Achieving Business Excellence (May 1, 2009)
Through the recruitment and training of high-quality staff—and investment in technology—Ambling Management Company is building its reputation as an innovative, effective and forward-looking property management company.
By Ruari McCallion
If you happen to see a crowd of people energetically laying siege to the Atlanta headquarters of Ambling Management Company, don’t be concerned that it’s another open audition for Tyra Banks’ “Next Top Model” TV reality show. It’s more likely to be enthusiastic applicants for any employment vacancy that Ambling may have advertised.
It doesn’t take long for good news about its personnel strategy to get out—especially the nonmonetary rewards. “We took 400 of our people on a cruise to Grand Cayman and Jamaica last year,” says Kim Barkwell, president of Ambling Management Company. “We work hard, and there’s a lot of passion in the organization. We have a lot of fun, too; we believe in rewarding our people. If you don’t have the right people, you won’t make it.”
Ambling Management Company is one of the most successful and experienced managers of residential housing in the US, and certainly in its operating region in the Southeast. Its portfolio includes over $2 billion in assets, including 23,000 student beds, affordable apartment homes, independent living communities, conventional homes and off-base military housing. It oversees the operations of 204 residential apartment communities altogether, 127 of which are fee managed and the rest directly owned.
When Barkwell joined Ambling in 2003, the company managed only student properties that were owned or developed by Ambling’s development arm and a small portfolio of affordable and conventional properties owned by Ambling Property Investments. The management operation grew quickly over the next few years,from a small part of the organization to the largest, in terms of personnel, and a significant revenue earner.
“To provide our clients with expertise in all areas of property management, we established several new internal strategic services departments, including professional development, compliance, property software support, national purchasing, marketing and creative services, as well as an assessment and recovery team,” Barkwell says. “We have also purchased another management company and portfolios of properties and now have a geographical presence from Texas eastward. Our portfolio currently extends from WashingtonDC to Lansing, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas, to Florida. We work closely with universities, banking institutions and private developers in building and extending our business. Of Ambling Companies’ 1,100 employees, 860 are in the management company, working hard at generating over $200 million a year.
But there are other management companies around; how does Ambling differentiate itself?
“We’ve tried very hard to set ourselves apart in a number of areas,” Barkwell says. “We acquired the most efficient and automated property management software system we could find.
For example, we’re able to process rent checks through our scanners; payments are then posted up to our management system and automatically banked.” Ambling didn’t buy a system off the shelf that did everything it wanted—there was nothing available on the market that would cope with everything from student residents to affordable housing. “We partnered with RealPage to develop the software we actually need,” Barkwell says. One of the specific challenges was student housing. “There is no other residential housing sector where you move in 800 people during one day, so we realized we needed something new.
We also helped develop the compliance software on our affordable side.” Whatever else may occur to the mind, the power and efficiency of Ambling’s IT system should not be underestimated. “The software developers worked out the check transfersystem with the banks. Money is moved the same day the check is scanned.” Try getting that from your banking service.
Students in Ambling-managed communities will appreciate another aspect, which marks the company as a 21st-century business. Just about every student on campus has a cell phone, and they will all use them for texting. So does Ambling. “Students can text us on our specified property reference code and in an instant they will receive pricing, floor plans, pictures, and virtual tours along with a follow-up text from our employees,” Barkwell says.
With emergencies and incidents like the shootings at Virginia Tech too fresh in the mind, Ambling has also adapted the system for emergency purposes.“We can use the same program to notify students, immediately and simultaneously, of any impending concerns.” Technology is great, but on its own it means nothing. It’s people who make it come to life, and people are at the heart of Ambling Management Company. It makes sure it starts off with the best through a rigorous recruitment strategy, and then it makes them better with industry-leading training and professional development programs.
“We’ve tripled the size of the organization in three years. All our recruits have been hand-picked,” Barkwell says. “We seek out people who can hit the ground running and quickly assimilate them through our induction, marketing and training programs. We hire based on the “top grading” method; we only hire A-players, and we quickly eliminate the Bs and Cs, as our people are our reputation. Our culture only allows those individuals who believe in our purpose, practices and leadership to be a part of the organization. We do not take our business of providing homes to people lightly, as it is a huge responsibility. We want people who are happy to be here and happy to service our customers. We do not have to teach our people to smile.”
Ambling hires only people with the right experience and especially those with the right spirit. To ensure that new employees start outon the right foot and continue to grow, Ambling associates attend Ambling University, which provides both online and instructor-led training in all facets of property management. Innovation and forward thinking are dominant company features. Not content with its current advanced IT setup, and in keeping with its green initiatives, Ambling looks forward to going completely paper-free over the next 12 months. And that’s not the only development on the horizon.
“We’re open to everything in technology, especially since the majority of marketing and resident communications are now taking place online,” says Barkwell. “We’re holding a management and leadership conference this year, with the theme carpe mañana—‘seize tomorrow’. We want to stay ahead of our competition, so it’s important that we get the fundamentals down. From there, we can see into the future and make sure we are there first.”