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My New Normal: The NRP Group Executive Vice President Of Property Management Phillip Boatwright

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In late 2019, after six years at The NRP Group, Phillip Boatwright was named executive vice president for property management of the multifamily development and management firm.  

Boatwright oversees a property management staff of more than 400 people and a $1.5B portfolio that includes 140 properties and a pipeline of 11,000 apartment units. Prior to his 2019 promotion, Boatwright managed the firm's market-rate multifamily properties and third-party management services.

Phillip Boatwright
The NRP Group's Phillip Boatwright keeps his energetic team spirit alive working from home with his kids.

Described by his firm as having an "energetic leadership style," Boatwright is a frequent speaker at multifamily industry conferences.

While the coronavirus pandemic forced Boatwright to manage his team from home, he has found ways to ensure everyone remains connected and in sync. 

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.

Boatwright: I am working from my home office every day from roughly 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. I’m responsible for The NRP Group’s properties entire portfolio and I also have three kids at home.

When I have the opportunity to take a break between meetings, I am facilitating e-learning for my kids, and setting up their Zoom calls in between my own Zoom calls, so they can progress in their particular academic schedules. As a family, what has worked for us is starting the day early in the morning together, talking about our day. That’s something we used to do later, over dinner. We talk about what my schedule will be, what their schedules are, and what is happening with current events.

It’s an opportunity to get on the same page. Then, in the evening, once I’m done for the day, we go for a family walk or a family bike ride, and we’ve done that every single day of the pandemic. And then the truth is that, at night, I’m not really done and I go back to work and pick up the slack of what I missed during the day.

My New Normal: The NRP Group Executive Vice President Of Property Management Phillip Boatwright
Phillip Boatwright with his wife, Jennifer, and children.

Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan?

Boatwright: The plan is broken up by whether people work in our corporate offices or at our properties.

For the corporate folks in our Cleveland headquarters or satellite offices around the country, we’ll be tentatively opening up at the end of July, depending on the state of the pandemic. Our tentative plan will be to create groups A and B, and have those groups go into the office on alternating weeks; so if one group gets sick, there are alternates to step in and keep company business moving. Right now, you need special permission to go into the office, for things like picking up the mail or, in some cases, using special tech tools that people don’t have set up at home. 

At the property level, we have a phased reopening plan in place. Right now, in order to ensure that our residents are supported if a property management associate gets sick or quarantined, we are at half of usual staffing levels, with half of crews coming in Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and the other half coming in Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Sundays, our property management offices are closed. My approach to return-to-the-workplace is more “dimmer” and less “on-off switch.” 

At the property level, we expect to be back to pre-COVID status by July 1, but we are tailoring return-to-work based on state guidelines. Florida, where I am based, is opening up faster than Ohio, for example. We are carefully tracking city ordinances and CDC guidelines, in tandem with The NRP corporate legal team, to ensure we are fully aligned with them. 

As for resident attitudes, they vary. Our senior communities have resident populations that are more likely to hang back. In contrast, at our non-age-restricted properties in Florida, residents are very eager and ready to get back to normal and start enjoying the pool, and we’re the ones putting the brakes on a bit. We are making sure everything is clean, hand sanitizer stations are set out and social distancing protocols are communicated. 

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally? 

Boatwright: For me, it will be on an ‘as needed’ basis. If I can shop virtually, I will continue to do that.

If I can pick up something at the curbside without going into the store, I will.

From the standpoint of my day-to-day role, The NRP Group has many developments and properties under construction. In order to protect the assets, I need to visit those places.

Right now, I’ve been choosing to drive rather than fly. My priority is to keep my family safe. I also have a responsibility to my company and colleagues. If I get sick or have to be quarantined, I will not be able to serve fully in my leadership role and serve my colleagues, so I have a responsibility to take precautions. 

Bisnow: How will you manage the homefront as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?

Boatwright: The virus is still out there, so regardless of businesses reopening, I won’t change my behavior. I will be very, very cautious putting my family out there until there is a vaccine. My responsibility is to keep them as safe as possible.

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Boatwright: Considering the circumstances, business at The NRP Group is going extremely well. We are fortunate in that we are deemed an essential business, and we are proud to be a business that provides shelter for people. Also, The NRP Group is viewed as a leader in the communities in which we are located. 

As for the leasing of apartments, we already had the technology in place to do virtual tours and communicate with prospects on virtual platforms, but we shifted to doing so earlier in the leasing process, and not just for prospective residents who live five states away. 

We’ve found that people are still interested in moving in, but less people are interested in moving out in the midst of a pandemic, so we continue to stay the course. Occupancy levels are looking very good. 

In terms of people who have had their livelihoods impacted by COVID, we’ve ramped up communications and that has put us ahead. We have a Rental Assistance Task Force of associates who can guide residents who are unemployed to the government resources that are available. We also waive late fees and put people on payment plans. We work with residents where we can and that involves a lot of communications and even over-communication. 

Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?

Boatwright: Before this started, I had a 40-minute commute that often turned into a 60-minute commute. I enjoyed working from home from time to time because I saw it as an opportunity to save some time commuting. Now that I’m working from home day after day, my perspective has changed. I’m busier.

I miss those breaks you get at the office when someone just pops in between your meeting to chat about nothing. It breaks up the day. Now it’s just Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. Now I miss my 45-minute commute because I see it was a time when I couldn’t check email, couldn’t attend meetings, so I could get my thoughts together in the morning and decompress on the way home in the evening. Now the workday is stretched, and I’ve lost that alone time to pause and think. 

Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?

Boatwright: At our apartment communities, we’ve done a few things. We’ve left flowers for mothers on their doorsteps on Mother’s Day. We’ve left little bags of masks, gloves, chocolate treats for everyone. We’ve had some virtual resident happy hours and bingo nights. And we’ve compiled recipe books specific to each property, with residents and staff both contributing recipes. That last one was my favorite. The idea is to stay connected and let residents know we’re still there for you, even when you can’t see as many of us on-site. 

At the company level, we’ve done themed happy hours, including a 1970s night and a superhero night. Our CEO, David Heller, holds calls every Tuesday and Thursday where staff can share successes, like DIY projects they are working on at home, kids’ graduations, birthdays and weddings. We talk about things we are doing in the new normal. 

Years before the pandemic, we started using an employee recognition social media app called Inspire to celebrate wins. How it works is we grant each other points that work like a currency at an online store and there’s also a social network component. Use of the app has ramped up and it has been a fantastic way to bridge the distance between us.

Phillip Boatwright
Phillip Boatwright and his kids enjoy the great outdoors.

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Boatwright: Virtual leasing tools are here to stay. Like telemedicine, they existed before but now it’s something everyone is using, and I think will continue. At The NRP Group, we want to stay one step ahead, and do everything to build that rapport with prospective residents sooner. Now the platforms and the security have been tested, and I think they are here to stay. Other innovations we were already doing, like keyless entry, online rent payment and centralized property management on the back end, were useful before. Now we know they are absolutely necessary, and we’ll be implementing them in every property going forward. 

The pandemic did change one thing. It prompted The NRP Group to fast-track the online platform for leasing in our affordable housing portfolio. It has been a game changer for an industry and a demographic that is used to doing everything in-person, with paper hard copies. With our online platform, we are able to take applicants 50% of the way through the process, so we can essentially say “you are qualified, all you have to do is provide these documents in person.” That is a huge shift. 

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

Boatwright: What I hope is that we learn from this pandemic. I hope we will learn how important communication is and how important team building from a distance is. We’ve learned that we can run a very effective business from a distance. We’ve learned we don’t have to travel as much. We’ve learned how important it is to have a good game plan.

From a personal standpoint, I’m more connected now to my family than ever before and I don’t want to go backward from that feeling. Pre-pandemic, I traveled a lot. Now when I travel, I am making more effort to stay connected with my family using all these tech tools we’ve had more practice using. 

Finally, I’m hopeful that as a community, we are able to learn not just from coronavirus but also racial injustice. The pandemic exposed disparities and it also made way for crucial conversations about race following the death of George Floyd. I’m hopeful that this is the beginning of more dialogue, and I look forward to how those discussions may bring about change. 

There is a lot to be said. I’m hopeful we can be proactive on the issues that impact our growth as a country. I’m hopeful we can be sensitive and fully open to change. Change needs to happen but I’m hopeful it will.