In 2001, Andrew Marshall joined Philadelphia-based Campus Apartments, which today ranks as one of the country’s biggest developers, owners, and operators of student housing. He currently serves as Chief Information Officer and has been the man responsible for shepherding the company through the early part of the 21st century with regards to technology.
Marshall came to the student housing industry following a long history in the high-tech field, having held such positions as development director for Volt Delta Europe and program manager for GE Capital Global Consumer Finance. Earlier in his career, he served as a consultant for such blue-chip companies as IBM and Ernst & Young, specializing in the use of technology to facilitate growth.
Marshall recently sat down with us to discuss his career, his accomplishments, and where he thinks technology is headed in the student housing sector. What follows is our chat:
NAA: Good day, Mr. Marshall. Please introduce yourself to our readers. What are your primary duties and responsibilities at Campus Apartments?
ANDREW MARSHALL: I have two roles. Job No. 1, I am the Chief Information Officer of Campus Apartments, which means I’m responsible for anything having to do with the internal IT systems, the infrastructure, the network, and so on across Campus Apartments’ footprint. My second role is I effectively run an affiliated company called Campus Technologies, which provides technical services to student residents in student housing communities. The best way of describing the differentiation is, in the Campus Apartments’ role, it has to do with the management and operation of properties. In the Campus Technologies’ role, it has to do with providing services to residents.
NAA: What have been some of the projects or initiatives you’ve been most proud to work on and spearhead since joining the organization?
AM: There are probably three we could talk about. Number one, it’s providing the thought leadership and bringing the industry up to date with how student residents consume Internet. More and more, the Internet is becoming the No. 1 amenity in student housing communities, and people need to pay attention to that. One of the things I hear a lot when I am talking to operators of student housing is, “We’re in the real estate business. We’re not in the technology business.” I completely understand that point of view. The problem is that the real estate business and student housing is more and more a technology business, because of the requirement to provide those really high-end Internet amenities and understand the dynamics, the needs, and the requirements of our resident population. You wouldn’t build an apartment complex for students without bathrooms right now. Well, it’s really become the same thing. We understand that [operators] don’t want to be in the technology business. Our role at Campus Technologies is to be that center of knowledge for them, so they don’t need to be in the technology business. It’s because of my background and the backgrounds of the excellent members of my team that we can offer them such experience and knowledge and help. A recent survey showed that 67 percent of all student residents would consider moving if it meant improving their Internet capabilities.
NAA: Wow! Two-thirds?
AM: It’s pretty major. When we say that Internet is becoming the No. 1 amenity, it’s right up there with location. It’s ranked consistently higher than tanning beds, fitness centers, pools, and those kinds of things.
NAA: Thank God, the kids are ranking it higher than tanning beds.
AM: (laughing) Yeah, right. It’s definitely very important, and people need to focus on it. And if you don’t, you’re going to have a problem mainly because people get locked in contractually [with service providers] for long periods. You could end up owning a really good student housing property that is hampered by having poor Internet service. The second thing, with regards to personal achievement, is bringing enterprise data processing specifically to student housing. Because of my background, one of the things I have done is bring some of the knowledge, tools, and techniques from enterprise computing into this industry. Some of those things involve data warehousing and what people are commonly calling “Big Data” these days. One of the things I have done at Campus Apartments is build a common data architecture and data analysis platform so we can take all of the data feeds from disparate systems and put them into a common format. The effect of that is having unprecedented access to information and business intelligence based on that data. There are very few people doing that in the student housing sector right now.
NAA: And the third accomplishment?
AM: This is probably the biggest of all. When we started managing a lot of properties around 2006 and 2007, we looked around at the software that was available and there was nothing. I’m talking Web- and mobile-based platforms for resident interaction and resident engagement. Since 2007, we’ve built and enhanced a system called CASHPort, which stands for Campus Apartments Student Housing Portal. It offers 24/7 availability of being able to sign and execute a lease, make a payment, schedule a payment, issue and track progress on work orders, and any kind of messaging interaction that we do. The current generation of student residents demands 24/7 access. They’re not interested in waiting for the office to open at 10 o’clock. If they want to do something, they want to do it now and they want to do it on their phone, their iPad, or whatever media they happen to be using at the time. You really have to go with that trend and know who your customers are. Many of those customers are also going to be the apartment renters of the future. So, multifamily housing should be aware of this, too. There was no such software out there, so we had to go build this. What we have now is a proprietary campus system that is definitely the most functional in the industry, which gives us a real edge.
NAA: How so?
AM: What it allows us to do is, because we have automated that resident interaction and giving them what they want, it allows our staff to do less administrative tasks and focus on customer service where we really excel.
NAA: There are so many older universities in the country, and a number of their student housing buildings go back decades. What are the challenges of wiring an older campus compared to some of the newer, more modern universities with newer student housing?
AM: Obviously, new construction is pretty easy. You can design the wiring as you go. Overbuild is pretty complex. Look at our footprint here in Philadelphia. We have 127 buildings in West Philadelphia serving multiple schools. Most of those buildings are turn of the 20th century. So, they’re over 100 years old. Over the last 10 years, we’ve had to wire and overbuild those. There’s no real silver bullet, because every situation is different. You do have issues like “What goes on the outside of the building? What doesn’t?” Then, there is the issue of whether you can actually run the wire you need to run. For instance, if you have a very pretty facade, the last thing people want is to have some kind of antenna visible on it or wiring running across it. You have to be very creative about how you run wiring. We use fiber optic extensively because you can carry a lot more data on a much visibly smaller cable.
NAA: Any specific buildings stand out as having been especially challenging?
AM: There was one building built around 1910. It was a 12-story, 350-unit building in West Philadelphia. When we surveyed the building, we discovered there was a disused stair tower in the middle of the structure. They have since put elevators in, and they decided not to use the stair tower. We ended up using it as a main vertical conduit to run wiring up and down the building. But you have to take each individual situation and have a big, tall bag of ways you can deliver services. It’s always going to be a compromise. It does help to coincide a rewiring with a scheduled rehab of a building.
NAA: I have an 8-year-old in second grade. That means in 10 years, she will be 18, graduating high school, and about to go off to college. When I visit her dorm room, what is she going to have in terms of technology that will make me say, “Oh my God! If only I had THAT when I was living on campus?”
AM: [laughing] Oh, you’ve put me on the spot with that one! Ten years ago in the student housing industry, we were all talking about “The Triple Play.” Remember that? You had to deliver video and voice and data, bundle it all into one, and that was going to make everybody’s fortune. Well, here we are 10 years later, and the reality is the Triple Play has become a Single Play. Nobody cares about voice anymore, because everybody has a cell phone. And nobody really cares about video anymore, because this generation of students doesn’t really watch real-time TV. Everything is Internet. In 10 years time, you’re going to see more of that. If you observe college kids right now, you’ll notice they don’t really speak on the phone all that much. But they do use the phone for texting, for social media interaction, and for all sorts of other things. Rarely do they use it to make phone calls. That’s going to become more prevalent. New technologies will be emerging that do away with the cellular infrastructure as we know it. One that has just become available this year is VoLTE. It basically uses VOIP technologies to transmit your cellular voice call across a packet-switched network instead of a circuit-switched network, which is a big win for the cellular carriers. The big impact to campus housing is this: If you are Verizon or AT&T, your single biggest capital cost is building out cell tower network access points. If your college has a campus-wide WiFi network, you’re going to be able to authenticate those cell phones to your WiFi network, carry all of their voice traffic and other traffic, and get paid for that service by the cellular carriers because you are effectively running their infrastructure. . . . The biggest challenge getting to the next 10 years is getting enough bandwidth onto the properties and getting past the fact that people are constrained by these 10- and 15-year contracts that limit them to very small bandwidth capabilities.
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