Association Management Trailblazers: Stewart Carter

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In this episode, Stewart Carter shares insights on how Cardinal Management of FL differentiates in the market. Hear how he distinguishes ‘champagne’ management from ‘beer’ management, and why you should try the champagne. Watch it now!

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Here’s the transcript!

[Jonathan] Well, thank you for those who are tuning in to watch this. This is another in our series interviewing association management leaders, executives, trailblazers. It is a privilege, Stewart, to be with you again, and I’d love for you to introduce yourself to the audience and give a little bit about your background and what interested you in HOA. How did you get here? 

[Stewart] Sure. Well, first, thanks for having me. As you stated, my name is Stewart Carter. I am currently in the role of senior vice president for Cardinal Management Group of Florida. It is a property management firm down in Naples, Florida, that primarily serves Collier and Lee counties down here. It’s owned by the same two brothers that own a larger version of it up in Virginia called plain old Cardinal Management Group. Like a lot of people, they vacation down here in Naples, Florida. And about 22 years ago, I think it was, they decided to open up a branch, if you want to call it that. It’s technically a separate corporation down here in Naples. I came on board with them about a year afterwards. How I got into property management is kind of a convoluted story. I’m not sure that anybody actively searches to get into this field. You kind of stumble into it. [inaudible] offices, and now I have managers under me. And it’s been a long and interesting journey, to say the least. 

[Jonathan] So we learned a little bit about you. My next question is, what should the audience know about your organization? 

[Stewart] Well, specifically, our core business is community management. We manage condominiums and homeowners’ associations. We do have a few commercial associations as well. We have a home watch division, which is big down here in southwest Florida. Folks that own multiple homes and only live down here five, six months a year, those other five or six months, they need someone to come in and make sure that the air is still on and the humidity is low and that kind of stuff. We also have our own in-house maintenance department so that we can provide maintenance to those community association clients that we manage, as well as maintenance services to the owners within those units. That’s not an association responsibility. They can hire us directly. We also have in-house cleaning. Same reason, not just for the association clients, but for the customers within. And we have a real estate agent on staff to help with the rentals, leases, and/or sales or purchases of units. 

[Jonathan] And what are some of the reasons that associations select you to manage their properties? 

[Stewart] A great question. We, of course, think we’re the best, but we have to do things that differentiate us from our competitors. There’s a few things that I know we do different. One is we do everything in house, from the management to the administrative assistance to the accounting and all those ancillary services I mentioned earlier. I know some larger organizations will do accounting out of a centrally located office that very well not be in the state that the manager is in, and that tends to slow things down when it comes time to get bills paid, that kind of stuff. I found early on, just by listening to other managers that came from other management companies, that they felt that they and their customers weren’t getting that administrative assistance support, that it may be that there’s one administrative assistant that was supporting two or three managers and their portfolio of communities. So early on, I implemented a one-to-one relationship program, for lack of a better description, where every manager has their own administrative assistant, and that administrative assistant does nothing but support that manager and their portfolio of communities. Now, that obviously provides better quick and more personal service to that portfolio of properties, but it also eats into our bottom line because now I’ve got more employees than my competitor down the road does. But we found that by explaining the benefit, we are able to charge slightly higher. And so if we can get that customer to trust us in the beginning to sign on with that higher management fee, they quickly see the benefit of the improved service with that setup. 

[Jonathan] That’s great and, actually, a segue. You anticipated my next question, which is what decisions have helped you grow your business? 

[Stewart] Some of the early decisions would be deciding how much service you want to provide to your customers, because there is a wide range of management. We’ll use simple terms. There’s beer management and there’s champagne management, and there’s everything in between. There are some decisions that you’ve got to make to decide whether or not you’re going to be a standout organization, an average organization, and then how you go about selling that and getting customers to buy into it. One of the early decisions we made was we wanted to be a little bit better. We wanted to be head and shoulders above. And hence one of the things we did was that one-to-one manager to admin setup. Some other, I’ll say minor decisions, but ended up reaping huge benefits, was do you do it all in house, or do you sub it out? We found early on and felt it was better for us to do it all in house if for no other reason than we had better control. If I’ve got my own maintenance department, for example, and I need to get something taken care of quickly, it being my own maintenance department, I can give that command, if you will: Drop everything you’re doing and go out and fix that light, or whatever it might be. Whereas if you use third-party vendors, you’re kind of beholden to them. And their actions and behavior end up reflecting on you, especially in this field. The end customer, the board members or the homeowners, they don’t care who you’re using to get something done. They don’t want to know. They look at you. They see you as the provider. And so you’ll get the benefit of great vendors doing services for you, but you’ll also get the blame for vendors that don’t. Another decision that I’ve had to deal with is how do you find the right balance between the human factor and technology? There is so much technology out there that can help your managers be more productive. But it’s easy to get blinded and start throwing tech at them to where it’s now no longer a benefit. It becomes a hindrance. You’ve got to pick the right technology. 

[Jonathan] You mentioned earlier on the importance of getting buy-in for technology. I wonder if you have any tips for an organization evaluating technology and software providers, how to go about that process, and how to find the right partner. 

Oh, good question. Communication. Lots of communication. Before– let me back up. I want to say it was about eight years ago, we were using one specific management software. I will not mention the name. We didn’t feel like it was serving us well. We actually had, I think it was four or five different pieces of other software or Excel sheets or whatever, that together was our total package of management tools. And I felt that I needed to merge those together into one to make life easier. One tool to learn how to use instead of five. So when we started the search process, I started it by sitting through multiple webinars with four different management software packages and then with weeding out the stuff that I knew was a deal killer. So I narrowed it down to two different management software packages. And that’s when I then got the rest of the staff involved with what is it that we don’t have now that we would love to have, finding out what those must-haves were, then finding out what the would-like-to-haves are. Because you’re never going to get 100% perfect, and that helps you narrow it down to the right software package. And then once you’ve got those marching orders, if you will, of what you need, you work with the vendor, whoever you’ve settled on, to make sure that they can provide you what you’re looking for. 

[Jonathan] There’s a lot changing in the industry. Where do you go to stay informed and up to date? 

[Stewart] Well, seminars, training, speaking to other industry experts. I like to talk to attorneys who get to look at things from a different perspective, CPAs that might see things that are happening in the financial part of the aspect. CAI, Community Association Institute, is a great resource, not just for managers, but I like how they also have training for board members and attorneys and everything else. Again, staying abreast of the changes in the industry, not just in your little bubble. It would be really easy to feel comfortable and know what’s going on in just Naples and Fort Myers and feel like I’ve got the lion by the tail. But what happens elsewhere in the country and the world, for that matter, will end up trickling down and affecting us if for no other reason, our client base is well traveled. A lot of our customers don’t live here full time. They live somewhere else and come here to vacation. So, we have to keep that in mind as well, is that we’re not dealing with just locals that only think of local issues. 

[Jonathan] So, here’s a doozy. What’s one piece of advice you would give to a new management company? 

[Stewart] I think that would have to be no matter how well you plan, no matter how well you implement, no matter how well you think you’ve anticipated everything that’s going to happen, be prepared for the unexpected. Because this field is filled with it. There are no two days alike. Again, I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and there’s still days that I’m surprised with something that happens or some way that an owner reacts or whatever the case might be. And build that into your business plan. Build that in that your days will get messed up. You think you’ve planned and you can take care of all these things from eight to five or whatever the case might be. Schedule in two hours for the unknown and embrace the chaos. Because that is what this industry is.