To some it is Heaven, but is it for you?
Lynn Whiting has been, she reluctantly admits, in the management business nearly 30 years. And she has come home again. “This is the way management used to be,” she says with satisfaction. “It’s about the interaction with the people. I used to get hundreds of e-mails from my buildings. Now, if I get 15, it’s unusual. People stop by; they talk, there’s a lot more personal, face-to-face stuff. And they’re very grateful. I get acknowledgment, which I rarely got before.”
Whiting has not built a time machine or found an unusual spot in New York where time stands still. She is talking about her recent promotion. From director of management at Argo, she has become a vice president and on-site manager at Fordham Hill Towers in the Bronx. Going from a cushy desk job to a 1,200-unit co-op in the Bronx is a promotion? You bet, says Whiting.
Let’s step back for a moment from the board point of view and walk in the manager’s shoes. You are what’s called a “portfolio manager,” not because you like to file papers but because you handle a portfolio of buildings (some call you, less politely, a “pit-stop manager,” because you roll in and roll out of the properties so quickly).
You are responsible for seven co-ops and/or condos, meeting with seven boards every month, dealing with seven supers and their staffs, and handling seven sets of challenges, from boiler maintenance and sublet concerns to resident complaints and Local Law 11 reports. Those seven meetings are usually at night, and since they often go from 8 to 10, you usually don’t get home until 11 or 11:30 and don’t get to sleep till 12:30 or 1. Then it’s back in the office at 9, or else out in the field checking on your properties. And does anyone say, “thank you”? Sometimes, but more often than not it’s a complaint in the form of an e-mail, one of hundreds you get every day. It’s a living, but what a life.
You can see why Whiting prefers becoming an in-house manager. One board. One set of shareholders (albeit with over a thousand residents). One staff. And one set of challenges. Fordham Hill Towers, a gated community with its own security detail, has a maintenance supervisor, a superintendent, more than 50 staffers, and extensive, well-kept grounds. “It’s like Westchester in the Bronx,” says Whiting. “It’s terrific.”
That’s all fine from the manager’s perspective – granted, no small thing since a happy manager is probably a more productive manager – but what does the board get out of it? Can an average board even afford this kind of deluxe management?
A lot of it depends your priorities. To offer an example, Alvin Wasserman, director of Fairfield Property Services, compares it to the difference between a motel and a high-class hotel. “If you go to an inexpensive motel and find that the refrigerator is not working, you will call the service desk and report it. If you’re lucky, it may be replaced while you are staying there, or it may not. Now, if you go to a five-star hotel and find that the refrigerator is broken, the front desk apologizes and the unit is replaced in ten minutes or you’ll know the reason why. Well, portfolio management is like that. It’s for people who want five-star service – meaning they want to have an on-site manager who responds to every situation immediately. The people want first-class treatment.”
Sure, we’d probably all like to have it. Who wouldn’t want to get treated that way? But, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want, but you sometimes get what you can afford. Indeed: size and price are the key factors. A property must be relatively large or it is not cost-effective to pay for an in-house staff. “You have one person solely dedicated to that building,” explains Dan Wurtzel, the president of Cooper Square Realty. “A 200-unit building may not be able to afford having an on-site person there.”
Most management executives agree that a building generally needs to have at least 400 units to be able to afford an on-site presence. The compensation for the agent will be high because the in-house manager must be a veteran in the field, with the experience and the industry savvy that comes with that. “It requires a particular set of on-site skills,” Wasserman says. “In some ways, it’s less intense. The portfolio manager deals with different people in different buildings and that touches upon interactions with different sets of people, whereas the on-site manager has to be able to sustain long-term relationships with one set of people.”
“You have to pay for a seasoned professional,” adds Steve Greenbaum, director of property management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate. “You still have a per unit cost, but you want to have someone who will bring a wealth of knowledge.”
Agrees Whiting: “Your on-site manager has to have experience. They also have to be more proactive and self-starters. They can’t rely on someone above them to give them instructions. They are there all the time, so they’re much more on the front lines.” Indeed, if there’s a problem and you don’t deal with it, you can’t avoid it by not returning calls. You are there, and so are the residents who are only an elevator ride away.
The board can pay less for a manager, of course, by hiring a part-time on-site person – providing you have an on-site management office to house him or her. That would mean you could get some of the benefits of an in-house manager at a reduced cost. Although no one quotes dollar amounts, a full-time on-site rep includes the per-unit cost of management, plus the fee of the manager – higher because he or she is an experienced pro – and the office and maintenance staff. If you have the manager in the office three days a week at dedicated hours, those costs go down, though, so does the on-site presence. And the manager will probably now take on another building or two.
Then, again, you might do well – even if you live in a large building – to bypass on-site management altogether. “It’s not really that necessary,” says one management executive who requested anonymity because his firm handles a number of large in-house-managed properties. “We have a building with 800 units. They do not have a site manager. But they have an excellent staff. The manager is responsive and responsible for everything that relates to management, so there is no need for someone on the site.
“A lot of these in-house management offices were set when the co-op started as a rental, and they just continue because the people are used to them or, because in Mitchell-Lamas, such offices are required by HPD [the Office of Housing Preservation and Development]. Residents often go there to gossip with the agent or get him to handle problems that are not management’s responsibility. ‘Can you help me with my phone bill?’ ‘Can you help me with my Con Ed bill?’ Figure it out yourself! No one helps my mother with her bills. She just figures them out for herself.”
Not all managers love the in-house experience, either. “Some of them like the variety of pit-stop management,” says Greenbaum. “Just dealing with one board can get boring. They also have to be more involved and get along with the board. If the one-on-one doesn’t work, they’re out.”
“You’re never left alone,” says the manager who requested anonymity. “They sit in the lobby and watch you go to the restaurant across the street, And then they watch you eat. It’s intense.”
Still, one person’s intense is another’s heaven. Ask Lynn Whiting. What it says, in the end, is that in-house management isn’t for everyone. But, then again, what is?