John Combs | Courtesy RiverRock Real Estate Group

New Challenges to Property Managers

Carrie Rossenfeld Professional Services

RiverRock Real Estate Group’s founder and Principal John Combs was recently recognized for his industry leadership and influence on the real estate community when he was awarded by the Orange County chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) its ICON Award. The chapter has only bestowed the ICON award two additional times, honoring Brandon Birtcher and John Kilroy, Jr.

Combs formed RiverRock in 2003 in response to a market-driven need for a more client-centric property service model. Now 110-employees strong, RiverRock is celebrating its 15th year in business. RiverRock services more than 29 million square feet of office, industrial and retail properties throughout California and Arizona from its 24 regional offices.

Prior to launching RiverRock, John served as COO of Insignia/ESG for the Americas and Asia. He was also the president of U.S. property services for Insignia/ESG Inc., where he was responsible for all regional offices and service lines of an approximately 300-million-square-foot portfolio of office, industrial and retail properties.

SoCal Real Estate spoke with Combs about the ICON award and trends he is seeing in property management.

SoCal Real Estate: What does the ICON award mean to you and your firm?
Combs:
They knew it was our 15th year anniversary, and it’s great to honor a property-management company that started 15 years ago and is still around. The president of IREM used to work for me at Insignia, so we’ve come full circle.

I owe a lot of my career to IREM because in 1982, I wanted to move to California and contacted the people I met thru IREM and got the job at O’Donnell, which moved me out to California. IREM is a professional network that personally helped me with my career, so I am always willing to give back to them.

I got a lot out of it. My first week in property management, I got invited to an IREM lunch in Dallas, and there were a lot of middle-aged grey-haired guys at the front of the room. I didn’t think I could last that long, and here I am.

I think it’s an incredible honor that an industry group would give you an award for your service, leadership and commitment to the industry. At the end of the day, all you have are your service and your reputation, so it means a lot that our professional industry group would recognize the contributions we make, and we’re honored by it.

What property-management trends do you see emerging?
One of the most interesting things that I’m seeing today is that one owner of the same building can view it as a core asset and a buyer can view it as a value-add. We have a project in Pasadena that’s a full block long. A value-add fund bought it out of L.A., and the seller — whom we’ve worked with for years — viewed it and ran it as a core asset. But the buyer will spend maybe 10 times what the seller spent to create value. The same management team and construction team will be involved in a complete building renovation.

So, you can take a property manager who has been on site for 15 to 20 years with same owner, and then in one transaction completely change the skill sets needed, the collaboration needed, and develop a new game plan. We’re seeing a lot of that in sales transactions in the marketplace.

Also, the economy has never been stronger. It’s very difficult to recruit and retain talent, and project management is really a people broker business. The firm with the strongest local project manager with parallel experience for that owner wins. You can have national-account experience, but without local talent, you’re not going to keep it. It’s more difficult to retain talent. this is why we’re winning in the marketplace. A key performance indicator to measure is are we the employer that the right talent we’re seeking wants? We have a really low turnover and have had good luck at recruiting people because we have what the market is looking for.

There are up to four generations in the workforce today. Multigenerational talent is where we are today, and we’ve really tried to cater programs for each of those generations — they all want something different. If a client is over 50, we tell them to email or call; if they’re over 60, we tell them to call; if they’re under 30, we say text, call, or email. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Also, there are new amenity packages on properties; they’re all going to a hotel concierge level of service. You’re super challenged to be current and relevant as a property manager.

How is property management changing for each of the property types you represent?
We represent retail, office, and industrial. Office is all about the amenity package and how does a property manager learn what that new amenity package is and how it impacts on the operation of a building. You have food services, Uber, concierge and high-level hospitality service. Things are changing rapidly in the office realm. One new amenity we’ve seen is a sound-proof music room with instruments for employees to play.

Retail is all about multichannel. Property managers may have bloggers to deal with, or suddenly Nordstrom wants curbside delivery, so how do you create lanes for that? The challenges in omnichannel retail marketing and distribution are huge. You have package delivery at the curb, workbenches to work on while your companions are shopping, kiosks to order online while you’re in the store so you can have them deliver the purchases to your car. Retail is super exciting, from farm-to-table restaurants to food halls and food courts, etc. — it’s all changing rapidly. It’s not about Chuck E. Cheeses on your site.

Industrial is all about technology and its impact on a building using robotics and automation. Amazon is ordering a fleet of planes with stations for drones in the belly of them, and the drones drop out with packages. Next year, UPS trucks will have roofs that open so a drone can deliver a package to one house while the driver goes to a different house. They’re doubling the delivery without needing warehouse space. It’s such an exciting time.