All the Right Stuff What Makes Good Property Managers Great?

 Some property managers fly through their to-do lists with the greatest of ease,  while others send you to voicemail. Again. The difference between a serviceable  manager and a really great one may not be something they’re born with; but many in the industry feel superior management skills can and  should be learned. Great managers create results and foster trust in their  clients—it can be that simple.  

 A Little of Everything

 Co-op and condo property management may be one of the more multifaceted careers  a person can pursue. The list of duties is long and varied—many managers say that they rarely find themselves doing the same thing two days  in a row. The tasks before them run the gamut from technical to administrative,  long-term strategic to pressing emergency, customer-service related to even  therapeutic in nature—after all, property managers work in and around people’s homes. Tensions can run high, even on seemingly small jobs.  

 Property managers may, on any given day, fix a leaky pipe, hire a contractor to  plow Chicago’s blowing and drifting snow from driveways, pay bills, file paperwork, research  the big electrical overhaul that needs to be done before summer, and report all  of this to the board. A property manager may sit in on a committee meeting,  talk to a lawyer, troubleshoot a bad Internet connection, read board minutes,  or post a flyer about a lost dog. It’s all in a day’s work, if you’re a great property manager.  

 There are hundreds of property management firms in Chicagoland plus plenty of  independent managers as well. According to Salary.com, the average salary for a  property manager in the U.S. is currently around $80,000. So what makes some of  those management professionals worth their weight in gold?  

 It’s a Tough Job But...

 Dealing with regulatory bureaucracies like ComEd may be a source of great  gnashing of teeth for property managers across the region, but it’s actually not the biggest issue for most. When a manager can successfully  navigate the waters of the almighty board, you should probably hang onto him or  her.  

 “Condo boards are made up of homeowners who have different ideas and sometimes  different motives,” says Sandy Albecker, president of Chicago’s Enlan Condominium Management Corporation, a condominium and townhome  management firm. Albecker says that there are plenty of formidable challenges  that face a property manager but perhaps the biggest is that ever-evolving  relationship with the board. “Associations sometimes have a hard time attracting qualified board members who  have the association’s best interest at heart. As a result, sometimes homeowners with personal  agendas run and are elected. This makes the property manager’s job a real challenge.” The “mixed agendas,” as she puts it, have the ability to stop progress in its tracks, even if the  manager is top-notch.  

 Paul Houillon, president of Chicago's Connected Property Management ranks board  trouble high on the list of headaches too, but notes that all the other tasks  work to compound the problem.  

 “Behind each [board] issue is likely to be an owner or board member who is  understandably upset or concerned about the problem and is pressing for the  fastest possible resolution at the lowest possible cost. While a single  emergency causes this level of emotion from an owner, a property manager must  calmly, quickly and effectively handle multiple such issues at the same time.”  

 Which isn’t easy. What separates the men from the boys (or the girls from the women,  though the majority of property managers are male) is the level of  professionalism exhibited by a manager when a tsunami hits and the results of  the action he or she takes, whether the trouble is with the board or the  boiler.  

 Rising Above the Fray

 Providing truly great management means laying groundwork. A property manager can’t prove that they are the best the HOA has ever seen within a matter of days; it  may even take years.  

 “The ability to effectively handle situations is in many ways based on the prior  investment that the manager has made in the relationship with their clients,” says Houillon, who points out that emergency situations that arise tell a lot  about a manager’s competency and the level of trust between manager and client. “Much of the stress that can swell is triggered by the owner and how they react,  their interactions with the manager and the resulting decisions they make,” he says. “A key quality of a great manager is their ability to make an owner feel  comfortable and assured during an emergency. This doesn’t happen overnight and is based on the level of trust the manager has earned  during their relationship with the owner. A manager’s ability to shine in an emergency situation is based in part on their hard work  and dedication to client support leading up to the emergency.”  

 In other words, the more the board trusts their property management, the less  likely they are to panic if something goes wrong. The less they worry, they  less they pester their property manager, which in turn allows the property  manager to work more efficiently to fix the emergency situation or just get  work done from day to day. As Houillon says, “A level of reduced ‘noise’ allows the manager to focus.” And that means fewer errors, more progress and— like magic—a higher level of trust from the unit owners and shareholders, which cements the  overall relationship.  

 Tim Krueger, co-founder of Chicagoland’s T.H.E. Management Inc. adds that attention to detail is everything. “In communication, problem solving, finding solutions—you have to pay attention.” Krueger says that the success of his firm, which specializes in foreclosures  and HOAs with building code problems, stems from their ability to offer  creative solutions that actually work for the people they serve—again, results matter. “We listen to them,” he says, which is never a bad way to gain someone’s trust.  

 Best Case Scenario

 For Albecker, “A great manager delivers a quality program in an efficient manner, enhances the  quality of life for the homeowners, and protects their property values.” And as for that oft-challenging board, Albecker doesn’t bat an eye. For her, issues of all shapes and sizes with the board comes with  the territory, like it or not—and she sees the board as a partner, not a foe. “A great manager takes most of the headaches away from the board, who are  generously giving of their time.”  

 After all, the manager is there to serve. “The great manager has to consistently try to do what is right for the  association,” Albecker says. “Even if the board votes for a resolution that the property manager does not  believe is in the best interest of the association, when the board has made a  final decision, the great property manager carries out the board’s wishes to achieve the best result.”  

 The best management, however, and the formula that delivers the most solid  results ever, happens when the manager and board work together. “It is unfortunately very common for an association to have only a small handful  of owners that are willing to participate in the running of the association,” Houillon says, lamenting that attendance at board/manager meetings is often  quite low. “There is nothing more valuable than having unit owners involved in at least some  aspects of governing the association. The feedback and input from the unit  owners allows [managers] to make changes and improvements that are truly  beneficial and impactful. Likewise, it is impossible for a manager to affect  areas of discontent unless they are made aware of the concerns. In almost all  cases the manager is happy to make progress in areas that are important to the  unit owners—that, of course, is a top priority of a great manager.”  

 Traits of an Effective Property Manager

 Of course, a great management company is defined by the quality of its  individual managers. A company committed to supporting and nurturing its  employees is more likely to treat your building community as a valued client— and a good property manager shares many qualities with his or her parent  company, plus a few extras. Your property manager should:  

 • Understand that he or she is answerable to the board of directors or board of  managers  

 • Understand that his or her job is to deal with day-to-day issues so the board  embers can focus on policy and direction  

 • Understand that they must be accessible, and keep open lines of communication  with both board members and residents  

 • Respond to board members’ and residents’ questions in a timely, courteous, and knowledgeable manner  

 • Know how to delegate tasks to avoid becoming overextended  

 • Think ahead and be proactive to avoid costly and inconvenient surprises  

 • Cooperate with the association board to maximize value of meetings  

 • Cooperate with service providers and cultivate productive, positive  relationships with professionals serving the building community  

 • Know when a question or problem goes beyond the reach of his or her expertise,  and know who to call upon for help in such a situation  

 • Take an interest in refining his or her professional skill set by participating  in continuing education and development opportunities.  

 Help Me Help You

 To continually improve performance, being continually open to new ideas and new  information is essential; getting feedback is important, too. This is certainly  true for property managers, but the board and the management company should  play a big role in both offering new information and giving credit where credit  is due.  

 “Our company has written contracts for new accounts that are tied to results, as  measured by a survey of the board and/or homeowners,” say Albecker. “It is important that the HOA board give positive feedback to the great manager.  The feedback should be both private and public. If a manager does a great job,  there can be a financial incentive tied to that measured performance. When a  manager goes above and beyond for an association to deliver a result that  benefits the association, the HOA board should certainly express its  appreciation. But the job of rewarding great management does not just fall on  the HOA board. The management company should provide consistent encouragement, praise, and  incentives to help keep great managers motivated.”  

 Classes, seminars, conferences, workshops—even mobile smartphone apps—all help get a manager the information he or she needs in an ever-changing,  dynamic job. Those who hold a manager in their employ should see to it that  they have access to education and improvement. Good vibes help, and  constructive criticism, too.  

 And for those Chicagoland-area firms feeling the pinch of the recession, there  is hope for great property management to win the day.            

 Mary K. Fons is a freelance writer and a Chicago resident.  

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