Goodbye fax machines and rolodexes. Hello mobile communications and renters who want it all. Times have changed for real estate management professionals and no one knows this better than Anne Morash, GWL Realty Advisors’ Senior Vice President, Multi-Residential.
“30 years ago things were a lot different,” Morash says, recalling her foray into the retail development sector. “You’d come back from lunch and your secretary would hand you this stack of pink ‘While You Were Out’ messages. People used pagers and intercoms. Then along came the fax machine—I mean, who even uses fax machines anymore?”
Certainly attitudes and orthodoxy have changed, but the real driver behind workplace reform has been the sweeping influx of new technology. Today’s professionals are always accessible thanks to mobile devices and laptops. Whether at work, at home, or in transit, information is only a click of a mouse or a swipe of a thumb away. The ease with which people are able to communicate and express their wants and desires, to post complaints and share slanderous stories, is both a curse and a blessing.
“For me, the biggest change that technology has brought to the industry is the power shift from the deliverer to the consumer,” asserts Morash. “In the multi-family world, the renter holds the cards. They have access to so much information, whether they’re at home, at work, or on the go. Review sites are immensely powerful and it’s very difficult for managers of real estate and owners to oversee all that. You need a team of people just to refute incorrect information.”
With the digital space taking up more resources than ever before, Morash underscores the importance of having a fast, effective and engaging online presence accessible across a multitude of platforms. “There is nothing more frustrating than a slow-loading website or a drop-down bar that freezes, or a poorly laid-out website,” she says. “Now, we all expect an online experience that is free of those kinds of annoyances.”
To ensure just such a nuisance-free experience, GWL Realty Advisors’ invested a great deal of time and attention to its Vertica Resident Services’ website, piloting and testing the various features with a wide variety of users before its big launch two years ago. And, it seems all that effort paid off. In 2014 the team was honoured at WEBCON’s Rental Marketing Awards for Best Corporate Website (owning over 2,500 units) and now enjoys better traffic and visibility in the marketplace as a result.
Morash says it’s precisely these types of tech-oriented, industry-leading initiatives that have really impressed her since she joined the company in 2013. “Whether it’s our energy-benchmarking through use of big data, or our waste reduction and diversion program, GWL Realty Advisors is a forward-looking entity, always anticipating what’s next and what the future will hold,” she says.
Morash began her career in real estate about thirty years ago after getting her undergraduate degree from Queen’s University in geography, followed by a Master’s degree at York in urban planning and land development. “My very first job was with a planning and consulting firm that focused on municipal housing statements,” she reflects. “So, you see, I actually began my career on the housing side.”
After that, Morash went on to spend 27 years in retail development, working for companies like Cadillac Fairview and Ivanhoe Cambridge. She was instrumental in developing large scale retail projects like the Shops at Don Mills. When she eventually found her way back into the multi-residential world, it was a purposeful shift into a company she respected greatly. “GWL Realty Advisors is a place I always identified as somewhere I’d like to work,” she says. “I have a high regard for the senior management here, many of whom I’ve known since school, or known personally and through the industry.”
Though the two sectors may seem miles apart in what they offer, Morash says her background in retail actually gave her terrific inset into the minds of residential tenants. “People like to shop in nice places and be treated with a high level of customer service, and people expect the same with where they live,” she says. “So beyond the basics of real estate—a good location, being accessible, well serviced, well built, and all those tangible things the asset classes share, I think there is a very strong synergy between retail and residential.”
Challenges and opportunities
It’s both an exciting and a challenging time to be in the apartment sector, but Morash sees it all with a glass half full. “This asset class is continually challenged to find opportunities for growth,” she says, adding that, “it’s very competitive to buy existing Grade A apartment buildings while financially it’s challenging to find development sites to build from the ground up. But multi-family, as an asset class, delivers very stable results. In any economic cycle people need to live somewhere. People love investing in it because even though the returns might not be off the charts, it’s bond-like and they can always rely on it.”
Aside from the competition for sites and acquisitions, another challenge for GWL Realty Advisors lies within the very nature of the tenant it seeks to attract. “With A-plus assets, you get a more discerning costumer. That costumer is generally better educated and better travelled,” Morash explains, “so, their expectations are higher. It can be a challenge to address their desires and requirements for hotel-like quality service levels. But that’s also an opportunity for us because it makes us be better at what we do.”
As for those opportunities, Morash feels the list is endless. “For us, the opportunities include buying B-level assets and turning them into A-levels—or turning an A-level into an A-plus. Currently our strategy is to focus on mid- to high-rise buildings in the seven major markets across Canada. But one of the biggest opportunities we see right now is building mixed-use sites, rather than single use. In all our new builds, we are putting a mix of retail at grade reflecting the needs of the composition of the residents.”
From pharmacies and financial services to coffee shops and grocery stores, Morash says residents are choosy about the kinds of retail they want to see nestled in the footholds of their buildings. To ensure the right mix of goods and services, GWL Realty Advisors conducts focus groups with residents and doesn’t just lease the space to any retailer that comes along.
“When you look at some of the earlier condominiums, you can see that retail was really just an afterthought,” she says. “Now there is a lot of thought given to this area. For instance, we had the opportunity to do research on a large development in Halifax where we’ve got about 25,000 square feet of space on two sides of the street. We held out doing easy deals to make sure we get the retailers in that best fit the complexion of the building.”
Developing new properties is an important and growing part of GWL Realty Advisors’ mandate and Morash says they’ve got several exciting projects on the go. “Since 1998, we’ve completed 70 development projects, seven of which have been purpose-built rental projects,” she says. “We have a large project currently under construction in Toronto at Bay and Gerrard, which will be a 43-storey, 600-unit building. Relatively speaking, it is one of the largest single buildings of multi-family units in Canada.”
In December, the company will be opening a new 80-unit rental building in North Vancouver as part of the Northwoods Village mixed-used project, a village-style neighbourhood comprised of a variety of shops and commercial offerings. In 2014, it completed the 17-storey Elata at Glenmore Gardens in Calgary, while in Halifax, 19Twenty—a 146-unit, 17-storey, multi-family apartment building—proudly opened its doors.
“Residents today are very savvy,” Morash notes. “They know what they want, and they will articulate and pay for what they value. For instance, they know that they want WiFi or somebody at the front desk 24 hours a day. They know they want a dog-run or a gym that has equipment that works. They know they want to be renting in a building that’s part of a micro-community. Purpose-built rental can deliver all that and more.”
But, as hard and as fast as amenities can be—and as shiny and attractive as new buildings are—all those bells and whistles mean nothing without good old fashioned customer service. “They still want to know that when something breaks, someone will be there promptly to fix it. They want to know they can communicate, send an email, or better yet, talk to a live person.”
Of course, building and designing any new tower means envisioning the future, and GWL Realty Advisors takes its ‘future-proofing’ duties seriously. “Apartment buildings are a long-term build and hold, and how we future-proof is both an art and a science,” says Morash. “So, we always design our spaces to be flexible.”
Take the once all-popular squash court, for example. With all-due respect to squash players, Morash points out that today’s tenants might prefer to see a yoga studio or a mini-spin studio as an amenity in its place. “The smart developer will develop with flex-space in mind,” she says.
Another building amenity once coveted by all, but much less sought-after in today’s urban environment, is parking. “The parking ratio has gone down significantly, however we now have to have a bike room that holds 600 bikes—one bike per unit,” she says. “Public transit, densification, walkability score—these are very important to our residents today and a good indication of where we’re heading.”
And for Morash, the direction they’re heading in feels good, particularly if her last two years with GWL Realty Advisors are at all telling of the future. “We’ve grown tremendously since I’ve been here, so it’s been a ride,” she says. “We have a lot of good things happening. Our senior management team within the multi-family group has been working on a strategy called, “Change the Way You See Things.” It looks at how we can be more efficient, more effective, more leading-edge in the delivery of the multifamily business to our clients. We have started to execute our strategies. I think what I love most about this role is watching people throughout the organization taking a new strategy and running with it, and seeing the fruits of our labour.”
As far as fruits go, there are many of those—some still seeds, others ripe for the picking. But with 2016 around the corner, Morash is primed and ready to sink her teeth into whatever juicy opportunities the New Year brings. “Multi-family as an asset class is only going to get better,” she says. “You only have to look south of the border at cities like New York and Chicago to see where we’re going. And the truth is, we’re not far behind.”
Erin Ruddy is the editor of Canadian Apartment Magazine.