In The Trenches with Porter Bellew, CIO, Washington Real Estate Investment Trust

In this week’s “In the Trenches,” Chris Saah chats with Porter Bellew, Chief Information Officer for Washington Real Estate Investment Trust, one of the oldest publicly traded REITs in the country.

CS: Porter, why don’t we start by you telling us about Washington Real Estate Investment Trust. Those of us in the DC metro area are familiar with your company, but because of the regional focus, others may not be. 
Bellew: Glad to. WRIT was founded in 1960, making it the oldest publicly traded REIT in the country. We’re DC-based, and our entire portfolio is within a 2-hour drive of DC. While we are not regionally diverse, we own and manage a diversified portfolio by type that includes office, medical office, retail and multifamily properties and land for development. We have recently divested ourselves of our industrial portfolio and are now focusing on our core sectors.
CS: And you have a very good performance track record, don’t you? 
Bellew: Yes, we do. We have had 50 years of paying consecutive quarterly dividends to our shareholders. I think that is due in part to the strength and resilience of the Washington market and in part to our very conservation approach. We pride ourselves on one of the lowest G and A costs in the industry.
CS: So when you came over from Carr America four years ago, what mission were you tasked with to keep G and A low? 
Bellew: Well, management realized that we had many process improvement opportunities and created the CIO role to leverage technology to keep our costs low while delivering the kinds of tools the company needed to be competitive and efficient. I was fortunate to inherit a pretty green field, so I was able to immediately take advantage of the many solutions that had been developed without a lot of legacy systems to worry about and at a pretty low cost.
CS: Tell us about some of those successes. 
Bellew: We deployed SharePoint and built an Intranet on that platform as well as some business intelligence such as dashboards, variance reporting and workflow around tenant correspondence. We’re using Nexus for image-based AP. We’ve been using JD Edwards since 1998, which is great for our commercial and retail portfolio, but not that good for multi-family, so we’ve deployed RealPage by One Site which is another SaaS solution for our multi-family properties. We’re also using Energy Solve by Avid for utility payments, Workspeed for service requests, and UltiPro’s Saas solution for payroll.
CS: So you have really moved to the cloud in a fairly significant way. Was the change difficult? 
Bellew: Not really. That is what has been exciting about my time here. Much of what we have done is either new, or replaces a manual or spreadsheet tool, so we have been able to take advantage of all of these very competitive solutions with little pain to the operations and without adding any additional staff.
CS: So Porter, what would you say has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced when you’ve automated so many of your business processes and moved so much to the cloud? 
Bellew: Well, it’s hard to call any of it a challenge because it all has been so much fun. There is so much out there waiting to be used. I guess you could always say security or DR, but if you pick the right vendor, they take care of that for you. You have to make sure they have their SAS70s, and you kick the tire on those things and you interact with your vendors about those security and change management issues. But the one challenge they can’t help you with is data governance. It’s your data, and you now have it sitting in these various disparate systems, and it is up to you to ensure that they can all speak to each other, they all have to speak the same language and only you can do that. For example, the control keys, whether it be the business unit, lease number, or the tenant ID, all need to be standardized as they get propagated. So for us, data governance has been the challenge.
CS: Great point. You can’t enforce it at the system level the way you can with an in-house single solution. Porter, thanks for your time today.