Good enough is never just good enough for Waterton.
The Chicago-based owner–operator is constantly striving to make its operations more efficient and its customer service more engaging. Through innovation—both internal and customer-facing—the firm is blazing a new trail to raise the bar on what it means to be a multifamily firm in the 21st century.
Multifamily Executive recently sat down with Maxwell Peek, Waterton’s executive vice president of investments and new business initiatives, as well as Doug Pearce, the company’s vice president of technology, to talk about three such efforts.
Elmspring Technology Accelerator
Waterton has partnered with elmspring, an early-stage start-up accelerator that plays at the intersection of real estate and technology.
Elmspring, founded by Thomas Bretz and Adam Freeman, respectively the CEO and CFO of Chicago’s Century 21 Affiliated, provides promising start-ups with seed capital, mentorship, and access to the individuals and resources they need to prepare for market.
“The partnership gives us continual exposure to new real estate tech without having to actively spend hours searching for it,” says Peek. “By gaining exposure to new tech, we have the opportunity to plan how to integrate the functionality into our operations, encouraging us to think strategically about future trends within the industry.”
Peek, who sits on elmspring’s board, points out that since Waterton is actively participating in developing elmspring’s burgeoning applications, the company has a distinctive position and perspective that gives it a leg up on its peers.
“We have a unique opportunity to help shape products from the ground up that meet a multifamily operator like Waterton’s needs, versus having to wait for a third-party provider to create a version of what they think ‘right’ looks like,” Peek says.
One early return of the partnership is ReaLync, a Web- and mobile-based platform that enables live virtual property tours, offering a time- and cost-saving advantage over traditional marketing protocol. The arrangement is a win-win, allowing Waterton early access to the technology while allowing ReaLync to test its product on a large scale.
Waterton has also formed an “innovation council” made up of nine members from various corners of the business—hospitality, residential, and corporate. The team meets monthly, and each month it poses a new challenge to Waterton’s employees.
Then, any Waterton employee can go to an “Innovation Portal,” an internal website where associates can submit their idea on how to solve whatever business problem the company is grappling with. They can also submit any idea that corresponds to one of the company’s four focus areas (training, process, culture, and satisfaction), or simply any other idea they think will improve the business.
Employees can view ideas submitted by others and vote for their favorites (or against others). The winning teams get lunch with the CEO and the possibility of their idea being turned into an exciting new product.
“The driver behind the program is focused on building a framework and culture where people feel empowered to think strategically and share ideas, because they know they can get help in making their dreams a reality, with the backing of a company that encourages and rewards good ideas,” says Peek.
Waterton is active in the hospitality industry, but for years, its efforts in managing multifamily and hotel properties were divided. Waterton Residential managed the company’s more than 20,000 multifamily units, while Ultima Hospitality managed its hotels.
In October 2015, Waterton combined those two subsidiaries into a single entity simply dubbed Waterton. Not only did the move streamline its operations, but the restructuring reflects Waterton’s thesis that multifamily residents are demanding a higher level of service akin to luxury hotels that our industry has not previously seen.
As a result, Waterton coined the term “Resitality,” which reflects a management culture that represents the convergence of the multifamily and hospitality sectors.
“Resitality is Waterton’s answer to the changing demands of our residents. We want to draw from our experience as hotel operators to improve our multifamily communities and give our residents an exceptional experience,” says tech VP Pearce, who is featured in the video below. “From a ‘customer first’ service culture to a more thoughtful approach to renovations and design of community space, we want to position our communities to best serve our residents."