The ability to manipulate data quickly and present it in numerous ways gives users a distinct advantage.

Given such fierce competition in the retail industry, shopping center owners and managers continually strive to stay one step ahead of their counterparts. Those that are succeeding understand that knowledge is power, and that the real key lies in learning how to use that knowledge to their benefit.

One of the most crucial tools owners and managers have to help them stay competitive is computer software programs. And while most have long relied on some type of accounting system to keep budgets intact, many have only recently jumped on the property management software bandwagon.

"The mentality is changing," says Mark Brown, chief information officer for Chicago-based Urban Retail Properties Co. "Companies are realizing that they can make money by having these systems." Brown points out that this has all happened in the last five to 10 years.

Those companies that are taking advantage of what property management software programs have to offer point to numerous benefits, all of which come together under two main areas: the ability to receive as well as provide information quickly; and the ease in analyzing data and presenting it in various specific formats.

The ability of property management software to receive and disseminate information in different ways allows property owners and managers to make educated decisions, says Lisa Denson, vice president of information technology at Rockville, Md.-based Federal Realty Investment Trust. Her company's management software programs track information relating to tenant leases, general expenses on the property, and maintenance issues.

The software can track more specific data, too. Denson explains that property managers who are responsible for expenses, for example, can investigate lighting usage or snow removal costs by individual property as well as by region.

"We use property management software to explain variances as they relate to expenses," she says.

Federal Realty aims to take management software one step further. For example, Denson says, HVAC units at each of the company's centers are currently tracked in several databases. She is working to get all the information in one database so that managers can click on a site plan, click on a particular HVAC unit and continue clicking until they can get the actual serial number of that unit.

Companies also can customize their software programs. For example, Brown says, a file could be created that would report sales for a particular lease across a company's entire portfolio. But, he cautions, keeping as close to the original software system as possible is advisable because it is easier to operate.

A computer program's ability to slice and dice data and group it in different ways is what makes a system such an important part of shopping center management today.

"It allows you to really dive into the data and cut it apart," says Michael Kranzdorf, director of information systems for Conshohocken, Pa.-based Kranzco Realty Trust. With the use of software, he explains, a question asked about an entire portfolio also can be asked about centers less than 200,000 sq. ft., for example, or for centers in, say, Pennsylvania.

"[Property management software] enables you to track trends a lot faster," adds John Moss, senior vice president of retail management for Birmingham, Ala.-based Colonial Properties Trust. Problems can be identified quickly, as can key performance indicators such as CAM per square foot, security (man-hours) per square foot and parking maintenance.

And accessing different types of information as quickly as possible is one of the main reasons that property management software has gained popularity in recent years.

Colonial Properties Trust, which went public four years ago and has more than doubled the size of its portfolio, understands this. "Now that we are [a] public [company]," Moss says, "demands for more different types of information are upon us and we need it quickly."

Bob Taylor, president of The REMM Group, Anaheim, Calif., agrees. "[Owners] want to be closer to their money," he says. In addition to managing a number of retail centers, his company also consults on information systems matters for other real estate companies.

Most would agree that the REIT phenomenon and consolidation in the industry have led to an increased usage of property management software. Information today needs to be "specific, supportable and auditable," says Brown of Urban Retail. Owners want to know how a particular center or portfolio is going to do in the future, and they need a "very, very specific understanding."

Denson of Federal Realty adds, "As a portfolio grows, you can't keep track of [all the information] in your head anymore." As companies increase their square footage, they can justify the dollars that would need to be spent for a system.

But, Brown points out, software vendors are starting to realize that they cannot work only with the bigger retail players. He adds that vendors are coming up with less expensive options and, as a result, smaller companies are able to afford better software systems.

Once a software program is in place, vendors stay close to the clients they serve. Denson says that Federal Realty looks to the software vendor for enhancements to the existing system, maintenance and hardware upgrades.

According to Moss, it is a joint effort between the real estate company and the software vendor to continually improve the product.

"It is quite a liaison," adds John Walker, senior vice president of accounting for Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. Walker serves on the national steering committee for the software vendor his company uses.

While the real estate industry is finally realizing the value of computer software programs, the ways in which they are used within each company are as distinct as the companies themselves.

Kranzco developed its own property management software system approximately 20 years ago, Kranzdorf says, adding that it is comparable to other companies' programs. "We had forward-looking management that thought property management and accounting should go hand in hand," he says, adding that at the time there was no property management software available.

Since Kranzco manages strip centers and there are no on-site property managers, Kranzdorf says, the software programs are used at the corporate level with some software used at the regional offices.

The company uses a bulletin board or e-mail system to alert directors of the early workings of a major lease, he says. Forms are built into the e-mail system with corporate-level names and addresses already input. Kranzdorf says the company also has maintenance software that allows users to log contracts and easily find out who handles such operations issues as parking lot maintenance.

He points out that regional managers are not really involved in data work but rather are out in the field visiting the various shopping centers. Although they do some reports, Kranzdorf says, most data is centralized. "We don't want property managers responsible for data," he says.

Moss of Colonial Properties Trust adds that what often keeps property managers from doing their job is paperwork. "Software improvements help organize/streamline, making information-gathering manageable," he says, adding that it allows property managers to get out from behind their desks and truly manage.

Urban Retail Properties, which primarily manages malls, also is concerned about letting property managers be property managers. The operation of the software system, however, is decentralized, meaning that data maintenance occurs at the local level, Brown says. He explains that each property has a field accountant who is responsible for maintaining the data and ensuring that it is input as necessary.

Urban Retail's individual property managers use the software to inquire about tenant issues such as sales, delinquencies and agreements, as well as to order and view various reports such as rent levels and center occupancy over time, Brown says. They use this information to manage the property and address the local media.

"One of the things our [property] managers find very useful is having online access to look at financial information," says Lynn Reed, controller of operating properties for San Diego-based TrizecHahn Centers, which also manages primarily large centers. "[Property managers] rely on software at the site to access financial information" such as occupancy reports, tenant receivables, collections and sales results in the past month.

Some companies also use the Internet and the World Wide Web if it suits them.

For example, Urban Retail property managers use the Internet to access corporate systems, Brown says, adding that some of the company's properties also have websites. Generally, property managers work with local companies to do the website, but there is some input from corporate headquarters to ensure standardization, Brown continues.

General Growth generally does not use the Web to access information within the company, says Walker, but it is starting to research that as an option. Currently, files from its PC-based systems are uploaded and downloaded daily through the telephone, allowing lease data and account data to be loaded onto individual mall systems, he says.

Federal Realty uses the Internet in its quest to decentralize, to disburse more information out to individual properties, Denson says.

Meanwhile, Kranzco uses the Web primarily to talk to investors, Kranzdorf says, adding that investors can access reports or notes without having to talk to the company directly.

For companies that provide third-party management services, use of the Internet and property management software to update investors on a particular property or portfolio is especially critical.

According to Moss of Colonial Properties, most institutional owners require that their software systems be used since it would be difficult for an owner to receive 50 different types of reports from 50 different management companies. Thus, a third-party management company must have someone on staff who can handle different programs.

General Growth Properties has approximately 18 databases that run different versions of software programs customized by their clients, Walker says.

Brown of Urban Retail agrees that some owners dictate which property management software will be used, but, he adds, several clients are starting to prefer the system his company uses.

Regardless of what type of property management software is used for a third-party client or for one's own company, the real estate industry is realizing the benefits of having information that can be easily tracked and quickly reported in a number of ways.

Property managers who use the various computer software programs available to them will be able to better merchandise their centers and tighten down margins, Brown says. "It gives [them] a distinct advantage over others."

Systems Specialists Inc. The PMAS suite of systems from Rockville, Md.-based Systems Specialists Inc. includes more than 50 modules that address the information processing and reporting needs of the real estate owner, manager and facility operator. The system can be used for property accounting, development and facility management, leasing management, and asset and portfolio management.

Quantra Corp. The Windows-based Real Estate Management System from Quantra Corp., Northbrook, Ill., integrates several distinct functional areas of real estate asset management. Among the modules are leasing management and property operations, which includes preventive maintenance and work order and service management.

ACG Professionals Inc. LDSOne from Atlanta-based ACG Professionals Inc. is a Microsoft-based lease abstracting system that tracks leases from proposal through execution. It serves as a firm's lease-administration system, eliminating paper abstracts and redundant areas of input. LDSOne, which connects to several accounting programs, has a report writer and query engine that allows users to segment leases and view information.

Yardi Systems Inc. Customizable, Windows-based property management software from Yardi Systems Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif., is an accounting and financial reporting system. In addition to handling leasing and tenant issues, the software supports maintenance and job-cost functions. The core product can integrate with Yardi's Asset Management system, which allows performance and pro forma analysis by property, lease, investor, fund and portfolio.

Visual Lease LLC Visual Lease by Woodbridge, N.J.-based Visual Lease LLC is lease-management software designed to control, track and manage real estate. Critical date tracking, cash-out accounting, percentage rent calculations and easy report writing capabilities complement the core customizable client/server system. The system uses Window's point-and-click technology as well as Open Database design.

Timberline Software Corp. The Gold Collection for Property Management from Beaverton, Ore.-based Timberline Software Corp. provides integrated lease administration and accounts receivable management for retail property managers. Through its Advanced Retail module, Gold automatically administers many aspects of retail leases, including sales volume tracking, percentage rent calculations, automatic scheduled breakpoint increases and streamlined audited recalculation processes.

Management Reports Inc. Advanced Retail Sales Reporting for Windows from Cleveland-based Management Reports Inc. (MRI) includes comparative sales by year, industry statistical comparisons, percentage increase and square footage. The system sorts sales analyses monthly, quarterly, semi-annually and annually. It allows unlimited user-defined sales types per tenant and calculates percentage rent billings on a wide range of variables.

Raish Enterprises Inc. The property management system from Raish Enterprises Inc., Plainview, N.Y., works independently as a management system or integrates with the company's General Ledger and Accounts Payable systems. It centralizes all records, maintains accounts receivables, runs reports and accesses records for a detailed audit trail. The company also offers a work order management system.

PlanData Systems Corp. SpaceMan from PlanData Systems Corp., Huntington, N.Y., takes property management data and turns them into business graphics. Users can create color-coded floor plans based on sales per square foot and compare them to lease expiration, merchandising categories and occupancy cost. SpaceMan also allows the user to subdivide spaces and make rentable area calculations.

AEC Data Systems Inc. FM Enterprise by San Antonio, Texas-based AEC Data Systems Inc. is designed to automate the storage, retrieval and analysis of facility management information. Some of the modules include work scheduling, labor tracking, inventory and equipment management, job cost estimating, property and lease management, and space and adjacency analysis.

AVM Technology Realwise Millennium from Valencia, Calif.-based AVM Technology provides full-featured software for property management, lease abstract, full cash and accrual ledgers with the broadest features to handle both central and on-site operations. It offers network options and is compliant for the year 2000.

National Facilities Group SLIM software from Chicago-based National Facilities Group Inc. provides commercial lease administration and property management solutions. It manages lease options, rental commitments, percentage rent issues, CAM reconciliation and lease clauses. SLIM is prepackaged with more than 100 standard report forms and an easy-to-use report writing tool.

DataMax System Solutions CapitalEyes by DataMax System Solutions, Boca Raton, Fla., is an asset tracking program that provides notification of expiring lease, rental and maintenance agreements as well as warranty expiration. The software tracks such things as location, user, vendor and serial number as well as movement of valuable assets.

Editor's Note: Details about the software products comes from the companies whose products are featured. Shopping Center World cannot quarantee the accuracy of product claims.