May 15 2024

In this panel, we heard from leaders who centralized various portions of their back-office admin and maintenance operations. They shared the lessons and best practices that they learned along the way.

This panel was moderated by Jindou Lee, CEO, HappyCo and included the following panelists: Stephanie Versin, SVP, Head of Marketing + Leasing, Veritas Investments; Jerry Davis, Former President, COO, UDR; Ron Burkhardt, VP, Strategic Property Initiatives, AMLI Residential and Christi Weinstein, COO, BH Management.

Keep reading to learn from these multifamily leaders on how centralizing administrative functions and maintenance helped streamline their operations. 

BH Management COO discusses centralization efforts to enhance customer experience

Christy Weinstein, Chief Operating Officer (COO), at BH Management — an NMHC top 50 owner and manager with 106,000 units nationwide — shared that they started pursuing the new operating model to provide the wildly awesome customer service that BH calls “The Mint Experience.”

Weinstein highlighted the challenges BH — and the multifamily industry as a whole — faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the rapid changes in technology and processes made it difficult to maintain standardized practices across their numerous properties. “We had over 300 communities — that were doing what we thought we were standardized in — they were doing it 300 different ways. And so we thought about how could we take some the administrative lift off of our onsite teams.” Weinstein noted the importance of standardization and how centralization and specialized teams help provide a more consistent (standardized) experience to renters. 

To address these challenges, BH centralized many functions, but started initially by alleviating administrative burdens from on-site teams to allow them to concentrate more on specialized roles in sales and customer service. By centralizing functions related to resident account management, applicant screening, and renewal processes, BH aimed to enhance oversight and mitigate fraud while ensuring a seamless experience for residents.

“I think the room would probably agree that, based on the move-in experience, the decision of whether to renew is made almost instantaneously or within the first seven days of living there,” says Weinstein. “How quickly we’re being responsive to their requests.”

Despite acknowledging the apprehension surrounding change, Weinstein emphasized the importance of embracing it. 

“Y’all remember, three pages of your service request and handwriting it out? Then going to a digital entry? Then going to mobile, and that was such a scary thing. That was something we did in 2016, I think it’s, it’s now a lifeline,” said Weinstein. “So it’s remembering that even the conversation we’re having today around removing some of those tasks or changing what we’ve always known, in five years we’re going to say, gosh, how did we ever live without that before?”

Weinstein highlighted the significance of incremental progress over perfection, urging teams not to overthink but rather take action and iterate over time. By fostering a culture of adaptability and innovation, BH aims to stay ahead in an ever-evolving industry landscape while prioritizing the needs of its residents and stakeholders.

Veritas Investment was born into centralization

Veritas Investments is a trailblazer in centralization, and at the helm of this transformation was Stephanie Versin SVP, Head of Marketing + Leasing. With their unique portfolio of 250 smaller buildings spread across San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles — they never had the opportunity to operate with the standard 1:100 leasing model. “By default, we had to embrace it even when centralization was not even a buzzword,” says Versin. 

“We were born centralized,” Versin says, acknowledging both the challenges and advantages of their distinct operating model. With an average asset size of 20 to 25 units per building and no on-site presence, Veritas recognized early on the necessity of centralization. The journey towards centralization encompasses three pivotal pillars: people, process, and technology. 

“You add the processes, you analyze your pain point, you analyze where you could have your workflow automated and then you add the technology,” says Versin. “Look at technology that can help you streamline the delivery of the customer experience.”

In Veritas’ narrative, the human element takes center stage. From the outset, the team embraced the ethos of centralization, understanding its potential to empower individuals through specialized roles. “Centralization is a positive thing,” Versin says, dispelling common myths that it will lead to lost jobs for team members. Companies that centralize generally do so through natural attrition of high turnover roles, moving existing team members into new roles that are aligned with individual team members’ strengths and preferences. “It [centralization] means specialization, which means that people are going to be very expert, very skilled, very trained at something that they like doing already, naturally, instead of having ten different things and three they don’t really like,” says Versin. “Your team members are going to be happier doing what they like doing 80 percent of the time versus liking 20 percent and disliking the 80 percent.”

The centralization journey, however, extends far beyond personnel adjustments. Veritas leverages technology as a catalyst for streamlined operations and enhanced customer experiences. Their tech stack includes Salesforce, Funnel, and Yardi. 

On the maintenance side, they work with software to set routes to create the least travel time between appointments for the team member who has the specific skillset to fix the problem at the renter’s home. “All our techs are dispatched based on skills, knowledge, proximity of the issue, and priority of the issue,” says Versin. “And we were able to do that and grow our [maintenance] tech team to about 100 techs nowadays for 250 buildings.” This meticulous workflow optimization ensures rapid response times and unparalleled service quality, all while mitigating costs and maximizing productivity. 

“We don’t send a tech that doesn’t know,” Versin affirms, highlighting the critical role of skill matching in resolving maintenance issues promptly. By equipping technicians with specialized expertise and comprehensive inventories, Veritas eliminates inefficiencies and elevates their service. “We close our tickets, most of them within a day,” says Versin. “We internalize 75 percent of our maintenance tickets.”

“Anything else that is a little bit more complicated, like we have very old elevators that require a very specific skill, this is outsourced because we don’t want to take that on,” says Versin. “But anything else is completely handled in-house.”

Centralization is not a static destination; it’s a dynamic journey characterized by perpetual evolution. As technologies evolve and customer expectations shift so will workflows and tasks to maintain excellent service. Centralization is a journey and not a destination. “This is not going to be perfect, it’s going to be good enough, and good enough is pretty good today,” says Versin when sharing that leaders should focus on taking action versus on perfection when making such a massive shift. 

The godfather of centralization — Jerry Davis — on UDR’s efficiency driving move to the new operating model

Jerry Davis is the former COO of UDR — a Denver-based multifamily REIT and NMHC top 50 owner with close to 60,000 units — and was responsible for driving their initial journey into centralization. 

One of the key themes Davis addresses regarding centralization in the multifamily industry is its impact on operational efficiency. By outsourcing non-resident-facing tasks and reallocating resources to core functions, companies can achieve cost savings and improve overall operational efficiency. When comparing centralizing administrative tasks or maintenance Davis noted, “I will say this: admin is the easiest in my book.” 

“It’s easy to consolidate tasks that your [onsite] teams don’t do every day. It’s better to have a bunch of specialists instead of a manager having to remember how to do some weird kind of transfer that she has to do every three or four months,” says Davis. “If you have somebody doing it every day, it’s much more efficient.” 

Davis’s emphasis on employee satisfaction and job enrichment further underscores the human-centric approach that underpins effective workforce management. When speaking about the efficiencies companies will gain from centralizing he advised, “Don’t be greedy and keep it all for yourself, the team will make or break this thing. They need to know what’s in it for them.” By sharing how it can benefit their career through role specialization, increased compensation, and a clearer career path, you’re giving the team reasons to believe in the vision and want to help achieve it. “I think you want to tell them what’s in it for their pocketbook, and what’s in it for their career path,” says Davis.

When figuring out where to begin centralizing, he recommended identifying core functions that must remain decentralized. The question they would ask themselves was: “If no one showed up for work tomorrow, what tasks must happen?” This is an ethos behind their shared services and centralized approach to ensure that despite any turnover or staffing headwinds renters are still able to find, and lease their next home and the success of an individual community isn’t in the hands of a small, and in the traditional operating model overwhelmed, leasing team. 

By focusing centralization efforts on tasks that can be standardized or automated, companies can achieve greater efficiency and consistency across their portfolio. “The other thing we saw was you want people working at their pay level,” says Davis. “Frequently what we saw was the $100,000 manager doing $50,000 bookkeeping work.”

When choosing what roles and tasks made more sense to outsource to outside companies, to keep in-house, or to centralize, they often considered the cost of the entire employee’s benefits package. Many of the positions that were eventually centralized also had high turnover they considered the training and onboarding too into the cost comparisons. 

“We found the average employee at UDR costs the company about 150 percent of their base pay,” says Davis. “When you start looking at those lower level maintenance jobs and comparing that to what an outsource is, we opted to outsource anything that we didn’t think was resident facing. Our maintenance teams got to the point where all they do is fix broken stuff.” Unit turns, and cleaning were often outsourced because those weren’t resident-facing. 

They also tried to create more work-life balance for their maintenance team members so that they weren’t on-call all the time. “The worst thing about being a maintenance guy is being on call. And if you’re on a three-man crew, it’s every three weeks. If you’re on a two-man crew, it’s every two weeks,” says Davis. “If you get to where you’re on a one-man crew, it’s every week and it’s a crappy job.” As UDR reduced their workforce, they couldn’t afford maintenance turnover so they worked to make their jobs more satisfying. They created an after-hours call center that would help talk the resident through the maintenance issues, which took care of around 60% of the after-hours calls. “We saw a big drop in overtime that basically paid for our call center. And it made our team’s jobs much more enjoyable,” says Davis. 

AMLI’s Strategic Property Initiatives

Ron Burkhardt, Vice President of Strategic Property Initiatives at AMLI — a privately owned multifamily company with 25,000 units — shared their vision to align AMLI’s services with the evolving consumer needs of today’s renters and residents. 

Recognizing the shifting paradigms in customer expectations post-COVID, AMLI embarked on a journey towards centralization, aiming to streamline operations and enhance efficiency. 

“Our customer expectations are morphing. We’re trying to meet them where they’re at,” says Burkhardt. Recognizing the shifting paradigms in customer expectations post-COVID, AMLI embarked on a journey towards centralization which included spinning up a centralized resident services group to take care of many of the administrative tasks that create a smoother living experience. AMLI’s centralization initiative began with a focus on administrative tasks, gradually expanding to include application screening and approval processes. Burkhardt notes that they’re approaching their centralization journey the “AMLI way.” 

Burkhardt emphasized the iterative nature of change management and the need for clear communication to increase team engagement and keep the organization in alignment. “I remember sending towards the beginning of this whole process, a memo related to what we were doing,” says Burkhardt. “I guessed a 40 percent read rate and then I realized that it might have been a 14 percent read rate and I think it’s because people are busy and it made me realize we have to hit the road.” Burkhardt and teams went to the communities to talk to the teams and leadership to share the vision for the resident services group. 

“Sometimes you assume that everyone else is as enthusiastic about these initiatives as you are. And that can go for regional leadership, on-site leadership, your message might not be getting trickled down to everybody and you can create some anxiety among people that you think your message is getting to,” says Burkhardt. Spending time in-person and onsite to help share the “why” behind the changes and how these changes will create a better experience for team members. 

As the resident services group evolved, its impact reverberated throughout AMLI’s operations. By leveraging technology, particularly in the inspections and move-out processes, AMLI achieved significant efficiency gains. 

“Service managers are some of our biggest cheerleaders in terms of some of these efforts because we are putting together automated move-out pricing lists for damage charges so that they don’t have to run to get invoices in time to meet a final account statement deadline,” says Burkhardt. “Adopting technology is a must, but showing what’s in it for them, saving them time so that they can maybe stay away from the computer a little bit more.” 

Embracing centralized admin and maintenance 

There are three pillars of centralization: admin, maintenance and leasing. Admin is often thought of as the easiest and most logical set of tasks to take offsite. While each of the leaders on this panel started their centralization journey at a different point, and time, the overall sentiment is universal: centralization provides a superior experience for teams and renters while delivering overall business efficiency for operators.