Property management – a customer partnership

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When ProLogis began its operations in Europe in the late 1990s it wanted to bring with it the customer focused approach it had developed in the US. The aim was to provide a different kind of property solution to the distribution sector, one where landlords and tenants work in partnership.

ProLogis took over Kingspark Developments in 1998 and began contributing UK buildings to its European Properties Fund in 1999. It became clear to ProLogis at this time that its view of property management was different to the traditional UK way of doing things, where institutional landlords moved slowly, outsourced property management and did not understand the business that went on in the buildings they owned. ProLogis saw that this culture clashed with the fast moving distribution world.

ProLogis set out to recruit someone who could implement its property management philosophy balanced by local market knowledge to achieve the dual aims of actively managing the assets while providing its customers with a high quality service. That person was Louise Ashman (pictured above) who had spent five years working in the property department for food distributor Booker.

Ashman joined ProLogis in October 2000 to manage its new UK property portfolio, which had rapidly expanded to 260,400sq m (2.8 million sq ft) and has since grown to 799,800sq m (8.6 million sq ft). She brought with her the knowledge of just what it was like to be a tenant in the distribution sector, and the frustrations of dealing with traditional landlords.

“One of the things that I brought to ProLogis was the ability to see things from the tenant’s perspective, and to understand what it is that our customers want from a landlord. ProLogis’ style of customer service was a big attraction to me and the opportunity to develop this in the UK in a new department was very exciting,” she says.

It was such a success that last year ProLogis promoted Ashman to take charge of its European property management, and she is now responsible for a team that manages 3.9 million sq m (42 million sq ft) of distribution space in 11 European countries.

The emphasis at ProLogis is on dealing with customer queries promptly. A key benefit is having a team of experts under one roof. “We sit in an office where we have a development team, project managers, architects and mechanical and electrical expertise,” says Ashman. “This means that a customer can send us an application for consent to carry out alterations in the morning, we can get the plans checked by lunchtime and a lawyer instructed by the afternoon _u and if we need more information we can put the customer in touch with a relevant expert from our team of consultants.

“We understand that when such a request is made it is because there is a definite business need, usually to implement cost savings, and it is not acceptable for there to be a delay while a bundle of plans sit on someone’s desk before they get posted on to a building surveyor, only for a list of queries to come back two weeks later.”

Ashman’s new responsibilities for Europe have presented her with different challenges. She says: “Our policy is to employ local people in local markets and, whilst we develop global and pan-European relationships with our largest customers, we are also very much a local landlord in each market we operate. We can provide the best of both worlds by combining our strategic global property management principles with local market practices wherever possible.”

The traditional UK landlord tenant relationship where the tenant gets handed the keys, and hands them back after 25 years are over, but ProLogis is aiming to provide more than just customer service. “It’s about building a partnership. We are very proud of the buildings we develop and the relationships we have built with our customers. The great thing about ProLogis is that the relationship doesn’t end when the building reaches practical completion and the lease is signed – that’s just the beginning. There, I’m beginning to sound American now!”

Being UK property manager meant a lot of time in the car for Ashman. Being in charge of Europe means a lot of time in airport lounges and hotel rooms. “Being away from home so much is not always easy and travelling is frustrating, especially when your flight gets cancelled on a Friday night and you find yourself in an airport hotel, but it has been a very exciting year and I am very much looking forward to building my team next year and introducing new initiatives for our customers.”

In common with the rest of ProLogis, Ashman runs a young team. She has two property managers in the UK, another ten across Europe and the development programme for 2005 means that the team will grow further.

No two days as a property manager are ever the same. This is probably what all property managers will say is the best and worst about the job: you never know what is going to happen next. “Days are completely variable, from receiving a call about travellers invading a site, to managing requests for alterations, putting customers in contact with contractors and dealing with emergency requests in addition to the routine tasks,” says Ashman.

ProLogis undertakes all of its property management in-house, which means that life as a property manager is never dull. “The reality is that, as property manager, the buck stops with you. It’s your responsibility to sort out the problem as quickly as possible. There is no managing agent to call to sort it out and often it can result in late night calls when there is a crisis – but that goes with the territory,” says Ashman.

Dealing with travellers has become one of the most frustrating parts of the job. “We spend an inordinate amount of money in trying to prevent them getting on to our vacant sites, but when they really want to get on it is hard to stop them. In one case we put up a fence with locked gates. Within a week they had managed to get the gates off the hinges and they had disappeared,” says Ashman.

Happily, the positives outweigh the negatives. In the UK ProLogis works with a core team of contractors to ensure that services are of the quality it demands. The key to providing a consistent high standard lies in the partnerships ProLogis has developed with three key contractors who provide landscaping and external facilities management, security services and building maintenance. “We work together as a team and all have the same philosophy of providing customer service. Our parks are maintained at a consistently high standard, while we achieve competitive service charge budgets by using our size to bulk-buy services. Our combined service charge budget for operational schemes currently totals £1.2M a year and, with planned new developments, this is likely to grow by at least 50% over the next 12 months. That should enable us to be even more competitive.”

ProLogis is also reacting to the gradual change in lease structures and in particular the trend towards shorter more flexible leases in the UK. Ashman is involved with the leasing team in the development of a flexible lease with an FM package included. ProLogis is looking at various options, in association with its customers, to find out what they want going forwards. Opportunities include bulk-buying utilities and other building related services, and passing savings on to customers.

Ashman comments: It’s about trying to provide good high quality services that customers actually want as competitively as possible.” n

Louise Ashman is ProLogis’ vice president, Client Services Europe. Tel: 0121 224 8700.

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