April 28, 2021

Darlene Hunter: Improving Your Due Diligence

Your due diligence playbook has arrived. Stonemark Management SVP of Operations Darlene Hunter covers best practices to make the acquisitions process as efficient as possible, sharing her inspiring career arc along the way.

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Darlene Hunter has 25+ years of industry experience and has successfully managed A,B,C class communities. During her career, Darlene has supervised luxury condominiums, homeowners association, new construction, conventional, tax credit, bond and Section 8 based housing, as well as, successful lease-ups. She earned her B.A. degree from Florida State University and has a CAPS designation, CAM license and is currently a CPM Candidate.

Audio Transcript

Darlene Hunter 0:00
I have gotten such huge compliments from the clients, the information is very clear and concise the actual reporting, they actually love it. There is a component of the report where we can even do like a cost analysis. And that's that's been like the most helpful to them. Because if we're saying, Hey, I don't know three stoves need to be replaced and the stoves are, say 500 each, there's a report that will basically give them an estimate of what these repair and replacement items are right away.

Glennis Markison 0:40
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices where we feature fresh perspectives in multifamily industry leaders have faced significant pressure from the pandemic but adapting is what multifamily does best. In season three of voices we'll feature industry problem solvers, people finding creative ways to solve property challenges. Our first guest of Season Three is Darlene Hunter, SVP of operations for Stonemark Management. Darlene has more than 25 years of multifamily experience successfully managing Class A, B and C communities. Over the years Darlene has developed a specialty in due diligence, working her way up from walking units to hiring and training the acquisition team she now manages as senior vice president. Today on Voices, Darlene will discuss how she developed her due diligence best practices from standardising templates and communicating pre walk to reporting the findings and recognising team members for their hard work. Thanks for joining us, Darlene. Thank you, Glennis. I'm so excited to be here. We're really glad to have you. So let's just kind of get started covering how you got into multifamily. I understand it had a little something to do with the leasing office.

Darlene Hunter 1:53
That is absolutely correct. Well, I moved to Atlanta in the late 80s. Me and my fiance at the time, went apartment shopping, and I love the environment. In the leasing office. The leasing agents had on khaki shorts, polos of music was blaring, everybody was happy. And then that moment, I decided that I literally wanted to do what I thought was leasing. Right, not property management, leasing. And that's that's how I came to be in property management.

Glennis Markison 2:24
Wow. And did you have a manager in the early day who encourage you or what was that first supervisor like for you when you got your start?

Darlene Hunter 2:32
My first supervisor was an awesome mentor. Like she was amazing, having a college degree from Florida State University. Clearly, I have more experience probably coming through the door than a typical leasing agent as far as our formal education. But she did take me under her wing, I went from a part time leasing agent to a full time within six months to then becoming an assistant manager by the seventh month of employment with her. And from there, I worked under her for about two years. And after that she pushed me to apply for and get a manager's position outside of the company that we were working with. But she continued to be my mentor for years after that. Wow. Well, I definitely want to talk about mentorship later because it seems so important to the industry. But for now, I mean in those early days, can you share some of the key things that she taught you about management, I'm sure there's just so much stress to deal with, there's feedback to give, you could kind of weigh in on that I think it would help anyone listening? Sure, property management is basically customer service. And this, my mentor was very customer service oriented. There's a lot of stress that comes with property management, you know, of course, you got people not being able to afford to pay their rent, maybe they're not happy with their apartments. And one of the very first levels of training that she gave me was to always focus on the customers and their needs, and not to take any of their anger personally. So that was the first level. And then from there, it was more like on a leadership track for me. If she was out of the office, she would like make sure that I was in charge. But she would also leave me to do lists of you know how I should handle things. And it just continued to like, you know, snowball from there. There was a point to where she was out of the office for about six months. And literally it gave me the opportunity to be to act in her absence as a community manager and our corporate office didn't send anybody over I handled the reporting. She did she would check on me from time to time, but she had already prepped me as to what needed to be done. And that's when she like returned and a few months later, she's like you're definitely ready.

Glennis Markison 4:56
Oh man. Um, did you ever run her by though the way you gave feedback to others, did you ever say, hey, did I handle that? Well, because that's so much of what it sounds like can lead to turnover in the industry, if people don't phrase things the right way in that delicate moment. So did you run those scenarios by her to?

Darlene Hunter 5:11
Most definitely. Before she actually went out, like, literally, even when she was there, she say, hey, go and talk to Darlene about this. So she was always watching and observing and giving feedback. And of course, I was always asking for feedback, hey, did I handle it, you know, the way that you would have handled it. And that would be either with a customer or with one of the one of the employees. And she would give very good feedback to where if there was an improvement that needed to be made, I would make that improvement or implement that right away.

Glennis Markison 5:46
Wow. I mean, it sounds so much that you lucked out with her. But I can't imagine that you're seven months only from the start in the industry to assistant manager, if you didn't really say, hey, I want to do something big. And I think I'm ready for it. So I think sometimes women don't feel like they can make that push for themselves. Like they can want a promotion, ask for it. Make it happen in the way sometimes maybe men feel more comfortable saying, here's where I want to go. So can you talk to people listening who might be very early in their start wanting also to lead a due diligence team one day? Can you tell me how you had that confidence like that be a scary, you know, so how, what are your tips on how to speak and say what you're thinking when you want to grow in the industry?

Darlene Hunter 6:25
I have to say, in my entire time in property management while I was on site, I had mostly female or women community managers, so they were already living where I want it to be. And, and I always say mentors become friends. And they do like lifelong friends. So I did express to her, she knew that I was recently had graduated from college, she knew that I wanted more, because I did express it to her, which is how it came to be with her, you know, taking me under her wing. So right away, you know, she knew that I was capable. She would always say, oh, my goodness, you're so smart. You're gonna go far. And so so yeah, so for me to share, hey, I want more. It made it very easy, because she was also someone that started out as a leasing agent and had grown in the industry.

Glennis Markison 8:00
Wow. Yeah, I mean, let's let's switch into your due diligence kind of transition in your career. I mean, if you could tell me a bit about what it was like under a paper system, what those challenges were, and were there different dynamics of maybe, like were men running strategy, were women taking notes, like walk me through maybe a difference in that environment, and also just some of those challenges on an operational level with with a manual system?

Darlene Hunter 8:20
I probably have been, part of a due diligence team for at least the last maybe, I would say 10 to 15 years. And I did get the opportunity to work with a company that was basically acquiring quite a few communities. Once again, I like I'd like left, my first mentor. And now I'm working with the next best mentor for sure. And she selected me to be on the due diligence team. And she mentioned Hey, we need people that are very detailed with notes and have a detail Are you have that. So I would like for you to be on the due diligence team, which you know, I found to be like an honour. And plus, like, you got a chance to be away from the office, which was always a big thing. So we actually did, we're working on a paper system at that time. So each team at that point, it was a teams of two, there would be someone that would actually like call out the conditions of what they were seeing, you know, good, fair, poor, repair or replace. And then there was someone that was like actually taking notes. So I had the opportunity at that time to be like a unit inspector. And I would say it was very interesting to say the least as far as like the paper system, even though the paper system, I don't know, probably for about a good five years after I started assisting with do diligences. Like we were on a manual paper system for that long before there was a software that would actually you know, where we could enter the data, and then a report can be compiled. So going back to the paper system, of course, we would write, like I said, the condition of the unit, you would have, like a male counterpart, typically from the corporate office that would basically compile that data. They weren't be on site. They would, you know, visit with each of the teams that was doing the due diligence, and you know, just make sure that we were on point with the information. And that they were like looking for. And then from there, that person would then compile the information and then submit the reports to, to, I guess, would be the client or the owner. At that point.

Glennis Markison 10:12
Were there ever issues with the amount of time it took or with any of the accuracy of data? I mean, did you feel like there was something missing in a manual system that that one day if you got to lead a team, you'd hope for a little more precision?

Darlene Hunter 10:24
Oh, most definitely. I think that as far as the accuracy, there would be times where I would get a phone call, hey, Darlene, you mark this, this one particular carpet will say is fair, that was one of the units that I was in with you. And really, it should have been marked as poor. And like, this is like, why do you agree? So just wanting to like make sure that you know, they were correct in their assessment of the carpet, versus what I had marked. So definitely accuracy issues, for sure. Not to mention, just like the actual penmanship as well, we would have to, you know, call the person back. Hey, this looks like an A but is it a B?

Glennis Markison 11:18
I know my handwriting and then effort impossible.

Darlene Hunter 11:22
Yeah, so definitely even like penmanship was an issue. And that's just what the letters that doesn't even include, like with the comments to where sometimes you couldn't even figure out what the person was trying to, you know, relay as far as a comment.

Glennis Markison 11:37
Wow. And you're talking about time here and the reporting And can you talk about like, what did it look like in the manual days to get on the reporting? That last step done for the acquisitions team? Like, how did that how much time did that take?

Darlene Hunter 11:49
Like, it would take at least like a full week, if not even more, because what you're talking about, depending on the size of the community is like one person basically scouring over if there were like three due diligence teams or even more, depending on the sides of the community where they literally would have to, you know, be flipping pages, okay, I have this unit ABCD, like, so like, it literally would take like over a week, if not long, a little bit longer for them to be able to compile all of the information from the different inspectors.

Glennis Markison 12:23
Wow. And so there was a day in your career where you got to run the show, you got to do this. It's done, Mark and hire your own team. And I'm curious how that worked. When you chose software, can you talk about kind of what you chose and what you wanted it to make possible for the team that you were going to get to build?

Darlene Hunter 12:40
Sure. So, we were in the market for of course a software such as happy calm. And we interview happy co along with two other I would say due diligence companies that provided same service or anything similar software as in like the data collection. And once we met with happycow, it was like a no brainer that we will be using the software simply because of the reporting that could be generated. Once all the all of the data was like downloaded. And even during the presentation. It was mentioned how like this company would enter the data. And like within like a day or so we could literally be pulling reports and get the due diligence report to the client like pretty quickly. And everything that happy call said that the software did it actually does.

Glennis Markison 13:38
Wow. I know I can understand that's probably a painful process. If you're not sure you can trust what's going to be on the other side of lunch. Were there things with photos too? I mean, I'm curious. In the old days of paper, it must have been difficult with a digital camera. What did you want out of software? like to have your photos and notes make possible just on that accuracy level?

Darlene Hunter 13:57
Yeah, it makes me giggle a little bit that we were having to have to take so many pictures with a digital camera and then changing the sales car. So yes, software. In addition, in addition to the data entry, part of it, of course, there's a template that Pepe co offers that you know rates the condition of the apartment, but then also we get to take photos and then we also get to place a comment next to those photos as far as what the issue could be because sometimes with a photo Well, I took the photo and I know what I was taking. Maybe someone that's looking at it later may not understand what I was taking a picture of that's the great aspect about happycow software to me, is that function of it in that we could do the rating if this like repair or replace we can require within the template that the unit inspector actually take a photo and place a comment so both of them so that we don't just have people more marking a condition as repair replace, but like there's no rhyme or reason why that may have been like selected. So yeah, far from the days of like the manual paper, and then the digital cameras, and I'm not even sure if you remember or not. But with the digital camera, in the beginning, there wasn't even sort of like labelling it grew to the labelling of a of a, of a photo. And with the hashtag called software, like everything, everything is labelled like for the actual unit that you're in, which makes it so much easier for the unit Inspector, but then also the person that is like compiling and reviewing the data. Yeah, let's

Glennis Markison 15:42
let's get into that reviewing data when you have it real time. I mean, so much of due diligence walks, it sounds like it's just that high stakes game of day of you have one shot trying to get everything right. What is it like when you you can be nimble with data that's coming in maybe on a dashboard? As the walks happening? What does that make you able to do as a leader now of a team?

Darlene Hunter 16:03
Sure. I have to say, I love like the dashboard because in real time, I can ascertain if unit Walker's are basically compiling the information exactly like I've asked them to do. One of the examples would be like flooring, where it's the template, you know, may have vinyl laminate tile would relate it to the flooring. If one unit walk or this like listing vinyl and another listing laminate, I get to see like right away like who the inspector which inspector is labelling it laminate when I specifically said label it as vinyl, so that I could like send a group text like right away. Hey, guys, I see on the dash that you know, we're labelling the flooring differently, please make sure that we're all labelling it as final and not laminate. So I love the dash for that reason. But then also, the biggest part for me part of any due diligence, we never really get to maybe inspect every single unit. And sometimes that's because we don't have access, I don't know made us a large cat. Maybe the keys didn't work. What what I'm able to do in real time, because the team is gonna come in at lunchtime, they're gonna start in the morning, come in at lunchtime, then go back out in the afternoon. At lunchtime, I'm able to like give our hosting team, hey, we weren't able to get into these five units for this reason, can you go ahead and pull these keys so that we could have access in the afternoon? So the dashboard is like amazing.

Glennis Markison 17:37
Wow. But you have to be this savvy. I mean, that's what's amazing, too, is all that management experience you gained is really coming up in a game day situation. Um, I'm curious to speaking of your management skill, what are you doing communication wise before the walk to get your teams off to that best start, you know, even before they have the template in their hands?

Darlene Hunter 17:58
Sure. So right now, we currently have a due diligence team of 15. So we separated it for unit inspectors, and then for at least file auditors. And as soon as I get the word that we have a due diligence, that's going to be coming up, what I'll do is get everybody on a conference call. I'll like discuss you know, of course, the name of the of the community where we're going how many units like the age of the community. And then like what we can expect, if at all possible, what I try to do is to visit the community, because I just want to see the layout of the various dial unit types so that I can go ahead and create a template that's going to be very, very easy for the unit walkers say not to make mistakes. So I'll discuss basically the layout of the unit types. And then how they should like start in each say floor plan. So if we are entering in a four year or as soon as we enter, like in a kitchen, I like basically create a template so that it makes it very smooth for the walk teams to once they enter just to follow the actual template. So in addition to that conference call, we meet 30 minutes ahead of whatever scheduled time were to be there. And at that point, once again, going over the template saying if anybody has like any questions, and it just makes for a very smooth due diligence process, very smooth.

Yeah. I mean, that's just exceptional how you're merging tech with all of this management expertise you've gained. You mean some of it was mentors, but on the ground, you were learning how to manage. And that leads me now to do the kind of feedback that's possible when you have this data. So you've had the due diligence walk you've we're going to get to reporting in a second but how are you telling people Hey, like, this was a great job or this might go better different, you know differently the next time around? What are those conversations like when you actually have kind of numbers and pictures that you can start that kind of talk going with people who've worked hard. When the pressure was high.

I would have to say like, in the beginning, before I really got like, really, really comfortable with the HappyCo software. So in the beginning, I was giving feedback, like on the back end to where, you know, I would go through the data, like, Hey, guys, we had good due diligence, because I want them to feel good about, you know, coming and helping, helping with the due diligence. But now what I've done is grown to basically give like positive feedback, like during those breaks, so at lunchtime, Hey, guys, we've walked this many number of units, all of the data is like looking consistent. I really appreciate it, please keep doing like a good job. So then after I go back, compile the data, like literally at this point, I'm like saying, Hey, guys, great job. We only had this many errors or like no errors, one due diligence, we literally had no errors. Oh my gosh, yes. Like we had no errors on like the unit wall, or the actual leads, file audits. And I appreciate you guys so much. Like it makes a huge difference. And then I also make sure that I copy the president of the company, because everybody likes to be acknowledged, and you know, likes the exposure to the people that matter.

Glennis Markison 21:24
That's just such proof that you know, that Stonemark cares about its own. I mean, you hear about turnover in an industry with so much pressure, and you are honestly using the technology available to not just manage well, but to make people feel like they matter when they're part of something that that difficult, you know, exactly, yeah, no, that's exceptional. And I'm curious, just on the client side, how are they benefiting? Do you would you say from the reporting, you can now pull off versus kind of manual efforts that that might not have been as seamless if negotiating had to start soon?

Darlene Hunter 21:53
Yeah, I can definitely say, right now, what is generated through HappyCo is a very professional report, what we do is compile it from, you know, cover page to the very end, we're giving like a narrative of our days or a day, they're doing the due diligence, and then basically implementing the HappyCo reports within our narratives. And I've gotten such huge compliments from the clients, the information is very clear and concise, the actual reporting, they actually love it, there is a component of the report where we can even do like a cost analysis. And that's, that's been like the most helpful to them. Because if we're saying, Hey, I don't know three stoves need to be replaced, and the stoves are, say 500 each, there's a report that will basically give them an estimate of what these repair and replacement items are right away. So they love the report.

Glennis Markison 22:54
No, it's excellent to hear I mean, I really am so grateful you've shared this story with us because everybody wants like a tactical play by play of a roses is difficult. And I you just you've given it amazingly. I want to close out though talking just ending on growth in the industry, you were lucky to have all these great mentors who believed in you, can you share what's been rewarding for you as a manager these days, which are pretty stressful days, across the board for people, and then also just ways you're helping people move up in multifamily.

Darlene Hunter 23:23
I would say in my time in property management, what I love the most is like leadership. I love seeing others when I love seeing others, like grow and develop. So those really great women mentors that I've like had like throughout my career, I'm like now one of those, either intentional, like if I see you know, someone that wants to, you know, grow and develop, if they can communicate what it is they want. I'd like make an effort to like spend time with them get the training that they need. And then some of it is I would say unintentionally because I have people that will call me out of the blue. Hey, I just want you to know like what a value was to me as a leader. I think about you all the time. Can I ask you about this? So yeah, I love seeing people like myself, like I wanted something more. I wanted a career and just not a job. And so for me, I think that I've fallen into where my mentors work for me at this point.

Glennis Markison 24:34
I'm so so grateful that when I call you picked up. Oh, thank you, Darlene. This is an excellent, excellent story of not only your growth but the way that you're helping others. So we really, really glad to feature you as a voice in multifamily. Thank you for being here.

Darlene Hunter
Oh, thank you. I've really enjoyed speaking with you, Glennis. And I have to say, I love HappyCo. And I tell people that all the time when they're calling. Hey, are you guys using the doodles and software? Hey, you gotta use HappyCo!

Glennis Markison
Because it's very nice to hear. Thank you. If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily, or learn how to share your voice head to voices dot happy co you can find voices on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast player. Voices is produced by HappyCo which provides a clear and complete picture of your property so you can do what you do best boost revenues, motivate teams and build communities your residents love to call home that starts by listening to you the voices of multifamily. I'm Glennis Markison. Thanks for listening. Also, feel free to take a minute and rate or review this podcast that will help us share the voices of multifamily.

Our Host

Glennis Markison

Glennis is a writer and producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. As HappyCo's Senior Content Producer, she’s excited to highlight diverse voices and share stories from within the Multifamily industry.

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