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January 26th, 2011:

Success Stories: Two Apartment Managers Who Started Small & Making A BIG Splash!

This is the first blog in a series of blogs that takes a closer look at success in the multi-family apartment industry – Who’s successful? Who’s Being promoted? How did they do it? and most importantly to YOU as the reader – can their stories help YOU become successful in your apartment industry career?

This blog examines:

Two SUCCESS Stories of Apartment Managers Who Started Small

and Currently Making a BIG Splash!

I interviewed Kate Heitzman of Greco Properties – General Manager at BLUE in Uptown Minneapolis, a 242 unit luxury market rate property and Toni Powell of Bigos Management – Community Manager at Calhoun Greenway also in Uptown Minneapolis, a 350 unit market rate property. Both management companies operate in Minnesota.

Q: How did you get your start in the apartment industry?

Above: Toni Powell of Bigos Management

Toni: By accident! I moved to the twin cities from St. Cloud. The apartment building I moved into didn’t have my apartment ready – they needed a manager, and there I was. It was a 40 unit 1st tier

Minneapolis suburb, class A property. Eventually, they asked me to take over a different 38 unit luxury townhouse project. I did. When my manager left, I asked to take over both properties. I was bored and I needed MORE. They didn’t think I would be able to handle both properties, but they gave it to me, and I made it work.

Above: Kate Heitzman of Greco Properties

Kate: I had always worked in retail management, and didn’t want it anymore. Once I had a kid, the hours didn’t work for me. I did my research and felt that as a single mom, property management would fit into my lifestyle. I applied for a full-time caretaker position at Laurel Village. As you may know, Laurel Village is one of the largest properties in the twin cities metro area with 720 units across 7 buildings spanning 3 city blocks in downtown Minneapolis. On a site this large – there’s a lot of miscellaneous stuff that needed to get done. THAT was me. It gave me a good introduction into property management – I’ve seen a lot and done ALOT. I’ve been surprised by people many times, and they STILL surprise me to this day! That’s property management for you – never a dull or predictable moment.

Q: How Long did you stay in your first property management job before you decided to move on? What made you decide to move on?

Toni: (I stayed with my first company)…for 3 years and then started to look for opportunities. I get bored REALLY easily, so I need to have challenges!

Kate: I was there (at Laurel Village) for 3.5 years. In the last year, I realized that I would definitely stay in property management, but I REALLY wanted to have my own property to manage. While I was at Laurel Village, I was promoted from Caretaker to Operations Assistant.

Daisy’s observations: It looks like for both Toni & Kate, stayed a decent amount of time with their first employers and learned as much as they could learn. As it does to many people I have talked to in the apartment industry, it HOOKS you, it gets in your blood, and then you’re left looking for MORE. They both wanted MORE > which is the catalyst that prompted them to look for the next step in their career. Interesting!

Q: Where did you go next? What did you decide to look for? How did you find your next job?

Toni: Another peer I networked with worked for Bigos and LOVED the company. So I found a job posting they had listed and interviewed with a Regional Manager at Bigos. I didn’t hear back from him! But I KNEW I wanted to work there (at Bigos), so I decided to call him once a week for 2 months. I had heard that the “word on the street” was that I was not a good fit for the property I had applied for, but I knew in my heart, I wanted to work for Bigos. My persistence DID pay off. Another Regional Manager at Bigos called me and offered me a job at Mallard Creek – 120 units in Golden Valley. It was a market rate, older property (20 years old) in a GREAT area.

Daisy: Here’s a woman who doesn’t take “no” for an answer!

Toni: I stayed at Mallard Creek for 3 years, and during that time, I handled a total rehabilitation of the property (interior and exterior) – it kept me challenged and I was constantly learning new things.

Kate: I started to look for opportunities where I could manage my own site, and saw an ad for a Section 8 property in Edina. It was 80 units spread across 4 different buildings – similar in set-up to Laurel Village, but that was where the similarities ended. It was MUCH different in size and demographics. I stayed there for 1.5 years – I worked hard, I did everything from ripping out carpet with my Maintenance guy, plunging toilets, to doing Section 8 paperwork. You name it, I did it. I’ve not only become pretty handy with tools, when I work with Maintenance, they respect me, as I’ve done many of the things they’ve done right alongside them. I learned everything I could about managing my own site, and my next opportunity was a larger site in Chanhassan – 162 units. I stayed there for a year before realizing I didn’t like being so far out. From there, I was contacted by someone I knew in the industry to manage a 290 unit property in St Louis Park. My sites kept getting bigger and bigger, my responsibilities grew, and I learned A LOT during this time!

Q: Why/How did you decide to go about finding your next opportunity?

Toni: I love working for Bigos. I have great managers/supervisors. I communicate with my supervisors that I want something new, and that I can get bored really easy. They always find ways to challenge me. I love new challenges. After Mallard Creek, when I started getting bored again, I started to apply to other openings in our company, but I didn’t get the positions I applied to. In hindsight, it was a GREAT decision both for myself and for Bigos – because I got to do all the things I did, learned a lot, then when I WAS ready, Bigos was there to challenge me. My next challenge was a 245 unit market rate property in Plymouth called Willow Creek – I stayed at Willow Creek for 1.5 years before applying for other challenges within the company. From Willow Creek, I was promoted to Shadow Hills, a 322 unit market rate property – we won property excellence last year at the MADACS – this property is one that I consider my biggest challenge and triumph so far! I’ve been with Shadow Hills now for exactly 12 months, and just when I thought I might get bored, along comes another challenge. (At the time of the interview) – Next month, I will be transferring to a Calhoun Greenway. This is in Uptown – I’ve always been in the first tier suburbs. This will be a whole new area and demographic for me. This is a new acquisition and total rehab of 350 units. It’ll be totally different than anything I’ve done, its different clientele, different location, with lots of moving parts. I’m going to LOVE it.

Kate: Working in the suburbs, I realized I missed the hustle bustle of a densely populated urban area. I knew I wanted to either return to downtown or uptown in Minneapolis. I began networking with people I knew, putting my feelers out for opportunities that met my need. I now had experience, so I didn’t want to go just anywhere. I wanted to find the right match for me & my family. I knew what I wanted, and I was willing to be patient and look for the right opportunity. That’s when I heard about Greco Properties and their new project in Uptown Minneapolis, called Blue. 242 units of luxury market rate apartments in Uptown. This was a new project with a new lease-up – something I had never done, but couldn’t wait to do.

Q: What are the biggest challenges going from a smaller property to bigger properties?

Toni: It wasn’t much different. The more units you had, the more people you have to get everything done. For me it wasn’t a change. You just learn to manage and increase your employee base, and work on larger numbers when thinking about resident retention. The challenges in property management are the same from a small property to a large property – those challenges are resident relations, turnover, staff moral (especially with management company transitions), and the most challenging of all, but also the most rewarding – is to take a property over from another management company and bring it up to the Bigos standard of excellence. We have a standard of excellence – both with apartment residents and employees. Sometimes making those changes can be tough – but in the end, it’s good for everyone.

Kate: The biggest challenge is all the things you don’t know. But just know that its trial & error, and if you’re smart, you can figure it out quickly. The biggest challenge for me is to know what I want out of a job/career. It’s taken me a couple of years of experience to find my niche – find what I liked, what I don’t like, what I am good at, what I am not so good at and find a company who wants me for all the things I do well. There’s a lot of variety out there, and lots of availability. There’s a job, career, company for everyone. You have to find the right property and right management company for you.

Q: What do you think has played the biggest role in your success – what would you advise others to look for/do to become successful?

Toni: The thing with Bigos is that they’re a big, smartly run company. There’s always another opportunity to do something new. They’ve been a HUGE part of my success. They support their people, they provide education, they have opportunities – it’s a culture of cultivation. Bigos has promoted and moved people within the organization – which has been a HUGE part of my learning, growth and success.

I also advise others to communicate with their supervisors about their long term and short term career goals as well as what you’re good at, and what you want. I’ve always communicated to my supervisors what I want next, let them know I BELIEVE I can get it done. I’ve let them know that I can get bored easily and I need to have new challenges. I have been lucky to have supervisors and managers that listen and utilize me to the best of my abilities.

Kate: Ask A LOT of questions, get to know your peers in the industry, go to the MADACS & other MHA functions, attend networking functions that are offered in the industry to get to know everyone and what’s out there. It’s a big industry, but at the same time, it’s SMALL – you know? You can get to know people, network with them, help them out, treat your vendors well, etc.

I also recommend that everyone get to know themselves and what they want. For me, I have always looked for smaller, more hands-on management companies where they know you personally and where you’re not just another employee. It’s more family oriented. Where you feel like your suggestions and voice is heard – where they DO listen and implement your suggestions. I found out what I wanted through my journey and when I looked for opportunities, I paid attention to what made sense to me – what I wanted out of a management company. When I’ve found the right management company – I am able and allowed to be successful.

Daisy’s observations: Both women were high energy, go-getters. Both started relatively small, and grew their success from there. One went the path of a large management company, and the other went the path of picking smaller management companies with the right opportunities that met her needs. The thing that struck me about BOTH of them is that they both KNEW themselves well – knew what they wanted, knew what they were good at, and knew what they were looking for. I talk to A LOT of people – there are MORE people that are confused about who they are and what they want to do than there are people who KNOW themselves. These women KNEW themselves. This is part of their success.

Something not noted in the blog, but I want to mention, is that both Kate & Toni talked extensively about their team and resident strategies. It is clear that both liked working with people, and both women valued working in teams, as well as valued their teams.

It is our hope that through our SUCCESS STORIES series, you, the reader, will find new inspirations, new ideas, new ways of becoming successful. Our next SUCCESS STORIES blog will be focusing on individuals who have been successful making a transition from being a vendor in the apartment industry to working at a property management company.

Are you at a small apartment community manager or leasing agent with goals to work your way up? Have you worked your way up and have additional tips to add on what it’s done, and how to be successful at moving towards larger goals? Leave us a comment and share with the readers!


-Daisy Nguyen in Minneapolis, Minnesota MN



Offering Apartment Marketing, Apartment Business & Operations Consulting & Apartment Leasing Training

Web: Email: Daisy {at} RentSoda(.)com

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