In the Trenches with PREIT’s Helane Stein

In this week’s ‘In the Trenches’, Chris Saah chats with Helane Stein, Director of IT for Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), one of the first equity REITs in the U.S., with a portfolio that consists of 49 retail properties, including shopping malls, community centers and development properties.

What is PREIT doing currently and differently, especially in today’s economically challenging times? 
Following the economic downturn in 2008, first spending was strictly controlled, even reduced where possible, and later workforce reductions were necessary. Spending cuts created obvious challenges, and doing more with less meant employees needed to increase productivity just to maintain current operational output. IT was tasked with finding ways to reduce costs, increase productivity in the short term, and prepare for growth when the economy recovers.
Our strategy concentrated on four areas: 1) reduce business and IT costs, 2) optimize business processes to maximize operational efficiency, 3) leverage existing systems to take advantage of opportunities and avoid risks, and 4) maintain agility to enable new business ventures.
Specific projects that stem from this strategy revolve around improving core workflow and key processes, which include deal flow and cash management, improving collaboration and business intelligence through enhanced reporting and analytics, and developing real-time forecasting.
Is this something you are developing from the ground up or are you leveraging existing platforms? 
Interestingly, for our real-time forecasting project, we are leveraging our existing tools and systems, and developing key integration points to improve core processes, enhance information quality, and provide greater visibility for reporting and analysis. We are tying together our deal flow system, our budgeting and planning systems, and our lease and revenue tracking to create intergroup performance and process transparency that leads to greater utilization of information.
Our deal flow systems are internally developed on a Microsoft platform because there was no available vendor solution. We have two types of deals: Inline and Anchor leases and Specialty leases for carts, kiosks and short-term agreements. We process approximately 5,000 specialty leasing agreements a year. We built a fully-automated workflow for creating and approving the agreements that includes a module for budgeting and forecasting, a credit card portal, and feeds the billing and tenant information to our JD Edwards ERP system. Then we leveraged Cognos to create color-coded analytic reports. The inline and anchor system has key integration points to our JD Edwards systems, supports the core workflows, provides deal analysis and reporting, and is a source for real-time forecasting.
For PREIT, integration and utilizing existing technology seem to be key. Can you provide more details? 
Well, to remain cost effective, we try to leverage existing technology wherever possible. However, we also are focused on being more nimble to take on changes and maintain the agility to support our clients by staying current on infrastructure. At the same time, and importantly, we are trying to keep it simple for our property-based offices in order to get systems up and running very quickly. For example, when we have to set up an office within a mall, we can do it quickly and efficiently. We send an equipment/hardware package overnight; it’s plugged in and the office is up and running. Today’s workplace must be mobile on various levels with a ubiquitous computing environment. With the rise of social media, we needed to stay current and participate in the trend.
Specifically, how have you made your network more ubiquitous? 
We’ve expanded our network capabilities. We support VPN from home for approved users. We looked into a variety of mobile tools and determined which worked best for our systems and business model. Now, we’re supporting iPhones and iPads for our executives, and we’re about to deliver our first iPhone App.
Really? What does it do? 
It will allow our leasing resource to pull up property and tenant information. It will even pull up tenant lease documents.
Very cool. How far along is it? 
We’ve recently begun user testing.
What challenges are you facing? 
The primary challenges relate to integration and usability. First, we need to integrate the new tools and technologies with existing systems while ensuring data security, information accuracy, and proper user support. Security is always a priority, so we remain vigilant with upgrades. Then, even though new technologies utilize a different programming structure from those currently in place, we must ensure they all work seamlessly and accurately. For example, the app must pull updated property and tenant detail and deal flow data from separate sources and verify they’re correctly aligned; a challenge to say the least, but one we have overcome. Lastly, of course, we must ensure end users are familiar with the new tools and technology, as well as their uses and limitations. So, we provide ongoing support from initial training to help desk problem resolution.
Thanks for your time today, Helane. You are really making some impressive gains in work flow automation and real time delivery of information to your team. Good luck with all this. 
You’re welcome, it was my pleasure. Thanks so much.