Marcie Williams | CEO | RKW Residential | Creating community to retain building residents

Transcript

DA: Welcome to TEN, the Tenant Experience Network. I’m your host, David Abrams. In this episode, we are connecting with Marcie Williams, CEO of RKW Residential. In this episode, we learn about Marcie’s career journey in CRE, where she started as a leasing consultant in multifamily. Eventually turning her focus to operations where she worked her way up the ranks to her current role as CEO. Marcie was actually encouraged to get into real estate while working as a bartender and she has never looked back. Her natural confidence and comfort around people have contributed to her industry success. Marcie shares insight from her experience managing over 4,000 homes in planned communities, and finding a work-life balance in the hybrid world. Creating community has become RKW’s number one priority, with residents 70% more likely to renew if they connect with just six people in their communities. To achieve this goal, multifamily spaces are evolving to accommodate new use cases and provide more outdoor offerings. While Marcie is focused on meeting the new demands of her core business, she also prioritizes the changing needs of the corporate work environment through the introduction of new programs and activities that keep her team connected. I loved hearing about Marcie’s hotel industry training program inspired by the importance of adopting a hospitality approach in real estate. As Marcie describes, thinking about what people need entirely sums up her job. We’re excited to share this episode with you. So be sure to subscribe to TEN so you never miss an episode of the Tenant Experience Network. And now I’d like to welcome Marcie to this show. I’m really glad you could be with us today, how are you?

MW: I’m great, thank you for having me.

DA: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m looking forward to our conversation. And I’d love you to start with maybe sharing your journey to your current position role. How did you get started in the business?

MW: I started really with the basics of the business as a leasing consultant. I’ve been in the business over 30 years, so I’ve really just started with the basic, the core, worked my way up through the property level to a property manager, to a district manager, to a regional manager. I’ve been in a few different areas of the business, of the multifamily business but operations is the core of the business and that’s where I do my best work in operations and have been the CEO of… I’ve been with RKW for about eight years now and been the CEO for about a year.

DA: All right, amazing. So often I hear about a dotted line to commercial real estate. And often people coming out of college having no idea that’s the business they’d end up in. Now did you start right away in sort of in the business, in the industry?

MW: I really did. My degree is in journalism and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it and I was doing… Making my parents proud just bartending to be honest with you. And so I actually had somebody come into the bar, he was a regular and he said, you know what you’d be really good at is real estate. It was just a suggestion and I took it to heart and started my career pretty much right out of college. And I was just… It was easy to me to be honest with you at the time and that’s what I always tell young people when they want to start their career is do something that feels easy to you. And leasing and apartments and multifamily felt easy to me.

DA: Right, felt natural. See, see, I had a probe a little bit but there’s always a little more of a story behind how you got into the business, it all started in a bar.

MW: Exactly, exactly.

DA: All right. So I guess it kind of connects to my next question is why do you think you were so uniquely suited to this opportunity? What’s helped you to become successful? Skills, mentors, colleagues, books. Well, it sounds like being in the bar at the right time is one factor but you talked about it being easy, but maybe just share a little bit about why you think this opportunity was so right for you.

MW: It’s really a people business so I don’t think that’s anything new or revolutionary that you haven’t heard before but I’ve always felt really comfortable with people and I believed in what I was selling at the time. I mean I was leasing apartments, I lived in that apartment community and people would come in and they would say, I don’t know, let me think about it. And I just felt like, how could you not? You walked in, you said you wanted a two bedroom overlooking the pool, I showed it to you, how could you not take it? So, I have had I think it was really just a natural confidence to be honest with you and finding something that maybe bartending helped me be natural with people. But I just have always been comfortable around people really since the day I was born. And when I was in first grade, I used to go around and tell people I know how to add and I know how to spell. You know I just was always confident like that and I attribute that to my parents. But really it’s just, I’ve had some great people, great managers, I’ve had great mentors in the industry that have helped me. But I’ll be honest with you David, I’ve also been married almost 30 years. I’ve known my husband since we were 12 and he’s always been a great cheerleader for me and supported me. So being between family and industry people, I’ve felt that I could be successful. And then also just really taking the core of… Again, starting at the core of the business does give you confidence to be able to go to the next level.

DA: Right.

MW: And even when I was scared to go to the next level, I just did it because I knew that I’d be able to… If I could achieve one area of the business, I felt confident I could achieve the next area. But I would do and do those things when I was scared, but still could move forward.

DA: I love that and thanks for sharing both sort of some of the personal side of your journey as well as the more business side, I appreciate that.

MW: Yeah of course.

DA: And I think the restaurant business, the service industry really prepares you for so many different kinds of businesses and if you can sort of make it there, I think you can almost make it anywhere often will be quite friendly with people that I meet in restaurants and I think to myself if I was hiring, depending upon that person, not someone who I’d want to work with me because often they’re the first point of contact then… And they make such a difference to your experience. So I get that that bartending experience really helped position perhaps for this opportunity.

MW: Yeah, I mean it gives you the soft skills for sure. And then you have the hard skills of running a property and running a business as you learn through college and through your career but you’re right, a lot of it is… A lot of people’s success is based off of their personality, they’re willingness to succeed and their attitude.

DA: For sure, for sure. There’s a lot of commentary around the return to workplace as well as the impact of the exodus from cities from the perspective of where people lived during the pandemic. And there’s some extreme opinions being expressed often confrontational and polarizing. My team really believed that now is the time to live and work in the world as it is right now, that we can’t keep projecting to the future in terms of a date for the return to work or perhaps for people returning to cities. And I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on this new normal, what does it mean for commercial real estate and in particular given your area of expertise for multifamily residential buildings. What are you seeing, what are your thoughts?

MW: Well, we certainly have seen to your point an exodus from the cities. Our company is in the southeast and I’m based on the southeast. The southeast has always been popular and as always, we have people have enjoyed being here not only for weather, for great way of life, just a better life overall. And people now, it’s really expanded with people leaving the big cities and wanting to come into the southeast whether that’s Charlotte or Atlanta, you know Greenville, South Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina down into Florida. But now what people really are looking for from a multifamily perspective is to be able to have that hybrid life of the work life balance and to be able to, if they’re working from home, they want to be able to have a space that they can work from home. So the trends have been bigger and that’s why the bill to rent. We manage about 4,000 homes in planned communities. So these are purposeful built homes in the communities. And so people are gravitating towards that for bigger space. But at the same time, people are also thriving for a sense of community now that people want to get back together. So us as a management company, coordinating and planning those events to keep the residents connected is really important. I mean, people are more six… If he knows at least six people within your building or community, you’re more likely to renew, you’re about 70% more likely to renew. Now that we were so isolated, being connected now more than ever is so important. So, really we focused on the sense of community but also people are changing because they want choices. I mean in the workspace, they want the ability to come to work or not come to work. So we’ve really adopted… If you work at a community, you do need to be at that community to just take care and serve the residents. But from a corporate perspective, what people want has really just evolved. I mean we started out with, you always came into the office, then it was a hybrid that you could be hybrid once you’ve been with us for a year, about two weeks later we changed that policy, everyone could be hybrid. And even as of last week, we’re continuing to evolve that policy as the wants and needs of our team members are changing.

DA: Right. I think that office buildings are becoming more homelike and I think multifamily buildings are becoming more office like. So, are you seeing, are you looking at new spaces or changing the use of spaces in your building? So, from a multifamily perspective, are you creating more meeting rooms or podcast recording studios or-

MW: Sure.

DA: We’re starting to hear that and see that so I’m just curious what impact that’s having on your business.

MW: Definitely we’re evolving to… At the multifamily space, it used to be more, not so much collaborative zones but really more, it might be a conference room. Now we’ve expanded that to have individual spaces, the Zoom rooms, and to have the collaboration spaces and then to have the coffee along with it. So creating a Starbucks-like environment along with you can go into the Zoom room. But we’re also creating at the communities, the indoor outdoor spaces, especially in the southeast where you can enjoy the weather many more days of the year. You know, people want to be able to sit outside, get a little bath sun, get fresh air and work, and then if they need to come inside into a Zoom room or into a collaboration place, inside they can. So from a multifamily space, the work from home and what we’re creating is definitely expanding and also pets. People want to have their pets beside them at all times. A lot of people got their pets during the pandemic and their pets were used to sitting right beside them. So from the multifamily space, that’s definitely what we’re working towards. But on the office side for our team members to your point, we’ve created, they want a more home environment. We’ve added couches, we’ve added snacks, we’ve added purposeful gatherings whether that’s celebrations or hey, let’s just go, let’s get together and go to a park or go to the movies or anything like that to keep us connected has been really important as well. 

DA: That’s fascinating sort of what you’re having to do at a corporate level.

MW: Yeah.

DA: It’s what you’re having to do for your customers, your core business. And I love the fact that you’re thinking about both sides of that and adapting and changing. So how often, just I’m just curious, how often are your people sort of looking for those opportunities? Your team in terms of coming together and not just being, working remotely?

MW: So we definitely… Right now our hybrid schedule is three days in, two days out. And it can be dictated by the individual departments if they have to come in a certain day. But the gatherings are minimum monthly where we celebrate the months birthdays and anniversaries. But we also have spontaneous get togethers, celebration, we have a bar cart or we’ve got some place where we can just roll out a cart, order a pizza and celebrate, that’s a couple times a month. And then we also, anything to summer fun days again, we go to the… I’ll tell you in our office we had, when Top Gun Maverick came out, I was looking forward to it. So we closed our corporate office, we all went to go eat tacos and then we all went movies. We were in the middle of the day and it was like, we had so much fun doing that.

DA: That’s great.

MW: Yeah, some of our other corporate offices, they went to Topgolf and then some others went go-kart racing. So every office has a personality. And so it was just, let’s do this fun thing and get together. Now we also have, lastly, we do have a big annual event when our entire company gets together and we have, we train our teams through Ritz Carleton training to take care of our residents and each other. And then we also have just a flat out fun day where everyone’s bowling and playing golf and playing pool and having a fun time where all the teams can get together collectively.

DA: Well first of two things, I love that you’re pulling from the hospitality industry, that is great telling. I actually think that the office industry should be doing more staff training also from the hotel industry.

MW: Yeah.

DA: I think there’s just so much to be learned and the reality is that I think just like hotels that have to earn their custom reaching every day, I think the multifamily sector and the office sector really have to do the same. This is the thing is don’t be surprising to see my resume, hits your impacts because it’s obviously a really great place to work so.

MW: Awesome.

DA: We may chat again about that. The pandemic has certainly recalibrated the market. People recognize that buildings are really places for people. These buildings weren’t much of an asset, particularly office buildings weren’t much of an asset when people weren’t in them. But I think as a result, tenant experience and resident experience is fast becoming the new differentiator and has helped me to drive real estate decisions far more than those old historical determinants such as location in class, people are thinking about not just the physicality of their real estate but what experience are they offered there. So I’m just curious what you think will truly define great customer experience, great resident experience now and in the future.

MW: It’s really technology to be honest with you. And giving the residents and tenants in the buildings choices as to how they want to live and work. The hospitality training, I always think about like retail as well. If I want to shop for something, I have the option of going into the store and getting it or ordering online. From a tenant and from a resident perspective, we should be able to provide that exact same experience. If a resident wants to come, a prospect wants to come tour one of our buildings, we are using technology to let them do… Schedule an appointment on their own, have a self-guided tour without somebody present. They can do a video tour, we can do a FaceTime tour, or they can come in and we can walk them through and show ’em. So we have to be able to give them choices. And then once they are a resident with us, they can live the same way. They can come in and pay us with a check. They can pay their rent online, they can call us. That to me is really where everything is headed and giving our residents more choices, the same time providing them the experience and hospitality and taking care of them. This is the biggest check, our biggest expense from a residence standpoint. And so we have to be able to provide and take care of them. But from like a tenant perspective at an office building, it’s really the same thing. I mean there’s typical office hours, the management is only available during certain times but our work time has become a lot more flexible even as something as simple as when do we need the air conditioning? You know, it shouldn’t be like dictated, it needs to be flexible for what we want to do and when we want to do. And then attracting the talent, location you mentioned is always so important but the gatherings in the building. Whether we can work out in the building, whether we can have a coffee in the building and or close by is so important for us to be able to track and retain town.

DA: Sounds like you’re trying to meet your customer where they are and understand their needs and how they want to operate and how they want to engage with you. And to your point, there’s no one solution, it’s not like we can only do it for technology or we can only do it with a personal experience. You’re giving them the flexibility to choose what’s right for them.

MW: Right. It is always thinking about David what the people need. That’s like my whole job. My whole job is… Well, my first job is to make sure our organization is here in the future. And how we do that is to give people the choices and flexibility for what they want. So it makes it easy for them to live at our communities not a task.

DA: Right. I interviewed Michael Beckerman from CREtech or CREtech last week and he spoke a lot about the need to truly now understand the customer’s needs and wants. That we’ve really shifted from the old mentality of building and they will come to really being a customer focused industry. And not in tuned and listening to what the customer needs. You’re going to have challenges long term, right?

MW: 100% and I will tell you, we deal with a broad range of demographics as well. We operate in seven states, every… Again, every community has its own personality and demographic base but at the same time, everybody wants to be valued and taken care of. So that policy that we have and our training, that applies to everybody across the board.

DA: Amazing. Let’s take a short break and we’ll be right back.

COMMERCIAL BREAK

DA: We are back with Marcie Williams, CEO of RKW Residential. I’m so glad you could be with us today, and I’m really enjoying our conversation.

MW: I am as well.

DA: All right. Listen, the tough question. Living through a pandemic has been really challenging for so many people, and I don’t think that… I always think about that because that is the reality. However, it does present an opportunity for us to now be better, do better, and build something better. Covid can no longer be an excuse and sadly we’re still seeing that. So I’m just curious from your perspective, can you share any details about your business or some part of your business that is now being reimagined to reflect the reality of where we are today?

MW: I will tell you when the pandemic first hit, one of the very first things that I did was send out communication to all of our team members about being empathetic. We had residents for the first time that couldn’t pay their rent. And as we’ve evolved… I mean, we’ve always been an empathetic and hospitality driven company but at the same time, a lot of our policies have continued to evolve around the resident experience. And really to your point, we did create new policies and procedures as it related to Covid and our cleaning procedures and things like that and some of that has subsided but some of those policies have really remained the same. Same thing with hybrid, we’ve actually changed some of our policies, we added an employee assistance program for mental health. We started our insurance, allowed our employees to be able to have insurance on day one rather than having a waiting period, combining our PTO and holiday or vacation policies together. So trying to make, again, flexibility and choices is really how we have continued to evolve throughout the pandemic. There was not like the stopping point to say okay, we’re done and now we’re going to go back. It is continually evolving to make residents and our employees’ lives better.

DA: And perhaps that’s one of the outcomes is just the need to be flexible, nimble, respond to changing circumstances. I mean I think we all had to respond so quickly to the onset of the pandemic that sort of put the need for being flexible and creative in hyper mode. And maybe that’s now a skill, sort of a reflex that we’re going to now be able to utilize continuously, it never stopped.

MW: 100%.

DA: Awesome. Our closing speed round, an opportunity to get to know Marcie a little bit better on a personal level. Can you share one way in which the pandemic has changed your outlook on life?

MW: I may chilled out a little bit. I have always been driven by roles and policies and I still believe in those but the flexibility, I think I’ve become more flexible for our team members and that should hopefully get better for all of our employees.

DA: Cool. What travel destination do you miss most?

MW: Well, I travel locally. Like if I go to the beach or the mountains, so I still was able to enjoy that during the pandemic. It was really the spontaneity of being able just to pick up and go is really what I’ve missed most. You had to plan and then you had to cancel and be prepared to cancel if someone had Covid. Do I have enough mask? Do I have enough hand sanitizer? So, that part I don’t miss. I actually was just traveled, I was last week and I was like, I’m so happy I don’t have to wear a mask. So that part I don’t miss. But the travel, the spontaneous travel, I miss the most.

DA: Yep, totally get that. It is a lot to think about and a lot to plan. And of course the one thing we’ve learned is that you can’t plan. So you have to be prepared for always plans to change. Anything new on your bucket list that you’d like to experience?

MW: Well, I’m actually going to Europe in October. I think I mentioned been married for 30 years and my husband and I are celebrating our 30th anniversary. I’ve never been to London, I’ve never been to Paris, and I’ve never been to Dublin and we are going to those three places.

DA: Wow.

MW: But my ultimate bucket list was I wanted to be in Paris on our… The actual day of our anniversary and that is scheduled to come true in October.

DA: I love it, that’s wonderful. Congratulations, I’d say that’s a significant milestone and something to be definitely proud of so good for you.

MW: Thank you.

DA: What’s your favorite technology that is new to your life?

MW: I don’t really have a new technology that I’ve really embraced. It’s really just utilizing the technology that I’ve always relied on. I do always have my iPhone, my iPad, and my Apple Watch. So I do rely on those a lot so it’s… I’m not a pen and paper type of person but I do rely on the technology that I’ve been using for the past few years.

DA: Right, amazing. And what is your personal choice for days spent in person with your colleagues versus working from anywhere?

MW: I love working with my colleagues, I love collaboration. I come in the often, I do of course have the ability to work remote but I do come in the office when I’m not traveling for work. So my preference is to be with my team, spontaneous collaboration and just help them grow and work together.

DA: Amazing. Marcie, thank you so much for coming on the program today and I really enjoyed our conversation. I love the area of expertise that you’re able to bring to this discussion being an expert in multifamily, it is interesting to see how the world of office and multifamily continue to blur in so many ways and a lot to be learned from those two industries as well as the hospitality industry which you spoke about.

MW: Yes.

DA: So, it’s great to get the different perspectives and for our listeners to be exposed to this type of learning. So thank you very much for joining us. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Wishing you continue success and a very happy anniversary.

MW: Thanks David.

DA: All right, take care. I want to thank Marcie Williams for joining me on this episode of TEN and for contributing to the global conversation around buildings being part of a robust ecosystem that can help to build great companies, and that they are vital in the effort to cultivate and support great people and teams. The future of the workplace will likely take many forms, and we will continue to explore what that looks like together. Subscribe to TEN for more conversations with leading CRE industry professionals and experts who all have something to say about Tenant Experience and the future of the workplace. We love hearing from you. So if you enjoy this episode of TEN, please share, add your rating and review us through your preferred podcast provider.

If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly at david@hiloapp.com. And until our next episode, I wish you all continued success in building community where you work and live, thank you.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

Rita Tené Ellison | Associate Director | T. Dallas Smith & Company | Putting customers first in CRE

Season 3 / Episode 20 / 22:20
In this episode, Rita explains that access to local amenities is becoming more of a driving factor in real estate decisions, causing smart landlords to become more attentive to tenant needs, and respond with appropriate programming. With a “client-first” mentality, her firm has maintained a consistent approach throughout the pandemic in responding to the evolving needs of its customers.

Jamie Petten | President & Executive Director | Kanata North Business Association | Connecting the community in Canada’s largest technology park

Season 3 / Episode 19 / 31:09
In this episode, Jamie shares that in order to attract and retain talent, a big part of the conversation is adding new opportunities to live and play at Kanata North Technology Park, and making new investments to enhance physical workspaces. Jamie is enthusiastic about the role that HILO will play in helping to connect all the partners in the park and promote all of the park’s activities.

Rita Tené Ellison | Associate Director | T. Dallas Smith & Company | Putting customers first in CRE

Season 3 / Episode 20 / 22:20
In this episode, Rita explains that access to local amenities is becoming more of a driving factor in real estate decisions, causing smart landlords to become more attentive to tenant needs, and respond with appropriate programming. With a “client-first” mentality, her firm has maintained a consistent approach throughout the pandemic in responding to the evolving needs of its customers.

Jamie Petten | President & Executive Director | Kanata North Business Association | Connecting the community in Canada’s largest technology park

Season 3 / Episode 19 / 31:09
In this episode, Jamie shares that in order to attract and retain talent, a big part of the conversation is adding new opportunities to live and play at Kanata North Technology Park, and making new investments to enhance physical workspaces. Jamie is enthusiastic about the role that HILO will play in helping to connect all the partners in the park and promote all of the park’s activities.