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Empathy is saving my business

As a FLOCK, we give time, money, space, and our passion for real change.

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Lisa Wise, CEO of Flock DC (Photo Courtesy of Flock DC).

I own a family of mid-sized property management companies in the District proper. My passion for the  hands-on work of “landladying” took shape 15 years ago when I purchased a little historic adobe duplex in  Tucson, Arizona. Property management had always been my side hustle, but in 2008, landladying for a living  started to sound good. So I gave up my nonprofit work and went all in. Today, at Flock, our companies keep 52  folks employed and aggregate 6.5 million in business annually. All told, we manage over a billion dollars in real  estate. And we built the companies one door at a time.  

I never thought of myself as a risk taker, but starting a business at the very height of the great recession  was certainly a leap of faith. In the early days, though, with just a few team members and zero payroll, I was  really only risking my time and sanity. That I could launch what would become a thriving business in the  height of a recession felt like a feather in my cap. I love to solve problems; I’m at my best facing challenges,  finding ways to thrive despite the circumstances.  

But when this pandemic hit, suddenly, my time and talent weren’t all that was at stake. I worried hard.  And early. How would I protect my employees? How would I serve and soothe my clients and, importantly,  our residents?  


I started my business for the same reason most people do: I wanted to make money. But I also wanted  to change lives. For the better. Like a lot of successful business people, I grew up in financial insecurity. Yet I  was the kind of kid who saw the potential for earning money everywhere she looked. I washed cars, I shoveled  walks, I vacuumed houses, I cared for pets, I sold Girl Scout cookies to pay for summer camp. But my deepest  dream was to work in an office. My mother didn’t understand my burning need to be an entrepreneur, but  when I was 11 years old she took pity and offered me one half of our ramshackle garden tool shed to do with  what I pleased. 


What I pleased was to set up my enterprise, The Sherlock Holmes Detective Agency, a name of which I  was very proud and found not the least bit unoriginal. Although I’d read all the Nancy Drew mysteries I could  find, I had an uneasy grasp on what the work of a nonfiction detective entailed. Nonetheless, I had a very clear  picture of myself sitting behind my desk, taking meetings with distraught clients to review the scope of their  mysteries.


Given that our house was in a perpetual state of repair, construction scraps were at my disposal. I  mounted leftover squares of drywall inside the shed and made a patchwork rug from carpet remnants. I painted  the walls yellow and created a makeshift chair from a wooden box that wobbled only a little.  


To land my first client I would need to advertise my services, so I rode my bike to the offices of the local  newspaper to take out an advertisement. I remember Roberta, the editor and sole employee of the ​Idaho  Mountain Express​ as a kind woman who treated my request with grave professionalism. Now that I’m a parent I  can imagine this moment through her eyes. I feel such gratitude for her simple display of empathy. 

Like every other nimble business, my company has gone virtual, and quickly. Today my life is about  live chats, board meetings via Zoom, virtual home inspections, camera-based maintenance diagnostics, and  leveraging technology with vendors. We’ve streamlined communications and found new efficiencies in our  workflows that impact everything from banking to processing applications and managing relationships. We’re  engaging new vendors and contractors; the kind of people who can pivot as quickly as we do. We’re also  spending more time on our company culture, on thought leadership, and–of course–on financial modeling to  stay afloat. Most importantly, we’re checking in and contributing to the wellness of our community, our  residents and our clients.  


Since this crisis began, we have operated under the philosophy that it’s better to risk making tough  decisions too early than bad decisions too late. In early March, long before any states began to issue stay-at-home  directives, we furloughed our maintenance team, while projecting a $225,000 monthly drop in revenues. This  has resulted in not so much a financial gap to bridge as a yawning, terrifying chasm. But there was no question:  we needed to prioritize public health over profit and even solvency. I knew that working quickly to solve for the  worst possible scenario would help us save our Flock in the long run. 


As every good leader knows, the buck stops at the top. What every good leader also knows is that when  the bucks run out, the top should be paid last. Tragically this ethic is practiced so infrequently in the U.S. that it  becomes an exception to celebrate and the rarest demonstration of servant leadership. Owners paying  themselves last should be the rule, not the exception. I am the person who hired our teammates; they and their  families rely on me for their livelihood. How could I possibly accept a full paycheck during this time?   


I took a 75 percent pay cut for the duration of the crisis. I now make just enough to cover the mortgage,  utilities, food, and the babysitter, who can of course no longer babysit. Like so many of my employees, I’ve  asked her–and she’s happily agreed–to perform a different job for a while. She’s become an essential worker,  shopping for groceries for me and the management team as well as the two families sheltering in my guest house  and basement apartment. 

I asked our management team to accept a 5 percent cut; in response they offered 10. They also offered  to halt their retirement savings payments so that the company could save on our 401k match program. We are  running on fumes, operating in short-term crisis mode; hoarding cash that doesn’t need to go out the door. We  are focusing on payroll and small business vendors and covering bills that would threaten our credit worthiness  or expose us to liability if they went unpaid. Everything else–property taxes, utilities, scores of other invoices–have been put on ice.  


As for the rest of the staff, we are resetting the financial clock every 14 days in order to guarantee their  salaries for the following six weeks. We’re still offering 100 percent employer paid benefits and health care. My  financial models are continually evolving. There is no long-term financial plan because that would be an exercise  in futility and frustration, given things are changing so quickly.  


But we know nonetheless that nothing will be the same once we emerge from this crisis, and so a  long-term vision for our company is emerging, driven by a staff that is incredibly, doggedly motivated to make  it work. 
I am disheartened by the behavior of some of my competitors and colleagues during this crisis.  Landlords are emailing impersonal newsletters screeching CORONAVIRUS in the subject line, or worse,  nastygrams reminding tenants their rent is due on the first no matter what. They inform them in insensitive  language about the availability of public assistance and food banks.  


At Flock we’ve refurbished our website to be a pandemic information hub. We send residents  newsletters driven by caring and empathy and positivity. Most importantly we reduced rent by 15 percent in the  buildings we own. A colleague asked me why I did this, what did I see as the long game here, what was the  strategy? I didn’t have an answer. I did it because I could. And for me, that means I must. I did it because  empathy is my engine.  

Let me assure you I am no saint nor martyr. I am in survival mode like everyone else. It turns out that  for me, servant leadership helps me survive. Frankly the adrenaline rush I get when I’m trying to solve a big  problem is like an opiate for me. Yet also a way of healing: because my young life was marked by a deficit of  concern for my state of mind and physical well-being, I developed a hunger for empathy. Since I wasn’t getting  the empathy I needed, I discovered as I grew up that showing empathy to others filled that void. This empathic  urge, combined with an unabashed need to be in charge, led me to stumble organically into a leadership style  that I’ve refined over the years and which I’ve come to see as essential to the success of my business.  


Empathy is not a common keyword, shall we say, in the property management industry. Or in business  in general. My industry in particular has earned its reputation.. Common wisdom suggests that in order to  succeed, a landlord must resist all her empathic urges or simply fail. But expressing empathy–in word and  action–is what feeds me. I wish more people would try it. I wish our culture allowed for it. Some people have no  idea how good it feels. 


The same grit I used as a young side hustler is serving me well now. All those childhood freelance gigs  helped me prepare financially for worst case scenarios. Shoveling walks and playing detective didn’t exactly  prepare me for the enormity of a global pandemic, but it did get me ready for something at least medium big.  


Ever since the backyard garden shed office, I’ve known that any company I started would be anchored  in generosity. To that end, I’ve always measured profit not in dollars but in the number of good jobs we create;  good jobs that mean people can not just pay their bills but enjoy their lives. I want to create career paths and  provide healthcare and ensure people have time with their families both now and in the future. So even when  faced with this imminent and shocking loss of revenue, the math was simple: since profitability means good  jobs, then we’ll remain profitable as long as we can. 


The hardest moment I’ve ever experienced in any job anywhere came just two weeks ago, when I had to tell my employees that we needed to be worried for our livelihoods. I told them the leadership team was working on continuity and I shared our short-term planning in great detail. I told them I was thinking of them twenty-four seven.  


I was alone in my home office, saying these impossible, unthinkable words, and knowing in my heart of  hearts that despite these dark circumstances this was also one of the greatest moments of my professional life. I  was occupying the intersection of concern, ingenuity and innovation, panic, anxiety and adrenaline, uncertainty  and grief, exhaustion and sophisticated planning. In that moment, I was my very best self. 

Lisa Wise is the Owner and CEO of Flock DC. For more information visit flock-dc.com.

 

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Sudhesna Kusulia recently graduated from the internship program as a full-time employee at JPMorgan Chase. Photo courtesy Sudhesna Kusulia.

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Optimism prevails among minority business owners: survey

Entrepreneurs faced a Goliath during pandemic and won

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(Photo by treeratw/Bigstock)

(StatePoint) — Even as minority business owners face new economic challenges, including supply chain disruptions and inflation, results from PNC’s recent Economic Outlook survey show an impressive resiliency and positive mindset among these business leaders, according to Marshalyn Odneal, national sales executive for Minority Business at PNC Bank.

According to PNC’s survey, more than two-thirds (68%) of minority business owners feel highly optimistic about the prospects of their own company in the next six months, compared to just 60% of non-minority-owned businesses.

While business owners as a whole remain cautious about the national economy, the gap between optimism among minority business owners for their own company versus the broader U.S. economy is 40 percentage points, significantly higher than the 31-point difference among non-minority owners.

“I have no doubt that minority business owners who were able to manage through the pandemic had to make unprecedented decisions related to staffing, business models and pricing. In doing so, they faced a Goliath – and won. It’s unsurprising that their mindset about the future of their businesses, despite current economic challenges, is optimistic,” Odneal said.

According to PNC’s survey, 65% of Black- and Hispanic-owned business owners stated they have a business plan suited to the current direction of the economy, significantly more than non-minority owned businesses (55%). This highlights the importance of access to crucial resources for these business owners. The survey reinforces this point, showing that 86% of Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses interacted with or leveraged resources from the Small Business Association (SBA), a local chamber of commerce or a community economic development organization. Only 69% of non-minority business owners reported doing the same.

“The truth is that the unique financial challenges minority-owned businesses have long faced were amplified during the pandemic. As a result, more minority business owners are now seeking Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification, which is also an important and needed resource,” Odneal said.

Businesses that become MBE-certified gain exclusive access to premium networking events, affordable consulting services and technology programs, among other benefits, according to the National Minority Supplier Development Council.

“Our survey revealed that 87% of Black-owned businesses are now MBE-certified, up from 69% last year. Three-quarters of Hispanic-owned business are MBE-certified, compared to 67% last year. Of MBE-certified businesses, 80% of Black- and 84% of Hispanic-owned businesses said that certification has been a helpful business development tool,” Odneal said.

PNC has taken significant steps in doing more for minority-owned businesses and providing necessary resources to help them overcome roadblocks.

As a part of its Small Business organization, PNC’s Minority Business Development Group’s mission is to deliver solutions and resources that foster financial wellness for small businesses within diverse communities. They’ve been able to do this, in part, through the PNC-Certified Minority Business Advocate initiative, a voluntary advocacy program that helps PNC employees understand the challenges facing minority-owned business owners.

“If the optimism of these entrepreneurs is realized and the U.S. business landscape prospers further down the road, minority business supporters must continue to execute against their mission and accelerate their efforts. The outlook is bright, but we must continue to do our part to advocate for these entrepreneurs and help their communities thrive,” Odneal said.

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Tips to build a stable financial future for your family

Accumulate, preserve, and protect

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(Photo courtesy (c) Drazen Zigic/iStock via Getty Images Plus)

(StatePoint) — Building wealth is not as easy as it sounds. It can take time, discipline and a plan to keep those dollars protected. However, if done correctly, it can provide security for your family for years to come.

No matter where you are in your personal financial journey, there are steps you can take to help build a financially secure future. Although your approach should be personalized to your specific situation, Freddie Mac suggests building your plan on three main pillars: accumulate, preserve and protect what you’ve built.

Accumulate

The first, and one of the most challenging steps, is saving for your future while covering basic expenses. Establishing and working toward defined financial goals in the short-, medium- and long-term is a good place to start. Also, understanding your money mindset can help you identify opportunities to create healthier spending and saving habits.

Over time, it’s important for you to position yourself to take advantage of opportunities to raise your income. Consider discussing a raise with your current employer, taking a job opportunity with higher pay or starting a side business to supplement your income. You should also begin to build an emergency fund, which will better position you to weather unexpected financial emergencies. In general, you should save enough in this fund to cover three to six months of your typical monthly expenses.

In addition, if you are financially prepared for it, purchasing a home can help you build wealth in ways that renting cannot.

Preserve

Once you’ve begun to accumulate wealth, the next step is preserving it. You can accomplish this by protecting and growing your money over time.

Managing your debts and expenses is paramount. Pay down debts in high-interest accounts and prioritize other expenses that require immediate attention.

Your credit score is a critical part of this equation, and the time to improve it is right now. A strong credit score can help you receive a better interest rate and loan terms when working with lenders, as well as provide a host of other long-term benefits.

Protect

Lastly, you should have a plan in place to eventually transfer the wealth you’ve built to family and loved ones.

CNBC reports that an estimated $68 trillion will be passed down from the baby boomer generation between 2019 and 2044. Having an estate plan can give you peace of mind that your assets will be allocated according to your wishes when the time comes.

In the meantime, you should also protect your assets from the unexpected. In addition to taking steps to safeguard your property from natural disasters, you should invest in a comprehensive renter or homeowner insurance policy. And always be mindful of the wide variety of scammers and hackers looking to access your resources.

Education has power. As you begin your journey, you can build your financial savviness with Freddie Mac CreditSmart Essentials, a suite of free education tools and information covering topics like how to buy a home or car, how to improve credit and how to build wealth. To learn more, visit creditsmart.freddiemac.com.

Building wealth doesn’t happen overnight. With consistency and commitment, and the right knowledge and mindset, you can create a stable future for you and your loved ones.

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