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MINNEAPOLIS-A key to survival in commercial real estate is getting and keeping the right people.

The industry has had some catching up to do as to how it approaches human resources, according to a panel of commercial real estate executives who spoke on “Strategies for Tough Times” at RealShare Minneapolis, a commercial real estate conference held in downtown Minneapolis this week by Real Estate Media Inc.

“Multi-family housing is a very unsophisticated industry,” says Steven Radcliffe, COO of the Dominium Group, a Twin Cities apartment owner and developer.

“How many times do people looking for an apartment have trouble finding someone to talk to?”

Three years ago, Dominium wasn’t doing criminal background checks or drug testing, and many REITs still do very little screening, he said.

An emphasis on creating a corporate culture and offering educational opportunities to employees has helped Dominium keep its turnover rate in the 40% range—well below industry averages, which are high in the 50-70% range, Radcliffe said.

“Not long ago our industry had a low priority on training—there was more emphasis on the old boys network,” said Ronald Schiferl, CFO of Minnetonka, MN-based Opus Group.

Anthony LoPinto, managing director and CEO of Equinox Partners, said one commercial real estate firm who had decided to exit some markets choose those employees to keep not by market performance but by the strength of the management team. And, eventually, those markets were the best performers, he said.

LoPinto and Radcliffe also argued real estate companies need to better address succession issues.

“A company’s survival is dependent on who is on the bench,” LoPinto says.

Radcliffe said founders of privately held Dominium had to be convinced of the need for succession planning. Now they have a policy that its managers must be prepared to “hire your successor—a scary thing.”

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