Until recently, a set of filing cabinets in the corporate offices of Atlanta-based Post Properties took up five cubicles' worth of workspace. The cabinets held copies of invoices from vendors who deliver goods and services to Post's 62 apartment communities, consisting of 21,872 apartment units, in 10 markets across the country. In any given month, 15,000 invoices would wend their way from those properties, with initialed approval from on-site managers, to Post's corporate accounting office for payment. Then, they would be deposited into those colossal cabinets.
“If we ever wanted to look at that invoice again, somebody had to go to the cabinet and physically extract that particular invoice,” says Carl Bonner, senior vice president of information technology at Post. “Then, they'd take it back to their desk to work on it. You've got to wonder how many times that invoice wouldn't get re-filed properly, or stuck under a stack of papers somewhere.”
Now, that paper maze—and those giant filing cabinets—have all but disappeared from the corporate suite, replaced by two slim scanners that digitize each invoice Post receives. Using Oculus imaging software from Virginia Beach, Va.-based ROH, which is run in conjunction with San Francisco-based OpsTechnology's OpsBuyer property management software, Post has transformed that cumbersome paper trail into a swift stream of digitized information. Now, its vendors send invoices directly to the corporate office, where two full-time administrative assistants oversee the scanners and ensure each invoice gets filed electronically. Once digitized, those invoices are queued for approval on the computer screens of on-site managers, who then zap them back to accounting for payment with the push of a button. “At this point, every invoice we get, if it's not electronic already, becomes electronic once it hits our door,” says Bonner, who says Post's cost to set up the system was nominal. “Those paper invoices just go to the basement.”
“What multifamily needs is the ability to transfer and transport documents from one place to another,” says Ken Miller, chief executive officer of OneSource Networking, a multifamily consulting firm in Easley, S.C., that's has been running trials of its Doc2File document scanning solution at various multifamily firms, including Ambling Management Co. in Atlanta. “What this technology does is solve the geography problem that's inherent to multifamily.”
Miller originally developed his system to help firms manage tax credit properties, where required government documentation can bog down even the most organized administrative professionals. “When you're dealing with Section 42 tax-credit properties, you don't just have a resident show up, look at the apartment, and move in,” Miller says. “Instead, they're going to be filling out paperwork first, probably 30 pages of it. Then, that paperwork is going to be FedExed to the corporate offices for the compliance officer to review. If that resident is really lucky, they might be able to move in within a week or two.” Now, using Doc2File, which converts those paper contracts into editable PDF files, Miller says the process can be trimmed down to a matter of hours or days. Miller says the system, once implemented, costs just $35 per property per month to run.
Atherton Trust, a third-party property management firm in Foster City, Calif., that operates approximately 2,000 units for its clients in 11 Western states, started using imaging recently for leases and rent checks. “We had to find a way to confront the document storage nightmare that everybody in multifamily has,” says CEO Kraig Kast. “It just became this huge volume of file boxes that got stored away in warehouse locations. And of course, you never know what's going to happen with litigation until the statute of limitations expires, so we would end up storing these documents and paying for that space for a long, long time.”
Now, using the software that came with its Canon scanners, Atherton hires people to store each of its leases digitally and catalogue them for easy retrieval. “Right now, we're estimating that it costs us about 15 cents per page to get people to scan those documents,” Atherton says. “A lot of times, we'll just have a high school student who comes in and does nothing but slap documents onto the scanner.”
SCANNING DETAILS Observers say the process of scanning, and how long it takes, is a critical issue to consider when using imaging. While digitizing documents can dramatically streamline your operations, getting them digitized is still an inherently manual process. “Don't underestimate the amount of time it takes to do all those physical scans,” says Bonner. Also, once those images get scanned, they need to be named, catalogued and saved in a logical way. Miller's Doc2File asks users for “metadata” about each scanned document, such as whether it's an invoice or compliance document, so the program can name and catalogue it appropriately. At Atherton, workers simply organize files by the name of the property.
Another challenge can be adoption of scanning technology itself. At Sigma Relocation Group, an apartment locating service based in Lewisville, Texas, that runs the UMoveFree.com apartment finding site, partner Nick Barber says the firm has completely digitized each of the four basic documents needed to place a resident in its clients' apartments, which include Equity Residential, RiverStone Residential, Lincoln Property Co., and United Dominion. Using proprietary software it calls Data Manager Pro, the firm makes sure it digitizes and catalogues each client registration, lease confirmation, invoice, and check generated by its transactions. “We upload every one of those, and then we destroy the paper copy after we've verified that it's been digitized,” Barber says.
But Barber says while his team of experienced agents, many in their 40s and 50s, are great at placing residents in apartments, they weren't always so good at scanning the documents they generated from those closings. “I found, early on, that the scanning just wasn't being adopted as a process,” Barber says. “Part of the problem was that a lot of our agents had never used a scanner before.” So Barber employed an elegantly simple—and decidedly old school—solution. He set up an eFax number so his agents could “fax” their images into the system instead. That eFax account, which converts the files into PDF documents, is directed to an e-mail address in Barber's accounting department, where an office worker can download those files and save them in the appropriate place. “Now, we just have our agents put their documents on the fax and hit send,” Barber says. “Everybody knows how to do that.”
Joe Bousquin is a freelance writer in Newcastle, Calif.
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