more properties throughout Texas and went public in 1993. Today Camden (CPT) owns and manages more than 65,000 apartments in 15 cities and 10 states, stretching from California to Florida.
To create an ideal workplace, Campo and Oden committed to hiring job candidates who matched their fun yet committed-to-work ethic. “You can’t play hard unless you work hard,” Campo told Fortune. And it stuck — many of their team have been with them since the start.
“I’m staying here until they make me leave,” says Brenda Cantu, a six-year community manager who oversees one of its Houston properties.
Camden’s first big merger, with Paragon in 1997, added hundreds of new employees in North Carolina, Missouri, and Florida. To help recreate the Camden culture afield, Campo and Oden met with senior leadership to hash out a set of nine core values, which include “work smart, act with integrity, and have fun.” As Oden explains, “Four hundred people were about to join the party. We told them, ‘These are the rules of the road, and you’re going to be accountable for them.’ ” Those binding ingredients of the Camden Way have helped it maintain a unique culture of camaraderie, even during periods of fast growth.
To bolster cross-country ties, Camden hosts an annual meeting, called the Management Conference, which draws 375 top leaders from its 185 apartment communities. The week’s events are equal parts work and amusement. Last month the first day of meetings ended with a talent show. “People want to express themselves at work,” says Margaret Plummer, VP of employee development. “It’s a ‘Bring your whole self to work’ philosophy. Graphic-design skills, sewing, flower arranging — you can share who you are and use that for fun.”
To combine those nonwork skills for the conference, four floors of Camden’s stylish, state-of-the-art headquarters were converted into a life-size Monopoly board (dubbed Camdenopoly), with some employees costumed as game tokens. Thirty-two teams of eight were given $5,000 in play money and instructed to follow the board to complete tasks, play mini-challenges, and perform skits, all with the goal of raising real money for charity Operation Homefront. Each team eventually was sent to “jail,” where they discovered Campo and Oden dressed as jailer and inmate. The founders helped videotape skits, sometimes joining the action. For once, going directly to jail is a good thing.
This story is from the June 16, 2014 issue of Fortune.