Colliers’ President and COO Karen Whitt Talks Property Management

Colliers’ U.S. President and COO of Real Estate Management Services Karen Whitt says she owes her accomplishments to her advisers and former supervisors.

Karen Whitt, president and COO of Colliers International’s U.S. real estate management services, tells High Rise Facilities she owes a lot to her industry mentors.

Starting her career at San Diego-based Janez Properties, Whitt has also worked for Faison & Associates, Trammell Crow Company, and Grubb & Ellis. She has directly managed for large clients such as TIAA, Clarion UBS, and Principal, and she credits mentoring and training for her success in each of these roles.

Whitt, Karen“For me, this industry is really about the growth of people,” says Whitt. “My success is due to what my supervisors and mentors taught me. I’m hopeful I’ll have the same impact on other professionals in the industry.”

Q: How did you get started in property management?
A: I didn’t plan on getting into property management. In fact, I didn’t even know what it was. After completing undergraduate school, I planned on getting a master’s in social work but I didn’t want to go directly to grad school from undergrad; I wanted to take some time off to work. So I took a job with Janez Properties in San Diego, a commercial property management company – having no idea what it was – working for the director of property management as her assistant. I found it so fascinating, and that’s what I’ve done ever since. Janez Properties was amazing about training me. I was very lucky that I fell into something that I’ve enjoyed so much.

Q: What are some of your biggest career accomplishments?
A: The most exciting thing – and what I’m proud of – has been seeing the people I worked with a long time ago progress in the industry. Former property assistants of mine are now in leadership roles at many of the local or national property management companies, and it’s nice to know that I mentored some of them. Mentors are one of the only reasons I am where I am today, so it’s nice to see so many people I grew up with in the business being so successful in different aspects of the field. If it weren’t for my mentors, I wouldn’t have been running a national property management firm in my mid-thirties. It was luck, but it was also training and hard work. It was what my supervisors and mentors taught me that allowed me to get there.

I often get made fun of because of the number of designations I have after my name – CPM, RPA, and CRE – because of the different groups I’m involved with. I’m involved with IREM, BOMA’s National Advisory Council, and CREW, and I’m a Counselor of Real Estate. And I also sit on Virginia Tech’s property management board, and am on the executive committee for Virginia Tech’s new real estate undergrad program, which brings six colleges together for this new degree.

Q: In your decades of experience, how have you seen the industry change?
A: The skills have changed in terms of what’s necessary to run a building. When I started in the industry, you had building managers: people who understood the physical aspects of the building, but who weren’t required to understand that the asset was more than bricks and mortar. Now, we need to have a solid understanding of what the owners’ goals and objectives are for the property. We also need to understand where the building is in its lifecycle: what does the client want to do with it?

The other thing that has changed is the amount of collaboration across all aspects of the business. Everyone is trying to solve for the client and discover what they need. You can’t silo that into brokerage, property management, etc. The client doesn’t need us to be different groups; they’re looking for a consolidated approach to solve the problem. Clients want knowledge taken from a global basis to a national basis to a state basis to their jurisdiction and applied to their individual building.

Q: What advice do you have for property management professionals based on lessons you’ve learned?
A: It’s so important to be curious and ask questions. When I was a property assistant and we still had papers to file, I would read all of the letters that went out to tenants so I could understand what was going on. And that would then prompt me to look back at the lease to understand why the firm was responding to a particular issue in a particular way.

It’s also important to have empathy and be able to put yourself in the client’s or tenant’s shoes when you’re making every decision. If you’re doing work at a building, do you understand the impact it will have on your tenant? Clients may not be able to tell you what they need, but they can tell you about challenges they’re facing. For example, a lot of our clients aren’t local; they weren’t able to travel to a lot of the properties. They told us they weren’t able to get to their properties as frequently as they would like, but weren’t able to tell us what they needed to address it. So we established a video inspection for properties. It seems like a very simple thing to do, but it’s a workable solution to the challenge they were facing.

Q: What does the future hold for the industry?
A: With Millenials coming into the workforce, we’re going to see things change in terms of how we’re utilizing office space. We’ll probably going to see more of a 24/7 culture, especially in urban areas … they go for one cocktail and then go back to work. That’s going to change how buildings are designed and utilized.

Leah Grout Garris

Leah Garris An award winning editor, Leah spent over eight years in senior editorial positions at both BUILDINGS magazine and ARCHI-TECH magazine. Her work has been incorporated into training and educational programs around the country. She is a graduate of University of Iowa. She is Editor at Large for High Rise Facilities.