What makes an association manager really successful? Is it hands-on attention to each association in their portfolio, or their ability to point wayward boards in the right direction to solve their own problems? Do great managers have to know the name of every board member in every association they handle? Since each association community has its own personality and culture, maybe it's most instructive to ask managers themselves what they think separates the great from the merely good.
A Combination of Skills
Without clear lines of communication between board, management, and residents, even the most capable manager's abilities will be wasted.
According to Tom Garver, CEO of Condominium Management Services in Lindenwold, "A great manager's mission should be to provide the best service that they can to their clients, and for the residents to enjoy living in their communities as much as possible. Our responsibility is to work directly with the board of trustees, because they are responsible for the decision-making and maintaining of [the community.]"
According to Rick Fry of RCP Management in Princeton, "What sets a good manager apart is good two-way communication skills between a board and homeowners. A fairly common complaint in our industry is that there is a lack of communication. That's one thing that makes a manager stand out."
But it doesn't stop with just being able to communicate with the people you serve. Robin Habacht, a property manager and co-founder of Monticello Management in Leonia says that one-on-one attention, a hands-on approach, and excellent communication skills "all make for a great manager—but they must be combined with a genuine love for the interaction with people. He or she will educate owners, help them solve problems, and listen to them when they speak. His or her satisfaction at the end of the day is derived from knowing that he or she helped someone and made a difference."
Part of that love for the job and appreciation of people in general is ability to build and maintain positive, productive relationships—with board members, residents, and with the service providers who supply the association with everything from janitorial supplies to snow removal. More often than not, board members are unpaid volunteers who come to the job relatively green, and who may not know who to call when a major repair needs to be made, or when a disagreement between two residents escalates into a community-wide problem. That's where a good manager's knowledge and expertise comes into play and makes things easier.
"It's our responsibility to give [boards] the professional expertise they'll need to maintain their community and improve its value," says Garver. "In addition to working with the boards, we also work with contractors to make sure they do their jobs correctly. We maintain a wide network of proven subcontractors to provide our clients with multiple options for the completion of any capital improvement/replacement project."
"We have to be both reliable and accountable," adds Habacht. "Boards want agents that deliver of their promises. They want the show, not the tell."
Another thing that can truly set a manager or management firm apart is its professionalism, according to Fry. RCP, which is headquartered in Princeton, maintains a staff of 40 professionals (including regional managers, multi-site managers, site managers, customer service and accounting personnel), and currently manages over 65 communities totaling more than 15,000 homes. But, there is no surefire way to judge management performance within the industry.
"In the industry, there is no formal evaluation," says Fry. "At RCP, we use annual evaluation forms. And each manager is also required to have training and accreditation. All of our managers, after 6 months, are required to take classes to become a CMCA [certified manager of community associations]."
A manager must also pay strict attention to detail and be able to draw upon his or her past experience. According to Fry, both these abilities paid off for an RCP association in Tinton Falls. Hired as a new managing agent for the HOA, RCP conducted a review of the community's governing documents—and discovered to their surprise that the association had never purchased hazard insurance, leaving the community at huge risk of exposure. The company brought the matter to the board's attention, and were able to safely restore the association's coverage.
According to Habacht, many of a manager's skills and qualities can be mapped back to their parent company. "First and foremost," she says, "management companies must strive to treat their people as they want their people to treat their customers—with respect and care. Then we can lead by example."
For Habacht's company, that has meant helping out in ways that are sometimes beyond the normal scope of management duties. "We've lent a hand to help rebuild after fires, and raised funds for the family and children. I don't know if that's an 'above and beyond' so much as a call to help a fellow family in distress. We're just glad as a company to be available and be able to give."
A Matter of Scale
One of the biggest indicators of a manager's talents may be their ability to deal with communities of vastly varying sizes. A good manager should be able to switch gears between larger and smaller associations, and avoid taking a one-size-fits-all approach to managing them. The needs and concerns of a small, intimate association can differ greatly from those of a sprawling development - and vice versa.
The main goal, regardless of an association's size, is smooth operation and continuity, says Habacht. "I think the telltale sign that a property manager is doing a good job is continuity through board turnovers."
Garver's company manages 27 associations in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties, with communities ranging in size from 11, to 1,360 units. He says that one of his company's main challenges is to provide the same level of service for everyone, while remaining aware of the differences than make each HOA a unique community - and dealing with problems before they conflate into crises.
"The major difference [between larger and smaller communities] is the fact that the problems can be similar, but in a larger community, just in terms of sheer numbers, you'll be dealing with many more people who may have many more problems," Garver explains. "You're dealing with a lot more diverse personalities."
Good Management, Better Communities
In a nutshell, a good managing agent is there to see to things so that boards don't have to. A top-shelf manager will allow a board to do its job—which is to handle issues of community-wide policy and procedure—and swing into action when the time comes to put the board's decisions to use, and that means interacting reasonably and equitably with board and residents alike.
Many residents see their managing agent as a conduit for expressing their needs and complaints to the board, and expect the agent to act as intermediary between them and their directors. A good manager respects those expectations, and recognizes that even though not everyone in an association can sit on the board, all of them are members of the association, with a vested interest—both financial and emotional—in their community.
Hannah Fons is Associate Editor of The New Jersey Cooperator. Additional reporting by freelance writer Keith Loria.