Sometimes the best ideas come from sharing best practices. With that in mind, Multifamily Executive conducted a conference call to ask some of the industry’s top tech execs to point to new technologies, talk about investment challenges, and detail current integration strategies.
On the line were Dan Haefner, senior vice president and chief information officer for Atlanta-based Lane Co.; Lori Reeves, vice president of information technology for Cleveland, Ohio-based Forest City Residential; Steven Small, executive vice president and chief information officer of Chicago- based AMLI Residential; and Scott Wesson, chief information officer for Denver-based AIMCO.
Q: What is the coolest next-generation technology your company is looking at right now?
DAN HAEFNER: Scott, we are following in [AIMCO’s] footsteps wiTh Clarity—it is a business management tool that allows us to connect a lot of disparate systems and disparate data. We felt once we connect a lot of those dots, we’d have timely and accurate info that will allow us to do a better job for our user experiences boThinternally and externally.
SCOTT WESSON: Our financial planning and analysis group is highly dependant upon Clarity, and we have found it to be a great system. Budgets went from homework assignments to a way of doing business that was interactive.
HAEFNER: The first thing we rolled out was our property budget platform. Believe it or not, for the first time in a long time, I have heard the regional managers and on-site property managers say they love something.
STEVEN SMALL: We are looking at IPTV as well as other ways to continue to engage our customers. We are also putting leasing kiosks in our offices. We’re always trying to have the same interface whether a customer finds us on the phone, walks into the office, or connects to us through the Internet—we want all of that to be the same, regardless of the channel.
LORI REEVES: We are going to be the first [RealPage IPTV] StarFire installation, targeted for mid-March to late April. We look at this as much more than simply entertainment; we see it as an integration point where we are bringing our front office into the living room of our residents.
Q: What IT challenge or opportunity is currently top-of-mind at your company?
REEVES: Right now, I am primarily looking at what the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] rulings will be and our strategy wiTh the providers that keep evolving what they are. They are not phone or cable companies anymore—they are all quadruple players. Above all wiTh these initiatives we have to keep in mind what is best for the real estate. That can be difficult to navigate when the development life cycle of a project can go on for many years and the rules change often wiThin that time line.
SMALL: We are looking at ways to facilitate best-of-breed interfacing. Whether you look at Yardi or RealPage or MRI, the vendors are really creating stacks of fairly well integrated software. But there remains a barrier to entry for incorporating certain single-use applications. We are also looking at ways to automate and facilitate some of the new advertising venues, such as Craigslist.
HAEFNER: We are looking at revenue management on the front end and just being able to bring our revenue stream further up—and that, of course, creates more economic opportunity for us from a feemanagement standpoint. It provides better valuation for all of our owners and hopefully differentiates us from our competitors in the fee environment, but we have chosen to go down this road where there is a lot more cost—in the fee-management environment, that is usually not well accepted.
WESSON: At AIMCO, we probably always have too many irons in the fire and do a lot of things at the same time. I still see all of us in the industry trying to go through what I think the retail industry went through almost 20 years ago—to enable the back office to reach out toward the customer.
Q: How do you manage the investments your company makes in technology?
WESSON: I don’t know if this is everyone’s experience, but competition for investment capital wiThin the company can be fierce. That has been a big challenge for us, particularly wiTh so much redevelopment work going on—the tendency is to want to invest in that as opposed to other forms [such as tech]. When we are trying to hold costs flat as a company, it is difficult to continue to innovate.
HAEFNER: We have to look at things a bit differently. I hate to keep going back to that, but anything we do in the back office, no one else pays for.
WESSON: I remember that from my Lincoln days—I had to be a pretty good salesman to go out there and sell all the fee owners.
HAEFNER: Exactly. When you sell something in your organization, you sell it to five or 10 regional vice presidents and some senior executives. I have to go sell it to 50 owners, about 10 of whom are probably really receptive.
REEVES: I compete for dollars wiTh three other Forest City business units; I feel like I have this big mothership that is so hard to steer. In multifamily, you have to be reactive wiTh Internet technology and advertising to optimize the dollars we spend there. We spend some big chunks of money on some of these Web sites, and property managers want to be able to change features and react immediately to the market. You’ve got to be able to give them tools so they can monitor and manage the effectiveness of our on-line marketing and react in a timely manner.
mso-bidi-language: AR-SA">Q: Describe the process for integrating technologies at your company.
WESSON: I mentioned the customer facing side of it, and definitely we are making some investments there right now. We made some significant internal investments into CRM back in 2002, and we did that primarily because we did not see anyone else in the marketplace doing what we wanted. Since then, we have seen some advancements wiTh vertical market players that we like. The other folks on this roundtable have all invested in vertical applications, and they get the best practices of the work that each other does. We like that as well.
SMALL: By the same token, vertical players build for the masses, and it can be more difficult to make specialized and incremental changes to applications.
WESSON: Things now seem to be more about change management, leadership, and execution than they are about the technology, per se.
SMALL: That is definitely true, and that can be an argument for getting in early.
HAEFNER: The value-add sell to 50 owners is a definite challenge for us. Our regional vice presidents and property managers have had to become salespeople for the technology. Most of the owners don’t want to talk to the technology department, nor do they want to talk to the accounting department. It is a challenge, but we have a lot of data these days that was not there a couple years ago, which shows the capitalized value of cost increases to technology investments.