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Lisa Chamoff

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Businesses across the country, in a wide array of industries, were faced with monumental challenges from the novel coronavirus pandemic. Particularly in New York, the real estate industry saw unique hurdles, as in-person property showings and closings were prohibited, construction stopped and property managers had to work to reduce the spread of a deadly virus, all while the economy faced its biggest challenge since the Great Depression.

We spoke to several leaders in the real estate industry to find out what they’ve learned from this experience and the steps they’re taking to shore up their businesses in the future.

Highlyann Krasnow, partner at MNS

What have you learned from COVID-19 thus far?

That companies can be resilient and nimble. Our staff was very willing to adjust to working from home and our clients were understanding in adjustments to business practices.

What initiatives (if any) did MNS take pre-COVID to prepare for a downturn?

We cut out spending immediately. All unnecessary expenses, like our water filtration system in the office and any other expenditures, were quickly eliminated. We furloughed some employees immediately and adjusted everyone else’s salaries (eliminated the partner’s salaries) in an effort to ensure we could last for many months. This was prior to any stimulus package being discussed. We wanted to ensure from the onset that we could keep the company going.

What will MNS implement after this to plan for future downturns?

This isn’t our first downturn. Real estate in New York has had to outlast 9/11 and the financial crash in 2008. The key for us is to have a diversified portfolio that is not heavily weighted on one part of the market. We handle brokerage for condos, rentals and releasing. We handle pre-development planning, marketing, web development, advertising and interior design. While the market itself is not robust, we still have to plan and design future projects ensuring we have diversified income streams. This ensures our ability to be able to outlast downturns.

Francis Greenburger, chairman and CEO of Time Equities

What have you learned from COVID-19 thus far?

This crisis has only reaffirmed one of my most important basic principles, “Expect the unexpected.”

What initiatives (if any) did Time Equities take pre-COVID to prepare for a downturn? 

Another one of my guiding principles is “Under promise and over deliver.” In preparation for a downturn, we made sure to have available cash and unused line of credit reserves as well as have a conservative approach to all proformas.

What will Time Equities implement after this to plan for future downturns?

We will certainly be more attentive to contagious health issues, regardless of where they start in the world.

Applicable principle: “Make ‘hay’ while the sun shines but carry a large umbrella.”

Arlinda Dine, executive vice president of new development for Queens-based real estate brokerage Modern Spaces

What have you learned from COVID-19 thus far?

A little humanity goes a long way, especially in times of crisis. Despite the terrible circumstances, it has been refreshing to see companies, leaders and brands showing compassion in new and innovative ways. I think this highlights what I have always believed – we are all more alike than we think, and there is something unifying about an experience like this.

What initiatives (if any) did the firm take pre-COVID to prepare for a downturn?

As soon as we knew our team would be working remotely, our primary focus was designing virtual tours for all residential listings. We’ve utilized these before, though we knew we would be relying on them more heavily during this time.

Secondly, we looked at our expenses and services to determine if there was anything the firm could do without – it wasn’t drastic, though we wanted to be wise about our budget in light of potential changes in revenue.

Finally, we got creative. As a small and nimble team, we are good at thinking outside the box. We have one of the largest projects in New York City right now, the 802-unit condominium Skyline Tower. Since we need to keep momentum going for the project, despite the inability to conduct showings in-person, we partnered with a nonprofit in our neighborhood to launch a new creative campaign. The campaign, #PaintTheTownFromHome, engages people at home with a fun arts and crafts activity. When people post their creation on social media and add tag us, the client donates to a non-profit dedicated to relief efforts for COVID19. The public has been responding very positively, which feels like a major win for our team.

What will you implement after this to plan for future downturns?

Well, our first priority will certainly be hygiene, personal space and maintaining a healthy workplace. I think we will also dig deeper into our creative roots and our community involvement, which has always been a priority for Modern Spaces. However, this pandemic has reminded us how entrenched we are in the community and how important it is for us to come together in order to thrive. I will also be encouraging my team to learn how to use TikTok, as this is a new hobby of mine since quarantining!

Shirley Blumberg, founding partner, KPMB Architects

What have industry leaders learned from COVID-19 thus far?

Be prepared to roll with the punches, which will come fast and furious.

What initiatives did we take pre-COVID to prepare for a downturn?

Learning from our experience with SARS in 2003, Toronto put a plan in place to be ready for the next pandemic. We weren’t.

What will we implement after this to plan for future downturns?

We have always operated with a financial cushion in case of a crisis. Nobody anticipated all 125 of us working from home. We have upped our game in terms of technology to accomplish this. Still, more importantly, we now know the incredible ability of our staff to function as a team despite working remotely. We will be even better the next time.

Mark Stumer, founding principal, Mojo Stumer

What have you learned from COVID-19 thus far?

I have seen during this period how precious the human experience is, especially with my staff, and just how important the interaction of us working together as a team truly is. I have learned, though, that virtual meetings do work for architecture firms and that we have become so much more productive because of fewer interruptions.

What initiatives (if any) did the firm take pre-COVID to prepare for a downturn?

By coincidence, a few months ago we started to cut down on paper and transition into being more digitally enhanced. We started using Microsoft Surface laptops and tablets as sketching and drawing surfaces that allow us to have shared design sessions where multiple designers – or designers and our clients — can work together remotely to collaboratively sketch out ideas or markup plans as we discuss developing concepts. This has been a lifesaver.

What will you implement after this to plan for future downturns?

We will be training all our staff to be able to work at home with flexible hours and with specific Zoom meeting protocols and times. It will be a new world.

Steven Goldschmidt, senior vice president and director of sales at Warburg Realty

What have you learned from COVID-19 thus far?

We have learned many things. The most important, from my perspective, has been to be focused and honest and transparent and informed – management has taken responsible actions and has had to provide clear and honest and transparent direction, and agents, in turn, have had to avoid the extremes of sugar coating, on one hand, and being alarmists on the other hand, in advising clients. Everyone has an opinion these days and the key is to sort through all the information and misinformation to be able to provide clear and cogent direction to our agents, and for our agents to do the same with their clients and customers. The ability to successfully communicate this remotely has been a priority.

What initiatives (if any) did the firm take pre-COVID to prepare for a downturn?

No one was fully prepared for COVID. However, the very nature of our firm’s management team and its work together over the years allowed us to take prompt action to mitigate and limit the effect on our operations. We closed our offices earlier in the pandemic than most, developed a clear (if at times painful) financial plan, were among the first companies to file for and receive support under CARES and PPP and cut all but necessary expenses, and quickly developed our work from home protocols to come up with effective ways to communicate with our agents, and effective tools for agents to stay in touch with their clients and sphere. As industry leaders, moreover, we were instrumental in developing COVID-related policies and best practices for the real estate community.

What will you implement after this to plan for future downturns?

Our business as brokers requires us to ride the waves of market downturns and upswings and to advise buyers and sellers accordingly. That won’t change. As for planning for another pandemic or disaster, each event provides experience and teachable moments for the next event. We were prepared to act swiftly to deal with the COVID pandemic because we learned lessons from 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis.

Robert Nelson, president of Nelson Management Group

What have you learned from COVID-19 thus far?

So far, I’ve learned that given what’s going on right now, experience in this industry really doesn’t mean much. All rules of thumb are out the window right now and we’re all learning as we go. I’ve been in this industry for over 35 years and have never experienced anything like this before – no one has. We’re doing the best we can to service our tenants.

What initiatives (if any) did you take pre-COVID to prepare for a downturn?

We have always been cautious in not over leveraging our properties, and we operate under the premise that if we have a good tenant who pays their rent, we don’t need to squeeze every last dollar.

What will you implement after this to plan for future downturns?

We have always recognized that we need to prepare for a rainy day, and by not over leveraging our properties and keeping a healthy amount of cash in reserve, it will help us to better weather the storm the in the future.

Author: Lisa Chamoff

Source: Forbes: The Lessons Real Estate Leaders Have Learned From The Coronavirus Pandemic

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