National multifamily firm Alliance Residential Company is committed to social responsibility, especially with regard to actions impacting the environment. As such, Alliance has launched a program aimed at maximizing green initiatives across its more than 55,000 owned and managed units across the country.

Alliance's commitment has also led to the promotion of Kelly Vickers to its newly created national director of sustainability position, heading its Focus Green program.

Vickers has been in the property management industry for more than 13 years, previously serving as a regional training director for Alliance in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Her longtime interests in green business, sustainability and social justice led her to pursue an MBA in sustainable enterprise and, one year into her pursuit of this specialized degree, Alliance and Vickers began envisioning the creation of a new role that would allow the company to develop innovative ways to achieve its sustainable missions. During this time, Vickers worked on developing the program further, pitching it in meetings and eventually doing her final MBA business plan thesis on the Focus Green program. Her permanent position was formalized soon after she graduated.

NREI talked with Vickers about how Alliance’s consumption of energy is decreasing and what progress is being made with the Focus Green program. An edited transcript of that interview follows.

NREI: Your background is in property management, with 13 years of experience in the industry overall and most recently as a regional training director for Alliance. What was the impetus for your pursuing an MBA in sustainable enterprise? Was there an “aha!” moment?

Kelly Vickers: I had wanted to pursue an MBA for many years, but hadn’t come across a program that spoke to me—I was at a place where I wanted to really push myself to become involved in work that meant something to me and aligned with my values and longtime interests in green business, sustainability and social justice. Then I learned of the GreenMBA program at Dominican University of California. I knew immediately it was the program I needed to push me in a new direction, help me grow as an individual and open up new opportunities—little did I realize, those opportunities would be with my current company.

NREI: How did your studies inspire Alliance’s Focus Green program?

Kelly Vickers: Early on in the GreenMBA program, when I was still working as a trainer for Alliance, I was given the opportunity to implement some of the things I was learning into our training program. Our Northern California Vice President of Operations, Annette Thurman, asked me to develop a “Go Green” type of program for our local property managers, which consisted of a scaled-down version of what has since become Alliance’s Focus Green Best Practices Checklist. This led to connecting with Forrest White, our director of asset engineering, to begin formalizing the Focus Green program. It also led to discussions with Jim Krohn, our CEO/president of management services, regarding what I was learning and what I wanted to do with this knowledge.

From the outset, everyone at Alliance was extremely supportive and excited about my GreenMBA program and what I could potentially do with our Focus Green program once I completed my degree. I feel extremely fortunate that these individuals believed not only in me, but in the importance of sustainable practices. During the two years I pursued my GreenMBA, we were able to begin structuring the Focus Green program, establishing it as an important part of our company and building a position around managing it.

NREI: What is Alliance’s Focus Green program’s mission and how does it work?

Kelly Vickers: The overall goals of the Focus Green program are to reduce the consumption of energy and natural resources at all Alliance communities and offices, as well as educate, promote and support the participation of our associates, residents and clients in more sustainable lifestyles and business practices.

Earlier this year, we released the “7 Ways to Focus Green” campaign. These key areas—energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management and recycling, sustainable purchasing, environmental air quality, sustainable construction and redevelopment and education and awareness—provide a roadmap and structure for achieving our goals, spreading awareness and formally launching the program. The campaign is being rolled out at all Alliance-owned and -managed communities in phases throughout 2012 to ensure company-wide adoption of the program and allow us to simultaneously introduce tools to help associates successfully incorporate sustainable practices. One of the most important tools we’ve introduced is the Focus Green Best Practices Checklist, which breaks down best practices and implementation guidelines for all seven categories.

NREI: What about Alliance’s partnerships with other companies?

Kelly Vickers: We’ve also worked diligently to establish partnerships that tie back to each category with companies such as Shaw, HD Supply’s IdeallyGreen department and Give Something Back Office Supplies. We believe developing partnerships with companies that support our vision and have programs to propel our sustainability efforts forward is essential. These are also continually evolving relationships—I believe we push each other to grow and improve.

NREI: How has the Focus Green program been reshaping Alliance as a company since its preliminary roll-out in 2009? Could you quantify the impact in energy and cost savings as well as in terms of recycling, performance and social responsibility?

Kelly Vickers: In 2009, Focus Green began as a name and an idea. Since then, we’ve focused on identifying the framework and goals—what we want the program to look and feel like and what we ultimately hope to accomplish. With the launch of this year’s campaign, we have made tremendous strides in spreading awareness of Focus Green. This is extremely important, as it allows us—as a company—to shift the way we do business and weave sustainability into Alliance culture. This also engages our employees, owners and residents in our efforts. Without that support and joint participation, success isn’t possible.

As far as quantifying the impact that energy, water and other cost-saving measures have on our communities, you absolutely can. In many cases, these measures (for instance, common-area lighting retrofits and water conservation programs) reduce operating costs. Meanwhile, incorporating energy-efficient lighting, Energy Star appliances and low- to zero-VOC paints inside apartment homes and promoting on-site recycling programs add value for today’s renters, who are increasingly willing to pay higher rents for these features. Other initiatives, such as reducing paper waste, help to conserve natural resources while also saving money. Of course, there are measures that don’t necessarily impact the bottom line, but align with overall sustainability goals and are simply the right thing to do. For example, using non-toxic, biodegradable cleaning supplies improves indoor air quality, and is better for the health of our employees and residents.

It is important to recognize that every community is unique and has different needs, especially with regard to property-specific retrofits. It is a continual process to identify the savings from these projects which, in turn, helps us understand what is working and what may not be as successful. Vendor partnerships can be invaluable in this process, as these companies can provide reporting that helps with managing our sustainability program, maintaining awareness of problem areas and setting additional goals for improvement.

NREI: I understand that Alliance plans to pursue more green certifications like LEED and National Association of Home Builders NAHB Green, as well as create a Focus Green Task Force. How are these plans coming along?

Kelly Vickers: At this time, our development teams are pursuing LEED certification on projects in Phoenix, Denver and Seattle, and NAHB Green certification on several projects in the Southeast. This will continue to be one of our primary focuses—we absolutely believe in the benefits and importance of developing greener buildings.