The Building Owners & Managers Association’s centennial convention in New York City in July underscored the dire degree of the talent crisis in this industry. That’s where we met P. Marc Fischer, senior vice president and director of management services for Transwestern. The Columbia, MD-based Fischer conducted a riveting educational session spelling out the depth of need and the fact that a minority of real estate firms are concerned enough to actually create a retention program to keep top talent. Last week, we treated the subject at the association level. This week Fischer takes us into the trenches to discuss how firms like his are dealing with the issue on a day-to-day basis. How long have you been teaching this course?

Fischer: I’ve been an active member of BOMA since I joined Transwestern’s predecessor company, Carey Winston, in 1991. I’ve bee teaching at the BOMA conferences for the past four or five years. This topic was a suggestion from BOMA, but I run the state of Maryland for Transwestern, and the topic of recruitment and retention is a huge issue for me as a hiring manager. I was also the president of the Baltimore chapter of BOMA, and it’s clear from the local market and from what we hear from associations across the country that this is an issue all over. Finding the right person, training and building that person to reach his or her potential and then retaining that person are all very difficult. More so than it used to be?

Fischer: The property manager’s role has changed a lot. When I got into the business–and this was my first job out of college–in 1991, building management was the person with the keys who opened the doors for people. The financial application, the asset management function, wasn’t there. On the investment side, the focus has changed from the individual investor, doing deals on the back of an envelope, to the institutional investor. You’ve got a class of MBAs looking at these assets and it’s a real bona fide financial business. The complexity is there, and finding someone who can perform both operationally and financially is a major challenge. I can always find someone to be a property manager in title only. That’s not so hard. In your presentation, you quoted a survey, from CEL & Associates, indicating that while most executives say it’s a problem, only 32% have a retention program in place. Why the disconnect?

Fischer: There are a lot of companies out there who don’t fully recognize property management as a full-fledged profession. It’s not considered as glamorous as brokerage or development. It’s nowhere near as exciting as building the building or filling it with leases. So the crisis is especially acute in property management?

Fischer: Absolutely. [Equinox Partners CEO and contributor] Tony LoPinto also had a presentation at BOMA. And he said that from 1994 to 2005 there was a huge drop in the number of people entering the business. Looking at real estate in general and property management specifically, there should be a whole lot of people with those years of experience who are becoming senior managers now, and that whole piece is missing. There’s a group of junior managers not ready for promotion yet, and not enough top-drawer senior management positions to go around. So there is a talent crisis.

He said the hot searches for the future will be property and asset management, especially with those people who have the operational and financial skills to provide a full package. That’s what this industry needs. Those are the people who walk through the door and out-manage the building, who can develop creative solutions for managing that building rather than just babysitting it. They can maximize its operational aspects and then use their financial acumen to report that, to translate it into valuations. When that person walks through the door you’ll pay a premium, and that person is in demand with all of our competition. So how do you, at Transwestern, fill the gap?

Fischer: Our portfolio grows by leaps and bounds. And sometimes we can grow by a million feet and then contract by a million feet all within a 30-day period. We’re a third-party manager, and it ebbs and flows. But we have several core employees at the three basic levels: senior, property manager and assistant, who are full-package. They have the skills, and we’re grabbing those people with both hands and making sure we’re giving them what they’re looking for. We’re creating an opportunity for each of them individually. You tell me what you’re looking for from this job and I will deliver that to you. I’ll deliver the flexibility you want; if you say you want to be an instructor, I’ll give you the opportunity. I’m going to move things out of the way to make sure you look at Transwestern as the place where you can hang your hat. Is that approach by corporate mandate?

Fischer: Absolutely. The HR group closely watches recruitment and retention efforts, more retention because the regions mostly handle their own recruitment. Most of our recruiting is done through college grads or established professionals with whom we have relationships such as through BOMA. The retention is tracked closely, through exit interviews and through statistics. They’re looking for trends. There’s always going to be turnover, but it’s the stellar performers leaving that keep you up at night. In the ’90s, when someone resigned, there was someone waiting in line behind you. That’s no longer the case. But how do you get the job done?

Fischer: We’ve gone to a team strategy. A senior property manager may have multiple managers on the same team. Instead of a smaller team with a senior and assistant manager, we often put a senior manager, a couple of property managers and a couple of assistants together on a larger portfolio. And the buildings are getting good coverage?

Fischer: Yes, but there’s a double-edge sword in play here too. As we’re seeing the shift from the individual to the institutional investor, the institutional investor often pushes fees down, so we’re being asked to do more financial reporting and asset management at a lower fee. So we have to deliver that level of service less expensively. The team concept has worked very well for us. Does your competition face the same crisis or look at it the same way?

Fischer: There’s a level of property management company that doesn’t care. If they change people every three or four years or three or four months, they don’t care. They think it’s not such a bad thing because the old employee made X and the new employee will make X-minus. But folks like Transwestern and CB Richard Ellis–those working with top-tier clients–do care, and for companies like that the problem is straight across the board. So where is the relief?

Fischer: As we move from Baby Boomers to Generations X and Y, there’ll be a watershed change in how this industry manages real estate. This business is based on a gray-hair syndrome. Asset managers want the person with all the credentials on their portfolios. But as the Boomer generation moves out you’ll see rapid promotion of people who don’t have gray hair, and we’ll all have to live with the fact that the senior manager may be a 30-year-old. You might get better computer skills and different analytical skills, but you won’t get the seasoning.

This is not a complicated job if you want to be mediocre at it. But if you want to be the best of the best and operate this building much more efficiently than the next, keeping tenants happy and improving the financial performance, if you really want to be excellent at this job, it is an extraordinarily difficult job to do. And people are finally starting to realize the value a good property manager brings to the table.

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