As commercial real estate firms look to rebalance their portfolios with more lucrative industrial assets, property managers with years of experience in the office sector might find themselves thrust into a new role, managing an industrial property for the first time. Due to the unique nature of industrial properties and their tenants, this transition requires preparation.
“I can absolutely tell you the difference between managing office buildings and industrial properties is like night and day.” So says Debbie Chamberlain, a senior property manager for industrial real estate giant Prologis in Central Florida. And, she would know: Chamberlain managed office buildings, retail space and apartments for 30 years before making the move to the industrial sector back in 2000. These differences can add up quickly, especially when it comes to maintenance.
Unlike in an office building, most maintenance responsibilities fall to the tenant in an industrial space. Property managers typically oversee maintenance concerns outside the structure—exterior lighting, awnings, landscaping—while tenants handle issues inside the property. Successful maintenance requires what Chamberlain calls “a culture of teamwork.” This involves working directly with tenants to ensure proper care so that building systems don’t deteriorate prematurely. Walking the property and having regular face-to-face interactions with tenants not only helps build a strong partnership, but it also allows property managers to spot problems early.
Leasing language also plays a role in assigning obligations. “Many leases now incorporate language that requires the tenant to enter into maintenance contracts with service providers,” shares Tod Harrison, senior property manager for Transwestern in Houston. “Leases also can require tenants to share copies of these agreements with the property manager and file quarterly maintenance reports.”
Consider, too the sheer size and scope of industrial properties. Chamberlain oversees a portfolio of five million square feet of industrial space, which quite literally covers a lot of ground. “An office building only has one roof, but we manage 40 industrial properties, so we have 40 roofs and a lot of parking lots,” she explains. “It’s the quantity and volume of the work that can be challenging.”
Office building managers may not think about the potential for property damage very often, but there is a constant threat of destruction with the heavy machinery typically in and around industrial structures. If loading dock bumpers are missing or not in the right place, a truck can back up into a property and damage its foundation. In a humid climate, if a tenant keeps its roll-up doors open with the air conditioning running or has refrigerated equipment adding to the level of moisture in the space, the result can be a “sweating slab”—a concrete floor that becomes dangerously slippery for people and forklifts alike due to condensation. If chemicals used by a tenant are improperly stored, they can cause corrosion of the structure’s metal trusses. The opportunities for disaster are seemingly endless.
Harrison learned this lesson the hard way during his very first day on the job with Trammel Crow Company back in 1988. One of his tenants manufactured corrugated cardboard boxes, and that day, one of their forklift drivers hit a column and sheared it off at the floor, partially collapsing a section of the property’s roof. “That set the tone for the rest of my career,” Harrison jokes. “I immediately thought to myself, ‘There’s going to be something new and exciting every day with this job.’”
Chamberlain has a few horror stories of her own. One of her favorites also involves a forklift—and an industrial occupier who supplied frozen food products to local fast food chains. “They ran a 24/7 operation, and in the middle of the night, a forklift hit a sprinkler head inside their freezer room, causing water to start gushing out,” she recalls. The water flowing out of the sprinkler would immediately freeze, resulting in a huge pile of ice on the floor. The supplier, needing to keep its inventory of frozen food from spoiling, could not turn off the freezer. As a result, a number of the tenant’s employees had to tackle the problem by slowing chipping away at the ice with the help of a few hair dryers.
But, industrial property management isn’t all unpleasant. “It’s much more interesting than people may think it is,” says Chamberlain. “It’s certainly never boring, I continue to learn new things all the time, and as the industrial sector grows, my experience grows right along with it.”