How One Exec Developed a More Efficient Way to Manage Properties

7 minute read

In our next installment of Profiles in Success, a series where NAA talks to successful apartment professionals to learn how they got to where they are, we visit with an SVP of Strategic Initiatives who has been involved in many of their technology and growth initiatives over the last two decades, including the creation of their Shared Services Center.

Name: Karen Hollinger

Company: AvalonBay Communities, Inc.

Current Title: Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives

Years in the Industry: 18 years with AvalonBay. Prior to AvalonBay, I worked for a big consulting firm implementing ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems (that dates me!) and doing IT strategy. As a consultant, I had about 50 clients in 10 countries across industries, including real estate.

What was your first apartment job?

Soon after I graduated from college, I was a very junior accounting systems consultant for Carr Properties in Washington D.C. Later, I helped AvalonBay choose their ERP systems. My first job as an employee of AvalonBay was in the human resource department to manage the installation of the PeopleSoft HR & Payroll system, which I had convinced them to purchase. Boy, was that tougher than I had promised!

Describe your job now.

My job now is a little bit of everything. I manage large multiyear projects that typically have a technology or process impact. I manage a portfolio of small pilots, many originating out of the PropTech space, that typically have a revenue-enhancing goal. I act as point for the venture capital space, helping them understand what’s needed in multifamily, and work with new companies to thrive in our industry. I act as a national point-of-contact for large-scale partnerships that benefit our developments or our residents. I also present at conferences, publish and sit on related association committees.

It’s a mix of strategy, relationship-building, project management and innovation. I have the best of both worlds, with the ability to think and work like a start-up but with the financial strength and customer base of a large institution.

Who was your greatest influence in the industry (how did they influence you)?

I don’t have that one person, although I envy those who do. I’ve worked for many great leaders in our industry and gleaned something from each. Real estate is such a complex multi-faceted industry that we always need leaders who are willing to share and teach others. I’m glad to have the latitude to be “hat in hand” to ask for that guidance.

What was your biggest challenge? How did you overcome that challenge?

My greatest challenge was the creation of AvalonBay Customer Care Center (CCC), a shared services center we opened in 2007. We centralized all back-office operations in overhead and onsite in one location and then heavily automated it. It was truly new ground—new processes, new systems, all new staff, a new city, and a new way of interacting with the residents. It took four years to complete that project and I’ve got the grey hairs to prove it, but it did indeed work as intended and is a much more efficient way to manage properties. It’s especially important now, with the difficulty in hiring skilled staff in urban cities.

What is your ultimate goal in the apartment industry?

My goals are less related to position or function and more related to making a bigger, positive difference in our industry. There aren’t too many industries that impact a customer’s life so directly. How can we become the conduit for enhancing living 24/7—whether through transportation, health, food, financial services, socialization, working, etc. It sounds lofty but we already see breadcrumbs in that direction.

What has the apartment industry given you, personally and professionally?

I’ve been very lucky. I joined this industry when one could “wear many hats” and learned along the way. As our business becomes more complex and specialized, we tend to hire for specific functions, rather than generalized management skills. Because I’ve had so many senior roles at AvalonBay—touching HR, operations, IT, accounting, development and construction—I understand “the whole ecosystem” and how decisions in one function ripple through the entity. That’s a priceless education. On a personal note, while I travel quite a bit, I’ve generally been in one house and city for the entirety of my children’s upbringing. They might not realize how lucky they have been to have two parents constantly over their shoulders, but I do.  

What’s your favorite or funniest apartment industry story?

My son forwarded to me a viral video where a resident was destroying an apartment in the most creative ways. It wasn’t so funny when I realized it was one of our apartments! Who knew that a ceiling fan could be used that way? Luckily, the video was some years old and the damage had already been fixed, with the resident not disputing the charge. I suppose the video hurt any argument he would want to make!

What’s one thing you or your company does that sets you apart?

While it’s hard to ignore the power of our development pipeline and skills, it’s really the entirety of the organization that provides for efficiency and growth. We have departments that operate, provide customer service, raise capital directly for the balance sheet, asset manage, build, etc. When I compare notes with peers that have a specialty in a few of these functions but are at the whim of the secured debt market, as an example, I clearly realize the advantage.

Success is best when shared. How do you or your company find ways to give back?

Part of our DNA is our commitment to Spirit of Caring, making a difference in the neighborhoods where we live and work. In 2018, we donated $2.1 million to our philanthropic partners, donated more than 1,700 pints of blood to the American Red Cross, and associates volunteered more than 14,000 hours to charitable organizations. Each executive is asked to create a charitable event that they feel passionate about. One year, I sponsored a wine-tasting for our associates and residents, and all proceeds went to a local homeless shelter. It had one of the highest turnouts and donations of any event!

What volunteer roles do you currently hold?

While I wish that I could have done more volunteering outside of our industry, I’ve primarily focused on committees associated with the National Multifamily Housing Council. We focus on creating training, conferences and white papers on technology and innovation. I also act as an advisor to a group called CRETech with the same goals.

How has your experience as a volunteer helped in your career?

It’s really important to get outside of your own company and industry to meet others and gain new ideas. Any issue we face in real estate has been solved elsewhere and we shouldn’t try and recreate the wheel.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Over the last 20 years, my primary focus in addition to work has been raising children, with an occasional great vacation. Now that the kids are grown, I look forward to having a hobby! I need someone to teach me how to golf…

What did you want to be growing up?

I forever thought I would be an attorney. I got a Finance degree simply as the corollary to the law school degree that was next. When I bombed the LSAT and continued to do well with business, it was a sign from above and I haven’t looked back. 

What do you want to be doing five years from now?

I don’t know. That’s the secret that they don’t tell you in school. No matter how old you are, you feel young. While planning is helpful, you shouldn’t get too attached to that plan and miss the smaller opportunities that lead to a better path. Just save your salary along the way so you have options.

If you could talk to yourself 10/15/20 years ago, what would you say?

Smile more and enjoy life…this too shall pass. Try something new every day.

What’s your favorite quote?

If you’ve worked with me, you’ll hear me say something to the effect of “Baby steps in the right direction” (basically another variant of “Rome wasn’t built in a day”). Sometimes a project seems large and daunting and there is insufficient time, budget or consensus. Sometimes, the best course of action is simply to start. After 18 years, many of these “small starts” have turned into whole new ways of doing business; that’s satisfying when looking in the rear-view mirror.

What’s your favorite song/musician?

I like every genre under the sun. I like Sinatra, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Eminem and Bruno Mars. I’ve crowd-surfed at a Beastie Boys concert (many years ago, obviously…) and sang Reggae on stage with the band more recently. Right now, I am seeking a great Jazz bar if anyone has suggestions.

What’s the biggest difference you see between our industry today and when you started?

There are two big sea-changes: One has to be technology—when I joined, we rolled out our first nationwide Internet-based property operations system and thought we were done! Today, our technology infrastructure is extensive and automates nearly every function, whether resident-facing or supporting overhead. It certainly makes increased scale and complexity of operations efficient.

The other is the customer demographic—as renting by choice grows, everything has changed.  We have communities that cater to families, empty nesters or folks who work from home, and this impacts decisions on location, common areas, unit size and mix, retail, parking—you name it!