A Matter of Style
Different Buildings, Different Approaches
Every co-op, condo and HOA community is different—each has its own distinctive character, attitude, and expectations. The same is obviously true for the individual people who manage these communities and help them run their day-to-day business.
Some building managers may pride themselves on being hands-on, accessible 24/7, and invested personally in the minutiae of each of their client properties, while others may take a more detached approach, responding promptly when called upon but otherwise letting individual boards conduct their community's business as they see fit, with less managerial interference or input. The best managers are able to assess the needs and expectations of their clients and adjust accordingly.
First Things First
Management companies are just that—companies. They vary in size and scope, but they generally have more than one manager. This means that when a board hires a management company, they are assigned a manager from within that company’s ranks. The first challenge, then, is to assign the manager whose style best fits the property.
“What we like to do is meet with the board, see what kind of issues they have going on, see what personalities the board has, and see who we have that fits the property,” says Gregory Cohen, president of Impact Management, in Queens. “A lot of boards like to meet with the manager before the hire. If they don’t like that manager, we’ll give them someone else.”
Jeff Heidings, president of Manhattan-based Siren Management, takes a similar tack. “When you have a prospective building, you try to bring the person you have in mind to manage it to the board interviews,” he says. “The board usually requests to meet the manager before hiring the company.”
But how do the supervisors pick the managers to assign to a property?
“Every building—especially when you take on a new one—has certain needs, certain ‘TLC’ requests. Some buildings, when you take them over, are in financial distress, and need someone with more financial depth. Some have physical plant issues, and need someone with expertise in that arena,” says David Khazzam, vice president at New York City-based PRC Management. “We try to pair up a manager with the special needs of the property. All agents are required to be experts in multiple fields. They’re financial gurus, physical plant gurus, HR gurus. But everyone has a specialty.”
Think of it as a baseball game; there are some situations where you can trot out the rookie just up from Triple A, but there are other situations where you have to tap Mariano Rivera. “Every management company has its A guys and its B guys,” Heidings says. “There are levels. Even if there aren’t differences in experience or knowledge, there are differences in personality.”
Need is a Big Criteria
“You want to match the skill set of your agent with the task at hand,” Heidings says. “If it’s a more troubled building, you want a more experienced hand. If it’s a simpler, smaller building, you can go with a less intense agent, and it will probably be just fine.”
There are other, less obvious factors, too. Just as you can’t throw Rivera if he pitched two innings the night before, you can’t lean too heavily on any one manager.
“You want to make sure the person you’re choosing is not overburdened and can take on the new assignment properly,” Heidings says.
Mapping it Out
“The geographical concerns are also taken into account,” Heidings says. “It’s advantageous to organize a portfolio in general geographical areas. If there’s a new building in Hudson Heights, and you have an agent already managing a building in Hudson Heights, you try to match them.” Not only does this help an agent become even more knowledgeable about the neighborhood, but it cuts down on travel time. Less time spent in subways or in cabs is more time spent on site, working. As they say, “All politics are local.”
Hiring and Training
There are certain careers—doctor, lawyer, rock star, shortstop—that people know they want to pursue from a young age. Property management tends not to be one of them. “Most property managers fall into the profession,” Khazzam says. “They don’t come out of college thinking, ‘This is what I want to do.’ It’s not glamorous, and it’s not well-known.”
It’s also difficult. Good property managers must possess top-shelf people skills, the ability to multi-task, excellent organizational skills, and the intellect to process lots of arcane information.The best in the business tend to have a lot of experience.
“The best trained property managers have climbed the rungs and have first-hand experience. In my opinion, first-hand experience is the most important,” Khazzam says.
Heidings agrees. “You get your people from inside the profession.”
But even inveterate managers had to start somewhere. “Fifteen years ago,” Khazzam says, “we had a temp. She knew nothing about real estate. She worked on the admin side, assisting the manager. Then she became familiar with physical plants.” She rose through the ranks, and became one of the company’s top agents—even though she knew nothing about the job when she started.
Once inside the company, property managers must keep up with the frequent changes in the industry.
“All of our property managers are RAM-certified,” Cohen says. “They’re registered apartment managers. They attend trade shows and seminars. They read all the trade publications, to keep up with changing laws, to keep up with what’s going on in the industry.”
Exchanging information within the company is critical to success. “We have weekly skull sessions,” Heidings says. “We go over new laws, new requirements—there are so many in the city of New York. We go to seminars and symposiums.”
Sometimes conflicts develop between the board and the property manager. Although this can occur with boards and managers who have worked in harmony for years—just like a twenty-year marriage can dissolve—it usually happens when a manager becomes used to the style and needs of the board of a certain property, and the board is suddenly replaced with new faces.
“The property manager is used to a certain style,” Khazzam says, “and has to adapt to a different style.”
It’s generally a style issue. Longer-serving boards might be more laissez-faire, trusting the manager to do the day-to-day task with minimal supervision. New boards can be more hands-on, more prone to micromanage.
To nip any potential conflict in the bud, Cohen is a big proponent of email as a means of communication. “The best way to communicate is via email; Cc everyone on the board.”
Keeping everyone in the loop is simple, and it’s usually enough to make a board member feel more appreciated. “The reason the boards get more involved is because they don’t have a comfort level with the manager,” Cohen says. CC’ed or carbon-copied emails help create that sense of comfort. “Once the board sees what the manager does on a daily basis, they usually take a step back.”
Cohen stresses the importance of keeping the principals of the management company involved. When conflicts occur, he says, it’s usually because a property manager is operating solo, without enough oversight from the principals.
But whether it’s done via email, phone, or carrier pigeon, communication is key. “Property managers above all else must have good diplomatic skills,” Khazzam says. “If you can’t cater to the needs of the clients in a diplomatic manner, as much as you have the knowledge, you won’t get very far.”
Good managers are also flexible—they can adapt their style to match the needs of a new board. Although it doesn’t always work out. In that case, the management company needs to take drastic action.
“You might have to re-assign the building—which we’ve done,” says Heidings. “The issue before the client required a more seasoned and different approach.”
This is not necessarily an indictment on an individual agent’s performance, Heidings points out. “Sometimes it just happens.” A managing agent might have years of experience working with five buildings, but not be the right fit for a sixth, for whatever reason.
Ultimately, property managers are in the business of making their clients happy. “Nobody wants a client to walk out the door,” Heidings says. “If you have the people to make it work, you do it.”
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.