Given that real estate is a location-oriented industry, it’s understandable that technology isn’t seen as an essential component. Douglas Pearce is hoping to change that. After spending much of his career in the insurance and financial industries, Pearce now serves as senior vice president of technology at Waterton Associates. In this role, he’s helping the real estate company build a more efficient and secure technology infrastructure.
Waterton, a real estate investment advisor, manages a portfolio consisting of approximately fifty multifamily properties, thirteen hotels, and a joint venture that focuses on senior housing. However, when Pearce began working with Waterton as a consultant, he found an organization without an adequate IT foundation.
“Like many real estate companies, technology had been viewed as a necessary evil, not something that provided added value,” Pearce says. “That resulted in a struggle just to maintain basic IT functions because there were so many fires that had to be put out.”
“We experienced what many young real estate organizations did moving from a reactive to a proactive approach to support. Now we’re able to focus on the value-added projects that can provide real benefits.”
Specifically, IT had been understaffed and lacked sufficient in-house expertise. Existing data was trapped in silos, employees were using laptops that were seven years old, and there were no reliable processes or systems to ensure proper functioning of networks and capabilities.
By presenting a frank assessment of the circumstances and then prioritizing the transparency of projects and budgets, Pearce gained the support of Waterton management when he joined the company in late 2013. He immediately set out to stabilize the underlying technology infrastructure, including network, desktop, help-desk, telecom, and application upgrades and improvements. In addition to introducing hardware and software solutions, Pearce spent a year and a half hiring talent with the appropriate technology experience and skill sets.
A recent move to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud and hiring a third-party partner to help manage the technology have also helped establish a much more stable IT environment. There has been only one network-related outage in the past twelve months, and that was due to a corrupted security patch.
Standardized practices and processes are now in place to guide responses when there are problems and to ensure steps are taken to prevent reoccurrences. As a result, ticket volumes have been reduced by up to 30 percent over the past two years.
“We experienced what many young real estate organizations did moving from a reactive to a proactive approach to support,” Pearce says. “Now we’re able to focus on the value-added projects that can provide real benefits.”
A number of factors have also driven Waterton’s efforts to embrace and leverage technology. One of the prime reasons is the unstoppable momentum of digital and wireless capabilities in everyone’s daily life. Many younger Waterton residents and employees have never lived without Internet access. Accordingly, these residents have created a strong demand for having all of their interactions with property personnel handled through their smartphones. They also expect digital automation to be offered by every vendor or service they use.
Waterton has embraced the challenge and gone even further. By becoming a registered investment advisor (RIA) this year, it adheres to an extensive regimen of regulatory controls and compliance requirements. All communications systems have been upgraded to ensure RIA standards are met and every laptop is properly secured. “We were already focused on security before becoming an RIA, but that designation escalated security-
related priorities and quickened their implementation,” Pearce says. “Now, we have best practices in place and feel we can respond quickly and appropriately to any eventuality, whether it’s a technical malfunction or an audit.”
Employee Innovation Gives Back
Waterton Innovation Lab has already produced results. An employee-suggested Resident Donation Platform campaign at Presidential Towers (pictured right) enabled residents to give back to the community by voluntarily increasing rent payments to the nearest five- or ten-dollar increment. That effort resulted in a $1,200 donation to Cara, a Chicago-based nonprofit that offers best-in-class job training and provides placement for individuals affected by homelessness and poverty.
The company also sits on the board of directors of Elmspring, a Chicago-based real estate technology accelerator that provides hands-on guidance to startups. In addition to enabling Pearce and his staff to share their expertise, Elmspring gives Waterton a first glimpse at promising innovations. For example, Realync is an application that supports live property tours via mobile video. Agents can answer questions, add comments, and email the recorded tour to prospective tenants. It’s already being used at five properties that attract overseas residents. Another app that assists visually impaired guests is being tested at several of Waterton’s hotels.
Pearce has helped develop the Waterton Innovation Lab, which allows employees to submit ideas for various campaigns and process improvements. Launched in the spring of 2016, the Waterton Innovation Lab received 150 submitted suggestions in the first nine months alone. Employees can publicly comment and vote on their favorite ideas. An employee-staffed Internal Innovation Council then pares the contenders down to one or two per quarter for implementation. For next steps, the council is currently developing automated welcome letters customized to each property and resident—a suggestion that came directly from the submissions to the lab.
The IT department is in the process of developing Waterton’s business intelligence platform. Using Voyanta, a real estate-specific product by Altus, Pearce and his team are building out a data warehouse with the objective of creating a single reporting source for “one version of the truth” that is easy to use.
“Voyanta will allow for self-service reporting without the need for constant IT support,” Pearce says. “Simple, customizable dashboards will allow senior management to see what’s important to them and to drill down for more in-depth data and analysis.”
There are still many challenges to address, such as wirelessly controlled lights, thermostats, and other in-unit technologies. Although the popularity of these advancements is growing, they can also introduce security vulnerabilities. Pearce predicts that he will continue moving slowly and steadily to make intelligent decisions that benefit residents, investors, and the company.