Celebrating the small wins – and the big ones: Anna Molinaro

Last week, Anna Molinaro from OBrien Real Estate Blackburn took out the Real Estate Institute of Victoria Excellence Award for Residential Property Manager of the year.

It’s an impressive win for Anna, excelling in what will no doubt go down as one of the worst real estate markets in living memory.

And, it’s even all the more impressive when you consider that Anna only joined the OBrien family last July.

The Molinaro family agency, run by her parents Frank and Lena, moved from Whitehorse, where they had been situated for close to 30 years, to a brand new OBrien office in Blackburn.

We caught up with Anna to find out what she did differently during 2020, and how that experience will propel her into 2021.

Congratulations on winning the award.

Thank you. It’s super exciting. I’ve wanted this title for such a long time, I must admit. It’s what you work to achieve as a property manager. To be recognised by a industry body like the REIV is a pretty massive deal, so I’m absolutely over the moon.

In terms of how you operated this year, obviously, everything was out the window. Did you lean on innovation and technology to get through?

Absolutely. In terms of innovation in tech, I mean, who would have thought that a property manager would have to be considering doing inspections virtually?

I think the digital tools and platforms that have been made available from a lot of the programs that we use, such as InspectRealEstate, and Inspection Express, has made the job much easier, because we’ve had to turn to things like using digital platforms for virtual routine inspections, for example.

All of those are off the table – and you obviously can’t just let a property sit there without being inspected. 

So, I guess it’s having to train and educate the tenants and landlords to see another side of property management: ‘We are still managing your property, and we’re doing everything that we can, but we are not physically allowed to inspect, therefore we have had to rely on digital tools available”.

Our team has been able to do virtual walk-through tours of all of rental properties, as well, so, in terms of advertising, they’ve been walking through, and talking as they walk through the property, explaining. That’s been really, really good, in terms of leasing.

Will you be using any of these newfound techniques once they’re no longer necessary?

This is an interesting one. Now that the digital platforms and tools and tech have really come a long way, I think we could, in the future, be using a lot more of the digital tools along the track.

I’m not saying that routine inspections and property managers are going to be obsolete, but there are other options available now, so I think they’ll really be looked into; how real estate agents can adapt these methods into their businesses, moving forward.

Has your relationship with tenants and landlords during this time been tougher than usual?

Umm (laughs) I’m not going to lie. It has been challenging, because obviously people are really financially strained and stretched in all directions, so property managers have been on the frontline of real estate, if you like.

I think we’ve been really feeling like we’re the meat in the middle of the sandwich during COVID, so it’s been difficult. But I think trying to just have a level head and a level playing field has really helped myself and the team to not to take things personally.

It’s really important to empathise with tenants and landlords. I mean, some of our team are feeling it, and doing it just as tough as some of our clients, so I think having that empathy and getting on their page has really helped them to feel really respected, and that what they’re asking for is really warranted.

Rental reductions have been a massive thing. People don’t want to move out of their home, but at the same time they can’t afford to pay full rent.

How did you handle rental reductions? Were you asked for a lot, and was that possibility something you flagged with your landlords pre-emptively? How did it all play out?

In terms of requests for reductions, at first they started sort of slow. We had one or two, here and there, and we thought, ‘Okay, this is new for us. How do we deal with this?’ So, of course, it was just those real genuine, honest and ethical conversations with both parties, tenants and landlords, to try and find a happy medium.

We’re now up to 60 requests for rent reductions [they handle between 250-300 properties], which has frightened the daylights out of me, to be quite honest.

When we were around 10 [requests], I went, ‘Hmm, is this going to stop, how long is this going to be here for?’

Then again, we didn’t know how long COVID was going to be here for. As property managers, we, ethically, had to take any requests forward to the landlords and then obviously negotiate and mediate from there.

I think, if I can honestly say, that our team has done that really, really well. But that’s had its stresses in itself, because we’ve had tenants crying on the phone, landlords crying on the phone, you’ve got tenants who are losing jobs, you’ve got landlords who are about to lose their home, and we’ve got to mediate this.

But, I’m really fortunate that we haven’t had to go to [outside] mediation. We’ve been able to negotiate all our requests ourselves. We’ve come to a negotiation between agents, landlords, tenants without it going to a higher authority.

Do you have a plan to move out of this stage, now that certain things are back on the table, and people can return to their offices? What’s the path forward look like?

For us, it was kinda bittersweet. We thought we were allowed to return today, but it turns out that we’ve still got those Government directions that if you can work from home, you must continue working from home.

Unfortunately, real estate in Melbourne is off the table at the moment, in terms of office return.

But we are allowed to do our one-on-one inspections which has really helped us so much.

It’s helped the team mentally, as well, being able to get out and meet clients again, and obviously that’s a snowball effect with sales as well, because it gets people back in properties: selling again, leasing again.

In terms of where I see it going from here, I think routine inspections are going to be on hold for a while longer. I’m hoping that open inspections may start to lift soon – there’s a bit of noise around that, but we’re still waiting to hear on the real guidelines and restrictions.

With the rental reductions and requests, the more that jobs go back to normality, we would like to think that tenants will be able to start to afford to pay their rent again.

Some of these reductions are on a month-by-month case, some landlords offered three months at a time, some offered 50 per cent, so it’s really a mixed bag.

Out of the 60, I’d say there are 50 different arrangements, all unique. I would like to think, and the landlords would expect, for rental payments to go back to normal as quickly as they can.

But that, again, depends on government guidelines, in terms of jobs returning and industries reopening. 

We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, so I’m hoping that’s sooner rather than later.

How have you personally found working from home?

I think working from home has been great, but I also think that very quickly the novelty wore off.

You can only see the same walls, the same family members, so often. I’m pretty keen to get back into an office environment as quick as I can.

Having that excitement of being able to go back to the office again, it gets us really excited for what’s around the corner. 

Obviously, COVID impacted everyone’s trajectory, but did you have specific plans for 2020 that were put on hold?

My brother and I have got a succession plan in place. Our parents, Frank and Lena run the business, my brother Anthony heads the sales department and I head the property management department.

So we had a succession plan of, not necessarily taking over the business in 2020, but, from a family and business perspective, just getting the wheels in motion, in terms of more operational management duties.

From that respect, we’ve had a delay, and obviously just things with staff: training and get-togethers, socialising, in terms of the team. And trying to monitor KPIs has been difficult as well.

I also put on a Senior Property Manager in January, and another property manager in July, so I haven’t seen them very much this year. Trying to onboard two new team members has been challenging. 

What’s it been like mentoring your team at a distance and with all these new circumstances?

I think Zoom is probably my new best friend (laughs). In the really early stages, for myself and the property management team, I organised Zoom check-ins every morning and then looped back every afternoon.

The purpose for the check-in was to see what’s on for the day, and where my assistance is needed, and the loop back is, again, a check in to see what was done, were there any challenges or barriers that you couldn’t cross, and what was the most difficult thing that happened that day – and what were your small wins?

We like to celebrate small wins – whether it’s a photo of a lease sign, or ‘I’ve just taken payment on this property’ – we’ve got a Slack channel that we use throughout the team, and I think celebrating the small wins has been really encouraging and positive for the team. 

Once upon a time, we used to celebrate when a property was sold, and that’s really great, but now we’re celebrating the smaller things, like we just got a new authority on a property to sell, or to lease, or ‘I’ve got five new inquiries on this property’.

Again, I think it goes back to the digital tools and platforms available. Without Zoom, I think that kind of connection could have been a lot more difficult to onboard team members, if I couldn’t see them face to face. Even though it is digitally, you’re still seeing them, and that connection is important.

At OBrien Real Estate, we call it Vitamin C: Vitamin Connection.

What processes that were in place before COVID do you now think will change in the wake of the pandemic?

I know it kind of sounds cliched, but being in [telephone] connect with as many people as you can on a daily basis, not only helps you feel like you’ve made a difference in someone’s life, but I think it makes them feel good to receive that call, when ordinarily they would have just received an email update.

I think people have never wanted to be spoken to more, than during this time. I think having telephone conversations has been vital.

We’ve done some virtual appraisals over Zoom, literally from my living room, I’m appraising someone’s property as they’re walking through, holding their phone. So, I think people still want that contact.

Although a lot of our jobs rely on legislation and putting things in writing, I think picking up the phone and letting the landlord know you had five private inspections today is great, rather than an email saying that.

Tone is really important during this time, and I think to receive the happiness in someone’s voice has been massive. I think we’ve got to get on the phone now, more than ever, and I think that’s something we’re gonna carry through after COVID. 

It takes five seconds to pick up the phone and tell someone, ‘I just wanted to let you know, thank you for approving that hot water unit, I’ve received that invoice and the job’s complete and your tenant’s really happy.’

I think that’s a lot nicer than receiving it in writing. 

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Nathan Jolly

Nathan Jolly was an in-house journalist with Elite Agent. He worked with the company from July 2020 to December 2020.