Each month as part of Bixby’s Manager Spotlight we connect with one of our property manager customers to learn more about their business and what they’re currently focusing on.
Here’s what we learned in a recent talk with Alex Ohebshalom, VP of Empire Management, a diversified private real estate firm involved in the ownership, management, and development of residential and commercial properties in the greater NYC area.
Bixby: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your Company, Empire Management.
Empire Management is a diversified private real estate firm involved in the ownership, management, and development of numerous properties. Founded by my family in 1975, Empire has evolved into one of the leading property owners and developers in Manhattan overseeing a portfolio consisting of more than 4,000 multifamily apartments and over 1 million square feet of office, industrial, and retail space. Our main office is located at 347 Fifth Avenue in New York City, an office building that we have owned for over 35 years.
Bixby: How did you get started in the real estate industry and how did you end up in your current role?
I’ve been a student of the industry for as long as I can remember; I guess you can say that I got lucky, as the family business was pushed on me at an early age and I quickly realized that I felt connected to it and motivated by it. On any break from school or days off I would be in the office with my father, either searching for potential acquisitions or acting as a messenger to pickup rent from one of our retail tenants. In retrospect it must’ve been bizarre for the brokers who were receiving calls from a 12-year-old boy inquiring about commercial property, or for the souvenir-shop owner who was handing over a double-banded stack of cash. During my college years I stayed in NYC and studied real estate development at the Zicklin School of Business while working as a project manager for Empire, which gave me my first exposure to ground-up construction. My first job out of school was working in construction as an assistant superintendent on a project on East 33rd Street in Midtown… hard-hat, boots, and a lot of miserably cold days. I knew that in order to contribute further to the family business that I would have to gain experience and know-how elsewhere. The two and a half years spent on that job site were the most grounding years of my career thus far. I returned to Empire in 2014 and a new project was thrown on my lap; 250 Fifth Avenue is an adaptive reuse and ground-up construction hotel project located in the NoMad district of NYC. Once completed, it will house 185 luxury hotel suites and approximately 20,000 feet of food and beverage space. Today I lead Empire in its development and acquisition efforts, while keeping a hand in the management and overall resident service.
Bixby: What do you think differentiates your firm from your competitors?
I view Empire as a wise old man with a young spirit; we are a mid-sized shop (in terms of personnel) that makes institutional level deals and developments. Our staff is lean, and we have a few key executives wearing many hats. Some may call it micromanagement, but I see it as a way to keep things from falling through the cracks. We typically never have more than two projects under development at the same time, and that is to ensure that each project receives the proper attention through its completion. Since launching our construction and development division in 2010, we have been deeply committed to building at a high level in terms of quality and efficiency. We build for longevity, sustainability, and with a keen eye for design and architecture.
Bixby: How do you look at the current real estate environment? What are some key changes that are occurring and how are you and your firm adapting to them?
It's an interesting time to be both a property owner and a resident in New York City. Property owners are thriving as the economy continues to grow and as land values increase year after year, but owners are starting to see a softening rental market. The demand for rentals in urban centers like New York is growing, and at the same time, tens of thousands of multifamily apartments are being developed throughout the boroughs, pushing rents down. Property owners in NYC now have to compete with new developments in the outer boroughs like Queens, Bronx, and of course Brooklyn. The question comes down to location versus size and amenities; would you as a resident prefer to live in a smaller more classic apartment within a charming walk-up building in the West Village or a larger, newly built unit with beautiful views in an amenity-filled building in Long Island City? To most people this is quite the toss-up. Beyond the typical building improvements that we make such as modernizing our lobbies, hallways, and apartments, and rooftops, we were always looking for an amenity to attract residents. Bixby is and has been that virtual amenity and utility for our residents, and has been a strong marketing tool for us. With Bixby we now compete somewhere between the class A and class B building.
Bixby: Why did you decide to use Bixby?
As a ‘next generation’ real estate manager I came into Empire’s office only to find that there was no platform by which residents could pay rent electronically, make and track maintenance requests, or receive important building-related announcements. It was clear that we needed to implement a system that satisfied those three fundamental functions, and to do it quickly. For a family office like ours who has been operating a certain way for 40 years with its own accounting system, it was crucial that we use a light-weight platform that did not require a complete overhaul of our system, intense training of our staff, and a long implementation. We vetted a few other solutions such as Appfolio and BuildingLink, and found that they would really be a burden on us and frankly that they did not function with the same simplicity and fluidity that Bixby did (nor did they look as good). Bixby met all of the criteria; it required little to no training, we were operational in less than one day, and the cherry on top – it’s a cost-effective. Furthermore it was essential for us to provide our residents with a mobile-first application; we wanted to make the maintenance request process really convenient and allow for real-time interaction/updates, and to make paying rent a ‘one-click wonder.’ For a management company in today’s competitive landscape, it’s extremely important to provide residents with the accommodations and tools to ensure they have the highest and best quality of life. The majority of our buildings are older class B and C assets that were built pre-war, equipped with no fancy amenities, doormen, elevators, or even laundry. While we know that there is a tremendous interest in renting the older, more classic apartments, we wanted to elevate the living experience in the most personal way…using communication. Bixby has been the bridge that we were always missing, granting us a stronger relationship with our residents and better team building internally. The mobile app also comes with an incredible suite of on-demand services such as house cleaning, laundry/dry cleaning, moving, and storage etc. We feel safe with Bixby as they are extremely mindful of our needs and provide exceptional customer service. Unlike other platforms, Bixby is always innovating and updating their features and offerings, which is very important for us as a firm. As more millennials move into the city, there will be an ever growing demand for evolving technology… and we want to be at the forefront of it.
Disclaimer: Alex is also a Co-Founder and Advisor to Bixby, as well as Bixby's first user.