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Details of management: Hiring a maintenance crew

With some three million square feet of diverse properties in her charge, Lynne Miller, CPM®, RPA, LEED AP O+M, cannot afford to go it alone. Little wonder. Her portfolio includes office; industrial; retail; medical; and, more recently, luxury homes. Understandably, the regional vice president of third-party management firm Charles Dunn Co. in Los Angeles oversees squads of property managers and vendors. Since, as she says, “95 percent of our maintenance and engineering crews are contracted,” we asked Lynne to spell out for IREM how she hires and retains top maintenance talent.

IREM: First, Lynne, let’s define our terms. Are maintenance and engineering one or two different types of hire?

LM: In my opinion maintenance and engineering aren’t the same. I say, “in my opinion,” because some people think of them as the same. Some even call this position “maintenance engineering.” But for us, they’re different and demand very different skill sets.

IREM: But hiring isn’t all about skill sets, right?

LM: Skills obviously are a major factor, but it’s also important to be a team player, to have sharp customer-service skills, and be able to prioritize and handle multiple projects. They need to be open to training and continued change. And, especially today, they need computer skills. For instance, most service requests are done online today, often on cell phones. They have to be able to download and use the apps.

IREM: Let’s back up a bit. How do you define the need?

LM: The first thing you need to do is to decide if it makes sense to hire someone in-house, or to contract out. You have to weigh the pros and cons. We did a test to see what made sense for us. Interestingly, we did it just before COVID struck. We asked questions such as if we wanted to take on the insurance liability, and if we had the resources to cover if someone got sick.

About then, a staff member’s husband caught the virus and was hospitalized. Then she tested positive. That’s when we learned that if you don’t have the back-up resources, in-house doesn’t make sense.

IREM: What else do you look for?

LM: Alignment with our protocols and values. We just celebrated our 100th anniversary, so we have relationships with various vendors. They know the company we are, and because we typically maintain our relationships for years, they know the kind of people we’re looking for. But we do interview every individual maintenance and engineering person assigned to our buildings. We don’t let the vendor just put someone in. We interview them because we have an obligation to our clients to maintain their properties efficiently and add value. We have to get the right people. In our interviews, we talk about integrity and customer service, and all the things that are part of Charles Dunn’s values. The only exception to the interviews is when we need a temporary person when someone goes on vacation.

We also use a variety of union and non-union vendors, depending on the needs of the property. And we do not have any exclusive vendor relationships.

IREM: Which brings up the question of contract agreements.

LM: Our standard contract gives us a 30-day termination option, with or without cause, although we never terminate without cause. We also don’t put a term to it. We have commencement dates, but unless it’s a specific project, such as an elevator renovation, we keep the duration open-ended.

Some companies want a more definitive commitment, at least the guarantee of a year, because they’ll be investing in training and things like that. Occasionally we’ll go with that. But for the most part, we keep it open-ended because it gives us the opportunity to bid out services whenever we want. We don’t get a lot of pushback on that.

IREM: What about health and safety protocols?

LM: They’re number one for us and for everyone involved. And, we want to make sure whoever we partner with – because they are partners in this – has that same mindset, and that they’re providing the proper training to their people. Our vendors send me their protocols, and when I ask, I do expect it right away. Especially with new vendors; this is part of our interview process.

IREM: What are some causes for termination?

LM: Non-performance is one. If a job isn’t getting done and someone doesn’t ask for help or seek explanations. We’ll make sure they understand what needs to be done and why. We’ll wait 30 days and ask someone from their office to help. If another 30 days go by, and it still isn’t done, we’ll start termination proceedings. At this point, it’s no longer just the individual’s fault, it’s also the company’s fault because they didn’t follow up.

Honesty and communication are key in these partnerships. With staff members, let’s say in cases of non-performance, we do go through all of the proper channels. We’ll issue warnings, and if necessary, put a person on probation. We’ll document all of the issues that got us to this point, and we’ll hold biweekly meetings to see how they’re doing before we take action.

IREM: So, you see vendors as partners . . . just as you do staff members?

LM: We partner with vendors and staff members alike because we want to be sure everyone has the same common goal. Our clients look to us to make sure everything is maintained properly, and that we’re looking at ways to increase value and revenue. Everyone plays a part in that.

Longstanding partnerships also allow us to get their top talent, and we believe that helps to get things done more professionally and efficiently. That’s really important because at a property, our vendors become the face of Charles Dunn.

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