ONCE UPON A TIME IT WAS A CHALLENGE to think about outsourcing your trust accounting to someone else. But times have changed, and now it is relatively easy to gain efficiencies, save costs and sleep at night knowing everything is expertly done for you by professionals that are right here in Australia. Twelve months ago one of the oldest and most respected companies in Victoria, Miles Real Estate, outsourced their trust account and property management training to hastings + co. We talked to Lisa Fitzpatrick at Miles Real Estate to find out what the process is really like and the numerous benefits that their very large business has realised.
AS A FULL SERVICE agency, Miles Real Estate are one of the top independent businesses in Victoria, with a large list of residential and commercial properties under management. For the past 12 months they have been using the services of hastings + co, led by Natalie Hastings, both for managing their trust account and for developing property management procedures and processes as well as staff training.
The relationship started when, more than a year ago, Miles’ office manager Lisa Fitzpatrick realised that the business was at an ‘in between’ stage; the company was big enough that she needed to make sure they had back-up for the trust accounting function, taking into account the need for people to have time off, but also have enough staff to cover leave periods. Lisa says, “We were at a point where we needed to have more full-time people in the department so that we were always covered for annual leave and sick days. When we weighed up the cost, it was a commercial decision; it was more cost-effective to outsource.”
Natalie Hastings, CEO and founder of hastings + co, recalls, “At first I think that Miles were a bit hesitant to come on board. They approached us over twelve months ago and it seemed like a significant change in their existing processes, as they had been doing things ‘in house’ the same way for about 20 years.” And Lisa agrees it was a difficult decision. “Miles has been in business for 90 years; some clients have been with us a long time. We were initially very nervous about outsourcing, wondering whether we would lose business if the trust account function wasn’t kept in-house.”
But as Lisa explored the model further, other benefits became apparent in addition to the initial simple cost and resources efficiencies she had wanted to achieve. She says that maximising the use of software programs used at Miles was one such advantage. “It was also about having staff that were 100 per cent across Rockend REST. There’s so many times you find you have software in place, and you don’t use all the areas that you should be using, and therefore not getting the full benefit out of it.”
Having qualified Rockend Trainers and Consultants managing their trust account has proven to be beneficial in terms of keeping the system up to date and taking advantage of upgrades. Lisa says, “Shannon [Vallance] and Natalie keep us completely up to date with REST, upgrades and realigning processes and procedures around any of the new upgrade features. If we get a new property manager on board, hastings + co come on site and train them one on one in the hastings + co procedures. With anything additional or new in the software that comes through, they are always 100 per cent across it. And there’s always someone on the end of the phone if we need help,” she concludes.
Maintaining a trust account the size of Miles Real Estate requires a high level of experience and skill, and although hastings + co are now in a great day to day rhythm with their client on the trust side, Natalie is also incredibly proud of what they have achieved together on the training and procedural side of the engagement.
“We wrote a full operations manual for Miles,” she says. “It included how the two companies would work together and how to get the best out of the software and systems. It was incredibly detailed across each department in their business. And we delivered probably more than 35 hours’ worth of training across all the departments in the business before proceeding with us in what is now the current operating model. We really tailored our services to what Miles needed as a business.”
Knowing that Miles Real Estate needed to undergo a significant cultural shift for outsourcing to be successful, the team at hastings + co created a project plan to make sure that everyone would be comfortable during the transition.
Lisa says, “Going into it we thought that the commercial property managers would probably adjust to things more easily, because with invoicing and workflow on that side of the business there was less of a change, whereas residential property managers needed to be retrained in a workflow that was more new to them.
“So I guess we were concerned about push back with our property managers if they thought they were going to get extra work to do.
“Before handing over we also had to make sure that the REST action/conversation diary was 100 per cent up to date and monitored regularly, as this was to be the primary method of communication with hastings + co.”
Shannon adds, “It was great working with Miles to achieve the handover and I think the success of the project was also about the way Miles structured their business and staff accountability for ensuring things were done on time for us.”
Lisa now acknowledges that some of the benefits to date have been enormous. The day-to-day operating rhythm for Miles has become more efficient and there have been cost savings and other tangible benefits. “Since outsourcing to hastings + co we have been able to go from one statement run per week to three, which is a big benefit to our owners.”
She also says that it made a massive difference over the Christmas break to have business continuity. “We close every year over the holiday period,” says Lisa. “It used to be that the day we re-opened it would be absolute madness and bedlam. This year it was the smoothest it has ever been. Our staff were able to take a good break and when the office re-opened there was more of a sense of calm.”
Some of the other benefits, says Natalie, include the fact that Miles are now also able to rely more on their software for management reporting, which they felt they couldn’t do before as some reporting systems were manual. She has recognised this as an issue in the beginning with some of her other clients, who use spreadsheets and other manual methods to manipulate data believing their software reporting is wrong. “I say to them, no, the reports aren’t wrong; your data is wrong. That is the first thing we look at fixing up. And it is so worth it in the long run.”
Shannon Vallance, hastings + co General Manager, adds, “How we work really depends on what the individual client wants from us. With Miles, they were eager to better use REST and wanted to rely on REST more in terms of their management reporting. Natalie was very heavily involved in numerous meetings with them at their office about where there might be inconsistencies with their data, really assisting them in a clean-up of the data and also showing them different management reports that could assist them.”
Lisa agrees that the success of the project so far is down to the work that Natalie and Shannon had put in beforehand. “Shannon had a huge project plan with all the things that had to happen, the timelines, who was to action what – so I knew what things I had to do at our end, and what things she was doing. She would send through the manuals as they were being developed, check and change them to suit the way we operated. I always knew where she was at and I knew what I had to do at our end.”
Says Shannon, “For us, it’s not just punching numbers/receipt/reconcile/pay; we want to make sure our clients get the most out of the system. We want them to feel like they’ve been really supported by someone who’s not in the office every day but is only a phone call away.
“We all take the time to get to know our clients and develop good relationships with the people. We want them to feel like they are being looked after, as opposed to other outsourced accounting agencies which may sometimes say, ‘No, this is how it’s done and if you want to outsource to us then this is what you need to change or implement.’ We go in with the attitude of trying to help the business be better, fit in with their office, and where applicable maybe make suggestions on how they could better streamline procedures.”
Natalie continues, “At the end of the day it is our job to empower our clients. Not just at the agency level, but also the individual property managers, empowering them with information to make their job easier.”
Although the team from hastings + co still visit Miles regularly to provide training and updates, now the day to day mostly happens remotely. But the personal touch is important. Says Shannon, “We think it’s important at the start to meet everyone; property managers, department heads and senior figures at the company, so they have a face that they can then put the voice to when we’re speaking on the phone or sending emails.
“We also make a point to get out and visit our clients at least once a quarter. Sometimes that’s even more frequent, if we go and meet with management about certain things or provide training on the numerous upgrades. Every time our clients bring on a new employee, we try to get out just for a bit of a meet and greet as well.”
After 12 months of working with hastings + co, we ask Lisa if there is any advice she would give to other companies considering outsourcing their trust account.
“When we were going through the process of considering outsourcing to hastings + co, I think I rang three different agencies that were already using their services for trust accounting, and they all were very consistent in what they said,” she says. “One in particular said to me, ‘I can tell you a good story and a bad story with outsourcing’. They told me how they had outsourced previously with someone else and it was a complete disaster. They came back in [house]. They too, were incredibly reluctant to do it again, but felt they wanted to give it another go with hastings + co, and told me I wouldn’t regret it.
“I did ask the question, ‘Is it the sort of thing that, once you jump in and do it, you’ll look back and say I should have done this sooner?’ And she said, ‘Absolutely!’ I believe it lived up to that.”