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Housing success Featured

7:00pm EDT March 23, 2006
Most people agree there is no place like home, and Paula Quinn is one of them — the president of Cornerstone Properties Inc. has enabled hundreds of people to enjoy the comforts of home.

Cornerstone has owned and managed government-assisted housing since 1984, with 20 properties in eight states. The staff of 60 provides complete oversight of the apartments, which are owned by investors and a nonprofit agency.

Cornerstone’s services include refinancing, collecting rent, maintaining properties and advising owners of the best times to sell.

“I got started in this business when I worked for a CPA firm in the late ’70s and later an apartment developer in the ’80s,” Quinn says. “I handled the tax projection number-crunching. I was fortunate enough to gain the boss’s confidence, which allowed me to be exposed to the full gamut of the business. It was a great background, which allowed me to start the business when I was in my 20s.”

Quinn says her company has been fairly insulated from fluctuating market conditions.

“Because we manage government-assisted housing, we work with long-term, fixed-interest rates,” she says. “A few years ago, changes in the welfare laws impacted many of our residents, but other than that, our business has been stable and predictable.”

Quinn spoke with Smart Business about how she finds and manages great employees and how she measures success.

How do you find top-notch employees?

We look for bright people who are quick to learn. We learned the VICE motto during change management training conducted for our employees during our transition period. VICE stands for Vision, Integrity, Character and Excellence. All of our employees know this is what we are all about, and those who do not buy in don’t last long.

Because we are not into rapid growth, I cannot promise quick advancement when hiring. But I can commit to a high degree of flexibility in utilizing an employee’s knowledge and talents. Smaller companies allow employees to do a larger variety of tasks, which appeals to those wishing to expand their skills.

How do you manage your staff?

When I started the business, I was in my late 20s and frankly, I had a lot to learn about effective people management. I tended to overcontrol and was frequently disappointed when employees did not perform to my expectations. I realized that my expectations were simply too high, and it is unwise to hold everyone to an extreme level of competence.

I learned an important lesson — to pick my battles. Allowing employees to develop their judgment and problem-solving abilities by making their own mistakes is an ongoing struggle. Even when I can predict a less than ideal outcome, I make every attempt to support the employee’s recommendations. I want them to learn through personal experience, which is the best teacher.

How do you control expenses?

We are diligent in preparing a budget and using an order system requiring all expenditures to be reviewed and approved. Every bill comes to my office for payment.

Many of our main expenditures are not really controllable, such as utilities, insurance, real estate taxes. Personnel costs are also a large expense. We used to try to find good staff at a low rate, but experience has taught us that we can pay more to quality staff members and have more profitable properties. Cutting corners in this area is a short-sighted strategy that usually backfires.

How do you measure success?

That has really changed from seven or eight years ago, when we were on an aggressive growth track. We were quickly adding properties, and it was a stressful time for me. I had to sit back and re-evaluate our strategy and ultimately realized that fast-track growth was not comfortable for me.

With rapid growth, you lose control and order — very difficult for a perfectionist to handle. We consciously reduced our portfolio by getting rid of underperforming properties. Some of our employees did not like our new focus and pursued other career opportunities, which was fine — we expected the fallout. Everyone is happier and less pressured now.

The lesson here is that growth does not necessarily equate to success. You have to find your comfort zone, and in our business, stability and carefully controlled growth works best.

How to reach: Cornerstone Properties Inc., (317) 574-4700 or www.cpgroup1.com