From left, MFE editor Christine Serlin; Willow Bridge Property Co. chief operating officer, residential management, Margette Hepfner; Waterton CEO and chairman David Schwartz; and Kettler president Cindy Fisher.
From left, MFE editor Christine Serlin; Willow Bridge Property Co. chief operating officer, residential management, Margette Hepfner; Waterton CEO and chairman David Schwartz; and Kettler president Cindy Fisher.

Executives from Kettler, Waterton, and Willow Bridge Property Co. shared strategies and advice on how they are navigating today’s industry hot topics, from centralization and technology to customer experience, at the MFE Leadership Summit in Vail, Colorado, in early March.

Read more about their key takeaways:

Centralization Approaches

David Schwartz, CEO and chairman of Waterton, said the staffing model hasn’t changed for as long as he has been in the multifamily industry.

“We haven’t been forced to change that, and we’re being tested over these tougher years to find the cost curve, and the technology is there now to do that,” he noted.

Waterton has been piloting centralization in specific regions, starting with functions that used to be the purview of an assistant community manager, such as renewals, delinquencies, and collections.

“We’re being pretty careful because you’re potentially compromising customer service,” he said. “You’re eliminating a person on-site, but you’re also creating a corporate position, which is pretty attractive to that labor pool.”

Cindy Fisher, president of Kettler, said her firm is implementing similar efforts, but it’s not one size fits all. Kettler is leaning into renewals, collections, and AI capabilities from the central business office, starting with its own properties to work out the kinks.

“You really have to look at it asset by asset and by demographics,” she said. “We really have to watch the data and what is happening at the assets to see if it’s a fit. There’s been great savings on the expense side, which has been very attractive.”

According to Margette Hepfner, chief operating officer, residential management, at Willow Bridge, the firm also is starting to look at the staffing model, with every asset being different.

She said Willow Bridge, which is primarily a fee manager, has taken the first steps to remove responses to leads from the on-site teams. “We know our properties don’t respond to leads, and they haven’t for 25 years,” she noted. “One person can handle about 20 properties if only handling online leads, and the response time is almost instantaneously. If taking phone calls as well, they can support less than 10 properties.”

Hepfner added that many of Willow Bridge’s open positions are on the maintenance side. While it hasn’t centralized maintenance, it does have floating maintenance teams in markets that can support it. “It’s a team that has the ability to go to a different property on a daily basis,” she said. “It cuts down on temp fees and has helped to build a succession plan for maintenance teams.”

Tech Consolidation

Hepfner said Willow Bridge is taking a step back to look at the technology that it has layered onto its site teams. “Are we using multiple products that are solving for similar things?” she said. “It’s too many things.”

Fisher agreed about consolidating the technology stack.

“You also can’t afford it, you can’t keep layering all of these technologies on these assets—the dollar per unit isn’t going to work,” she noted. “You have to be very selective.”

She recommended being intentional about what the right architecture looks like first and what’s driving those decisions.

“We’ve all started to get to that point where we know it’s really important to consolidate that stack, find where your gaps are, and pick those best providers,” said Fisher. “We’re all going to look a little different at how we do that.”

Tech Trends

While some technology is being consolidated, the leaders are still leaning into proptech solutions to help both the corporate and site teams.

Fisher said she looks at solutions that will take the workload off the site teams.

“Artificial intelligence keeps coming up, and I want to lean into it,” she said, adding that there will be regulations and hurdles to overcome. “But it comes in and offers customer experience and sees results driving better performance as well as allowing our teams to move to other important things they need to focus on.”

Schwartz said he’s most excited about business intelligence technology. “The information and the data analytics predictive solutions make us better decision makers in real time.”

Customer Experience

Kettler has leaned into resident satisfaction over the past couple of years, bringing in a head of customer experience. Fisher also lives at the properties the firm manages during the week, which has been eye-opening for her to just watch and listen to residents.

“The voice of the customer to me is critically important. We have invested more time and effort into really understanding that,” Fisher said. “We need to get back to the basics in service. What do the residents really want and care about?”

Schwartz said Waterton has a hospitality-inspired customer service culture, and a key takeaway from a recent retreat is a focus around escalation training.

“The escalation of disgruntled residents has increased post-pandemic,” he said. “Today is so different because any sort of customer service failure is wildly public. Training is the top thing you can do there.”

Hepfner also noted there needs to be a shift in mindset when dealing with more vocal residents.

“The fact of the matter is we provide housing, and our teams are a guest in our residents’ homes. We need to shift from feeling like they are an intruder in our workspace,” she said.

She agreed there needs to be more focus on training as well as the survey data that is received from residents.

“If we’re sending a survey to a resident after they sign a lease, why aren’t we calling beforehand to make sure they are happy before they get the survey?” she asked.

Fisher added that her mantra to teams is: Follow up and follow through. “It’s as simple as that. Residents want to know that they’ve been heard and that people are paying attention to them.”

Hepfner added that the customer experience is important for the multifamily industry as a whole.

“I would argue as an industry if we continue to get better at the customer experience, we start to create renters for life for a reason,” she said.

Vital Feedback

Fisher noted that feedback from residents isn’t just for the site teams operating today, but the information can be used for building and designing new communities, monetizing assets, and driving rents.

“It’s a good opportunity to lean in and get those metrics and data that are telling us what residents want,” she said.

Forward Focus

In the uncertain environment, Fisher reminded to stay forward-focused with a clear eye on strategies and vision.

“Even with all the supply coming online, we know that curve is going to change, and we’ll all be back out there again. We have to use this time to be innovative and creative as we change business models,” she said. “This is an exciting time to disrupt and be forward-thinking about how we can operate more effectively in this space, and I would encourage everyone to be thinking about that—even in times when it’s rougher to do it.”

Get Involved

Schwartz said the multifamily industry is under the microscope and is navigating attacks across the nation—for example, from the Justice Department and how rents are priced, rent control in California, and mandatory electrification in some jurisdictions.

“It doesn’t end,” he said. “All of us have to get involved, whether it’s super PACs, local apartment associations, the National Multifamily Housing Council, the National Apartment Association. We really have to advocate for ourselves.”

Hepfner shared the same sentiment about the need for a strong industry voice. “With the headwinds that we’re facing from an economic perspective that we really don’t have control over but, more importantly, the headwinds we’re facing from a regulatory perspective—locally, state level, and nationally—I think the bright spot of the industry is we have groups and associations that we are members of that are the collective voice,” she said.