Big Vs. Boutique Choosing the Right Size Management Firm

Big Vs. Boutique

When it comes to property management firms, sometimes bigger is better. And sometimes, small is what you need. And sometimes, as Goldilocks discovered, something somewhere in the middle can be just right. Whether it’s large companies with hundreds of managers or a boutique firm with a handful of staff, when it comes to choosing what type of management firm is right for you there can be pros and cons on both sides of the coin.

These days, larger firms seem to be more prevalent than their smaller cousins. “The industry has gotten so regulated that it’s become more difficult for smaller companies to compete,” says Michael Packard, PCAM, CPM, senior vice president of Associa, one of the country’s largest management firms, serving close to three million members in associations nationwide.

Large and small firms can differ in a number of significant areas, some of them obvious and others more subtle. Perhaps the biggest difference rests with the question of personnel. The simple fact of the matter is that larger companies have more staff. “You want to be able to have a firm that’s large enough that they can hire the staff and provide the expertise to give you a fully integrated company,” says Jerry Ragosa, president and owner of The Niles Company of Quincy, Massachusetts. “You want expertise in maintenance, administrative support, accounting—and you have to be a certain size to get that. So when an issue arises, regardless of if it’s flu season or not, you’re going to get a live person to help you with your problem and you’re going to get someone who’s familiar with your property.”

Walt Williamsen, owner of Condominium Consulting Services in Torrington, Connecticut, agrees. “The advantage of a larger firm is that if something happens to the manager, the larger company has someone they can put right in there,” he says. “It’s a fairly high burnout business. Managerswill often give two weeks’ notice and they’re out. A smaller company might have more difficulty covering that.”

Personal Touch

On the other hand, smaller firms can provide a more personal touch. “With a smaller company, if you get the owner and his or her spouse, I think you get a more hands-on management approach, and I think there’s a greater prospect of a long-time relationship, which is a win-win for everyone,” says Williamsen.

Many large firms also provide in-house support staff who may be better equipped to handle the needs of an association with more units or amenities. “A place with a lot of amenities such as pools and tenniscourts is going to demand a bigger firm that can provide all the support necessary to maintain those things,” says Packard.

Smaller condo associations, however, may not need that level of support. Perhaps customer service is more important to the board and the people they represent. “The advantage of a small firm is that you’re going to have the principal involved, doing things like going to board meetings,” Packardsays. Smaller companies can provide that personal touch.

Ragosa says it’s important for large firms to remember that personal touch and factor it into their business model. “You have to be large enough to have staff in place to deal with volume,” he says. “If you’re too large, though, things can start to get impersonal and it gets more corporate. In the long run, you want someone who realizes they’re dealing with someone’s home.”

Differences can also exist between large and small firms in terms of employee opportunity and satisfaction. While smaller organizations may allowfor mentoring experiences or the chance to get one’s hands dirty right away, they also might not have some of the chances for advancement as their competitors.

Chances for Professional Advancement

In addition to all the usual bells and whistles of a large company such as 401(k)s, health care, paid vacation and more, some large firms also offer the chance for their employees to grow professionally by earning new designations or simply expanding their knowledge.

Sometimes the mood and attitude of a firm’s employees are the best indicators of what that company is actually like. A good atmosphere where employees are happy can reflect on the way a firm will treat its properties and the people who run them.

Ultimately, regardless of what size firm a board pursues, there are a number of strategies that should always be followed when searching for the perfect property management mate. First of all, know what you want and be sure they can provide it. “The people selling the services can be smooth and slick,” Packard says, meaning a board might not always get what they’re promised.

Ragosa agrees. “Often, proposals are made and trustees end up getting something else,” he says. “You want to make sure you’re getting what you’re being sold. “

Second, always ask to meet the actual manager who’s going to be servicing the community. “Do they have professional designations?” Packard says. “How many years have they been in the field?”

With regard to the managers, it’s important to know that they have longevity or at least the potential for longevity with the firm and the property. “You want some kind of assurance that the manager is going to be around for a while,” says Williamsen.

It’s also vital to meet the owners of the firm. “You want to... make sure that ownership is actively involved in the business,” Ragosa says. “You want to make sure they’re putting their energies where their dollars are.”

Lowest Price is Not Always Best

Remember, too, that the lowest price is not always the best bargain. “Many boards tend to go for the low bid, not for what they need,” Packard says. “Low bids can result in a company having too many clients in its portfolio.” And that could mean the new condo community can end up at the bottom of the priority list.

Large companies or small companies. Hundreds of employees vs. a handful of employees. Thousands of properties vs. dozens. There are endless options when it comes to choosing the right property management firm. Knowing what to ask, knowing what to expect and knowing where the pitfalls lie are all important keys to finding the perfectpeople to care for the place you call home.

Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to New England Condominium magazine and other publications.

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