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Talking business

Family First

by Emily Landes

Eric Andresen grew up in the property management business, but he never saw himself as a career property manager. He worked every summer of his teenage years doing maintenance work for what was then his father’s company, West Coast Property Management, but he never saw himself as a career property manager. He even gave up a great opportunity to work as a stage manager for the San Francisco Opera when his father matched the salary offer if he’d come to work at West Coast, but still he never saw himself as a career property manager. “It was the last thing I ever thought I was going to be doing, but I took the job,” he reflects.

Andresen might not have seen himself as a property manager, but his father definitely did. He never told his son, but he was quietly biding his time until Andresen became hooked on the industry that his father had worked in since the early 1960s. Finally, six years after Andresen came on board at West Coast, his father filled him in on the master plan: he was going to retire and his son was going to take over the business. At the time, Andresen was taken by surprise. “I had no idea that my dad had always intended to sell the business to me and have me keep it going,” he says today. “That was his little plan in the background that I wasn’t aware of.”

By that time, Andresen had grown used to the stability of working an 8 to 5 day and having his evenings free. He also enjoyed the feeling of taking an owner’s building and making it function more efficiently than it had before. And, while his father railed against the increased regulations and growing number of Bay Area communities falling under rent control, these rules did not intimidate Andresen. For the first time, father and son were on the same page: it was time for the new generation to take over. “He had definitely had enough and recognized that I could pick it up and move the company forward,” Andresen recalls.

And move it forward he did. In the 16 years since Andresen has taken the reigns at West Coast, the company has gone from managing 850 units to managing 2,300 units. The number of clients has increased fourfold. Rather than one maintenance person, West Coast now has a whole maintenance company, with almost 20 employees. In fact, the overall staff has gone up to 75 employees, versus only 25 in Andresen’s father’s day.

These staffing gains are among Andresen’s proudest achievements. In an industry with ample employee turnover, Andresen has not just built up a company with more employees, he has built up a company with more satisfied employees. “I’m kind of proud of the number of people who are happily working for us,” he crows. “It’s one of those businesses where people move around a lot, so I’ve managed to keep most of them on board by paying them well, treating them well and allowing them to do what they’re hired to do.”

Micromanaging is something that Andresen learned not to do while watching his father work. He believes that if you hire the right people, the best thing to do is let them do their job without much interference from above. So, how do you find the right people? It’s really a matter of looking for employees who have the ability to handle a career where most of the calls coming in are from people with problems. “You can’t very well deal with 30 complaint phone calls in a day if you’re angry. It doesn’t work,” he advises. “The attitude has to be that you want to take care of the problem. You want to fix it.” If you have this essential can-do attitude, he believes there’s nowhere to go but up.

That’s what Marianne Wong learned during her five years at West Coast. She started at the front desk and then worked her way up to become an assistant property manager. She was then promoted again to a property manager with her own portfolio of 350 units, largely in San Francisco with a few in San Mateo.

It’s a pretty common story at West Coast, where almost all the property managers were promoted from within. But Wong had an extra spotlight shine on her in November, when she won the Property Manager of the Year Award at the SFAA Trophy Awards. “Having started as a front desk receptionist and working my way up to Property Manager of the Year, it’s a great feeling,” she says. “I’m really glad that Eric has so much faith and confidence in me.”

Apparently, Andresen really knows how to pick ‘em because he also had another winner this year: Victor Yeung of West Coast won the Maintenance Technician of the Year Award. While Wong was a bit shocked to win her award, Yeung says he felt confident that he would win after two previous losses in the category. “Third time’s the charm,” he jokes. He is keeping is trophy next to the last award he won: a bowling trophy from 1978. At this rate, he figures, “When I turn 75, that’ll be my next one.”

It’s appropriate that Yeung and Wong won in the same year, since they work together so often. “He’s my go-to man when I need help,” Wong says of Yeung, adding that he’s currently working on a remodel in one of her buildings where the previous tenants left after 13 years. The unit is being redone from top to bottom, including updated floors, paint, light fixtures, hardware and even the electrical system. “I don’t approve of easy fixes,” Wong says. “We all work as part of a team to get the job done right.”

This team spirit is exactly what Andresen is looking for in his company. He feels that, in such a potentially high-stress industry, it’s important that employees feel like they are supported. “We’re all here to help each other out,” he says. “When you’re in a business that’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are people who get phone calls at two o’clock in the morning. It’s their job to take that phone call, but if you’re here supporting and taking care of each other, it’s not such a chore.”

In fact, the term that Andresen often uses to discuss his staff is “family.” Sometimes that’s literal, like the three sisters who work at West Coast or the regular company-sponsored social events that employees’ families are invited to attend. But usually it just means having the attitude that, as Andresen says, “we’re all in this together.”

Speaking of family, unlike Andresen, the generation that comes after him is more than ready to take the reigns. “My 12-year-old daughter thinks she going to be taking over,” he laughs. “She’s already announced that to the staff.” How did they respond? Like any supportive family, they gave her a round of applause and wished her luck.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the SFAA or the SF Apartment Magazine. Emily Landes is the editor of SF Apartment Magazine. Copyright © 2010 by Black Point Press. All rights reserved.