Laura Khouri may be new to the head spot at Western National Property Management, but she’s no newcomer to multihousing or parent company Western National Group.

During her 25-year tenure with the Irvine-based full-service multifamily firm she has worn many hats and served for almost half a decade on Western National Group's executive committee.

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Longevity with one company has had its advantages. “I’ve actually been able to learn from other peoples mistakes. I have been watching property management from the circumference for many, many years and, in doing so, would always think, ‘I don’t know if I would do it like that.’ Now I have the opportunity to do it my way,” she said in September.

Since taking the helm of the management company in March, Khouri has sought to increase performance at the property level by reconnecting with on-site staff “Obviously we are in the business to increase our profits and make money, but the truth is people are our most important asset and we have to make sure our associates are taken care of, otherwise they just aren’t going to perform.

“In recent years, I’ve seen an emphasis on the bottom line and, while that is very important, we have to reconnect with those who actually work for us and make that performance. You get so much more out of happier employees than you do from those who are terrified. I think that is where my experience will come in,” she said.

Khouri prides herself on her team spirit and her willingness to roll up her sleeves and get involved. “I’m not one to completely upset the apple cart. I was walking into a team that I did not create and, although it was my new team, they had to learn to accept me,” she said.

That meant leading by example to gain their support. The week she was promoted to president, she packed her kids in her car on a Sunday and began visiting properties in Western National’s portfolio.

“There’s an old adage that you can’t expect what you don’t inspect. So I showed up at the communities and, because I’ve been here for so long, most people know who I am. It wasn’t so much like I was being ‘undercover boss’, but I think it was certainly a surprise to see the management president walk into a community saying, ‘How can I help you? What are your biggest challenges? Show me your community,’ and I think that really opened eyes around here, and people thought, ‘Wow, she’s involved!'” said Khouri.

After walking the communities, she went home at night and typed emails detailing her experiences, what she saw that was working and where she saw room for improvement.

“I wanted to let my team know that I’m going to be there with them on the line, in the trenches. It’s my name on the masthead, but they are the ones really running the communities,” she said.

She also sent out personal letters thanking each of her company’s participants in the Ellis secret shopping competition earlier that year that set a new national record in multifamily management.

According to the Ellis Benchmark Report released in May, of 42 multifamily firms participating, Western National came in first place, receiving a never-before-reached score of 98.71 percent, after a total of 4,470 mystery shopper visits and calls to apartment properties managed by the company.

“I thanked each associate personally for their contribution and effort. I find that when I reach out and touch each and every individual it does something for them. It makes them feel important and they really do have an effect on what kind of a management company we actually are. From there, I could see my regional VPs start to do the same thing, sending out complimentary emails or thanking someone in private or publicly,” said Khouri.

The long and the short
Khouri’s goals as president of Western National’s management arm are two-fold. She plans in the short term to ride the wave in markets where there is an uptick in rents. With overall occupancies across Western National’s 21,500-unit portfolio at 95.9 percent, compared with 94.6 percent in 2009, she is willing to suffer a couple of points in availability to push those rents.

“We have been growing in occupancy and we are growing in revenue, but it’s all about pushing rents. You have to take into consideration that we had a lot of concessions this past year and, when those concessions reduce, obviously you start to see your income increase and we have that going for us. We also monitor our vacant days and you’d be surprised at how much money you actually lose at $40 a day when you have a vacancy issues. It means we are getting the apartments rented quicker than in the past and also increasing the NOI,” she said.

A coupon program, offered on select units, that gives residents $100 off their rent every month for six months, as long as they pay their rent by the first day of the month, has been successful in some markets.

“Say their rent is $1,500. We say, if you pay your rent on the first you will get $100 off every month for six months. If you pay it on the second, well, you’ve missed that window. So it actually helps delinquencies while we are concessing. Then, for the last six months of their lease, they are paying the $1,500 and when their full 12 months are through, we can increase them again, because they have been used to paying the $1,500,” Khouri explained of the program that also helps rent units that move more slowly than others.

While the management company works on increasing renewals through “Renewathons” and incrementally raising rents, the bottom line, said Khouri, is that no matter how hard the onsite staff pushes rents, unless the residents feel at home they aren’t going to stay and prospective renters will go somewhere else, if they aren’t made to feel comfortable when they walk in the door.

To that end, late last year the entire onsite staff participated in classes called Care and Connect that included personality training to help staff identify peoples’ various personalities and the strategies to use to connect with them.

Khouri’s long term goal is for Western National to become the premiere management company in the West. “I’m not so sure we had this reputation before, but hopefully, by the time I am done, we will have people knocking on our door asking for positions, not out of desperation, but because we are the employer of choice in the West,” she said.