While nobody will deny the importance of formal education and training, talk to enough professionals across the property management industry, and you’re likely to hear that while school was definitely useful, the experience gained on the job is just as important. In fact, in many cases the most successful real estate professionals don’t start out in ‘the business.’ They arrive from other fields, bringing with them an underlying skill set, and then learn the ropes from industry veterans. Real estate may actually be among the last of the mentored industries.
In School vs. On-the-Job
The past few decades have seen a rise in business education programs, particularly at the graduate level, with an emphasis on quantitative analysis as the quickest way to grow bottom lines. Like Major League Baseball and sabermetrics, it’s all about the numbers and what they tell us. There are 355 accredited MBA programs in the United States today, up from just one at Harvard in 1904. The composition of these programs can range from the purely academic and theoretical to training in the real world—or more commonly a combination of the two. In some fields, like accounting, the basics of industry and approach are acquired easily enough in a classroom. In others, including real estate, pure book-learning can only take one so far.
One of the reasons for this is that real estate differs from other assets in that each piece of real estate is unique and distinct from every other. Each property is almost like an individual organic system—not unlike people. We all have the same basic blueprint, but each of us is unique and different and requires an individual approach. There is, naturally, a basic ‘science of real estate,’ which is a great starting point—but as any manager, broker, or appraiser will quickly tell you, each individual building, apartment, or community has its own particular strengths, challenges, and quirks.
How We Learn
“Real estate management is the last mentored profession,” says Dan Wollman, CEO of Gumley Haft, a management firm located in Manhattan. “As it happens, I spent two hours yesterday training someone. He previously worked in Worcester, Massachusetts, managing a warehouse. He did that for a couple years. He was responsible for everything at that property. He wanted to come to New York City. I hired him as a junior manager despite the fact that he didn’t have experience with residential buildings. I’m mentoring him myself. He goes with me to all my buildings. If he’s going to work for me, I want to make sure he’s mentored correctly.”
For Scott Wolf, CEO of Boston-based management company BRIGS, “the initial process is to have new recruits work in client services to learn what our residents are looking for. Then we do as much cross-training as possible. Client services are very important. We serve at the convenience of our residents. Another important component of initial training is for the trainee to learn the software they will need to use for the job. We have a whole tutorial for that software that covers its use in property management, service, and accounting. On-the-job learning and software training go hand-in-hand and are done simultaneously.”
Debra Warren, vice president of learning and development for Associa, a national real estate management firm, also sees value in a mixed approach to training. “While learning the unique nuances of individual properties certainly takes place on the job,” she says, “not all training necessarily follows this process. There are certain foundational skills—business and financial acumen, communications, facilities oversight, and project management—that can be obtained through formal education.”
But, adds Warren, “the best practice is to assign an experienced manager as a mentor who can provide support and guidance during the new manager’s first months. It is common for the mentor to attend client meetings with the new manager and review important reports. The most successful management companies also establish best practices with related templates for typical communications and client reporting, which can help facilitate their initial transition.”
Jaime Sikorski, a vice president with AKAM Management, with offices in New York and Florida, sums it up nicely: “Even with formal education, the bespoke components of properties and residents certainly make real estate management an on-the-job-training profession. Regardless of the formal education someone has, circumstances often require a unique and/or tailored solution.”
What Makes a Good Candidate?
Wollman, who came to real estate management from international shipping, says his recruits come from all walks of life. Often they come from the hospitality industry. “They know how to deal with people, and that’s critical in the residential management business. They may lack infrastructure knowledge, but they understand the personal part.”
While familiarity with building systems is valuable, not having that isn’t necessarily a disqualifier for entering the multifamily management field. “You do need to have a mechanical aptitude,” continues Wollman, “but you don’t need to be an engineer. And having a good temperament is very important. People who have studied psychology actually do very well in this field.” He cites a recent situation in a client building where a leak on a terrace damaged the apartment below. The key to successfully resolving the problem lay more in how the downstairs shareholder was treated during the repair process than in how the repairs themselves were handled. “There’s a way you talk to people,” Wollman says. “You don’t learn that in school.”
Wolf agrees. “You want people people,” he says. “I love people coming from hospitality jobs who want to make a career change. They know how to deal with people. Customer service is also a good background. You can learn everything you need to know about buildings—but you can’t learn how to deal with people. That’s something you’re born with.” Wolf himself didn’t start in the real estate management industry. He came from the Ritz-Carlton organization. As he says, he “learned everything on the fly.”
“Effective communication techniques, financial acumen, and an understanding of mechanical systems are the ideal trifecta for someone interested in pursuing a career in real estate management,” adds Sikorski. “That being said, the skill to learn, adjust, and identify resources remains paramount in this field. With an ever-changing landscape of community priorities, city requirements, and technology enhancements, adaptability is really a principal requirement.”
Warren points out that new managers may not always have the soft skills required for successful relationship building. “Building them requires an investment of time and is always most successfully achieved through face-to-face conversation—not text messages or e-mail. At the same time, direct conversation is the best way to identify the root cause of any problem. It also ensures that your solution is focused on the right problems. While newer managers may quickly pick up available technology, a strong relationship that will endure challenges can only be developed over time and through personal contact.”
Commensurately, a combination of approaches may be best. Wolf brings in professionals from every angle of real estate management, from accounting to construction, for seminars, so that his staff learns the basic skills necessary for this interdisciplinary profession. Sikorski notes that AKAM also brings in subject matter experts in everything from code compliance, architecture, staff service, finance, sales, and brokerage to project management, repairs and maintenance, and energy not only to provide information to clients, but also to teach and support the company’s own associates. She says this approach has resulted in more confident managers, and confidence in the firm.
Catering to Your Clientele
To some extent, how managers are trained depends somewhat on where they’re working, explains Wollman. Managing a 500-unit townhouse community in Las Vegas is vastly different from managing a 30-story pre-war building in Manhattan. “It requires a different skill set, hence different training. It’s also a different business model. You can run it more like, say, Microsoft. As you move up the line to more luxury property it has to be run on a more personal service basis.”
In the end, no matter the location or demographic, real estate management may be more of an art than a science. Creating a masterpiece still requires study, some with experienced elder managers and some with basic business skills and knowledge. That masterpiece will result from a combination of the two.