The mixed bag of leasing skill sets that management companies want.
When the fire alarm went off at O-Ku restaurant in Charlotte, N.C., RKW Residential President Marcie Williams and her party of seven had to evacuate for a half hour. When they returned to their table, all the orders were quickly delivered except for Williams’ salad. The waiter had a hard time getting the kitchen to produce a missing order, ultimately joking, “If I have to make the salad myself, I will do it!” Later, to make amends, he gave everyone at the table a complimentary dessert.
But through all the chaos and order challenges, the waiter never seemed a bit fazed, says Williams. “He was so thoughtful about an order that was messed up, and his personality was so dynamic I felt he had a natural ability to sell. I gave him my business card, something I rarely do, and said, ‘Call me if you are interested in a job.’ He did and worked for the company until he moved away.”
Williams’ own career path started in a similarly unplanned way 28 years ago. While she was tending bar, a customer who worked in commercial real estate noticed her attentiveness and friendliness, gave her a magazine about the industry and suggested she consider the field. She sent out her résumé, was hired for a leasing job and today heads a company that hires property managers and leasing agents for 20,000 apartment homes in six states.
Peggy Panzer, Vice President of Business Development for Laramar Group, out of Denver, also unexpectedly became a leasing consultant 30 years ago. When she was looking for an apartment, the property manager leading the tour asked if she wanted a job as the property’s assistant manager and leasing consultant. “It was an easy ‘yes’ for me, as the work sounded interesting and offered opportunity for growth,” Panzer says.
Some recruits to the apartment industry still land jobs in unplanned ways. But stepping into leasing or property management has become more complex as technology permeates through the business and institutional owners demand real-time results.
It takes a specific set of traits and incredible flexibility to succeed in this ultra-competitive environment. The good news is that management companies have become more thoughtful and diligent about preparing onsite staffers for apartment careers and compensating the ones who perform well with both higher salaries and promotions.
The Essential Skills
Top property managers typically excel in many areas, such as operations, marketing and leadership, whether they work at a new community lease-up or a stabilized one. This means they’re skilled at budgeting, data analysis, maintenance oversight, day-to-day operations and motivating and leading a team, Panzer says.
Other helpful traits include being smart and charismatic as well as “doing the right thing and treating people right,” says Luanne McNulty, Vice President at ZRS, a management firm based in Orlando that handles 50,000 apartment homes and a mix of assets in six states. Those managing new lease-ups also may work with joint-venture partners and developers, so they need to be team players.
Top leasing agents typically possess an inordinate amount of energy and good people skills to convince potential residents that their building might be a good match. Most thrive in a high-stress, fast-paced environment where there’s a sense of urgency to show listings, answer questions and close a transaction, then close another.
In addition, they possess a knack for overcoming challenges. “‘Build it and they will come’ doesn’t always hold true in our industry. Filling a building is a challenge,” says Alphonso Haigler, a floating Property Manager at The Bainbridge Companies, an owner, developer and manager of luxury multifamily buildings based in Wellington, Fla., and Bethesda, Md. Haigler currently works at his company’s Bainbridge Federal Hill building in Baltimore.
Also critical to success is an ability to be empathetic to residents’ needs, says Steve F. Hallsey, Managing Director of Wood Partners, headquartered in Atlanta. “We want them to connect with the prospects, draw them in, create a pleasant experience and share a story about what the building will look like when finished since we’re not showing a stabilized asset,” he says. “If we don’t hook them in the first five to six minutes, we won’t.”
Patience is required because some customers return three to four times before they lease, Hallsey says. And so is “simply being personable,” he adds, “although it might sound corny or trite. People lease from people. You’re selling yourself in a way.”
Although it has no bearing on skills, living near a community is a definite asset, ZRS has found. “We try to staff properties with team members who live near the site,” McNulty says. “In return, they are happier at work. We think [that] after a certain amount of time, a long commute wears on people.”
The rewards for top leasing agents can be financially worthwhile because of the commissions they earn on top of a salary. Companies develop different incentives.
NRP Group, based in Cleveland, offers a commission based on revenue. So a $2,000-a-month apartment would reward more than one leasing for $1,000, says Phillip Boatwright, Senior Regional Vice President of Property Management. Many companies also reward for milestones at different points—perhaps after hitting the 50 percent mark for new leased apartment homes, or after 70 percent of renewals are leased. Sometimes, both a consultant and team are recognized, Panzer says. “Incentives are unique to a property, organization and sometimes to the particular market.”
Different company cultures offer the potential for bigger dollars and longer hours or better work-life balance. Hallsey’s firm tries to achieve the latter by overstaffing a community during a lease-up and keeping staff to “normal” hours, he says.
Aaron Galvin, CEO of Luxury Living Chicago Realty, which leases 40 percent of Chicago’s new apartment construction, says his firm prides itself on getting the job done, which may demand less work-life balance and longer hours, weekend work and “sometimes going four weeks without a day off,” he says. But to motivate employees, his company pays three times what others in the industry do, Galvin adds.
Top managers typically are compensated by a salary but may also receive periodic bonuses, Panzer says. In addition, some may get a disposition bonus when a building is sold, which is typically after 18 months or so, says Hallsey, whose firm sells about 25 buildings each year.
A Path to Success
In the past, the typical property management career meant starting as a leasing consultant, possibly moving up to assistant manager, then property or community manager, and next to regional manager or vice president, or some combination. But with today’s advances in technology and increasing complexities in leasing and management, companies are trying to recruit many to start in management rather than in leasing, says McNulty.
Whether employees ultimately end up in leasing or management, putting them on a trajectory with a solid career path has become much more important to apartment community firms. Hallsey traces the heightened interest in career mapping to a few years ago, when low unemployment made it tougher to staff positions and compete with more lucrative jobs in the construction trade. It gave companies a clear path for staff to move up, increase responsibilities and boost their salary. McNulty also sees it as a result of Millennials growing up with the internet and desiring information about their company and career paths fast and all the time. “They want tools to know how to get to the next level,” she says.
However, not all companies excel at developing internal talent, especially top performers. “The industry still struggles at preparing existing staff sufficiently for growth—and who’s going where next, for instance,” Boatwright says. Therefore, his company’s executive team now consistently evaluates team members and asks regional leaders who’s ready. “It’s how we’re working to build strength at different locations,” he says.
So where does it begin? Career mapping starts with the endpoint and works backward to identify the best path to reach that point. Such mapping serves as a specific course of action both for the employee and employer, and includes identifiable short- and long-term goals along with timelines for each, Panzer says. It also allows the employer to support current employees in developing and honing business skills. “Doing so is a clear signal that the company is actively working with team members to develop talent and promote from within the organization,” she says.
Additionally, mapping acknowledges individual staff members’ desires, such as whether to move to a higher level or stay put. “Not every leasing consultant or manager wants to step into the role of a regional manager, for instance, because of the time or pressure on themselves and their family,” Hallsey says. His company respects such limitations, he says.
Even with the best mapping, plans can go awry, which requires an organization and its star members to adjust career plans. “The key is to keep the endpoint in mind and continue to head in that direction,” Panzer says.