Not long ago, in the midst of the dot-com technology revolution, many promises were made about new software technologies that would transform apartment operations. Today, in a very different financial world, many of these promises are coming true.
Multifamily firms are gradually abandoning their standalone legacy computers in favor of Web- and server-based platforms. Along the way, they are realizing new efficiencies and improving revenues. But the move is not without its challenges.
Not If, But When
Even a year ago, most firms were reluctant to move to network platforms, citing concerns about reliability, cost, data security, training and complicated conversions. But the pace of conversion has increased noticeably.
Today, more properties have the broadband service these systems require. Firms that have adopted the technologies report improved software with fewer glitches and easier-than-expected conversions.
More importantly, many multifamily professionals say that as apartment firms grow larger, there is simply no way to meet resident and investor expectations, manage information flow, and stay ahead of the competition without these systems. They also note that Web- and server-based systems are more reliable and less expensive to maintain than an army of non-networked PCs.
The move began with the largest firms, but software firms say regional and even local companies are testing and implementing Web- and server-based systems. The six leading property management software providers who offer next-generation systems report nearly 900 clients with more than 20,000 properties using or preparing to use their products.
Gables Residential Trust of Boca Raton, Fla., selected Koriel Real Estate Products' Rheo enterprise-class property management software system to “centralize information, to improve management of receivables, to centralize work orders and to vastly improve overall reporting,” according to Bob Lamb, vice president of information technology for Gables. “We now have real-time centralized management oversight of day-to-day operations.”
Taking the Plunge
Moving to these new systems is more than an IT decision; it is a long-term strategic move. One of the biggest challenges facing firms is selecting the right bundle of features that best meet their needs. Before jumping in, firms must understand how the new system will mesh with their business strategy, organizational structure and infrastructure. Because of the many high-level decisions that must be made, the initiative must be driven by upper management, and must include representatives from every sector of the company.
It's important to form implementation teams early, and to thoroughly review the entire company's business processes before making a decision. Communicate the new program to employees before implementation and continue to market the program after launch.
Next, train employees extensively and revise your training documentation after launch. Centralizing technical support requests will help your firm learn from the process. After every 30 to 60 days of implementation, pause to process feedback.
Finally, conduct thorough audits both before and after conversion. Keep in mind that executives must understand that this is an ongoing process — not a turn-key upgrade — that will require ongoing commitment.
Is it Worth It?
Almost universally, firms that have made the transition from legacy systems to Web- or server-based platforms have been pleased with the results. In fact, most say they underestimated the impact of the change. Among the benefits:
The ability to integrate corporate and property-level Web sites with property management systems. This allows expansion into online leasing activities, more precise automated pricing and automated rent payment.
More time for on-site staff to focus on sales and customer service rather than accounting.
Improved quantity, quality and timeliness of the information exchange between properties and the corporate office.
Real-time management of day-to-day operations and an automated interface to back-office accounting.
We've come a long way in a short time. By the end of 2003, we expect that three-quarters of the largest apartment owners will have migrated, and that mid-size firms will follow. Those firms that don't adapt will run the risk of being left behind.
David Cardwell is vice president of finance and technology for the Washington, D.C.-based National Multi Housing Council.