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Management Style Different Approaches, Different Properties

Every condo, co-op, 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.

“The most important thing for a board of directors is to decide what they want and what they need,” says Robin Habacht, president of Monticello Management, Inc. in Matawan, which operates in both New York and New Jersey. “Much like any potential employee to be hired, a company should be reviewed like a resume for the skill sets it offers in terms of its personnel—not just the amount of personnel it has.”

Most professionals agree that the board has to have an idea of the type of manager they, and the residents, would like to work with.

Harvey Young of H.W. Young Associates in Wood Ridge believes that a more hands-on approach is sometimes needed. “We don’t assign site managers to each of the complexes and walk away and have them manage on our behalf. We stay pretty well attached…We’d like to believe we’re about as hands-on as you can get.” He notes that having such an approach does have some limitations “in terms of the amount of projects you can manage at any one time,” but by being more involved with the community, they are better able to guide and serve it.

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.”

The first set of skills covers the absolute basics: reading, writing, and simple arithmetic. Managers say, that while it may seem obvious, good writing skills and the ability to easily translate one's thoughts onto paper or e-mail is an important tool good managers put to use all the time. A property manager unable to communicate clearly in writing will find him—or herself frustrated, and will likely frustrate his or her clients as well.

Paul Santoriello, PCAM, CMCA, AMS, the president of Taylor Management in Whippany, agrees. "You need to have the ability to communicate. That is what we do—we don't cut grass, we don't hammer any nails; we are the great communicators. We communicate with everybody from the unit owner to the board to the vendors to the municipalities. So strong verbal and written communication skills are a must for a good manager."

In addition to certain very basic skills, managers also need a very strong understanding of their community's physical plant: the basic structure of the units that make it up, their HVAC networks, electrical schema, and so forth. A manager doesn't need to know how to reassemble a boiler from scratch but someone with a good working knowledge of how that boiler operates can converse more confidently with contractors and repair and maintenance professionals. A knowledgeable manager also knows just who to call if something goes wrong and needs work, and can tell repair technicians exactly where the problem lies.

Then There's the Map

Geographical concerns must be taken into account. Most property managers believe it is best to organize a portfolio in general geographical areas. If there’s a new building in Jersey City, and a prospective management company already has other buildings as part of their portfolio in Jersey City, it might prove advantageous to consider that company. This would help with the manager becoming even more knowledgeable about the neighborhood and it even cuts down on travel time. Less time spent in transit and more time working for the needs of the building is the goal.

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.

Young 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.

Most management companies will only hire property managers that are RAM-certified, meaning that 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.

Conflict Resolution

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.

Many managers have become big proponents of email as a means of communication. Most professionals now agree that the best way to communicate is via email; and to “Cc” [carbon-copy] everyone on the board.

Keep Everyone in the Loop

Keeping everyone in the loop is simple, and it’s usually enough to make a board member feel more appreciated. Some managers believe that the reason that boards get more involved is because they don’t have a comfort level with the manager. Providing proper communication helps to create that sense of comfort. When board members see the manager does on a daily basis, a sense of security is given.

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. Sometimes, it is necessary to re-assign the building or the property.

This is not necessarily an indictment on an individual property manager’s performance but sometimes it does happen. A manager 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, property managers are committed to providing the best service for their clients, and nobody wants a client to walk out the door.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.

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