Property manager hero: Jessica Gillis from Vision Communities | The Ave Apartments
We are excited to announce our December 2020 Property Manager Hero: Jessica Gillis with Vision Communities, The Ave
Apartments. Jessica was nominated for being a great leader, increasing NOI by almost $500,000, hitting annual budget goals 6 months early, and organizing food trucks to support local businesses and encourage community involvement. She also created a Facebook community page for her residents to stay in touch with each other and the staff. Watch the video or read the transcript below from our chat with Jessica to learn from the amazing things she has done to help her community.
“Jessica should be named a Property Manager Hero for having the highest pre-lease before opening numbers in the company, fastest lease-up of a new property for the company, a record-breaking amount of move-ins, and kept the team motivated and busier than ever, even during a pandemic.” – Tabitha Meyers, Leasing Agent at The Ave.
Jessie Romero, Event Specialist, Zego (JR): Jessica thank you so much for joining us today. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your background?
Jessica Gillis, Property Manager, The Ave Apartments (JG): Yeah! Thanks for having me. I have been in property management for 7 years. I started out as a property manager so that was a real experience to learn. I have been doing brand new construction and lease-ups for 5 years now.
JR: Awesome! So in your nomination form, your leasing agent Tabitha Meyers listed some activities that we are dubbing “hero highlights.” You’ve done things like monthly resident events, check-ins on residents when they are ill, you coordinated a recognition effort for residents who didn’t have graduation due to the pandemic. You organized giveaways and surprises for residents and brought in a food truck on the property to help support local restaurants and businesses and give residents access to different food options during the shutdowns. Tabitha said, “Jessica knows all of the residents by name, and they consistently come to the office just to talk and say hi.” We’ll touch on a lot of these later but how important are these activities to your community, specifically in 2020?
JG: So, everything you do once you get someone to initially apply and move into your community, everything is based on a good relationship with those residents. Whether they renew or not depends mostly on how they feel about the staff and how they are treated by the staff. Even if, say it’s an apartment that’s had some issues or they’ve had maintenance issues, how you respond to those and the attitude you take when dealing with those could still convince them to stay regardless if there were issues in the unit or not. So everything we do here is based on building that relationship.
We are at a property where people are at the age where they are buying 1st homes. That’s not really something you can save in a renewal. If someone is going to buy a house, they’re going to buy a house. But, those people are going to remember when someone new transfers into their company “Oh my gosh, I lived at The Ave, I loved Jessica she was so nice to me, let me send you to her.” So every relationship is the most important thing you can do. If you can do that everything else falls into line so much easier.
JR: I love that. So, with that let’s take a deep dive into those three specific areas that showcase your strengths as a property manager hero. We’re going to share some pictures today and I just want to note that another example of how you’ve gone above and beyond in 2020. These are from a private resident group that you created on Facebook for all of you to stay connected.
JG: When COVID first hit, we routinely as a company, Vision Communities, always have a monthly event with our residents. Normally we have one big one a quarter, a medium one a quarter, and then just a little meet and greet type event. With COVID, those just all went away.
We’re on-site but we’re doing emergencies only and pretty much only move-ins because we’re shut down. So we’re behind a closed door, we can’t interact, we’re doing move-ins kind of remotely. We were basically sliding them a key through the crack in the door, they’re sliding us a rent check and everything is signed online beforehand so we don’t have a lot of interaction.
So how do we keep engaged when they can’t come to the office to say hi anymore and we aren’t having events? So we did this private resident group. Sometimes we use it to post notices like “Hey we’re doing an area of the parking lot don’t park her tomorrow.” But the majority of it is jokes, funny stories. We went live and did lip sync battles from the office during the shutdowns with the staff, played some games, just so many different things.
And then it kind of took on a life of its own. The residents are posting, they’re tagging us. One of my team members, Tabitha who nominated me, today is her birthday so there is a post for her there and everyone is shouting her out for her birthday. One of my maintenance techs had a baby last month, the whole property was hopping on and asking “Has he had the baby yet? What’s the baby’s name? Boy or girl?” It’s helped a ton in not just keeping the residents updated on what’s going on but making them feel like they can easily access us and have a little fun and just to chat.
JR: Just to have that connection for people in isolation I think is great. Ok, so let’s get into it! So the first thing I want you to touch on is, Tabitha wrote that you “beat company renewal goals in all months of 2020, hit the budgeted occupancy goal for all of 2020/end of year by July 27, 2020.” So I’m going to keep my question very simple, how on earth did you knock all of these out of the park?
JG: Ya know, when you hit some goals it makes everything else falls into line and come easier. That goes back to the connection with residents. It also goes back to a well informed and well-educated team. There is nothing that happens, goals, budget, anything that I deal with as a property manager that my staff doesn’t know about. They know what our goals are, why they are what they are, and how they are going to individually help. And how that plays into their development.
We have weekly sitdowns. There’s only one day a week when all of us are here. All of maintenance and all of leasing and myself. So we sit down on that one day and we go over what needs to happen around the property and how we can help each other do it. But then we also follow-up with where everyone is in their development and personal goals they’ve set for themselves or goals I’ve set for them that they can improve on. And how they help each other reach them.
I have one leasing agent who is pushing very hard to be an assistant manager soon and eventually have my job and I’m going to help her do it. Then I have one that’s not sure if this is a career for her but she likes what she does right now a lot. And we can still work with that. Ok so what do you think you might want to be doing in five years and how will what you’re doing now help you achieve that?
So if you don’t connect with your staff and create the “what’s in it for them,” training that caters to what they as development, it’s going to make it very hard. Keeping everyone involved in everyone’s development makes them feel important and like they’re part of the team. And when a regional or the owner of our company comes and asks about our goals and my maintenance team knows how many move-ins we’re supposed to have in a month and how occupied we are speaks volumes. We start with that good base of the foundation of training. Everything else comes into play with that team atmosphere. If someone comes in and they’re kind of on the fence on whether or not they want to rent, my maintenance guys can jump in and help close for the girls. I can jump in. They can jump in and help close for each other.
Occupancy we all know is the name of the game. You want heads in beds. When you have that, everything else falls into line. It sounds really impressive to say “we beat NOI” and I’m sure everyone was super happy that we made some money this year. Especially with the pandemic. But that part was the easy part. The money part. Once you’re able to get the residents here, and moved in, and keep the ones you had as a renewal we’re already starting [to hit our goals].
Every month we were hitting our goal, then we would move a little bit past goal and then a little bit more. So on a normal schedule had we just been just meeting our goal, say we had 10 move-ins for a month was the goal. Well, we’re 15 ahead, we’re still going to do another 15 as the goal and set it a little higher. You just never let off. Don’t think “oh I’m at goal, it’s fine, we can an easy win this month.” Keep pushing, especially in those months leading up to your busy season because now we all know we’re in slow season universally, especially those of us with heavy winters.
No one wants to move in the snow. We’ve set ourselves up to be ok now. And as long as you’re occupied and then you get ahead of occupancy and are still spending a reasonable, normal amount not thinking “oh we have extra occupancy let’s go ahead and blow a little bit of money on the budget.” No, keep to what you would normally spend, the money part falls in easy. We’ve now got more rent than we had planned on having and we’re spending the same amount of money as if we hadn’t had that extra income. So it just helps compound it. I feel like we people focus on the money part and that’s the easy part. If you do what you’re supposed to occupancy-wise, renewal-wise, and team training-wise, the money just falls into place.
JR: So, I do want to focus on the money part for just a minute Jessica, because you beat NOI by half a million dollars! That’s a huge accomplishment. I think a lot of it does have to do with it compounding. Are there one or two activities that you can give as takeaways for other property managers that are looking to accomplish that same extreme number?
JG: The best way to manage your budget, I think that every property manager can attest to, the majority of money is spent on maintenance and turns – which is still maintenance-related. Is your maintenance supervisor, manager, lead tech, whatever you call them, those in charge of your maintenance department involved in the budget? Do they know what the monthly budget is for maintenance supplies in every category? Or do they know what their budget is for turns and why? Do they have a part, if you as a manager are involved in creating your budget, do they help?
My maintenance tech had never really been that involved in it until we teamed up. He helps create the budget. He has to outsource his own quotes for the things he wants when we do a wish list for the next year and explain why. And then he manages his budget. When I get done paying bills he double-checks how much he’s spent and where he is at. That simple task helps in their development but also just getting them involved in understanding how much they can spend and why saves so much money in one of the biggest areas we bleed funds in, in the maintenance world.
So, get them involved if they’re not they really should be. They are single-handedly responsible for some of your most expensive purchases. Shouldn’t they know when and how to make those and you should be informed as to why and when they need them?
JR: I think that’s super helpful! Jessica, let’s get into our next impressive feat that was listed on your nomination form. The next thing I want to touch on is that Tabitha mentioned you had the highest pre-lease before opening numbers in the company. So what do you attribute this to?
JG: Honestly, I have the best team.
JR: I see a theme here.
JG: We’re all extremely competitive, first and foremost. I know on the last screen there were some pictures from our Halloween party. Just to give you a baseline for our competitiveness, we did a staff costume contest among all the different property teams. We didn’t just dress up and take photos. We did a full re-creation of the Addam’s Family opening credits. We brought in my 9-year old son as a prop to fill the empty character because we needed a Pugsley. Our entire community, all the residents knew about it, watched the video, one of the residents filmed it and were ready to go and fight the rest of the Vision Community properties if we didn’t win. And we won a lunch that we get every month anyway. But we wanted to be able to text all the other property managers and be like, “we beat you!”
JR: I love it, you’re building such a fun community that I want to be a part of and I’m a San Diego SoCal girl.
JG: When you’re that competitive that you convince two maintenance techs to let you put bald caps and make-up on them – being competitive when you’re trying to lease-up is a breeze! But no, it’s really, really focusing on good training and knowing your product and believing in it. And then follow-up and consistency. You have to be consistent every single day in your follow-up. You have to look for innovative ways. If you’re consistently following-up with someone that you took on a tour and you feel like they were really interested and you just couldn’t close them right then. And then they just ghost you, and that happens sometimes, sometimes people just don’t want to say “no” because they’re nice and that’s fine. But when you’re like “No I don’t get it, I really thought they were going to rent,” be creative in your follow-up.
Don’t always email, don’t always call, don’t always text. Do a mixture of the three. If you’re always doing follow-up at 10 am, are you answering calls and emails personally at 10 am? Probably not because you’re at work. The people you’re calling and texting and emailing are at work too. That’s a good indicator a lot of the time as to why they’re not answering you. They might even see the text or email and then think “oh I’ll respond later” but forget by the end of the day. If you’re in the office I feel like most of us are open till like 5, 6, or 7 – we’re here till 6 Monday through Friday. I tell my girls when it comes to texts and phone calls, do it between 4:30 pm and 6:30 pm when people are getting off work and are more likely to answer the phone. A lot of the time people are stuck in traffic so they’re fine answering the phone and talking to you because they haven’t gotten home to start dinner yet and they just got off work, what else are they gonna do while they sit in traffic downtown? So we’re seeing a lot more from that.
And then use your resources. Marketing doesn’t have to be expensive. When we came to this neighborhood I was just in a trailer and we were still under construction. And the [applications] we got were because I went to the local businesses and introduced myself. Like, “Hey, I’m Jessica. We’re building that huge place down the street. How can my residents help you? How you can help me?” So I went to places our residents would use like the local bar, the restaurants, the grocery stores.
We’re a pet-friendly community and we take big dogs and have a dog park. We have three groomers, two pet stores, and a vet within walking distance. I went to all of them. And you see a lot of people reach out to the dog rescues. We do an event with one of the pet rescues down the street and now when someone calls them and says “I have to move because my community won’t accept my pet” they say “Oh, well I know one that will. You have a big dog? No problem. let me call Jessica for you.”
So you don’t have to spend a ton of money. It literally took a couple of hours of my time across multiple days to just go introduce myself, to say “hello.” I took them some floor plans, offered to some events with them. And that ties back into the events. We don’t have to spend a ton of money.
We just did Christmas gifts for all of our residents. We delivered Monday. We went door-to-door and dropped off bags of treats outside every resident’s door. And I have 301 units. So it took a minute. We judged the door decorating contest while we were there. But the majority of the gift bags, we didn’t pay for. The bags they went in were donated by a local business. A lot of the goodies were donated by another local business who just wanted to get advertising. So it was coupons, gift cards, we basically paid of the candy that went into them and even half of the candy was donated by Sherwin Williams who supplies our paint. So reach out to those vendors and those relationships that you have because you can help each other.
JR: I love that, those right there are such helpful tips to help people with their close-rates so thank you! The last topic that we want to cover today Jessica is what Tabitha wrote. She addressed how you kept your team motivated during the Pandemic. She wrote that you “consistently work with the whole team to help them improve, learn, and succeed so they are all good candidates for promotion. You train your staff to achieve common goals and that’s you’re number one staffing priority. You make everyday fun, you even created a program to recognize your staff for the times that they go above and beyond. The highest producing leasing agents in the company all work for you. And your maintenance team is the highest performing. They even train and set-up other maintenance programs at other properties.”
So let’s start with the staff recognition portion here because I think that’s so, so important for all of this, and that seems to be a theme we’re covering today. Can you describe to us the program that you use to recognize your staff?
JG: Our core values spell out EPIC so I created the EPIC award [for] when someone does something above and beyond, [like] they have an amazing amount of closes – an unrealistic amount – which has happened a few times with my girls. Or the maintenance team goes above and beyond to help a resident, train another community, goes to open another community. Anything they do that’s beyond just their daily normal they get an Epic award. Sometimes it’s just a certificate, sometimes it comes with lunch, sometimes it comes with a Starbucks gift card. Sometimes it’s “hey you can leave early today and I’ll stay and close.” You never know. And I try to mix it up so they never know what they’re getting when they get an epic award.
It’s basic stuff. It’s so simple. I designed it, got some cardstock, created it, printed ’em, cut ’em. It took 30 minutes of time and $8.00 for a pack of cardstock. And it keeps them motivated and feeling like they’re being recognized and someone sees them and the effort they put in. And then not only do I give it to them with whatever treat they get, we post it to the Facebook group so all the residents can tell them how awesome they are for getting one. So even my residents know about them and come to congratulate them on whatever they did to earn it.
I take them out for their birthdays. So for everybody’s birthday, they get lunch on me. And anniversaries.
JR: I love that. It’s very, very nice. So let’s bring the resident portion into this. All of the things that you do for your residents, even such as involving them in what’s going on with the staff and keeping everybody updated as one single community – what drives you to go above and beyond for this community?
JG: I mean, obviously you want to hit goals and do a good job and be the best property manager you can. And that’s the job. But also, we’re in a unique position because yes, it’s our job, but these are people’s homes. We’re responsible for making people feel comfortable and welcome in their home. So think about how you want to feel when you go home every day. And I just want to have everyone embrace that every single day. I don’t ever want anyone to feel uncomfortable in their home. I want people to love living here. So I think about different ways that we can do that. Sometimes it’s fun events because who doesn’t love a party. Sometimes it’s the graduation.
We’re close to Ohio State University, THE Ohio State University, and graduating college is a huge accomplishment and the class of 2020 kind of got the shaft when it comes to graduation. They put through 4, 5, 6 years of effort and then didn’t get to have a graduation. So I sent out an email, “Hey, who didn’t get to have one? Where’d you graduate from? What’s your major? What’d you get?” And then offered them the chance to “walk” and invite their friends and family. And so they walked out by our pool deck in the parking lot [in front of] their friends and family. We called their name, where they graduated from, and at the end, they got to toss their caps. It was pretty simple, it literally took 45 minutes of time, there were 12 of them. But their family got to take graduation pictures. If any of you are parents of graduates you know that all Mom wants to do is get photos of her baby in their cap and gown and we gave some Moms the opportunity to do that. It was simple, it didn’t cost us anything just a little bit of time and effort and to care
JR: Well Jessica it’s no surprise to me that after this conversation what amazing things you are doing for your community. It’s with great pleasure that as my favorite part of the event, on behalf of Zego, I get to honor your hard work and dedication with a $300 amazon gift card! So hopefully that will come to you just in time for some extra holiday shopping. I know big themes here are your team and recognition and we absolutely love that but please, please use some of it at least to treat yourself because these are amazing things. You have gone above and beyond. There’s a reason why you’re being recognized as a property manager hero today!
We were overwhelmed by all of the amazing nominations we received for property managers that are going above and beyond for their community. Here are our top 5 runner-ups:
1. Amity Jackman, Area Manager at Pacific Palms Apartment Homes
Amity Jackson goes above and beyond to ensure residents live happy everyday with exceptional customer service, fun resident events (even while socially distancing), and quick yet highly attentive solutions for maintenance and resident concerns. Some examples include:
- Engaging with residents to encourage them to join the Pacific Palms online community and pay rent online. In Q1 she and her team competed against the other properties in the portfolio and won the Zego contest to get the most resident to pay rent online.
- In Q2 Amity and her team won the Silver Rhino, highlighting their favorable NOI
- In Q3 Amity and her team won the Gold Star highlighting Pacific Palm’s overall score in categories such as meeting deadlines, budget, reducing water usage, hosting resident events, participating in community events, online reviews, and overall cleanliness and presentation for the community. They were the highest-scoring property within the Advanced Management Company portfolio.
- Providing free virtual classes in a variety of topics ranging from fitness to mixology and crafts
- Providing support for residents impacted by layoffs due to COVID-19 by helping them apply for assistance through the City of Anaheim and providing Thanksgiving dinners to families in need within the community
2. Amanda Wooldridge, Property Manager at Ducks Property Management
“Amanda always goes above and beyond what is expected of her. She provides excellent customer service for residents and owners. She regularly handles all aspects of the business, even emergency maintenance issues on weekends, with grace, dedication, and diligence. She cares and it shows!” -Sarah Fulcer, Office Manager at Ducks Property Manager
- She has championed an effort to improve online ratings resulting in a 5-star rating!
- Increased business properties by 17% in 2020
- Regularly receives referrals thanks to her dedication to the business and her network in Eugene who love to send referrals to her.
3. Saar Almon, Community Manager at Ray Stone Inc
“We went from a sinking ship property to an award-winning community in just two years under his leadership. He has a talent for assessing each of his employee’s strengths and giving them the space to do what they do best and the result makes us a real Team. Because we have become such a strong team, he doesn’t have to waste time double-checking our work which means he has more time to focus on our residents. It is no easy task to be on a first-name basis with each person here at River’s Edge but he enjoys getting to know every family. ” – Lauren Moore, Leasing Consultant at Ray Stone Inc.
- Saar is present in the community and makes residents feel appreciated resulting in less turnover
- He never misses the opportunity to praise his team which keeps morale high and makes them want to work even harder to keep their community looking its best and running smoother than it ever has before.
- River’s Edge has won it’s first-ever “Curb Appeal Award” last year and it is because of the leader we have in Saar.