January 20, 2021

Martha Berg: Standing Out as a Property Manager

Shining a light on the property manager experience, SJA Property Manager Martha Berg shares her (unexpected) story of industry growth — and her company's process, choosing tech to ease operations during COVID and beyond.

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As a Property Manager at SJA Property Management, Martha Berg oversees a portfolio of more than 200 properties, managing mid-term evaluations and a range of vendor relationships, among other responsibilities. Over her two years at SJA, she's played a significant role in helping the company leverage multifamily software that makes work more efficient — and residents happier. In her free time, Martha sits on the board of directors for the Bothell Sons of Norway, planning events for the Youth group and running fundraisers for scholarship programs.

Audio Transcript

Martha Berg 0:00
So we're getting antsy owners contacting us going, you know, where's my report? I was expecting it two months ago. I totally understand. Unfortunately, we can't go see properties right now. So what solution can we have? And we tried right around that time when we realized this pandemic was not ending anytime soon, we started interviewing companies to figure out can we find a company that can get these inspections back on track?

Glennis Markison 0:35
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices where we feature fresh perspectives in multifamily. The industry is now facing a fundamental shift in workplace dynamics, resident experience and business operations. Season Two of Voices will feature multifamily leaders who are actively embracing change. Our guest today is Martha Berg, property manager with SGA property management based in Redmond, Washington. Martha oversees a portfolio of more than 200 properties, managing midterm evaluations and a range of vendor relationships among other responsibilities. over her two years at SGA. She's played a significant role in helping the company leverage multifamily software that makes work more efficient and residents happier. Today on Voices, Martha will discuss her growth in property management and share SJA path to finding the right technology to suit its needs during the pandemic and beyond. Thanks for joining us, Martha.

Martha Berg 1:31
Yeah, happy to be here.

Glennis Markison 1:33
I'm excited to have you. So I'm kind of curious, I mean, before you started at SJA, did you have experience in rental housing? I mean, it'd be great to hear how you first got into the business.

Martha Berg 1:43
Oh, not at all. So I used to work at a bakery. And I was living my best life there hanging out eating pastries. And I had a friend who had just started with SGA. And they needed another property manager. And she was like, Are you interested? Do you want a job? And I was like, I have a job. And she was like, well, let's just try this anyways. And so I did a phone interview with the, you know, the head of the company. And I was like, That was awful. That was horrible. And I even called my friend up. And I was like, Listen, I'm sorry, I bombed that. The good news is I still have a job. So you know, no harm, no foul here, right. And they, they ended up calling me for an in-person interview anyways, and I must have rocked their socks off because they, you know, called me with an offer. Same day, I think.

Glennis Markison 2:28
That's amazing. And I understand that you've been a big advocate of technology and multifamily. So I think listeners would love to hear the backstory. How did you develop that interest in technology?

Martha Berg 2:39
Yeah, so I got really interested in technology at a pretty young age. My dad was and is a person who, you know, goes really hard on every hobby that he's ever had. So at that point, I like to call them midlife crisis, but they're probably not do that on the podcast.

It's fine. He'll probably agree. So at the time was probably about, I would say eight or nine. And his new hobby at the time was anything music. And so I think he started out with a, maybe a keyboard and you know, a really small mixer board to be able to record his things. And I feel like it blew up in the course of less than a month. And all of a sudden, our living room was quite literally a recording studio. And we had a couple of bands actually come through and record in our house. It was just bizarre. It was an interesting way to grow up for sure.

Yeah, absolutely. I could say, you know, it was anything but boring. So he got me really involved in recording with him and understanding all of the, you know, equipment that is needed in order to make, you know, recording studios and even live concerts feasible. And that really put a seed in me that was like, wow, you know, there's so many options, technology-wise that can make your life not only easier, better, but it can also just make you way cooler.

Glennis Markison 4:08
Very cool on a podcast. Let's move ahead to when you started at SJA. I mean, how was the training experience? And were you on the ground doing things from a start? Or was that not the case initially?

Martha Berg 4:22
Oh my gosh, so far from it. Not even funny. Um, so I started my first day at SGA. Obviously, my friend worked there at the time, she no longer does, but she was sharing an office with me kind of, in theory, showing me the ropes. I had been told that when I first came in, they gave me a binder and they said this is pretty much what we want you to look at for the next two weeks. We want you to familiarise yourself with you know the websites that we use and just really get comfortable with it. And then we'll start slowly implementing things. And God I remember sitting at that desk so bored, you know, coming from a bakery, but background where you're like, you know, baking things all the time interacting with customers, and you know, everything is just bam, bam, bam all the time to literally sitting and staring at a screen for, you know, almost nine hours, right? You drive an hour there sit for nine hours trying to figure out what's going on and then an hour home. And I don't even think I got to like day two, maybe day three. And I walked into my manager at the times office, and I was like, Can I do something? Can I not look at computers? Because I read really fast, you know, and I comprehend pretty fast, too. So if this is what you expect me to do for the next two weeks, fine, but you know, I think that I have enough understanding to try to do something.

Glennis Markison 5:45
Wow, what was her response? I mean, that is very brave of you to do.

Martha Berg 5:50
You know, um, she, man, she was an interesting boss in general. She was always pretty hesitant about things. But she, she said, Okay, well, let me talk to the company owners and they agreed to let me start doing really baseline things, which I understand, right? I have no experience there. Two, three days in. They don't want me handling anything super important.

Glennis Markison 6:13
Right. But you prove that you cared enough to try, which Absolutely, and I want to touch on that later, especially like your leadership qualities you built up. But I'm curious, too, when you got into the swing of things at SGA? What was the process to document property conditions for all the inspections? I mean, were there challenges to these methods that you noticed? or How did that work?

Martha Berg 6:35
Oh, yeah, yeah. So, when I first started with Akshay, we worked with two separate programs individually. So if you were doing a move-out, move-out to move-in, move out situation, you had to work with one program. And if you were doing we call them midterm evaluations, or essentially a property walkthrough, while it's being occupied, just to check for things, that's a totally different program, it's tracked totally different, it doesn't tie in with anything else that you work with. And it's all for the most part, it was all paper-based. So as a property manager, even starting out, you know, my first couple weeks there, my desk was covered in papers, I had, you know, green forms that went to my associate, and I had pink forms that went to my manager, and I had yellow forms that went to accounting. And it was like, you know, I'm pretty organized in my brain, but my physical spaces, not so much. And so it was just a clutter of everything on my desk, and it was so hard to keep everything straight. And remember what I was working on, or, you know, even what needed to go where they're color-coded. Sure, but that doesn't always mean anything to someone who's, you know, got a million things to do in a day.

Glennis Markison 7:47
Right? So it was a lot of time starting to be spent just looking for the things you needed to act on, or what other people needed to act on, I guess.

Martha Berg 7:53
Yeah, yeah. And you know, and I would, I would try to be that ambitious person that would bring stuff home and be like, I'm gonna take care of all this paperwork, after dinner, and you know, then I won't have to deal with it the next day, and it would just stay in my bag, and I would forget about it, you know, and then I would be like, Where is it? Right, and I'd go back to work the next morning, but I swear I had it. Is it in my bag?

Glennis Markison 8:16
With your bag right behind you? Yeah,

Martha Berg 8:18
yeah, yeah, I sit in my car, what happened? And I give it to turn it in already, you know, there's no way to track it. And it was just, you know, time wasted starting these papers over and over again, because I couldn't remember where they, you know, ended up or, you know, they'd gotten wet or something. Right. And

Glennis Markison 8:38
How did that affect managers above you? I mean, when property managers are doing things on paper, what kind of trouble? Does that present for the people? On the manager level?

Martha Berg 8:47
Yeah, I mean, I don't remember running into anything particularly worrisome, I would say, I'm not, I'm not gonna say that my previous manager was any more organized, spatial wise than I was. But, you know, she seemed to have things pretty well in check. So she was good to follow up with me and with good to turn things in the second that they needed to be done.

Glennis Markison 9:09
But it was on your level that things got so scattered. It sounds like on every level, honestly.

Martha Berg 9:14
But yeah, she just I think was much better at following up on it than I am. But part of that is I have the world's worst handwriting. So

Glennis Markison 9:23
I know this. I know this about myself. So I can imagine another's I can imagine that. I mean, I understand that you got the feeling, though, that SJA really wanted to incorporate technology to make things easier. I mean, so were there challenges the company faced in just trying to implement technology to talk about a new solution, like how was that mix when they were really hopeful about it, but maybe face some obstacles?

Martha Berg 9:46
Yeah. So when I first started there, they obviously were doing paper, but a handful of the staff had been there for, you know, years and years and years, you know, 10 plus years. I think my manager at the time had been there for I think eight years or something, and they were used to things being a certain way. So I think maybe that's why she was better on paper than I was. But, you know, that was their system. And they understood how to execute it properly. And obviously, my friend and myself and the associate that works on my team with me, we're all pretty young for our company. We're all in our 20s. And we had all started, you know, within a couple months of each other. And so we weren't really set in that process. And I think that it was harder to keep track of because we weren't already used to it. But pretty quickly thereafter, we started implementing an online checklist program that allowed us to eliminate all of the paperwork in general. And it was always available via your laptop, or your phone. And so you didn't have to worry about taking those pieces of paper with you and trying to keep track of them. And, you know, you could just put in a couple of numbers in a search bar and be able to pull up exactly what you're looking for right that second and figure out in real-time where that checklist is because that checklist is no longer living just with you, it's checking in with the other members of your team. So if you've got a task that needs to be taken care of, but you're waiting on your boss, you can see in real-time, whether your boss has finished that task or not.

Glennis Markison 11:15
Yeah, no, that's impressive. And we're photos and issue though. I mean, when you would go to a property for a midterm evaluation, what was the photo process like to keep track of those?

Martha Berg 11:24
Oh, my gosh, an absolute nightmare. And this is this is our most recent changes, and I'm so excited about it. But it used to be, when we did our midterm evaluations, we were supposed to work within this specific program. But the program was not compatible with all different, you know, phone types, and then it needed wifi the whole time that you were there, right. So if I went to go and see your property, 20 minutes in the outskirts of a city, it didn't necessarily have 4g LTE, like I needed, you know. And so you'd run into a lot of situations where the program would quit. And when you would relaunch it, you pretty much have to start over and so we found out pretty quickly that was not going to end up working. And our solution to that problem. God, I don't even know how this could have been the solution. But our solution to that problem was to go to a property, take a picture of the front of the property first, then do all the pictures of the inside follow around, you know, with a little notepad that has notes for each picture. And then right before you left, you would take another picture of the front of the house, right, and then you'd come home, you'd upload it into this folder on your computer so that you could then upload that into the program. And it was the most complicated process I can even think of because it had to have been what should have been maybe two steps turned into a 12 step process of pictures, download, upload, reload the notes, you know, it was just, it was chaotic. Yeah, it was not functional, right.

Glennis Markison 12:54
And so but then I understand what this momentum at least to get this checklist program in the mix, I mean, then the pandemic hits in 2020. So how would you say that affected us Shay's efforts to try to inspect anything and to keep track of Work Orders about anything?

Martha Berg 13:08
Oh, well, it absolutely halted everything for a while, you know, we're stuck at home, we can't really do anything. At first, we weren't really sure how business was going to work at all. But obviously, you know, we had to be essential, we have to be able to take care of our people. So it has always been the goal of SGA to be as on top of if not ahead of schedule as possible. And so the first probably month or two, nobody was really sweating in our company, because we had had the ability to be on track of and actually be ahead of schedule for our midterm inspections at that point. I mean, we got to like mid-April, end of April, and we're all just sitting there going, Okay, because our contracts require us to go and see these, you know, every single property that's in our portfolio has to be visited at least once, if not twice a year, depending on the contract. So we're getting antsy owners contacting us going, you know, where, where's my report? I was expecting it, you know, two months ago? I totally understand. Unfortunately, we can't go see properties right now. So what solution can we have? And we tried, right around that time when we realized this pandemic was not ending anytime soon, we started interviewing companies to figure out a short term solution. Ideally, that was our thought at that point was, can we find a company that can get these inspections back on track until the pandemic is over? Right?

Glennis Markison 14:34
And what did you need to know about that technology? Man, what did its customer support team have to be like? What did you need to know about maybe even the suite of products if you were considering something for a longer-term solution?

Martha Berg 14:46
You know, when we first started the interview process, I don't know that we were particularly picky. I think at that point, we were just trying to find something right. So we were mostly just looking for some kind of program that we could control. on our end, but could still send out to tenants directly and say, Hey, can you fill this out for us? A lot of the times the programs that are available are only property manager friendly, right? So they have to be done by the person in control, or they're only tenant-friendly, and there's no way to have oversight. So I think that was our main factor at first. And then as we started getting familiar with some of the companies that were available and doing all of the interviews, then it became more of Okay, what other services can they provide, that would make their program more worthwhile than, you know, someone else's program, and the ability to eliminate a program that we had been paying for altogether, right, by being able to do the move-ins and move-outs, and the pre or the midterm evaluations, all in one program all tied together all tracks so that you can see them? You know, in chronological order, I think was definitely the biggest selling point to Okay, this is the right company for us. So we signed on with HappyCo. heard of it, heard of it, heard of it. Yeah. And I, honestly, I knew I knew before we even went on to interview anybody else. I think you guys were the second HappyCo is the second company that we interviewed, and everybody had such a strong feeling leaving that meeting, they were like, I think these are the right people, you know, these, this is the company for us they have, and in, you know, we had some team members that are obviously have been here longer, they've still got their hesitation at for a change. And so they asked a lot of questions as they should, as you should with anybody who you're going to partner with, for, you know, company work, you should be asking those questions to make sure it's the right fit. But I think most of us could tell, even at the beginning of the meeting before it ended, you know, and the longer that HappyCo worked with us in this interview process answered all of our questions gave us these live demos, the more we were like, Oh, yeah. And we did look a little bit after that. But you know, every interview past that point was just dis does not take our boxes like happy code does.

Glennis Markison 17:13
Oh, that's very flattering to hear. And I'm curious, once you you decided on the resident led inspections tool that we offer, how did you communicate that to residents? I mean, I imagine it would have been very abrupt if you just said, right, fill this out, you know, and with no context. So how did that work on a communication level to residents?

Martha Berg 17:32
Yes. So what we ended up doing, and I don't, I couldn't tell you whose idea this was. But we had a handful of meetings around the time that we were onboarding. HappyCo are really understanding what this template was going to look like, as it got sent out to tenants. We knew that, you know, everybody's always sceptical, especially these days, everybody's sceptical of seeing emails that they think are from someone they know. But they're, you know, the email addresses maybe don't line up, right? It's so easy to get a scam email these days. And, you know, God forbid, you get one, please don't click the link, right. So we went through the process of creating a template email that would go out to every single one of our tenants, and we would send it out, you know, the day before, preferably, that says, hey, tenants, you know, due to COVID. And as an obligation to your lease, we want you to still be able to do the inspection evaluation that we want done out annually. But for everybody's safety, and convenience, we're going to do it this way instead. So basically, we took it into our hands to make sure that we introduced what was going on. So they could be a little bit more confident opening up that email. And for some of them looking for that email in the first place. Because I know I don't check my personal email all that often. I work one absolutely all day every day. But my personal one, no, if I'm not knowing to look for it, I won't.

Glennis Markison 18:57
So this sounds like a very conscientious effort to warn residents and what they once they got the tool rolling, and we're starting to give you back these forms. I mean, what did it change for your teams? And for owners, especially, I mean, suddenly they had the information they've been craving for months, what was their response?

Martha Berg 19:12
But how did it at home? Yeah, um, so as the property manager on my team, it is pretty much my goal to go see properties whenever they need, seeing. midterm inspections are also my responsibility. And what that means is on any given month, I probably had to set aside a minimum of four days up to even 15 full workdays, going and seeing these properties in an efficient schedule, making sure I'm staying in the same area every day to make sure I'm not wasting time driving and pretty much surrendering my entire day to doing that. There's no coordinating with maintenance people, there's no answering emails, it's just taking pictures and sending them off to owners and with the ability to use these resident inspections It's pretty much eliminated. Most of you know that time that I needed to use, of course, I still spend time sending out the emails and the inspections themselves, and then coordinating the maintenance on the other side, that's always going to be my job. But I would say that with the amount of work that I've been able to catch up on, because we were probably about 100 properties behind at the time that we fully implemented HappyCo.

Glennis Markison 20:24
Was that so scary? I mean, did you just think in your head every day that you had to show up to work that you had this cloud over you? Because I am curious about that. I mean, that must have been at least once you interviewed with happycow reassuring there was a solution, but to work every day with 100 properties needing to be done.

Martha Berg 20:38
I mean, that was ya know, it's it was it was filling me with anxiety. I remember making spreadsheets I am kind of a data analysis person in the back of my brain. And so I was making spreadsheets at least once a week going, Okay, this is how many we are behind now. And this is how many we are behind now and and categorising them into who needs to be prioritised first and then sorting those by city to make sure that I could do it as quickly as efficiently and efficiently as possible once I was able to do it. And, you know, ultimately, what ended up happening is we implemented HappyCo. And I sat down with probably a Red Bull on my one evening after work and I sent out pretty much everything that had been passed due at that point in almost all of it got brought back in like returned by the resident ready to be sent back to the owner, you know, within a week and a half. So without me having to go out and surrender full days to doing this. We were able to get almost entirely caught up in the course of about a week.

Glennis Markison 21:42
Wow. And the owners could start to make budgeting decisions, etc. Yeah, yeah.

Martha Berg 21:46
So, and the way that these inspections are set up, they're set up the same way as they were when we did them personally. So visually, nothing is changing for the owner. But in some ways, they're actually getting more information than they were before. Because I think I think we tried to make these tenant lead inspections as detailed as possible. Because, you know, when when I go out and do them, they know who I am, of course, I'm their property manager. And they understand that this is a lease obligation, but it still feels kind of invasive, you know, they know they don't own the home, but they live in the home. It's their home, right. So me going through and poking through their stuff. It wasn't ever something that we didn't get pushed back from. So this programme, I think made them more willing to provide that information.

Glennis Markison 22:36
Yeah. Now that's amazing. I mean, what is next, then do you think as far as other remote technologies, you want to leverage other work order technologies, and then once you've really you've made a lot of growth as a company in deciding how well tech can help you. What do you see after the pandemic, and even during as far as expanding what you're using with technology?

Martha Berg 22:55
Well, at this point, the pandemic isn't going anywhere. So we really need to be implementing as much as possible here, currently SGA His goal is just to get fully caught up and really get used to this programme for tenant legs, but we'd like to start implementing it for all walkthroughs that we do. So moving, move out turnovers that we have to take care of. And then ultimately, I'm excited about this. We're working on it as a team right now, you know, HappyCo has a live inspection feature, I believe is what it's called. And it was something that was talked about during our interview, we were like, well, when are we going to use that? But the more I think about it, I'm like, Okay, well, let's say your tenant calls me and they've got a water leak, right? And they're freaking out. Of course, you should freak out. If you've got water leaking anywhere in your house, you should be freaking out, especially in the Pacific Northwest when it rains and 23 hours out of the day. A practice. Yeah, yes, give or take. So I love the concept of these live inspections because for maintenance techs and for tenants, I can send this out and say, okay, you're saying that it's leaking at a higher rate, but I need to be able to visualize and you know, understand, what is the rate of the leak? Where is it actually coming from? Because they can say, Oh, it's coming from my ceiling. Okay, but is it a roof leak? Or is it you know, do you have plumbing above you? and having that live inspection tool is just going to be so instrumental and being able to figure out what the urgency level is what kind of vendor we really need to be sending out here. And doing it in a timely manner that doesn't require back and forth emails. You know?

Glennis Markison 24:39
Yeah, no, I'm sure that's I'm sure that's gonna make a change. And I'm curious in our last minute or two, I heard through the grapevine your title is changing. So I'm curious to know what that perhaps new role is going to be about and then and then two parter in this question. How did you get to be you, Martha, like you have grown so well and so quickly in two years, so If you could just describe this new opportunity coming your way and kind of touch on like, I don't know, some of the key traits you think you demonstrated for anyone listening that they could try to, to improve in themselves to see a similar growth path in this business?

Martha Berg 25:15
Absolutely. Yes. So you did hear correctly, I was offered at the end of 2020. So, you know, it wasn't all bad. Last year, I promise. I was offered a promotion. So actually, starting in a few weeks here, I believe I will be manager of my own team. So yeah, so that'll be a new and exciting adventure. I'm a little nervous, obviously. But I think that just is a natural reaction to, to growth and change and, you know, unexpected. So as far as how I got there, that's, oh, I am probably the most confident, outgoing introvert that you'll probably ever meet. I've enjoyed it naturally. Yeah,

I will not go and introduce myself to people that I don't know, for the for the most part, I am not a person that likes to talk to people I don't know, I don't want to be in situations that I'm not familiar with. I'm loving my comfort zone. And we'll set up shop there for the rest of my life, probably. But I was taught actually, in high school about this is bizarre about the law of attraction if you've ever seen the secret, and it's all about, you know, manifesting and my dad calls me a manifester. And, and I think I just really took the concept of that book to heart. And, and I try every day to make sure that if I think that something should be changing, for whatever reason that I at least voice my opinion, and try to offer some solutions there. Because if these can get better, there's no reason why they shouldn't get better. Even if it requires an effort that you maybe don't feel like you're able to give it that time. And then the other thing I would say, especially if you're a person that is shy and doesn't like talking to do, you know, to deal with issues too, especially with upset tenants, or owners during maintenance situations, the one tip that I really have, and this is gonna sound ridiculous, is really develop a really good customer service voice, you know, an alternative personality that, you know, maybe you're having a bad day, Martha's having a really good day today. But, you know, so I'm not super shy today. But typically, yeah, if there's a situation with a difficult tenant, or you know, a vendor, or even sometimes like calling to make doctor's appointments, honestly, I'm not gonna lie, I do change my voice a little bit. It's a little bit on the higher end just gives me a little bit of separation from my personality into Okay, this is work mode. And it's not always necessary. But you know, if I'm having a rough day, it's definitely, definitely a helpful tool.

Glennis Markison 28:11
Yeah. Well, you know what, Martha, thank you so much for being on Voices for sharing your growth and just your courage to try out all this technology. I don't know if we credit your dad a little. But you have really taken a lot of a new career and made so much of it. So I'm sure anyone listening has gotten a lot out of this conversation, but I just really want to thank you for being here.

Martha Berg 28:30
Of course. Thanks for having me.

Glennis Markison 28:38
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, the leading real time property operations platform for multifamily and student housing. We're on a mission to elevate property management to community management, prioritising staff and resident well being 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

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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.