In the Trenches with Boxer Properties COO, Justin Segal

We asked Justin Segal, COO of Boxer Properties, a real estate investment company that specializes in the development, turn-around, acquisition, management, and disposition of a variety of commercial properties, to share his success and challenges to introducing innovation into the industry.

CS: When we’ve talked about IT in the commercial real estate space, you shared some valuable insights about the challenges of developing and delivering solutions in our industry.Please share your observations. What has changed recently? 
Justin: Our industry went into hibernation, putting IT projects on the back burner. Meanwhile, the technology industry kept moving forward, delivering many valuable tools. Technology among end users exploded, with everyone using mobile devices, installing applications, and expecting immediate results.
CS: Technology has truly become mainstream just in the past 2 years. My mother, who struggled for years with accessing email and the internet, is now a daily iPad user. 
Justin: It’s totally mainstream. And now that money has begun to flow again, budget is no longer a dry well. We’ve committed significant dollars to development, as many others have. Furthermore, motivation is no longer an issue because many things that were an opportunity just two years ago are now an imperative.
CS: If tools are plentiful, leadership sees innovation as an imperative, projects are funded, and users are adopting technology, what are the obstacles to introducing real innovation into the industry? 
Justin: It’s in the area of change management and internal adoption. I think the CIO cannot just develop solutions and present them. We must introduce and manage change in a sophisticated way. If we don’t understand, anticipate, and manage reactions to change, our projects could be fraught with problems and we may never really deliver the solutions we are tasked with providing.
CS: Do you think our challenges are different than other industries? 
Justin: Everyone faces similar challenges, but CRE has unique obstacles. It is an older industry, relying on processes existing 20 years ago. Because margins are tighter, physical assets understandably get first access to capital, so IT tends to be resource-constrained. Bringing change and new solutions can be harder to do. You must find time for the right resources to weigh in during analysis, development, testing and training, in addition to the regular operating workload. In a company like Boxer Property , where we have built a model doing everything in-house, you have multiple systems that must be tightly integrated for efficiency.
CS: Great observations, Justin. Regarding specific products you deliver, you mentioned your Sharepoint deployment was a huge success. Can you give us details? 
Justin: This past year we’ve upgraded Yardi and created an integrated Sharepoint environment which we use as a presentation layer for delivering BI. We’ve created a power pivot gallery, used as a prototyping tool for more integrated reporting. We’ve created what we call One Page for properties, tenants, and vendors. We pull data from different systems and databases, displaying all pertinent information in one place. These tools can be used to create ad hoc portfolios. For example, we can look at properties managed by a particular manager or only office properties in Phoenix.
CS: I imagine data integrity and normalization was a big challenge. 
Justin: Yes, at first. We kept harping about the data that was inputted, the importance of accuracy, consistency. But as we developed tools to gather information in a normalized way, we could control what went in, ensuring that we delivered value in what came out. The platform has rapidly become a mainstay of the workday, which has been very gratifying for us. In fact, recent features offered to leasing staff were so popular, our IT folks got a standing ovation!
CS: Well done! Given the number of elements involved, has it been difficult to maintain and enhance? 
Justin: We’ve incorporated two features that make life easier. From the data standpoint, we embedded the ability to initiate actions right in the application. If a user needs to make a change, they can initiate that right from the view, which helps keep data accurate. From the feature standpoint, we have created page templates that are populated on the fly. Rather than maintaining hundreds of pages, we can make changes in one place.
CS: Nice! You mentioned challenges you overcame delivering these products. What techniques helped manage change and facilitate adoption? 
Justin: Initially, we justified changes we were proposing by explaining the benefits, painting a big picture of the future. But we found that the benefits were too far down the road. People tended to focus on change and the effort related to that, which of course generates all kinds of reactions. So we began to take a more practical approach. We embedded analysts in operational meetings to listen to what was working, what wasn’t. Our approach became: “We solve problems”. This helped immensely. We were no longer trying to bring them into our world, our project. We were going into their world, their problems.
We also instituted Boxer University, online classes to train people on what we do; courses on the use of the tools, on accounting practices such as how to handle pass-thrus and escalations. It’s helpful, and anyone can take advantage of training according to their schedule.
CS: Tell us about projects you have on the horizon. 
Justin: We’re planning to introduce a document management product called M-Files. What we like about M-Files is the technology – it is built on .NET and designed for interoperability. They have spent a lot of time on APIs, it is built to play well with other apps rather than attempt to build all functionality into their product. We like the agility of that approach.
Another solution is a case management system. Our business model is built around doing everything in-house – from HVAC maintenance to lawyers to architects to marketing, so tight integration of work flow is critical. We have many small teams and they all have similar needs. Everyone needs to be able to create an item, assign it, track the status, etc. So we are building a single platform for all teams to track and manage their work. We believe it will really improve efficiency and service delivery.
CS: Thanks Justin, for taking time to share your success and insights. You’ve made great strides in consolidating data in a presentation that best meets your users’ needs. Best of luck with your upcoming projects.