When you think back to 1980, I didn’t know many young adults who had decided as children, “When I grow up, I want to be a property manager!” My dad probably would have sent me right out of the house if I’d announced that. I was attending the University of Oregon at the time and I needed a job. Fortunately, I found work with a small property management company mowing lawns. Unfortunately, I was terrible at it! But I knew I either had to keep mowing lawns or figure out something else to do to add value. The company specialized in managing houses and duplexes, so I asked the owner of the company, “Why don’t we manage more apartments?” His answer, “There’s no future in apartments.” And I replied, “Well, if there’s no future in it, then you wouldn’t mind if I tried to pick up some to manage, right?” To which he replied, “Knock yourself out, but there’s really no future in apartments in this market.” It was that simple - I got into a game I didn’t see anybody else playing.
Now, nearly four decades later, I’m Blanton Turner’s Chief Problem Solver — definitely not a title I could have predicted back in the 80’s. But in the years after I switched from mowing lawns to managing properties, I’ve been pursuing my passion … interacting with people and helping solve their problems.
While some people get their energy from coffee (… that magic hit of caffeine in the morning), I get my “triple shot” from people energy. Basic interaction with people fills my emotional bank account. As “Chief Problem Solver”, I basically cheer people on to be the best they can be — all the time. I interact with a range of clients, mostly about strategy, but I now spend more of my time managing the company than managing properties.
“While some people get their energy from coffee, I get my ‘triple shot’ from people energy.”
Getting the chance to work with so many interesting people makes me one of the most fortunate guys I know. Better still: Since we focus on doing what we do really well at Blanton Turner, and continually look for ways to keep doing it better, we are able to keep attracting cool, interesting people to join us. But let me pull back the curtain a little bit. Here’s what I’ve learned about the people dynamics in multifamily…
When it comes to climbing the ladder in multifamily, I think a significant shift takes place as the metrics around performance change. At the entry level, people typically start leasing or juggling a variety of tasks, and their performance tends to be measured based on numbers. But as they rise to the property manager level, the notion of performance changes.
At that point, when they’re balancing the demands of administrative and financial management as well as managing and supervising people, they need to learn to perform through others. If they’re not able to balance the administrative management responsibilities with a genuine enthusiasm for the people they have to perform through and interact with (from residents to vendors to maintenance supervisors), they risk bringing down the morale of their team, which in turn translates to lowering the experience of the customer. That’s not a recipe for success!
While the administrative work is important, property managers need to always remember that while we refer to what we do as “property management”, we are really in the “people management” business, and our success will be predicated on the great experiences we deliver to people … including our employees, our residents, and everyone we interact with. Success at this level is measured by the success of the people you lead, and the experiences they deliver. It requires you to empower those you lead and to allow them to be invested in the outcome. It also requires you to trust your team and to avoid micro-management.
Well before you start managing others, it’s so important to establish what your passions are. If I could go back, I would have everybody I manage consider the things they’ve been the most passionate about in their lives, going clear back to their childhoods. One of the best things about our industry is that there are a variety of opportunities for people, and pretty much no matter what floats your boat, you can find an avenue to express that in property management.
If you're passionate about working with people, then figure out how to get in front of people and work with people. Or, maybe you’re passionate about making systems better. You want to consider operations or I/T, and steer yourself in that direction. Or maybe you’re into numbers and look for opportunities in accounting or finance. Maybe your thing is marketing, or HR. This is a multifaceted business with a myriad of avenues available.
If I could go back and talk to my much younger self just starting out in the business, I would say: “Park your ego and insecurities at the door; honestly, nobody cares that much!” I would have stressed a lot less about what other people thought. I worked really hard when I was in my 20’s, but focused too much about how I came across, and that was due to insecurity. That’s why I would also tell my younger self to take more chances, and don’t worry about going out on a limb more (it’s not that far off the ground!). Being creative and charting your own course isn’t as risky as I used to think it was. Maybe it was me, or maybe times have changed, but I would do it differently now.
“If I could go back…I would say: ‘Park your ego and insecurities at the door; honestly, nobody cares that much!’”
I think some of the most innovative ideas come from people who are brand new to this. Whereas I might walk by the same thing every day without thinking twice, a newcomer to the industry might see a whole layer of meaning where I saw none. That’s the kind of critical gaze I seek out in new hires. Part of the reason that spirit resonates well with me? Blanton Turner broke free from the multifamily norm back when we started in 2011. When we are looking for new people to join us, particularly as the entry level positions, industry experience is not high on our priority list. We can teach people how to do what they need to know about property management, but we look for people who are bright, with interesting personalities and engaging stories, who understand the value of relationships, and who embody a natural enthusiasm.
We started the business with the understanding that we weren't out to get “big”. Our intention was to do what we do really well, to be agile and innovative, and to have a blast doing it. To be successful, we knew we needed to attract a very smart, creative and collaborative group of talented people, and we have been very fortunate in that regard. That’s why coming to work every day has been enormously rewarding for me.
We have always been quite selective about the management accounts we take on. From the very beginning of Blanton Turner, we wanted to work with our clients, not for them. For us, it’s critical to form a strong working relationship with our clients, and that requires us to make sure we are a good fit for each other. When prospective clients interview us, we interview them back. We each need to know we can work together, and that we have mutual goals and objectives. When it comes to conceptual frameworks, we do an equal balance of sharing our philosophies and listening to their philosophies, so we know we are on the same page together.
Our strategy was to work with a select group of developers and their clients. We focused on new properties because we had a background in development, marketing and lease-ups. If we engaged early enough in the development process, we could improve what was being built by representing the end-user by asking: “What are our residents really looking for, and how does this add to the value of the property from their perspective?”
I sometimes worry the multifamily industry as a whole has gotten to the point where there’s too much focus on the systems or platforms, perhaps to the detriment of creativity or the value of unique experiences enhanced by people engaging with people. I am encouraged by the shift toward more hospitality-level service, and I’m seeing a change that I think is very positive toward some of the disruption in our industry (prop-tech, A/I, etc.) often led by open-minded, inquisitive “NextGens”.
I’ve seen the multifamily industry making a strong shift toward hospitality. That's the newest amenity you can offer: taking the hassle out of people’s lives and bringing happiness to their daily routine. Another key for me is “playing to win” versus “playing not to lose”. I don’t mean play to win at someone else’s loss, but don’t play not to lose by being risk averse.
Instead of preserving certain established offerings or amenities, multifamily operators should seize the freedom to start from scratch. The bolder you are, the greater the pay-off could be. After all, today's expectations were yesterday's luxuries. We don’t fully know what tomorrow’s will be, but now is the time to start pushing the envelope ... and delivering.
I think NextGens are truly influencing the future. The question from an employer’s perspective is always: How do you retain talented, interesting people at your company when their greatest fear seems to be “getting stuck”? In my view, it’s simple: Keep providing career growth and fresh opportunities along the way. It requires actively listening to them (and trust me … they will tell you what it is they are looking for). You need to actively listen, and then be prepared to act upon what you have heard.
The objective is to keep them engaged (invested really) and excited about your mission, and ultimately to invite them to participate in furthering that mission (thus it becomes their mission too). The alternative is watching talented people leave your company to go in search of fulfillment with another company.
For anybody entering this changing multifamily scene, I have some advice for your job search: Always interview the company your applying with back. I encourage everybody to interview me back when I'm interviewing them because I assume the people who are sitting in front of me have options. To be sitting here, they are clearly driven and accomplished. For their own benefit, they should try and gauge whether my company suits their needs and will be a good fit for them.
To be sure, a lot of people aren’t comfortable asking the kinds of direct questions that give them a clear picture of a work environment. It’s critical to do research on a company before the interview stage, but “interviewing back” is your chance to find out whether the organization’s managerial approach and personality types are a healthy fit. When you’re giving your whole work life to a company, it’s critical that you vet people well to know you’re getting more than just a paycheck from of the opportunity … you deserve more than that.
After nearly four decades in this industry, I’m so glad to see it mushrooming. The business is getting more and more sophisticated — from technology to the nature of the architecture. To everyone’s benefit, the work environment has also grown much more diverse. I feel incredibly fortunate to work in a culturally diverse company with people from all over the world. For anybody climbing the ladder or just getting their big break, there’s opportunity across the board in multifamily, and the quality only gets better as new perspectives enter the mix.