Andrew Lowe is a seasoned veteran of the property management business. Ask him a question on virtually any industry topic and you’re sure to get an insightful, educated response. As the Director of Residential Real Estate Management at Oxford Properties Group, he regularly shifts his time between the board room and the buildings, discussing big picture matters and delivering hands-on management to the 225 staff he oversees at Oxford’s 18 rental communities across Canada.
“I really enjoy that aspect of my work,” he says of his fluctuating duties. “I love putting on the suit and tie and talking with the executives about our business and our financials, then I love taking the tie off and being at the site-level with our cleaners and maintenance staff, our property managers and our leasing staff. I love working with them, helping them develop their skills and teaching them to take pride in what they do.”
Lowe’s career began in the hospitality sector after he completed Hospitality Management at the University of Guelph and quickly rose through the ranks of several hotel establishments. By the ripe age of 24, he’d already solidified himself as a capable manager in his own right—an experience that came as a badge of honour and a source of difficulty. “Being promoted to manager so young was a feather in my cap, but it wasn’t always easy,” he reflects. “People don’t see you as a leader until you’ve proven yourself. Then as you gain that experience, you gradually earn their trust and respect.”
From St. Johns, Newfoundland, to Sault Saint Marie and Kingston, Ontario, Lowe eventually found himself in Toronto. “That was around the time the RTA legislation had changed,” he recalls. “Suddenly you could take an apartment building, invest significantly in it, and let the market drive the rent levels. That meant tenants had higher expectations, and the needs of the business and staffing requirements had to follow suit. Customer service was now an important part of tenant retention, which is why Minto recruited me from the hotel business.”
Lowe was hired on as Minto’s Director of Customer Experience, a job that entailed developing new policies and procedures to create a culture of customer service. It was a brand new era in apartment management: tenants once paying $700 a month were now paying double, and the service they received needed to be in line with that cost hike. “So there was a big shift to a more service-oriented management style,” he says, “and that’s something we’re continuing to see today.”
From Minto to Vertica and then on to Transglobe, Lowe eventually joined Oxford in 2010. At that time, the company had $500 billion in asset value – today it has $1.2 billion. “We want to continue to grow and get closer to two million,” he says. “We have some exciting development opportunities currently underway, both in Toronto and out west, though it’s still early in the process.”
Creating value for stakeholders
New developments aside, Lowe believes that creating value for Oxford’s stakeholders is not only a constant pursuit, but a pursuit he holds dear above all others. “By stakeholders, I mean everyone—employees, customers, owners, business partners—it’s everybody involved in our properties,” he says. “We are trying to create value in what is still seen as a challenging industry. There is this perception of a renter that perhaps they are in a transitional stage of life, still developing in their careers and not able to be home-owners yet. For us to create that value proposition for them is what I love most.”
Known as a hands-on manager who supports training and career-pathing, Lowe says he takes pride in continuously challenging both his people and the status quo. “What we do today doesn’t always mean it’s going to work tomorrow. So we are always evolving, always looking to the future. And I think at times we can focus too much on the real estate aspect,” he says. “We can easily find ourselves looking for what’s wrong. I think what’s hard for leaders is to find what’s right, to look for things we can celebrate. I like to think I can add that value back into our operation, find those reasons to say thank you, to recognize and give praise when employees deserve it.”
Lowe points out that when it comes to apartments, there seems to be a pervasive lack of pride that exists for both the tenants who live there and the staff who run them. It’s a perception he hopes will change. “The general feeling is that if you work in the apartment industry, you’ve landed here by happenstance,” he says, noting that this is oftentimes true. “But when I look at our cleaners and our maintenance staff, I know their roles are critical to our operation. I know that a lot of them might be new to the country, or their education might be limited, but I also know that they made a choice. That choice was to work—and they work in an industry that is quite thankless. So I value that choice every day, the fact that they are coming in and mopping that lobby or turning that apartment around. They are working hard for us and they should be celebrated for that.”
Oxford’s aggressive back-to-back leasing policy
Apartment work can be gruelling, and indeed “thankless” at times, as Lowe points out. Then, add to that the demands of Oxford’s back-to-back leasing strategy and for many, the real pressure is on.
“If you ask me what business we are in, I could say real estate or customer service or rental apartments – but I like to simplify it even further. I like to say we manage vacancy,” Lowe says. “Every day a unit sits empty is money lost. We can never make it up. So in that respect, we all report up to vacancy. We’ll have great assets, well-maintained units, good landscaping, and they all report to my “vacancy boss.” We’ll have knowledgeable, well-trained, service-oriented staff all reporting up to vacancy. Vacancy is the CEO, because everything we do supports reducing that risk.”
To support the rigours of minimizing its vacancy, Lowe says one of Oxford’s main pillars of business is hiring and developing the best people from the start. “We want our employees to live and breathe our culture and our brand,” he says. “We want to empower them to make decisions on behalf of the customer and on behalf of the business without always having to refer to someone above. We’re guilty as an industry of saying, “Here is the key to the car,” but then we don’t teach that person to drive.”
To prepare new employees, each individual must embark on a two-week training plan. This enables them to hit the floor running, Lowe says, noting that it takes a lot longer to embed that all-important company culture. “I always say it takes up to a year for an employee to become Oxfordized. What that means is, although they may get the gist of their day jobs and their tasks fairly quickly, certainly within a month or so, it takes a lot longer to be able to deliver customer service and excellence, to move from good to great and to feel empowered.”
And just as staff training is important, customer service is another critical area of focus for Oxford. “What helps to set us apart from our competitors is the world class experience we strive to deliver. Our teams genuinely care and they want to solve the problems and right the wrongs. If they don’t care, if they don’t genuinely want to solve, then maybe Oxford isn’t the right place for them – and that’s okay, because who wants an unhappy person in their home?”
Industry risks and challenges
Whether it’s new purpose built apartment developments with all their wealth of amenities and finishes, or the 40-year-old apartment towers that make up the majority of Canada’s rental stock, tenants today have more choice when it comes to choosing their living space, and technology is the driver of that choice.
“Airbnb is going to impact our business just as Uber impacted the Taxi business,” warns Lowe. “My opinion is that, as an industry, we better start keeping an eye on it. We need to figure out how we can adapt and remain competitive. We want to remain the best option out there for our customers for years to come and not have to worry about individuals re-renting their apartments, or trying to create their own business out of it.”
From the ease with which people can privately rent out their own accommodations, to the immediate communication channels offered through social media, Lowe says that advances in digital technology have both good and bad implications for business. “I think the biggest risk social media brings with it is how it can implicate brands,” he says. “Nowadays, individuals can post emotional responses to things without any restrictions whatsoever. People can film encounters they’ve had with staff members, and those videos can go viral in seconds. In the end, how all this will shape the future of our industry is still debatable, but I’m of the mind that buying decision still happens on location. It comes down to three things: price, quality and the individual they are speaking to in that moment. Nevertheless, the risk social media can bring to brand reputation is real.”
Despite technology and the way it is affecting the industry, for Lowe, the number one challenge remains talent acquisition. “We don’t want just warm bodies filing a role,” he says. “When we are looking for people, we do our due-diligence and try to acquire service-minded individuals who are good candidates for a specific job. When hiring, we use a tool called “predictive indexing” and we ask all potential employees to fill it out. The employment outcome isn’t solely based on the results of the test, but it helps us gauge their natural tendencies and whether or not they are well-suited for that specific role. If also helps us from a management perspective because it gives us insight into what type of recognition style, or leadership style, would work best for that individual.”
Juggling expectations: the GTA gap
Lowe notes another interesting management challenge that seems to be impacting his business today, and that is the growing gap between expectations in the GTA versus other jurisdictions. As he points out, circumstances in Toronto have put performance pressures on high.
“Our hustle and bustle, our continuing growth, is changing the way we operate and live our lives. The city is seeing steady migration, and this creates traffic and transportation challenges. It’s forcing us to adapt. Rush hour doesn’t exist anymore. Rush hour has become a full day occurrence. The speed in which we expect things, whether it’s a response to an email or a solution to a problem, is immediate. That is not necessarily the case outside the GTA. So balancing our expectations, our hyper competitiveness and our methods, can be a struggle. We need to find a way to navigate this discrepancy effectively, to remain competitive and consistent throughout the company.”
And that instant satisfaction is not just something the business craves, but it’s what the tenants crave too. Lowe is optimistic that with his high calibre team, Oxford’s great training plan, and his own positive, people-oriented management approach, that need for instant satisfaction will translate into long term tenancy, which is, of course, the ultimate goal.
Erin Ruddy is the editor of Canadian Apartment Magazine.