When Trust Fosters Innovation: A Success Story

BH Management’s Joanna Zabriskie on how the relationship between employers, employees and clients is the basis for industry-level change.

Joanna Zabriskie, President & CEO, BH Management Services. Image courtesy of BH Management Services

In the past 18 months, multifamily operators have been forced to embrace technology to push their businesses forward. And what is going to be crucial from now on is not just having the right tools and the latest technology but also understanding how to get the most from them, according to BH Management Services President & CEO Joanna Zabriskie. 

In a forward-looking discussion, Zabriskie reveals how her company calibrated its business approach to adapt to the rapid pace of change and talks about improving residents’ experience through technology. 

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Tell us more about the business strategy behind your company’s expansion.

Zabriskie: We believe that we can be a better business—and get better results for our clients—when we invest in our team members and build a culture that embraces innovation. In 2017, BH was just shy of 70,000 units under management. With data flowing in from disparate systems—construction, facilities, financials, operations and marketing—making property-level decisions was fragmented and tedious. We thought we could do better.

With the multifamily industry experiencing an increase in investment and construction, BH knew that the key to growing our portfolio rested in strong business intelligence. Today, BH has more than 100,000 units under management, a significant milestone reached partly because of our industry-leading intelligence platform.

In 2018, BH launched an in-house, proprietary data visualization platform called BH Fusion to consolidate operational, financial and benchmark data into dashboard views that drive performance and provide transparency to our team members, investors and clients. This powerful business intelligence platform provides portfolio-level analysis, giving teams at-a-glance asset intelligence, benchmarks and targets that they can use to identify successful strategies.

Ultimately, we owe our success to our team of exceptionally talented people who value innovation, hold each other to high standards and truly love celebrating wins together. Also, by providing our teams with the necessary training tools and resources, we know they will be able to deliver a better living experience to our residents, resulting in long-term residency and continued organizational growth.

In which way is your company’s business strategy shaped by its value chain?

Zabriskie: In our industry, it is hard to imagine a business strategy that doesn’t start with the people. When employees feel supported, are given opportunities to grow and are recognized for their achievements, the impact is felt immediately by the residents in our communities.

We offer a virtual suggestion box for employees so that we create the best possible culture we can by listening and responding to our team members’ ideas. We are constantly expanding our training curriculum to provide meaningful and relevant content for learning, development and growth.

This focus has led to the development of some unique benefit offerings, from a Babies-at-Work program, a sabbatical program, expanded bereavement time and definitions, birthday PTO, same-sex partner benefits, health club allowance and volunteer PTO, etc.

BH invests in the future of our company through professional development programs and recruiting. Many people might not think that property management is rocket science. But, when you are working with hundreds of thousands of people every day, we think it is.

In 2020, we began a partnership with Project Destined, which offers internships and real owner experience to students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities interested in real estate careers. Senior leaders in our company spend several hours each week providing mentorship to these future leaders. Our hope is that this group is inspired and gains experience that will be needed in our industry.

How has smart tech contributed to your company’s growth?

Zabriskie: We realize that innovation is the key to meeting residents’ changing demands. We want to make apartment living easy, convenient and hassle-free. BH continues to invest in technology that can improve our residents’ living experience. More residents are asking for smart home-technology and are increasingly making their decision about living in a community based on availability.

Smart-home technology has helped us protect our and our clients’ investments. With leak detection and smart thermostats, we’re alerted before an issue becomes a problem. Smart-home technology allows on-site teams to reduce energy consumption and bills by managing temperature and lights in vacant units from anywhere. Smart-lock technology allows our teams to offer self-guided tours to prospects, giving them the flexibility to tour on their own time.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned since March 2020?

Zabriskie: I’ve heard a few stats related to the acceleration of tech adoption since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some say that the pandemic moved the business sector ahead by three years. I believe that impact was greater in the multifamily industry, which typically lags when it comes to tech adoption. By April 2020, consumer shopping behaviors and expectations changed dramatically, leaving many businesses scrambling to keep up. Looking back, it’s clear that the businesses that adapted quickly fared better.

Like everyone else, we went through a lot of changes in 2020. Maybe those changes would have happened on a four- or five-year timeline. The pandemic forced us to figure it out in weeks or months.

Going virtual was not without its challenges. We changed processes and adopted new tools, all of which required training and support for our on-site teams. We found ways to collaborate and recognize wins with teams sitting miles apart. It was rewarding to see people across departments team up to own the solution and the outcome. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons from the past 16 months was that a strong culture is crucial when facing challenges.

How have you supported your residents during the pandemic? 

Zabriskie: We’ve worked hard throughout the pandemic to make a positive impact during a difficult time. From providing flexible payment plans to connecting residents with available rental assistance funds, BH has helped thousands of families stay in their homes.

We continue to work closely with federal, state and local organizations to help our residents secure available rental assistance. We’ve taken a hands-on approach to helping our residents, creating local rent assistance resource guides to help residents understand their options. To date, we have written over 25,000 payment plans and, with the help of a dedicated team, secured federal rental assistance funds that have allowed 6,000 families to stay in their homes.

How have leasing dynamics changed for BH Management since the onset of the health crisis?

Zabriskie: Consumer behaviors have changed, so must our approach. We’ve adopted virtual leasing tools and best practices to make the preleasing experience helpful and memorable. We want prospects to be able to envision themselves living in one of our communities, so we’re training teams to curate virtual experiences for prospects—from tour to move-in—with “welcome home” videos.

The virtual leasing experience is likely to stick around—it just makes sense to be able to engage with a prospect when it’s convenient for them. This will likely free up our on-site teams to focus on delivering an exceptional experience to both residents and prospects.Elaborate on your company’s short- and long-term plans.

Zabriskie: Last year, BH Management Services teamed up with Timberline Real Estate Ventures to create B.HOM Student Living, expanding our operations and ownership into student housing. Our portfolio currently includes nearly 30,000 beds at 24 universities in the U.S., including a public-private partnership for on-campus facilities management and we plan to continue growth in the student housing industry in the years ahead.

BH’s focus on employee development and data-driven decision-making has already shown benefits for our student housing portfolio, with record-leasing years at nearly half of our B.HOM communities.

We’re excited to continue growth in the industry by expanding into single-family rentals. BH has honed our methods managing residential rentals from student through conventional multifamily housing. Our move into single-family rentals allows us to continue that journey with residents who choose to rent.

What markets are you targeting and why?

Zabriskie: We have a strong base in the Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Southwest and Midwest. Our expertise in these areas is a real strength for BH because we have teams on the ground that understand these markets.

We’ll continue to watch market shifts due to the pandemic, as people move away from urban centers and into suburbs and regional hot spots. In addition, housing shortages are expected to continue, so demand for rentals will remain strong.

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What are the trends you are seeing in multifamily development today?

  • Driving engagement with prospects and residents in a virtual world. Prospects and residents want to engage when it is convenient for them, which is not necessarily during the workday, so we are adapting to a more virtual experience curated by technology. The pandemic influenced the changes in how prospects and residents engage with us throughout their journey. We’re meeting these expectations by implementing new tools and practices to make it more convenient to take a tour, request services or ask questions.
  • Expansion into single-family rental communities. Whether people want a neighborhood feeling or need more space to work from home, these communities give residents additional housing options. While mortgage rates remain low, many people are finding it difficult to buy a home in this market. Expansion of single-family, built-to-rent communities will allow those families to move into a home without taking on the burden of ownership.
  • Convenience through smart-home technology. Today’s renters increasingly expect smart-home technology in their apartments. Where property owners and managers can make a difference is in choosing vendors that make the experience seamless and hassle-free for renters.

Do you have any predictions for the multifamily sector going forward?

Zabriskie: Continued housing shortages offer a positive outlook for our industry. However, rapidly changing renter expectations and competition in the market spell much-needed innovation in our industry. The pace of change has increased over the last two years. Multifamily operators must be adept at managing and interpreting data to operate with efficiency.

However, gone are the days of trial-and-error tech adoptions. Companies that will best adapt are those that approach the problem with a clear strategy and are willing to invest in their people and systems.

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