MRI Software’s John Ensign says business owners should be ready to change

John Ensign is prepared to examine all aspects of how things get done at MRI Software as the global real estate software provider continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Coming out of this, it would be foolish to believe that we will simply go back to the way things were,” says Ensign, the company’s president. “We’ve just got to keep watching, keep talking to our clients and our employees and really get an idea of how the markets are going to evolve. Hopefully, we can evolve with them.”

The company is based in Solon and has offices in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa and the United Kingdom. When the coronavirus began to rapidly spread in March, MRI invoked its business continuity plan.

“As a software company, we were obviously in a better position than a lot of companies,” Ensign says. “We don’t manufacture a widget or have a production line or face the general public. The nature of our business allowed us to react a little differently and really pick up that business continuity plan and run from there.”

In the midst of a global crisis, MRI Software found time to complete two acquisitions and continues to evaluate potential M&A opportunities. The big challenge for all companies moving forward, however, is to identify processes and procedures that will work in the new economy.

“This has given us more data on work-from-home than at any point in our history,” Ensign says. “If you’re a company and you have not been paying attention to the efficiency and effectiveness of your employee population in this environment, then you’ve missed an opportunity.”

Adapt to your environment

MRI’s technology platform is designed to provide property-level management and accounting services, as well as investment modeling and analytics for global commercial and residential markets.

While the pandemic’s impact on the business had been minimal as of late spring/early summer, Ensign is prepared for the possibility that things could change as the year goes on.

“If you look at the unemployment numbers in the U.S., there has to be an expectation that there will be a cascading impact of people being on unemployment and seeing that income level change over some period of time,” Ensign says. “The question is, how quickly does the economy rebound? How do landlords react to that in the marketplace?”

Sales have slowed in the past few months, but Ensign says they haven’t stopped.

“We’ve seen some clients say, ‘Hey, I want to take a pause. I want to wait a month. I want to go a little slower on this project right now,’” Ensign says. “But I’ve got to tell you, it’s been the minority. Most of our clients have taken a long view of this and continue to move forward with projects and how they’re operating.”

The key to staying afloat during a time like this is having a product or service that customers can’t live without, even when times turn tough.

“It’s about that recurring revenue and the inherent stickiness of that product through something like this,” Ensign says. “Do clients retrench and retreat into your software, as opposed to looking at you as a nice-to-have that in a tough time, maybe they can turn it off? We’ve been very lucky or blessed to be in a situation where the vast majority of the products that we deliver to the marketplace fall within that definition [of being a need-to-have].”

As for what the future holds, only time will tell, Ensign says.

“Everybody is doing what they think is the right thing, everybody’s doing what they think is going to help the long-term viability of their business,” he says. “But I think it’s just different region to region. It’s the unknown that is the challenge for all of us in this. How long does this last? What is the long-term economic impact?”

Stick to your principles

MRI Software has taken the same cautiously active approach with dealmaking that it has with its sales strategy.

“It’s an interesting phase, in my view, with respect to M&A in the market,” Ensign says. “We’re early enough in the crisis that really good companies are generally still holding their price in their valuation. And some companies that wouldn’t have held that price have left the market.”

Ensign has no plans to change his company’s approach of pursuing acquisition targets that are solid companies with a lot of potential. He’s always been willing to be patient to find the right company to buy.

“This can’t be about pressuring somebody to do something they’re not ready for,” Ensign says. “It has to be the right moment in time for them. This is about building relationships and the long-term fit. If there are things that we can do to help some of these companies along the way, those are the conversations we’re having. Whether it’s through acquisition or partnership, there are a lot of things that I think that we can do.”

MRI feels a sense of duty to support its industry, Ensign says.

“As one of the larger players in real estate software, we look at ourselves as having a responsibility to help the overall marketplace and the overall viability of the space, whether that is our clients, our employees or even competitors,” Ensign says.

Be willing to change

One of the key lessons learned from the pandemic at MRI has been the efficiency employees have achieved while working away from the office.

“I was just talking with our chief technology officer and one of the things that he indicated was that he’s actually seeing productivity go up a little bit with some of our development teams,” Ensign says. “The fact that they’re working from home, they are a little bit more heads down and focused and pushing out additional product. It’s interesting, as we look at some of the data, it changes how you work. I tend to find with myself, I’m certainly filling the day more.”

Ensign feels a responsibility to analyze this data and understand what’s worked and what hasn’t during the pandemic to create a work environment that enables MRI Software to continue to grow and thrive.

“We’re actually seeing some employees, they’re hesitant to take vacation time because they’re already at home,” he says. “And so you can get into this rut of overwork, and it’s something we also have to keep an eye on.”

Ensign expects that in most companies, there will be a group of employees eager to return to the office. There will likely be a group that wants to return but can’t due to circumstances such as schools being closed or functioning differently. Finally, there will also be individuals who feel quite confident in their ability to do their jobs without ever coming into an office.

“A lot of businesses are going to have to take a look at that and balance that personal need with efficiency,” Ensign says. “I think by our nature, we’re going to need to be more flexible with employees and figure this out.”

TAKEAWAYS

  • In a time of crisis, take time to think before you act.
  • Never stop looking for opportunities to grow.
  • Think about the best way to utilize your employees.

The File

NAME: John Ensign
TITLE: President
COMPANY: MRI Software

Ensign on business continuity planning: Any time you’re able to run through something, you find areas where you can improve. I’ll give the team credit internally. They were well prepared for this. There were a couple examples where we had done some acquisitions recently where they didn’t have a business continuity plan. And so we had to move a little bit more aggressively to make sure they were prepared.
For instance, we had a couple of offices where no one had laptops. It’s more difficult to pick up the desktop and take it home with you and get it set up. So we did a bulk order of laptops and got those out and distributed in the weeks leading up to this. It’s little things like that, just making sure you’ve got the right stockpile and you’re ready to go.

Ensign on MRI Software playing a role in the overall recovery from this economic crisis: We serve a very important aspect of people’s lives. We’re in the background, so they often don’t know we’re there. But we’re running the financial systems, the facilities management systems, the investment systems around real estate. This is really where people work, live and play. This is how they pay their rent and how they engage with their landlord, and when something goes wrong, who do they call?
Those are the products that that we bring to bear. We do a lot of public and affordable housing in the U.S. That’s an area that’s been hard hit if you look at the economic reports of where unemployment is hitting, areas where COVID-19 is impacting parts of the community more than others. Those are areas that need a lot of support right now. So it’s critical that we continue to support those who are making real estate accessible, whether that’s on the commercial or multifamily side.