"This city is unique," observes the director of management at a large co-op management firm. "There is virtually no other market that is so dominated by co-ops and their concerns. It is tough for an outsider."
Indeed: for years, the New York City residential management business has been dominated by local companies, often begun by one generation and carried on by another. As such, management is very much a local concern and has been stubbornly resistant to change.
However, that has not deterred the FirstService Corporation, a Canadian-based, publicly held company, from entering the New York market through its subsidiary, The Wentworth Group. In 1999, Wentworth acquired Arco Management — which itself had acquired the smaller Equity Management as well as the properties run by the now-defunct Marvin Gold Management and Cantor Management.
That takeover spree hasn't stopped, either. According to David Epstein, president of The Wentworth Group, the company is currently in negotiations with "two or three" management firms about the possibility of partnering. Although he declines to name them, he says the management operations fit his criteria for entering the Wentworth fold: they must be solidly run, with well-trained staff and topflight managers.
Should boards take notice?
They should if they are interested in the professionalism of the management industry. Because The Wentworth Group is not selling itself simply as a large, national company but as one that offers a unique manager's training school that will raise the standards of professionalism in the industry.
"We think property managers have to be a bit of everything," explains Richard Oller, senior vice president of development at FirstService Corporation. "They have to be politically knowledgeable, experts in communications, adept at psychology. In effect, they have to be doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs. While they may be good in one area, like vendor relations, they may have an area with a weakness in understanding the physical plant. We want them to understand how all the components work. We want to increase the level of professionalism in the industry." Adds Epstein: "[Our school] will give us a competitive advantage."
First, some background. The Wentworth Group handles many
properties on the East Coast, offering full-service real estate management, brokerage, consulting, and construction services from New York to northern Virginia. At the cornerstone of the
company is Wentworth Property Management. Since its formation in 1985, Wentworth has specialized in providing management and other real estate and property services to condominium associations, cooperatives, and homeowner associations in New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The company that owns it, the Canadian-based FirstService, supervises residential properties across the nation, and also offers electronic security, a variety of consumer services, information processing, and fulfillment and customer relationship management services.
Wentworth has brought with it an unusual approach to management that is both local and national, with the pluses of a large company and, say executives of the firm, none of the drawbacks of size. For instance, although Wentworth bought Arco, company executives like to refer to it as a "partnership" rather than a takeover. "It is not a question of the national company dictating to the local operation," explains Michael Mendillo, president of Wentworth Property Management and a principal of the Wentworth Group. "We very much consult before any major decisions are made. We are very aware that management is about local issues. It is a service business."
"We understand that it's a keenly local business," agrees Oller. "In that regard, we've aligned ourselves with property managers who are born and bred in New York. From the point of view of the clients, they're dealing with a very local tradition. You always have to return phone calls, inspect the property, and deal with the board needs. It is very local; each company has its own flavor. There is a commonality with other associations throughout the country, of course, but New York is a very different marketplace."
With that in mind, the Wentworth Group usually keeps the founder or founders of the business in charge of the firm. In addition, the "partnership" approach offers what Oller describes as the best of both worlds: the advantages of national scope with the insights and concerns of local managers. In New York City, its "partners" include Arco (which has recently changed its name to Wentworth) and Equity Management.
"The operating partners understand the unique attributes of their market, the special demands and requirements of their clients, local laws and regulations, and the labor pool and vendors," Oller explains. "The operating partners remain fully committed to the core principles of customer service and professionalism and are totally accountable to their clients."
"Wentworth believes in decentralizing operations," observes Jonathan Klein, president of Wentworth New York. "We operate as an independent firm, with all the advantages of being a local firm, understanding local issues, but also being able to learn from around the country."
In that regard, national size is one of the cards that Wentworth uses in its sales pitch to potential co-op clients. According to its executives, the national connection offers managers from other cities the opportunity to gather together and exchange ideas, problems, and solutions. "Now that we're part of a larger firm, we have the availability of the best practices from around the country," says Klein, whose agents meet on a quarterly basis with other Wentworth managers. "The talk ranges from employee motivation to new ways of training the building staff and better reporting to our clients."
"We were an efficient and well-run company before, but Wentworth has certainly supplemented us by bringing in size and resources," adds Mike Basile, director of management at Equity. "We've been involved with their national affiliates from Florida, Washington, and Phoenix, exchanging ideas with them. You get to see the best practices from other regions. It's been a helpful resource. We have the advantage of their experiences but still have our autonomy."
Wentworth has carried that educational idea even further by setting up a school for managers, aimed at increasing the professionalism of its employees. Called the FirstService Community Association Management Training Facility and Institute, the Hollywood, Florida-based facility provides specialized training to property managers, building superintendents, and management executives. Operating in a 5,000 square-foot space, trainees are exposed to large-scale working models of building systems and components.
According to Oller, "a trainee will stand inside a working elevator cab model to learn how best to clean stainless steel. He will place his hand on an access panel that reads prints as he learns about the different security access devices available. He will walk under a concrete balcony constructed to demonstrate deterioration or learn about pool filtration by observing the cross-section of a fully plumbed glass swimming pool. He will see a chiller system, and discover what it does and how it works." Epstein reports that Wentworth will be opening a similar training facility in New York City within the next six months.
The company seems to be succeeding. Although he declines to offer numbers, Mendillo reports that profits in New York City are up and that the company will soon be aggressively going after new properties. "We have spent the last two years consolidating and making sure all our properties here are efficiently run," he explains, noting that the company has dropped buildings that did not fit into its long-range plans.
Oller adds that the key to any sort of success is getting back to basics. While size matters, Wentworth employees must, first and foremost, be good managers of people and issues and the properties that contain both. "We're all property managers here," he explains. "We all understand the community association business. We take our clients' needs very seriously. You can't impose national standards. That's not what it is about. You can give outside resources and provide capital, but in the end, it's still about returning the phone call. It's about doing the job.