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LIVINGSTON, NJ-Market numbers are weak across all commercial real estate sectors these days, and keeping tenants in place would seem to be more important than ever. But the message offered up by panelists at a NJ-NAIOP meeting here was that relationships built on trust are the key to tenant retention no matter the economic climate.

The topic was “Tenant Retention in Trying Times.” Moderator Bob Palestri, a partner with the Property Institute of Long Beach Island, was joined by panelists Glenn Buie of First Industrial Realty Trust in Pine Valley, John Marazzo of Mack-Cali Realty Corp. of Edison, Seena Stein of Newmark Knight Frank in Rutherford, Andrew Zezas of Real Estate Strategies Corp. of Kenilworth and Michael Schofel of the locally based Eastman Cos.

“Relationships begin far before the lease is signed,” Zezas said. “They start the first time a potential tenant visits a building. How the negotiations go from that point give the tenant a perception of the landlord. It’s important to start with a positive foundation.”

“It takes time to build a relationship with a tenant,” Marazzo agreed. “Customer service is making a good impression. You’re only as good as your last ‘at bat’.”

The view among panelists was that those landlords and property managers that have already established tenant retention among their top priorities are best positioned to weather a market downturn, when vacancies can be tougher to fill and therefore can be extremely costly.

“Tenant retention should always be a priority,” Stein said. “The economy is bad, but it’s not the time to just decide now to retain tenants. They already need to feel that they’re getting their money’s worth. Reassurance by ownership and the property manager is very important.”

Panelists also agreed that because a building property manager is the main line of contact between tenant and landlord, hiring the right people is a critical component of relationship-building. “You need to hire people who like people,” Schofel said. “Besides knowing the nuts and bolts of the business, you want someone who is flexible, personable and attentive to tenants’ needs.”

“Working diligently to build rapport with tenants has major benefits,” Buie said. “Tenant retention equals customer service. We can show tenant appreciation with things like annual picnics and holiday gifts, but doing our job well and providing good service goes a lot further than these things.”

“Some landlords give lip service,” Zezas said. “They really only care about whether the rent is being paid. Those who believe they’re in a real estate or cash flow business are making a big mistake. Building owners are in a tenant relationship business. Without that, you don’t have the first two.”

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