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As Senior Vice President of Investments and Multifamily Operations for Pillar Properties, Billy Pettit is responsible for the oversight of this Seattle-based apartment company's development pipelines and asset management. A self-described "tech head," Pettit has played a key role in making technology a centerpiece offering at all of the company's apartment communities in the Puget Sound region and beyond. His expertise in this regard and his unswerving commitment to quality are two of the attributes that earned him Multifamily Executive's 2013 Rising Star of the Year Award back in September. He recently sat down with us to discuss the success Pillar Properties has had in all things Internet and Wi-Fi. What follows is our chat:
NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Your company has received high marks for implementing property-wide Wi-Fi access. What are some of the advantages for residents?
BILLY PETTIT: Especially here in Seattle, we have a large concentration of technology-based companies. These are companies like Google that are all filled with a workforce that have a high demand on technology. So, in our buildings, we focus on providing Wi-Fi access that can reach speeds of up to 1 gigabyte. It's really about providing choice. In any of our buildings, we want to provide the resident with tools, resources, and solutions that enable the resident to live life the way they choose. If they are very tech-oriented and they are interested in having data speeds that exceed those you would typically be able to witness in another building, they have that option. We go even further in our newer buildings by providing dedicated fiber lines to each and every unit. If their needs require speeds that can only be reached through fiber, they have that option. It's about providing choice and flexibility. With our Wi-Fi networks, our residents even have the capability to log on in their unit, walk to any of the common areas in the building, and never lose access. Those residents who live in a studio apartment who feel the need to get out for a few minutes and up to the rooftop deck where it's nice and sunny -- [laughing] it's always sunny here in Seattle -- they can do it and not lose connection.
NAA: What are the advantages for staff?
BP: In the last 12 to 18 months, we have rolled out a pretty major implementation of Yardi that includes their mobile application suite. Our maintenance teams can conduct, record, and communicate regarding work orders in real time with our residents, as well as the other team members. Our leasing team uses Yardi's leasing pad product, which allows staff to complete the entire spectrum of the lease workflow process via tablet. On larger, stabilized properties, when they are on a tour, they can access any information they can possibly need in real time while they are talking with the resident. So, as they're listening to the prospect and trying to gain a better understanding of their expectations and preferences, it might become evident that another unit or another floor plan within the building might be more desirable for them. We have real-time access to that information from an availability standpoint. We can also capture all of the relevant guest card information in real time, as well. From our standpoint, the benefits are increased efficiency and productivity more than anything. Our leasing team doesn't need to go on a tour and then spend 15 minutes logging data into a CRM solution. They are able to enter all of that in real time while they are with the prospect.
NAA: I imagine the same goes for your maintenance staff, yes?
BP: Absolutely. When they're completing their work orders, all of their data is being captured in real time. So, if a resident in Unit 302 submits a work order and one of our maintenance guys happens to be in 303, he can see it and it might be a quick enough fix where he go next door and take care of it right away. That goes an extremely long ways with resident relationships.
NAA: Do you think the apartment industry is reaching a point where if communities do not offer cutting-edge technology, they are at a distinct disadvantage?
BP: There are two schools of thoughts. The simple answer is "Yes," just because I'm a big proponent of it. The other answer would be "Not yet." I tend to believe that it does put you at a competitive disadvantage if you don't have it, especially if you are in a tech-oriented market like Pillar is in the Pacific Northwest. All of our residents expect a certain level of technology, whether it's building-wide Wi-Fi or connection speeds. There's also the "Wow" factor. For a prospect to see our leasing team pop up and come greet them at the door with tablet in hand, they're impressed. The technology frees up our team members to really engage that prospect. It also frees up our team members to engage our residents. We're hiring young, energetic people who have grown up with this. They have used technology most of their lives, and they understand how to function in that type of environment.
NAA: What advice would you have to other apartment owners, operators, and managers who are looking to improve their Internet, Wi-Fi, and all-around technology offerings, particularly those who might be a bit behind the curve and are looking to catch up with their competition?
BP: One piece of advice is to embrace it, but don't try to do too much, too quickly. Don't try to run before you can walk. Technology is great, but it needs to be a well-planned implementation. A failed implementation will do far more harm to a property. Whether it's a mobile operating platform, a device management plan, or a building-wide Wi-Fi system, planning upfront is critical. We all know how quickly technology can change. If you are always waiting for the "Next Best Thing," you're going to end up behind. Technology is setting a pace that nobody can really keep up with anyways. Be forward-thinking and find a system that works for you that is easy to use; provides the benefit that you're looking for; and is, in the end, cost-effective from an investment standpoint.
By Teddy Durgin
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