By listening to employees and emphasizing their entrepreneurial spirit, small firms can retain their top performers.
Apartment firms of all sizes face labor challenges, but small rental owners, who might be limited in what they can pay and offer in benefits, are particularly challenged in finding and keeping employees.
“One of our biggest challenges is staffing, trying to keep great folks in the industry,” Victoria Cowart, CPM, Vice President of Property Management for Darby Development Company, based in Charleston, S.C., says. “That is an ‘awake-at-night’ situation.”
IROs not only have to fend off other industries from their employees, but they have to compete with bigger apartment firms that may be able to pay higher salaries.
“When you are small, it is difficult to attract the caliber of employees who would take jobs in the bigger management companies,” says Joe Bryson, Managing Partner of Stellar Equity Management in Houston.
But Bryson and his wife, Stephanie, try to use their size as a recruitment and retention tool.
“The leasing agent having direct access to the owner is different than a leasing consultant working for a bigger company,” Stephanie says. “You have an opportunity to influence the procedures that are being developed. At bigger companies, people have great ideas, but they are not always heard. That has been the biggest selling point for me as a smaller owner.”
The Brysons also offer training opportunities. “We cannot grow if our team members are not growing,” Stephanie says.
Mark Hurley, President of Highland Commercial Properties in San Antonio, gives his managers the freedom to make decisions, such as allowing them to waive a late fee without asking. That kind of autonomy can improve employee satisfaction.
Being closer to employees also helps an owner understand and meet their needs. Brent Sobol, founder of Legacy Community Housing Corp. in Atlanta, has retained most of his employees for nine to 10 years.
“I just try to put people in roles that they enjoy and that I think they can be good at,” he says. “I ask, ‘Could this person enjoy what I’m asking them to do?’ ”
Small owners also need to be resourceful when finding employees. Steve Lightner of Jefferson City, Mo., looks to the retail sector to identify qualified candidates.
“A lot of people who have been working in retail jobs have lost their jobs because many retailers are closing their doors,” Lightner says. “These people have sales skills, but they have to be trained for our business.”
Lightner also has had success recruiting employees from the construction industry. The problem with finding workers from the construction industry is when that industry improves, workers will move back to construction to get more pay, he says.
Lightner tries to counter that by pointing out the certainty of hours in apartment maintenance compared to boom-and-bust construction cycles and moving from one project to another.
“We are going to pay them to show up and do work as it becomes available,” he says. “It’s a guarantee they will work so many hours a week. It is hard for them to go from $25 an hour to $15 an hour, but that steady paycheck can be a real benefit.”
Cowart taps into multiple sources to find associates. She teaches courses at the local association of Realtors, which gives her access to people with business and real estate backgrounds, and has worked with a local technical college to develop a curriculum to bring more maintenance technicians into the fold.
For Cowart, touting that her location (Charleston, S.C.) is “one of the top vacation spots in the country” has been a prime attraction. She advertises jobs on Craigslist websites in other parts of the country to entice workers to move to her area. As a result, her company has hired people from Arizona, Tennessee, Florida and Virginia.
“Our location gives us a competitive advantage in lifestyle,” Cowart says.
Les Shaver is the Senior Content Editor at NAA and can be reached via email.