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How to Have a Banner Career in Apartment Operations

Steve Matre

Apartment property management is becoming an increasingly demanding profession, and those who look to make it a career are being called on to broaden their skill sets considerably. Those who are rising to the top not only are well-versed in operations, maintenance, and leasing, but also have customer service skills, business acumen, and technology expertise. No one knows this better than Steve Matre, Director of Education, Marketing, and Development at Banner Property Management LLC, who sat down with us recently. What follows is our chat:

NATIONAL APARTMENT ASSOCIATION: Mr. Marte, please introduce yourself to our readers.

STEVE MATRE: I have been in the property management business for a little over 20 years. I'm actually a CPA. I started in accounting, then had an opportunity to move over into operations. I've overseen portfolios as big as 7,000 units. Banner's portfolio is currently about 6,800 units in 10 states. I transitioned from operations to directing education, marketing, and revenue management with Banner, and I've been doing that now for about six years.

NAA: What have been some of the top initiatives at Banner that have helped the company achieve greater effectiveness in its property management operations?

SM: Like everybody else, we've tried to do a lot with technology. On the customer side, we've implemented payment portal systems, online availability, social media platforms. We've made the resident experience more interactive online through our resident portal.

NAA: Can you provide an anecdote on how residents used to interact and how they interact now, and why it's more beneficial to you and to them?

SM: In the past, residents would meet one another and interact in conventional ways, because an apartment community is, in essence, a neighborhood. Our resident portal has allowed residents to post things for sale on the community "wall," similar to what a social media site would offer; view a calendar of events at the property; publicize and create their own social events like running or book clubs; and "find" their neighbors' profiles on Facebook if they opt in and allow themselves to be found.

It's beneficial that our properties are able to offer an experience that mirrors the social media landscape since people have gotten so used to relating to each other that way. And there is some value created by this online form of "community," since a sense of community is an oft-quoted reason to stay at an apartment community. It's basically self-service resident retention. The residents interact without having to rely on our teams to create all the interactive opportunities.

NAA: Please go on.

SM: We've also implemented revenue management and automated accounts payable and also developed a nice metrics program. We score about 15 operational statistics on a monthly basis. That really helps deliver some nice, just-in-time educational opportunities for our people. It also allows us to monitor at a glance some of the key results of the portfolio. It's not just financial metrics, but performance metrics as well -- things like sales associate effectiveness, accounts receivable, days to turn, average time for a work order, and so forth. These statistics serve as a monthly report card.

NAA: Of the 15 operational statistics you score, which are the most interesting and which are the most valuable and why?

SM: The most compelling stats or metrics are those that provide very actionable data that can be applied broadly. For example, a leasing secret shop score covers a very broad piece of our sales program. If a property is lacking here, doing some additional sales coaching can obviously boost occupancy and associate skills. It's valuable in a broad way to the whole office team. Things like "average day to complete service requests" are key to measure since our residents submit service requests online and are able to check on the status of their service requests at any time by using our resident portal. This creates transparency that needs to be carefully managed by the property's teams. If this metric is deficient, you can coach office workflow, time management, team software skills, and customer service principles. It's a metric that, while just a number, suggests a broader scope of coaching need if the expectation is not being met.

NAA: What are some of the specific ways that Banner has been working to not only retain top talent, but to develop leaders?

SM: We really focus a lot on continuing education. In fact, we're about to introduce a training compliance metric. 

NAA: Can you describe this metric and what specifically you hope to gain from it?

SM: This metric is simple math. Assignments that are in compliance, or not behind deadline, divided the entire group of training assignments allocated to each property's team. We do have a fairly large body of assignments and knowledge for our teams to complete and master. We really want to see if our assignment load is doable, so to speak, and which community managers are doing the best job of managing associate time to get the training completed. We also have a computerized learning management system that drives learning. We are really working hard on improving our onboarding efforts in 2014. 

NAA: What are Banner's onboarding goals for the new year, and how do you plan to achieve them?

SM: Onboarding is just a fancy term for new-hire training. We hope to, using our learning management system, create an online timeline and searchable resource for every topic that needs to be covered. The supervisor who will be doing the training will be able to easily pull a week's material at a time and be ready to present it in an organized way to the new associate. Our time to performance for new hires has decreased significantly. People can add value very quickly now. We hope to decrease time to mastery, as well. By the end of the first 90 days, each associate should really be an expert in Banner's operational systems and philosophies. These will be achieved through further design by the education team as they finish the tool set, and through train-the-trainer sessions with community managers as they become more and more confident at delivering educational materials.

We want to make it self-driven. In today's society, we all live in what I call "Internet and Google time." When you want something, you want it now! Every company should be developing just-in-time systems for associates to assess policy, procedure, and learning materials. We realize that 85 percent of training is going to be peer to peer. You learn a job on the job with your peers. But, at the same time, if someone wants to know something more about the industry, about the company, about a specific property, or about property management in general, they should not have to wait and they shouldn't have to be limited by the schedules of people around them. We're trying to develop systems through which people have immediate access to all policies and procedures online. They have immediate access to all of our past webinars and the trainings we have delivered. So, when someone wants to learn more about something, they can use our learning management system to pull resources to get the information they want when they want it.

We bring outside people in to do distance learning. We also bring people together in groups to brainstorm things like disaster and crisis planning and more effective leadership in operations. In terms of retaining top talent, people who are in leadership and managerial positions are more apt to stay if they have systems in place that support them. Employee turnover is not going to suck up 90 percent of their time. We will continue developing more continuing education opportunities for our leaders like executive-level lunch-and-learns that cover performance reviews, personnel issues, how to motivate people, and things like that. Finally, we do encourage our associates to be very active in local apartment associations to network and build their industry knowledge, and encourage those with industry designations to do continuing education to make sure they keep those skills sharp.

NAA:  How important is developing communications skills from the top on down?

SM: Communication can make or break a company in this business. We focus a lot on improving communications. Like every other company, we are extremely email driven. We just flipped our email program over to Gmail since it is so widely used now for personal emails. We're also trying to leverage technological platforms for scheduling meetings and keeping people in touch. We also use a corporate blog. Our CEO is about to introduce a quarterly or a monthly conference call to keep people in the loop on different things that are happening companywide. We can always be better at communicating, and I think it will continue to be a focus at our company as we continue to grow and move into new markets and different types of properties.

NAA: Who does the blogging, and what are one or two of the topics that he/she/they have blogged about?

SM: Our corporate blog is a very informal substitute for a company newsletter. In as much, our teams submit anecdotes about events at the properties, as well as team achievements. We also re-publish any press pieces where our team members have appeared, announce awards we've won, announce new hires, announce new properties being acquired, things like that. We love to showcase resident events and our properties' charitable causes. These ideas go viral within the company, and the properties in different cities can learn from each other and emulate great events and ideas.

NAA: Is there a specific project or initiative that you have personally captained that you're especially proud of, especially in the last year or so?

SM: I was our first revenue manager, so I'm really proud of that. We just transitioned this to somebody else who will be able to better develop our usage of revenue management so that I can continue to work on new programs for our teams/company. But I'm pretty proud of the fact that we were able to roll out and integrate revenue management into our operations. There was some resistance in the beginning since it is a culture shift and relatively new technology and pricing strategy, but our communication strategies and education team made it possible to roll the program out pretty quickly and coach the sales skills necessary for daily price changes. People got used to it pretty fast. I'm also proud that we changed our learning management system last year, and we've heard from our provider that we're one of the more dynamic companies out there in the ways we are using technology. The thing I like about Banner is we're always trying to be better.

NAA: As we enter the new year, what are some of the things apartment professionals should keep in mind with regards to change management?

SM: People just need to get over the myth of change management. I think there has been more change in the last five years than there had been in the 20 years before that, but I think it's all good change. In terms of property management, we are upgrading ourselves in a big way to mirror the rest of the economy. We're becoming a lot more tech-based, and I think people who come into property management companies will develop not only strong sales skills, but customer service skills, pricing skills, technology systems expertise. The reason I mention that with regards to change management is that with all of this upgrading inside the property management industry, the training requirements and the knowledge capital out there is growing.

There are so many things for property management professionals to know and master to be successful these days. When you talk about change management, all that learning can be very overwhelming sometimes. Leaders and executives need to understand that 90 percent of their effort should go toward motivating people to embrace change and embrace personal development so that they can be the professionals their companies need them to be. We're entering into yet another period of development where there will be a lot of new competition. So, you must differentiate yourself by upgrading your systems and services. It's all about change!

By Teddy Durgin
© Copyright 2014 INFORMATION, INC.


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