Such a great conversation with Jennifer Ruelens of One Focus Property Management! She has a passion for helping landlords create stable, optimized portfolios that provides them the return they want and tenants a safe and comfortable home. Now, she found her great companion with us that shares the same passion!
Want to learn more about how you can hire your own virtual employee? Feel free to book an appointment with me today and I'll help all throughout the process!
Good morning, welcome to the show. My name is Anne Lackey, and I'm the co-founder of HireSmart Virtual Employees. And I have such a great guest today. I have Jennifer Ruelens. She is with One Focus, and she has a business in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. So she's going to tell us a little bit more about that. She has started her business back in 2012, and really had just an amazing growth. And so I wanted you guys to meet her. She also has her husband and two dogs. And I love people who have loved dogs. My dog is actually sitting below my feet right now, and anybody that knows me knows that I always have him very close. So Jennifer, welcome. So glad to have you.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
So you started your business in 2012. Kind of talk to us a little bit about that journey. Did you go, "I'm just going to start a business." Kind of tell us how that all began.
Yeah. Lack of options leads people to great things. So I came up after my undergraduate education and a short entrepreneurial stint. I got into property management as a leasing agent in multi-family, so large multi-family. And I had a good several years, about seven years doing that. And the housing crisis hit. And when that hit-
Yeah, lost my job, went through downsizing, which completely got, but for me it was a real opportunity. So I had been itching to pursue my full-time MBA for a long time. And I didn't really want to give up the job. I was scared of it. And then I had nothing to be scared of. And so anyway, I was unemployed for just a year. And during that year I studied and took, what do you call them, to get into business school. I can't remember the tests.
Something like that.
Yeah. Something like that. GMAT. I think the GMAT, yeah. Took the GMAT and was lucky enough to get into Penn state. They gave me a really nice package to help them be a TA there and get some tuition waived and things. So I did a full two years at Penn state and just loved it. It was really my like, if I won the lottery the thing I would do. So I lost my job and did it. But anyway, while I was there, I met my husband and he was here in Williamsport. This a small town, 30,000 people. So I was a brand new MBA with a property management background and there weren't large apartment communities to manage here.
And so our story is one of success through LinkedIn. I got myself on LinkedIn, and I just looked for anybody who was anybody in real estate. And I found my business partner, Brent Fish, who is a third generation family real estate brokerage owner here in town. And they are the best name, the biggest company. And I'm so fortunate to have partnered with them. They said, "Hey, people ask for property management all the time. Do you want to do this?" And I was like, "Yeah. It's what I know how to do really well." And so we started that as a division of Fish Real Estate in 2012, and very quickly grew to where we had to be our own entity and all of that. And so that's where we are now just about eight years later.
Well, that's great. So it's so funny because I obviously have a lot of property management clients since I'm a broker owner myself, and I don't think any of us really wake up and go, "I'm going to, I don't know, property management business."
Yeah. Nobody wakes up and goes, "You know what? I really want to be a landlord." But I always say God made me to be a landlord. I have a special blend of skills and abilities that really work in this business. And thank goodness I found it.
Yeah. That's great. So kind of tell us a little bit about your structure. You manage employees, you kind of got a big team. Kind of tell us a little bit about what that looks like.
Yeah. So we have, Oh gosh, as we stand today, I think 15 full-time employees. Three of them are remote. We call our VA's remote employees here at One Focus because they are really a part of our team. And so our, what, 12 people here in the States, they're a mix of maintenance, techs, management and property manager and leasing agent people.
And so we're managing about 600 doors across two counties. We have a pretty decent, because we're a bit rural here, but more spread out, so we have a pretty decent geography that we're covering and we're departmental still. So we are set up in a PM department, maintenance department and an operations accounting department. The other thing that's probably really notable about my team is that we run on EOS and traction. And so we are just really effective and really focused.
So let's talk about that because EOS and traction, some of you guys may not have heard of that, may not understand what that is. So can you kind of just, why you decided to do that, what EOS stands for, and just kind of tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah. So oh gosh, the story kind of goes, we made an acquisition at the beginning of 2017 and it was awesome. It really got us to the point of scalability, but I was really green. And I didn't really know what I was doing. And I don't think I managed it super well at the time, learned a ton of lessons. But the fallout from that was really stressful. And I'd had a couple employee, people issues that had happened. And I would say at the end of 2018, I was really questioning my path forward. How am I going to lead this company? How am I going to grow this company? Because I'm not finding success with the tactics I was using.
And I got hooked up through chance with the CFO mission, Phil Mazur. And he has started this company where he was bringing CFO support to companies who can't afford a CFO. Right. So kind of like on a consulting basis, which really worked out well for us. And he was really able to bring us a lot of great insight and great advice. But the one thing he was really talking about a lot was traction. It was something he believed in, something he'd worked with with previous companies and saw a lot of success.
He didn't say, "You need to do traction." I heard this, read the books and there's none handy right here, but I read the books and they spoke to me. I would say me as a person, my core values really aligned with what makes traction work. And so Phil became an implementer and started implementing with us January of 2019. And we haven't looked back. The success we've had with traction has really helped us solidify what we have.
I personally, as a business owner have a much better quality of life. I think my employees love it a lot, and we're just, "I will never turn back." So EOS stands for Entrepreneurial Operating System. It's just a way of doing business. And so there's professional implementers. You can self implement. It's really kind of a buzz thing that people are talking about. I encourage anybody who reads those books and it speaks to them, look into it. It is remarkably, I don't want to say easy, because easy isn't the word, it's remarkably doable for just anybody in their business.
So, it's really just a framework of management, isn't it?
It is. So we focus on the six main components of any business, and we measure them and we track them, and we use these tools to really move those things forward. So we focus on vision, and data, and people, and process and things like this. And so like I said, it really spoke to me. It's about building core values as a company. And that's been a huge success for us, is focusing on them. Our hires are so much stronger. I was making a lot more poor hires prior to traction.
Yeah. I always tell people, you know what, you can't get where you're going if you don't have a map and you don't have measuring points. However, you do that, whether you implement something like EOS, or I use Alex, kind of the cadence, that's what we use here in our business.
There you go.
And so I love the fact that you have found something that you embrace. And I've read traction to you. I do love the principles there, and they are kind of very much close to what we do. But I think when you talk about hiring, and of course that's all of what I do, right?
It's so important to be able to articulate what it is that you stand for and stand against. I mean, I know we're very clear about who we serve and how we serve and who we don’t, like not a good fit for us. And I don't care what business you're in. I mean, whether its real estate, property management, e-commerce, it really doesn't matter. We all have kind of who we are in essence. And when you get people that are in alignment with that, the pace is just so much easier for us as leaders.
Yeah. Anytime you can pick up a program that helps you get what's going forward, it doesn't matter what it is. It doesn't matter if it's cadence or traction. There's just something that works for you and business. Yeah.
Well, that's awesome. Well, we met, I guess officially this year or early 2020.
Oh no, late 2019.
2019. Oh my gosh.
I do. I mean, time just flies. I think the last six months because of COVID has kind of been a little crazy and I think I've just kind of blocked that off.
That fine. It doesn't exist.
Thank you for that. Well, so even more success, so thank you. How was it? Obviously you got the EOS, you got the traction. Now, you've kind of got a feel for who you are. And now you have global staff, virtual employees working on the other side of the world. And how have they fitted it into your culture? Because we just talked about how culture is important. How were you able to integrate that?
Well, I don't know how much is luck or your ability to find people. These three are just remarkable. They're remarkable people. They're tremendous employees for us. And from, I would say not day one, but by about day five or six of their employee here, they really start ... like the buzz around the office was, "Oh, there's a new bar." Like, Oh. We can react. People can react this fast. In fact, people all the way across the world are accomplishing what we want in a faster and really efficient way.
And there was a lot of, for the first several months, there's just a lot of amazement of, wow, this is the kind of what it's like working with people across the world, and how capable they are, and how they're teaching us things. And they're making it possible for us to do our jobs in a new way.
So how did we integrate them? We were really purposeful about it. So what brought me to you when I came to you, we had used virtual assistant services on a task basis before, so we had not hired a person and that was fine. I mean, it works for certain applications and whatnot, but we were really looking for something more. And we knew that in order to grow, we needed these people to be part of our team. And we knew through EOS that they couldn't just be the satellite people who did certain tasks, and we didn't want that. That wasn't desirable to us.
And so we made ... of course the decision to go with HireSmart was about finding the right people, making sure that you understood who we were and what we were looking for. And then I actually spent two full days with them when they arrived. And that was the first kind of employee onboarding orientation we had ever done.
And I put it together specifically for these three, spent time going over our business, our core values, what that looks like in our business, not just talking about owning it honestly, and we stand up, talking about what does that mean? What does that look like? How do we feel about it when somebody's acting outside of those values, and what are we going to about it? And so we spent a lot of time doing that. We did some basic training as to our company, and then they went to train with their department heads except for Lindsay who works directly with me and we continued her training.
You're the department head, so she did go into her department head.
That's right. She did go to her department head. And what's great is through Slack, that's our primary intercompany communication tool, that's when I think of our remote employees, I think of Slack because I think of the little emojis they're commenting on things at the comments. We share pictures of our weekends or our families and things like that on Slack. There's a certain channel for that. And the team here really appreciate seeing what their lives are like. One thing we did is we did a video tour of both of our offices when we hired these new folks. And so it was just for them, it was like, "Oh, Mikko, this is Andy. And this is his desk." And when you see him, this is where he's sitting. And where we park, where we go to lunch. Where do we eat our lunch? And I think they really appreciated that to just bring us together.
Well, I always tell people, the more you do that, the more you integrate them into your meetings and give them responsibilities and really treat them like you would any normal employee, which again, you wouldn't have a new hire come into your office just say, "There's your office. Have a good day." I mean, you carve out that time to set them up for success. And it's the same thing. And I've been preaching this for years. So I'm so glad that you embrace that because it is such an important key part for them to get connected. And I love your Water Cooler channel because that's what I call it. You may call it something else, but it's basically, hey, my dog's here. I'm here. I had a great weekend or whatever.
Because business obviously always has to get done. The first person ... I'm mostly business, but I think it's important for us to connect with our team, especially as leaders. I mean, I know I specifically make sure I meet with every key person that reports to me and carve out, even if it's 10 minutes of time a week just to connect. And just to say, "I know I've been really busy, but I just wanted to have this time where ... I'm kind of like the old open door policy. Right. We're doing that.
And that first two days, I'll say, when I made that decision to do that, it was a risk. I didn't have two days. I don't need to make it sound like, "Oh, Jen just can take two days to train like three new remote employees". No, I don't have that time to be very, very clear, but I made it. And when I look back on that, I go that, I don't want to say sacrifice because it was a delight to do, but that investment in taking away resources from other things for that amount of time has paid huge dividends. And I'm very happy about that decision.
So lets kind of fast forward, then COVID hits. How has that affected your business? And I don't want to lead you in a direction, but it's been interesting to me to see how my clients have faced that versus the world. And so kind of share with us a little bit about what effects that's had or kind of what happened, if anything business as usual?
No, it's not business as usual, but it's business much more usual than my friends who are entrepreneurs and things like that. So one thing I would say about us is, when COVID hit, and I kind of had my head in the sand about it. I'm notoriously focused, but you can also say I don't see anything else. So I am very, very focused, and it really took a while for COVID to break through. And it broke through when the governor said, "You're not coming to work." It was like a Thursday evening. He said, "You're not going to be at work on Monday. Figure it out tomorrow."
And luckily I knew immediately in my head, okay there's some things that can't happen, but as long as we take our laptops home, we're good. So I've set this company up from the very beginning with a voice over IP system on laptops because we work remote. I don't know. I just thought that's how I wanted things. I don't like the idea being tied to a desk or tied to a server or something like that. It wasn't really for me. And so anyway, we had things really well set up that way. Our remote employees were great because they didn't miss a bit.
So they were already home. We missed a bit or two just getting our home offices set up, learning what that meant. And then of course dealing with all the other things, people losing their jobs, we're not able to go into units, we're not able to show properties, just that kind of stuff. And so we made the adjustments we needed to make. I'm proud of my time as a leader through this adventure because I've been very purposeful about it. And I say that because I haven't always. So this is an upward trajectory change for me, but we managed it really well.
We had six of our domestic staff laid off for only three weeks or furloughed, as we called it. So they were temporarily out of work for three weeks while we were legally prohibited from doing certain activities. And then we were able to get everybody back full time. One decision we did make was not to furlough our remote staff. And then some of that is contractual with you as the company, but it really was a decision of what do I want to be here when this is over?
So you can look at dollars and cents and believe me, that bill is one that when we were in that moment of cut the fat, cut the fat. We don't know what the next six months or year is going to bring. You look at that and go, okay, can I do without it? And honestly, they didn't qualify as something that could be eliminated at One Focus. These three people, and I'm convinced whoever you placed with us would fall into this category, are now so integral to our business that we had to retain them in order to keep business continuity.
And so, yeah, as we've now gotten back to work, the PPE and all these wonderful things, I feel like I'm wrangling masks on faces every day. I want to super glue them to their face, because we've got a great staff and they're really cooperating. So we're really back in full swing. We set a leasing record last month, 47 units in one month.
I know. So everybody's really moving full steam ahead.
I do think there's a lot of pen up just kind of stuff going on. People are ready to settle back down and while the threat is obviously still out there, we kind of have to just get to some semblance of normalcy. Well, it's so funny because I'm very fortunate through COVID, I mean, I honestly, I had one person, no, I probably had two clients that said, "I can't." Everybody else stuck with it. And they're glad that they did because now, I don't know where you are, but where we are, there's the school issue, daycare and all of this craziness of like, what do we do? So we're looking at employees that have issues that need to take care of stuff at home. And how as a business owner do you keep everybody kind of motivated?
So a lot of the conversations I'm having with clients is, okay, well, let's look at your staff. Who are the key people, like you were saying, that no matter what this has got to happen? These are the core people I have to have. And then kind of going from there, what else can we shuffle around that makes sense? And I do think a lot of people are trying. So when we started out with HireSmart Virtual Assistants and now virtual employees, because it's really more what we do. People think of a VA and they think temporary project, and that's never what I've done.
That's so funny. So why still use virtual, I wonder?
Okay. Because I'm not an actual placement company of people that are in their office. And so that is the main reason because-
I think that's what the industry understands that word to mean.
I always struggled with it.
Well, not just our industry, any industry.
Yeah. I struggled with virtual because there's nothing virtual about them. They're very real people.
True. That is true. HireSmart Real Employees in Philippines. It's a very long company name.
I still catch myself almost saying VA, because that's what we talk about in the industry. People use that term, but I don't like to refer to them as that. And not because I don't think it's offensive to anybody. In fact, that's what Lindsay has on her LinkedIn. That's her role in her profession. But yeah. And she was saying that actually this BPO industry in the Philippines is the strongest right now. That they're facing a lot of issues, of course, economically. And that this industry is really helping keep the country going.
Well, it's true because a lot of times people have looked at hiring in different countries and different ... of course I chose the Philippines for a very specific set of reasons, but none of ... because we allow our people to work in their home office and always have literally since I started over five years ago. That's always been our mantra.
So the challenges that we've had on our side is the BPO's have forced people to come home. So now we have multiple people trying to figure that out. So we're trying to work through that. But the good news for us is because our people work in the middle of the night. Everybody else is asleep. So there are minimal distractions. And of course now all the BPO's are coming back open. And so a lot of people don't want to go back to that environment because it's like literally a two foot by two foot little cubicle.
Well, yeah. And she's explained to me that the fear they have about the virus there is so much more severe because they don't have the medical infrastructure we have. So if you get sick, it could be a death sentence, even if it is a minor illness. And so they worry a lot about that, but I mean, taking precautions like crazy, these folks.
And one of the reasons that we wanted to do healthcare for them is to give them freedom to be able to get whatever healthcare they could. Right. So, I mean, that's, again, talking about core values. That was a core value for us is taking care of our people. Right?
And so that they would be able to relax and focus on their roles in their jobs. What's one piece of advice that you would give someone that's maybe on the fence of thinking about working with HireSmart, and kind of what advice would you give them, or what would you share with them, or what would you tell them they need to know?
Well, I've been a bit of an evangelist for VA since I've started this with you and for HireSmart, because I think that's part of the process, is picking the right person to help us. Right. So like most people when I thought about, okay, and Phil Mazur was a big proponent of this. He explained to me that in order to scale, I really needed to consider this as an option in a way to accomplish what I needed to do.
And so I had to get over ... one, I had some reservations about whether people were being taken advantage of in this situation. And I feel confident that that's not the case at all. I was completely clueless. And I know some of my colleagues have tried to do this directly, try to hire people directly or through various like Upwork or Fiverr kind of sites. And they've had really bad results. And I've gone to those sites for different tasks and also had a poor experience.
So I think picking the right person to help you and then prepare. So in our business, I didn't have a big problem and then the VA's were brought in to fix it. I had a workload. I solve the problems. I solve the processes and things like that, but I still did need the work done. And so that's where these people were super helpful. And now that they're integrated into our company, they're solving problems right and left. So it was just a little bit of a process. It's a leap of faith.
And our situation was a little different. I want to share this because I really do think it's why I trusted you to bring on three at one time is that we had actually talked at the end of 2019 about hiring one person, a maintenance coordinator. And we went through that process and we selected somebody. And I was very confident. We were moving forward. And you explained to me the training process and how that worked. We were getting close to the holidays. And you let me know, "Well, if at a point in the training process they're not going to be able to move forward, I'm going to let you know."
And I got that call. I got that call and, oh, and believe me, we were waiting. It was like, okay, we get this person in two days. We get this person soon. And you told me I couldn't bring them into my business. They're not performing to my standard. And I said, Oh my gosh. Especially because due to your scheduling conflicts, we had to wait about a month. And I said, "Well, listen, here's the deal. We're going to hire someone else. We're not going to take this person on which you were great about, but I need two more. As this has happened, I realized I need two more people.
I had some shakeup in my staff and I had created these positions. And so we recruited three at once. So I went from zero remote employees to having three in one day. And that interview process was, I mean, it wasn't bad. You kept telling us it's going to be kind of a slog, but it wasn't bad. We interviewed nine people. And I mean, we found three winners. I mean, really ... not a single one of them would I give up. So all great people.
It's so interesting because people don't realize that my secret sauce is that one week of my working with them. And I mean, I certainly have a team that helps with the training. I'm not doing it all myself, but I review every file. I review their communication. I do all of that. And I do it because I have that guarantee. Right. I want to make sure. And I always tell people, if I wouldn't hire them for my company, they're never coming to a client. And I think people think, yeah right.
But I have a 12% fall out rate. And I used to have a 20% over a year and a half, two years ago, I had a 20% fallout rate. We have since, again, processes, procedures. We have upped our assessments. And now that I've had two full years of running these assessments, I can profile people in different roles to figure out, okay. But even with the best testing, even with a grueling interview process, even with all of that, until you work elbow to elbow with somebody and kind of get a sense of who they are, you don't know.
Right. No, you don't.
And so I don't want to waste a minute of a client's time if I don't have to.
Yeah. And again, when that happened, I thought, "Oh, how am I going to get through this next month?" And then I'll visit more people. But we did it. It was fine. We did, it was fine. It was certainly worth the wait to get the right person. Yeah. And really why we chose HireSmart was because I had seen you speak at various conferences. And I'm actually one of the founding officers of the Pennsylvania chapter. And I'd seen your competitors speak, and all very qualified, all wonderful, but like traction, I went, "That person is speaking to me." I feel like if I have to communicate something in a little bit amount of time, they're going to see what I'm showing them a little bit easier. And that's why we went for you.
I do think that one of the biggest difference ... I think there's a couple of big differences. One where now a couple of my competitors gotten into the full-time dedicated space, which is whatever, but they all have levels of 15, 20 people. They're not the people doing it. They may have the knowledge, but they're not the people doing the final selection. They're not the people doing the matching. They're not the people that are doing the training. They're not the people that are doing all of that.
And so I will never be the biggest. And I'm okay with that because my love, again, talking about following passions and things, my love is being that marriage maker and making those good matches, and having clients like you that have fallen in love with my people and really want to serve them because that goes down to what I'm all about, which is, I'm going to change the world.
Okay at a time.
Well, you changed our world. That's for sure.
Oh, that's awesome. Well, Jennifer, any last final thoughts that you would want to share with our listeners?
No, just that if you're watching this and thinking, should I, shouldn't I? Will this work? Working through HireSmart is the best chance of success I think that you could have, and you just got to do it. And I'll tell you, what I always say is, they raised the bar. You have to erase what you think these people are capable of, is they are more capable, especially at the things that are done remotely than your in-house team. At least here in Pennsylvania, my workforce is not sophisticated, not very technologically advanced. We are as a company. And that's been great to have that extra resource here to help me keep that going through the team because these people are very, very savvy. Very savvy and smart. Yeah.
Thank you so much for being here. If you're looking for property management services, I hope you will reach out to Jennifer if you were anywhere near Wlliamsport. And certainly we love our clients and thank them for the love that they give to our employees. And again, my name is Anne Lackey. I'm the co founder, and you can find me and Jennifer down in the information below. So have a great rest of your day. And Jennifer, thank you again.
You're welcome. Bye.