Mill Creek Residential’s Pillars of Success

CIO Jeffrey Kok has built his rich career on a firm foundation by fitting technology into the big picture and embracing challenges.

Jeffrey Kok joined Mill Creek Residential just two years ago, but he has already begun a vast array of projects—an impressive seventy-seven of them, to be precise. And while the growing real estate company may be focused on the development and operation of high-quality apartment communities, it has developed a holistic IT approach that is driving progression behind the scenes in finding innovative solutions.

The chief information officer for the real estate company began his career path by interning at Celanese Corporation, a Fortune 500 global technology and specialty materials company, during the summers after his sophomore and junior years in college. After graduating in 2007, he joined Celanese as an IT technical analyst, where he was quickly promoted to project and portfolio management. He was new to a leadership position, but Kok learned the need to develop strong business cases while simultaneously driving technology innovations in the business spectrum, which leads to savings at the bottom line.

By the end of 2012, he took on a new role at Celanese as head of vendor management, where his main challenge was to lead the company through a strategy that, among other obstacles, included changing solutions for innovation and savings.  “It provided me the perspective into how each function of IT operates and taught me the skills of negotiation and sourcing in a result that drove tens of millions of dollars, year over year, out of the budget,” Kok explains.

After three years leading vendor management, a new opportunity came his way: an offer to be head of information security. Two weeks into the job, he got what could only be described as baptism by fire. “A significant incident occurred that required me and my team to remediate,” he says. “This process taught me the need to understand what data matters most, what is the risk to that data, what is the appropriate governing control to protect that data and mitigate the risk, and how an organization audits that control regularly. Essentially, I believe an organization should build their security controls based on risk. Try to protect everything, but focus on what matters most.”

With a security program and a long-term application signed off by management, a call came from a recruiter with an opportunity from Mill Creek Residential, offering a new challenge in a completely different industry. Mill Creek develops, acquires, and operates high-quality apartment communities from coast to coast across the United States. Since the company’s start in 2011, Mill Creek has developed more than 15,000 apartment homes across fifty-plus communities.

Kok knew that Mill Creek was at that point still a relatively small organization, but he also knew that it was growing very quickly. “I saw it as an opportunity where I would be able to cost-effectively drive innovation across the organization and help lead the strategic path forward for the organization,” he says.

Kok had the ambition, but knew that there would be challenges to overcome. During the interview process, he discovered that the perception of IT’s value at Mill Creek was quite low. “On a scale of 1-10, everyone gave me nothing above a four,” he recalls.

He knew that the IT team was probably providing more value than that, but the executive team wasn’t getting that communicated to them effectively. Reorganization was in order, but there were also some major changes that needed to happen across the organization to fix the basics, wholly integrate the technology, and drive innovation.

As a result, he completed a gap analysis, which led to the development of what Kok describes as a four-pillar strategy. “The first strategic pillar is really focused on the ERP system and its ecosystem,” he says. “What is the current mode of operating? What is the future mode of operating? How can I consolidate down from the forty-three different unique applications we use today to have a better ecosystem where you have apps talk to each other?”

The second pillar is insourcing the service desk. “It’s the face of IT. ‘Does your computer work? Do you have access?’ It’s currently outsourced. Usually it’s about money, but I took the stance that it’s more about quality while remaining cost effective,” he says.

Following the second pillar is Kok’s security initiative, in which he assesses what the risk is to the company’s data and what governing control the IT team should use. This all leads to Kok’s fourth pillar: enhancing the foundation. “That is fundamentally about what projects, both business and IT projects, need to occur to enable business profits and drive innovation across the development, construction, and property management functions,” he says. “Projects like construction subcontractor payment management systems, procure to pay, project and punch list management systems, standards for telecom to deliver 1 GB Internet to residents, improved reporting through a data warehouse, and business intelligence tools.”

Kok created a process that funnels a task through his director of project management, who then brings it to an IT steering committee to see whether the initiative fits into the strategy. The project idea could also go one more level to an investment review board made up of different department heads to discuss projects from a Mill Creek perspective—not a perspective of an individual department—to align with the overall strategy, priority, budget, and timeline, as well as give IT a platform to show value, Kok says.

While he makes sure to keep abreast of new developments in technology, Kok notes that it takes a lot more than that to develop successful IT solutions for businesses. More importantly, he focuses on aligning IT with the business. In doing so, Kok aims to drive innovation in creating and implementing processes, creating new efficiencies, and keeping an eye both on the bottom line costs and the big picture. Despite the major challenges, he’s made a brilliant career of doing just that.