Staying Competitive in Management It's Tough Out There

Staying Competitive  in Management
As the condo market continues to heal after the setback it experienced during the financial crisis of the mid-aughts, many management firms and independent property managers in South Florida are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from their colleagues and stand out in an increasingly competitive market. That intense competition to manage some of the world’s priciest buildings should mean added value for the consumer, but it doesn’t always. You have to know what to look for.
A community that has historically been poorly served by an inadequate property manager might not realize it has been under-served. That’s why it’s important to be able to differentiate between so-so property managers and the very best of them.
For multifamily buildings, the distinction could mean the difference between tight finances and savings, and more money for a rainy day.

Changing Standards

For a long time, South Florida has been one of the most sought-after places in the world in which to live. In recent decades, the region—and Miami in particular—have been attracting homebuyers from across the country and across the globe, drawn to the weather, the culture, the nightlife, and the lifestyle.
Many of these newer buyers are happy to pay top dollar for a condo unit, but of course, they expect the service to match the pricetag. That’s why in many buildings, doormen and building staff often perform the duties of a hotel concierge, and amenities that were more of a luxury decades ago are now a necessity.
Those changes aside, the level of professionalism needed to be a good property manager has risen dramatically along with the cost of square-footage. While property managers always have had to be sharp generalists, capable of handling diverse tasks simultaneously, their baseline level of knowledge of different aspects of their job is set much higher these days. Part of that enhanced expectation is a result of demands of residents, but part of it is a result of increased regulations.
“Technology has changed the industry significantly,” says Peggy Bromberg, manager of The Barrington Club condominium in Coral Springs. “No more typewriters to fill in the blanks on  lease agreements, no more handwritten guest cards or work orders with carbon copies. Those are all things of the past. More importantly, technology has changed the way we advertise communities, in ways that were not available 16 years ago. The biggest ad companies have seen this change affect their business in a huge way as more management companies pulled ads from rental guides to advertise strictly online, bringing more competition to the online advertising market.”
Kent Knipstein, regional manager of Orlando-based Atlantic | Pacific Management, agrees with Bromberg that technological advances have profoundly changed the property management game. “We have seen the introduction of social media, new software and tools in the workplace,” he says, “and today's managers should be embracing these new technologies. There are also a lot of networking systems that can help us reach out and work better professionally than ever before. There are tablets, hand-held devices, smartphones with dozens of new applications, all proclaiming to help get things done better, faster and cheaper.”
These days, property managers in the Sunshine State must be jacks-of-all-professions. Compared to previous decades however, the typical property manager knows a lot more. “There’s a higher level of professionalism,” says Michael Berenson, president of AKAM Living Services, Inc., which has Florida offices in Dania Beach. “The average property management] professional is now a better-rounded, more educated person.”
In order to ensure that property managers achieve that well-rounded education, many larger firms offer in-house training, and make sure their individual managers and administrators are accredited. Most such courses cover issues that affect buildings and HOAs regardless of size or demographic; things like ethics, overseeing capital improvements, finance, communication, and legal issues, just to name a few.
Despite the fact that many management companies have consolidated in past years, some industry pros feel that the issue is not whether or not there are more management companies, but rather that the demands of consumers for a higher level of service from management companies is undeniable—and firms that don’t perform may not last very long.

Staying Well-Versed

Regardless of how many management companies are tending to buildings in the area, it's almost always a good idea for boards to occasionally reassess their relationship with their company or agent, and compare the service they receive with what comparable communities are getting for the money. It's not always easy to see how well or how poorly your community is being served by your manager if you have nothing against which to compare it. You have to know what’s out there, to know the best choice for your particular building or association.
When vetting a prospective management company, a board should ask a lot of questions, including what sorts of training is required of the company’s employees. What types of certification does the firm require of its property managers, and what’s the average number of years of experience of the company’s managers? In addition, boards should take a close look at the company’s track record (a simple web search can reveal if there are any ongoing legal issues with the firm), as well as check the firm’s references and speak with the management of buildings of a similar size and makeup that are served by the management company. Some pros say the firm should have at least five similar buildings that can be contacted for a reference. A board considering a change in firms should ask the prospective consultant what sorts of training its employees get, and what credentials they are required to keep up to date.
“Today there is a greater emphasis on collaboration, teamwork and property managers having the necessary 'soft' interpersonal skills to complement their ability to schedule tasks and manage risks on their communities,” says Knipstein. “Companies are putting more emphasis on leadership skills. Part of that has been a shift towards knowing why you are doing what you are doing for your communities. We are currently in the process of self-evaluation and training our managers and executive teams on how to dial up or down our personality traits as we deal with different individuals and situations in our daily lives.”
Property managers also must make the information that’s under their control accessible to owners. Online resources also has helped usher in an era of greater transparency in the management of communities. Residents want fast access to information necessary for operation of the community—and there's just no excuse for not delivering that when the web has sped up the process, and other firms already provide it via online community bulletin boards, community websites accessible only by owners and staff, email newsletters and other means.
Whether or not they are looking to change management, boards and residents who want to be well-informed should understand what their management company’s accounting practices and procedures are about. Looking at that aspect of its work will give some sense of how reliable the firm is.
But in addition to thoroughly vetting a property management company, a board considering a change should visit the prospective consultant at its own house, so to speak. “They should come into our office, and see the level of service and professionalism that we bring,” Berenson says. They also should speak with vendors they know who have worked with the management company, to get their view on the company’s reliability. In considering the firm’s track record, consider also how long that record has been maintained.
Transparency regarding a building’s financial statements and other sensitive info that should be available to owners is a given, but that ability to see through things to the core of matters goes well beyond the ledgers. It’s a level of scrutiny that can be learned, partly through a good property manager. After all, the overall health and wealth of the building is what is truly important. A property management firm should always be striving to improve those conditions.
That sort of effort which any firm should provide includes simpler things, like automation of payments. Buildings also should be running their financial outlooks on a 5-year cycle, experts advise. And boards should always keep an eye on the building’s bottom line. For their part, owners should seek stability for the community, by building the capital reserve fund. The board also should try to gradually increase maintenance of the building, to protect the common investment. If the management company isn’t helping the board to achieve these goals, it could be time for a new manager.   
Jonathan Barnes is a regular contributor to The South Florida Cooperator and other publications.

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