Talent, Technology Are Top Priorities for Multifamily Operators Today, Says InterFace Panel

The multifamily operations panel at InterFace Multifamily Southeast included, from left, Ed Wolff of LeasingDesk (moderator), Chris Burns of Lincoln Property Co., Christopher Beckwith-Taylor of The Franklin Johnston Group, Ian Bingham of CF Real Estate Services, Marcie Williams of Rivergate KW Residential and Greg Mark of Pinnacle.

ATLANTA — Apartment management is a people-intensive industry that requires dedicated team members at multiple levels. Finding talented and driven individuals is priority No. 1 for multifamily operators. But seasoned executives are the first to admit that hiring is difficult in an expanding economy where recent graduates have multiple career paths at their choosing.

Property management firms are recruiting prospects who are working in outside industries, which has been a reliable tactic.

“We’ve had to go out and look at hospitality, restaurants and other industries that complement multifamily to find talent,” said Chris Burns, senior vice president of Lincoln Property Co.

During the operators panel at the InterFace Multifamily Southeast conference held on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at the Westin Buckhead in Atlanta, Burns and his fellow panelists discussed the opportunities and challenges facing the industry today. The eighth annual conference drew 402 professionals.

The panel agreed that finding talent was difficult, but that retaining and training that talent is just as big a challenge.

“Retaining talent is just like leasing — it’s important to get a lease but it’s more important to get a renewal,” said Greg Mark, senior vice president of operations at Pinnacle, a national multifamily property management firm. “Retention comes down to maintaining a place where people want to stay and where people enjoy the culture and work/life balance.”

In addition to creating a fulfilling work environment, the panelists said their firms are focused on career advancement for their employees at all levels. Marcie Williams, president of Rivergate KW Residential (RKW), said her firm is directly benefitting from those programs.

“We encourage our team members to go to National Apartment Association and other industry associations to get training because it brings new ideas and best practices to our company,” said Williams.

Other participants in the panel included Christopher Beckwith-Taylor, vice president of marketing for The Franklin Johnston Group, and Ian Bingham, senior vice president of client services at Atlanta-based CF Real Estate Services. Ed Wolff, president of LeasingDesk Renters Insurance & Screening, a division of RealPage, moderated the panel.

Embracing Technology
The apartment management business is adapting to the digital age, and the panel stressed how important it is for companies to embrace advances in technology and social media. Revenue management software is a must, and companies are experimenting with new technology platforms for everything from HVAC to sales.

Lincoln Property’s Burns said that successful firms are leveraging new technology to improve operational efficiencies, which ultimately helps drive up net operating income (NOI) for owners.

“We’re looking for ways to improve the customer experience and make our associates more efficient, so it’s really about vetting new technology and determining what accomplishes those two things the best,” said Burns. “As an industry we’re just now figuring out how to get in and harness that data and apply it for better analytics. As we’re getting our arms around that, it’s making us more efficient as an industry.”

Bingham of CF Real Estate Services said that when he was starting out in the business 20 years ago, both maintenance and leasing teams were in the same boat as far as resources.

“When I started, you had a clipboard and a long spreadsheet,” said Bingham. “Now there’s cloud-based technology done from a tablet that will allow you in real time to go into a [vacated] unit, take a statement of deposit and take pictures of any damage right from the tablet and upload it. You can get that invoice to a moving-out resident in short order so you’re not chasing it 30 to 60 days later.”

Technological advancements have also created new job opportunities, both at the corporate and property levels. Data and research analysts are a mainstay in property management firms today, but panelists say that type of position didn’t exist a decade or two ago.

Williams said RKW is adding a digital strategist at the corporate level to test software platforms to improve operations, and Beckwith-Taylor said Franklin Johnston is partnering with an AirBNB moderator for short-term rentals within its portfolio. Multifamily management firms can increase NOI in short order by partnering with online platforms like AirBNB to take advantage of housing demand generated by big events like the Super Bowl or music festivals.

Additionally, he said the company has a dedicated online brand manager to monitor the web presence of its property portfolio.

“It’s definitely a full-time position, especially if you have a large portfolio,” said Beckwith-Taylor. “This person is constantly monitoring all the inbound online reviews and serves as a liaison for property managers. When they receive a negative review, they work with the property manager to craft a response. You have to respond within 24 hours, because if you don’t that’s going to show all your prospective and current renters that you just don’t care.”

Pinnacle’s Mark also emphasized the importance of learning from bad reviews, and Williams discussed how RKW is hoping to improve its anticipatory customer service by addressing issues before customers bring them to their attention.

Several panelists say their onsite teams are trained to monitor and maintain the individual brand’s social media presence, whether it’s answering complaints, keeping residents informed or posting updates on resident events on Facebook and Instagram.

Having a savvy social media presence helps management firms build a solid reputation and will ultimately cultivate brand loyalty. The panelists insisted that resident satisfaction will eventually lead to higher leasing velocity and improved net operating income.

Industry wide, a slowdown in the development pipeline is becoming evident. Multifamily starts through the first three quarters of 2017 were down 9 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to CBRE. Mark said that less development should help “relieve the pressure valve” and give the industry a chance to play catch-up.

Whatever the future may hold, RKW’s Williams said that smart operations will separate the successful apartment properties and management companies from the herd.

“There’s a lot of different facets in our industry, but operations are the key and the core,” said Williams. “That really does stand the test of time through the good times and the bad — having strong operators.”

— John Nelson

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