Secrets of Successful Managers

Communication, Accommodation, Cooperation

By W.B. King

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As jugglers of multiple and oftentimes complex tasks, property managers must be adept at mediating between board members and unit owners, as well as resolving all manner of maintenance and legal issues. To this end, property managers don’t have 'typical' days, but rather varied and challenging ones that are often complicated, and require a particular skill set to navigate.

“The property manager for any asset type is mainly to make sure that every property is running smoothly and achieving the goals and purposes of the owners, client or investor,” says Alfred Ojejinmi, president and CEO of the East Brunswick, New Jersey-based Presbeuo Group Inc. “The manager is the captain of the ship and must know everything regarding the property such as physical, functional, social, fiscal, operations and governance.”

The Juggling Act

In order to do their respective jobs well, managers require a wide array of both concrete skills and specific personality traits. And while the size of the property dictates a manager's involvement and responsibilities to a large degree, there are a few traits that are common to any good manager. These professionals understand not only how to deal with boards and residents, but vendors and the ever-changing status of the property–whether its due to the environment, a lawsuit, a rotating roster of contractors, or changing board members. In the end, it is the board that ultimately entrusts the property manager to make the right call, regardless of the situation.

Since the role of the board is essentially that of policy making, board members must take a team approach when working with a property manager. To this end, board members must read all reports, attend all meetings and make decisions that are in the overall interest of the community. But getting buy-in from board members in all this requires some skill on the part of the manager, say the pros.

“Every board is different, so it takes time to meet and understand what a board actually wants from a manager,” says Annette Loscalzo, senior property manager at Argo Management in Manhattan. “Personally, I like to let them know who I am, how I work, what they should expect, make recommendations, making sure their property is run in an efficient cost-effective manner. I try to guide them, but sometimes it's best to step back if they're arguing, let them hash it out and get it off their chest. Sometimes getting in the middle of the argument can make things worse. I try not to get into their personal lives. Boards usually appreciate honesty, letting them know that they're not alone. They're under pressure, and it's a volunteer position,” she says.

The Personality Test

Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live, once said, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” For property managers, 'showtime' is a continuously moving target. As such, they have to be producer, director, actor, editor and cameraman. In short, they require a personality that can assume any of the 'hats' needed to wear on any given day.

“A property management firm should know what kind of property manager is needed for a building. It falls into the general bucket of customer service skills,” says one Manhattan-based manager. “Then there are smaller buckets in terms of particular issues in a building. Are there major financial issues, and do they need somebody who has a very strong financial background? Is it someone who needs to be more mechanically involved, because they have a lot of infrastructure issues? You try to match up a property manager with a building.”

Whereas a property manager might have a background in construction or be well-versed in business software operating programs, having the 'right' personality for the job is not easily taught. In some cases, it can’t be taught at all. It’s more about having a knack for customer service, and knowing how to manage relationships between residents, board members, vendors, and contractors.

The ability to function calmly and effectively in adverse circumstances is also key for managers. “The personality of the manager for the management of a community association is largely dictated by the composition of the board and the people who live in those communities. For instance, a multicultural community will require someone who understands the cultures of the various ethnic groups that live in that community,” says Ojejinmi. “The temperaments must be calm, understanding and patient. Some personalities are better suited for multifamily properties where the manager must deal with renters, and not homeowners. A manager must be fair, firm, friendly and free to execute his or her responsibilities.”

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As is the case with weather-related events, property managers have to understand the different needs and expectations of different boards and associations in their portfolio. Some may be comprised of residents who come from different cultures and speak multiple languages; others may be home to many older residents who have special everyday needs, as well as considerations in times of crisis.

“You need patience, the ability to listen and execute, follow through, and most importantly to be responsive. We all want answers, no wants to be ignored. Some property managers tend to ignore questions, but it's best to take care of it, make sure it's done and execute. This is a very thankless job, most of it is behind the scenes. but most residents, if you communicate with them—they understand and they see what you do,” says Loscalzo.

An Education

Poet Laureate Robert Frost once wrote, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” This sentiment holds especially true for property managers, all of whom benefit from the various programs designed to further respective careers.

Depending on the size of the property and allotted budget, a property manager might have as many as 10 properties in his or her portfolio. Conversely, some of the firm’s larger single properties have a property manager and an assistant manager. With each association having different needs and challenges, keeping abreast of industry standards, protocols, and best practices is crucial for any manager, regardless of their portfolio.

“There's no formal requirement in New York State other than if you collect rent, you're required to have a New York State salesperson's license as a broker,” says Ojejinmi. That's true, but a certain number of continuing education hours are required to maintain specific professional designations for property managers.

Organizations such as the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM) and the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) are among two of the larger associations offering designations, and both provide educational opportunities, as do the Real Estate Education Center (REEC) and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). Other avenues are New York University (NYU) and Baruch College’s Steven L. Newman’s Real Estate Institute, which focus more on those just entering the profession. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) also offers public outreach and education courses for owners, tenants and property managers.

On Long Island, the Community Associations Institute (CAI) has educational options for its members, and of course, The Cooperatoritself hosts the annual Co-op & Condo Expo each spring, with a full roster of free educational seminars in addition to hundreds of exhibitor booths and professional networking opportunities. This year’s expo is April

The most successful managers are just as committed to fortifying their own education as they are to managing the properties in their portfolio. “It’s always important to keep up with the field and to keep up with the new rules, regulations and technologies,” says Marolyn Davenport of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). “It’s important to refresh what you already know. Anytime there is a new law or requirement, we always do seminars and workshops,” she says. “Right now, a lot of people are interested in green building and technology.” So those subjects have become more prominent on area syllabuses alongside standard workshops and courses on machinery and other building technologies.

Management companies themselves also offer enrichment for their employees. “We have Argo U,” says Loscalzo. “We hold classes, we bring in professionals to keep us up to date on all of the New York City codes, any new building systems or energy options, any local laws coming up. Every month we have a class that we go to.”

“Some firms reimburse a manager for sitting for and passing professional exams such as the M100 provided by CAI or the CID course provided by IREM,” says Ojejinmi. “In my opinion, a good firm must make it a priority to invest in their people because the people are the assets of the company. The better the people, the more productive they are and the benefits accrue to the company.”

Checks & Balances

While most unit owners only see property managers when they need to respond to a complaint, or something that's gone wrong, they probably don't realize that they key for property managers is to actually be proactive as possible, in order to prevent as many of those complaints from happening in the first place.

“This can be a thankless job, most of it is behind the scenes. But most residents, if you communicate with them—they understand and they see what you do,” says Loscalzo.

So, whether a manager handles just a handful of boutique properties, or devotes 40+ hours per week to managing a single large development, communication, personal commitment to the job, and to professional enrichment are what separate the so-so from the super when it comes to management. “There has to be chemistry,” says one veteran management pro. “You always try to find the perfect candidate, sometimes it's hard, but it's something that you try to figure out what the needs are, and here's an individual property manager who meets those needs and is strong in those areas.”    

W.B. King is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Tom Lisi contributed to this article.

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