To ensure that it can make full use of the vast amounts of information collected daily at its properties, one large property management company uses an increasingly interconnected mixture of purchased and homegrown software.

Western National Property Man-agement (WNPM) is the multifamily real estate management arm of a 42-year-old firm that is also involved in apartment acquisition, development and construction.

With annual revenues of more than $260 million, WNPM manages more than 145 properties with 25,000 multifamily units in the western United States, including those it manages for others and WNPM-owned properties (the company is the second-largest multifamily owner in Orange County, Calif.).

“We try to do our best to have everyone on the same platform, and we do have a fairly homogenous environment as far as our network is concerned,” said Kenneth Hodges, director of information technology at Western National Group. But each part of Western National Group’s businesses has its own software associated with its specific needs and functions, and that requires his technology staff to integrate the disparate systems so they can transfer data between them.

The big switch

Five years ago, WNPM was using a DOS-based property management software that resided on one or two personal computers (PC) at each property management office. “They might be networked to talk to each other, but the actual software that ran the apartment building resided on that PC,” said Hodges. “You can imagine that when accounting closes out [the books] to do reporting, there are challenges [where] you have software spread over 140 properties. That was one of the big challenges for us and the industry as a whole: There was no centralized property management software at the time.”

Between 2000 and 2002, however, software makers made big strides in their products, and WNPM made the decision to centralize data to aid reporting.

The company had a lot of criteria for selecting a software solution. For example, it wanted to host the data itself and not have it hosted by a third-party vendor. It wanted a system that was accessed through a Web browser, something every user already knows how to operate. It also wanted a product that was easy to use. And it wanted to be able to integrate it with the various software programs that WNPM’s software developers had created in-house.

WNPM selected Yardi Systems’ Voyager software and began a gradual implementation throughout the large company. A company-wide, all-at-once rollout “is not the way to go,” said Hodges. “You want to do a pilot project, where you do a couple sites, run them, find out what the issues are, and then do a slow rollout.” WNPM’s rollout lasted about 18 months, at a pace of about six properties per month; it also involved the conversion of all of the data from the DOS-based project into the formats required by Yardi.

Even with a familiar interface for the software in the form of a Web browser, the users still needed training, which Western National handled through its own training organization. As each batch of properties went through the conversion process, the management staff would go to a class to learn the new system.

Benefits of the change

The centralized, in-house storage of data has allowed Western National to integrate its many applications. But the biggest payoff may be that it has allowed the company to make better use of the information.

WNPM’s system reviews the information in Voyager every night, looking for anomalies that need to be addressed. In other words, if something has occurred that falls outside of preset parameters – including an action not taken by site managers in response to a situation – the system sends out an automated e-mail to alert them.

It also helps the company be more proactive. For example, when a resident moves out, WNPM has to wrap up the tenant’s records and settle the account. The system can now scan through the data, see what resident moves are scheduled in the near future and notify the site managers to make sure they act on it.

In addition, every executive and regional manager receives a daily risk-management report of activity at the properties. If something happens that the site managers need to report – such as an accident on the property – they can do so via the Web interface. That information goes directly into the centralized database, which can send out a report to the area manager or all the way up the chain of command to the president, if required.

In the future, WNPM hopes to further leverage its data. In 2006, it plans to develop an executive dashboard, which would allow a company official to easily view important statistics, such as whether a property is over or under budget, or if there are overdue resident work orders.

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