UKAA in conversation with… Stephanie Smith, Director of Residential Operations, Invesco

UKAA in conversation with… Stephanie Smith, Director of Residential Operations, Invesco Stephanie Smith is one person you should and would want to know. An active member of the UKAA Policy, Research & Education Committee, lead on the UKAA & Swift Bunny DE&I Snapshot and the recipient of the UKAA Recognition Award in November 2022, recognised for her ‘hands on’ approach, her dedication to BTR and her invaluable contributions to UKAA.

After starting her career in her native US over two decades ago, Stephanie has been in the UK for ten years and has made a significant impact within the build to rent (BTR) industry, especially in the area she’s passionate about: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. 

The first in a new series, UKAA in conversation with…., we speak with Stephanie about her passion for EDI, what drives her and vision for the future.

Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got interested in the EDI agenda

I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York and had a relatively innocuous upbringing in a large family. I attended high school at Mount St Mary, a catholic school in name and religious practice but one where the excellent curriculum attracted a student population with diverse backgrounds – not only socio-economic, but also in religion, ethnicity, and culture. 

The school encouraged active neighbourhood engagement and, long before it had a formal title of EDI, we looked to break down barriers and stereotypes, bringing people together through inclusive art and music programmes, even kids’ theatre.

I am grateful for the experience and one of the greatest lessons at a young age was that you don’t always have to agree with what people think to learn from how they think. I learned more than I can express in one interview from my friends and classmates through our avid discussions in those years.

As an adult, I moved to Denver and found it a melting pot. I appreciated the diverse communities which were built up of people from all over the country – the world, as well – and Denver still holds a special place in my heart.

Even then I felt life was all about seeing acceptance – it’s either in you or it’s not. And if it’s not, that’s where you must start challenging yourself.

How does the UK compare to the US in terms of EDI?

Diversity and inclusion has long been a passion for me, starting my career in the US as a young woman in leasing and growing my skills and roles within the industry. I didn’t study real estate in school. I fell into it. Many do in the US market. I loved the pace, empowering people to find “home”, building value in the local community and experiencing the different perspectives brought to the table from our various backgrounds.

I was impressed by the more diverse nature of the operational side of the multi-family industry, although this was more driven amongst gender than the variety of demographics we see now. Frankly, it often fell victim to stereotyping in roles, some of which still exist. Women were often in leasing, a site manager or accounting while men tended to be found in maintenance, asset management and the boardroom.

This is not a concern only with real estate. We have all seen reports reflecting that female directors hold only 31% of board seats. It is important to recognise that, while this is an improvement of 4% from three years prior, representation in the boardroom of race, ethnicity, and orientation still lags behind significantly.

How have you adapted a social program in different markets?

During my time in the living sector, I have had the pleasure of working across several cities in the U.S. and in seven different European countries, seeing many facets of the cultures in which my companies were developing and operating. A constant truth I have found is that it has always been key to ensure teams consider the regional differences in needs and social norms as we build strategy to share best practice ideas to make concerted efforts to add value within the local community.

For example, in the UK and U.S., ongoing events calendars are common and tend to grow holistically to allow for the variety of residents on the property. These include management hosted events and activities alongside resident-initiated clubs which capture the neighbourhood’s heartbeat and can even support local businesses. There are many opportunities to support resident well being while building social links within the neighbourhood, whether through an after-school arts session for kids in the wider community, charitable efforts tailored to the local concerns, a cooking series focusing on different types of food, or even bringing people together to watch a bit of Wimbledon!

Comparatively, Nordic countries tend to hold a history of placemaking in development, and many assets are intentionally part of a bigger community plan which may host kindergartens, later living, grocery shops and other retail so it’s important to link with and enhance the overall estate for larger, in-built activities while also creating individual identity of the property and value for our residents, as we did at Invesco with planting days and a hot-chocolate van at Christmas.

Regardless of country, an important part of this includes recruitment and empowering teams who will reflect that community and invest themselves to create a better work and living environment.

Can you give me some examples of how you have approached the EDI agenda?

Like the term ESG, of which EDI is a large part, the topic can feel vast and prompt the question “where to start?” It’s not just about bringing in diversity, but also about the creation of an equitable and inclusive environment, removing the barriers which may hinder career growth into the boardroom or whatever career path we choose.

EDI has gone beyond gender, colour, and religion. The term includes personality, background, experience, thinking and learning styles. It’s vital to both our industry and society in general that we recognise this and challenge ourselves to think outside the box as we set new programmes.

One part of this is finding out what sparks our passion, and as I have recruited and developed teams, I have looked at both how they may fit the role but also beyond, to see the person and understand where they may wish to go.

For example, one of my teams in Denver had a very talented and hardworking maintenance technician who helped provide support in the office during quiet maintenance times. A bit into his time with the property, there was an opportunity for a temporary cover while one of our leasing agents went on leave, and he expressed interest in filling in while she was gone. We provided a bit of training, but his motivation was key to learn more about the business. He was very competitive and excelled, even beating goals and leasing numbers! He took that experience to improve his work, both in maintenance and from a business perspective. He and I are still in touch, and I have watched him grow his own successful business where he provides construction and handyman services.

I also strive to engage (personally and professionally) with awareness programmes, like the Swift Bunny EDI Survey, which I am thrilled to have led on from a UKAA perspective as part of my role in the Research, Education and Policy Committee. The survey programme spoke to me because it takes the view of EDI beyond ticking boxes. It allows us to gauge from the perspective of the various teams who work in BTR how effective are the initiatives which companies are putting in place.

Hearing this feedback with an open mind allows us to think about how we set career paths for our talented and passionate team. As we break down walls, we can be ready to embrace new things ourselves and give others the opportunity to embrace them too.

So, what is the main issue as identified by the Swift Bunny study?

The survey offered two perspectives, employee and executive. A variety of companies were invited to participate, from suppliers to operators and investment firms.

The first element to capture my attention was the disparity on some of the scoring, whether between employees and executives or the delta between the importance of a topic versus the perception of if their company was taking action.

There is a saying that “perception is reality,” so if a company is putting efforts in place, but employees either don’t realise they are in place or effective, how do we improve so it does reach everyone equally? Should employees be more involved and have a voice in some of these discussions?

Another topic which was the willingness to look at what’s always been done, such as revisiting recruitment and employee referral programmes. When you ask, “does anybody know anyone …”, do we risk ending up with everybody being just like everybody else in the business?

Any BTR career pathway should aim to cultivate existing talent, but also acknowledge when we should also bring in fresh faces, including people with different backgrounds and life experiences. We need to see past the political stances and think how we can have those conversations.

How important is creating social value to the BTR industry?

It’s more than important, it is imperative to help our industry and society grow.

There is the dream in the US about owning your home, with the white picket fence and I think, as in the UK, that will continue to run through society. But there are people who like the flexibility of renting, along with the security of tenure (which investors also like), the perks in the building and the community feel. I think a lot of the stigma has gone out of renting.

It’s a basic need to have a home where you feel safe. BTR provides that because there is always someone to fix your leak, look after the maintenance and cut the grass. It’s my firm belief that, whether it’s 300-a-month, or 3000-a month, it’s someone’s home, their money and oftentimes their family, and that brings with it a level of responsibility.

I have long said people designing and operating the buildings shouldn’t be thinking only how it should work for them, as they may not have rented in a very long time. I challenge our teams to consider how it might work for their mother, or their dad, and to develop in a manner they would hope a loved one would experience the community.

BTR in the UK is still in its teenage years and, while many councils have a vision to incorporate BTR in their area, some are not yet entirely sure of how it may work. There is still a split view within government of renting and landlord ethics. As we develop, it is vital to engage with the local council to understand their concerns and build trust. This was a key element as we mobilised The Almere with our appointed manager in Milton Keynes where we have a community centre open to the neighbourhood for events, classes, and the arts. Our teams also build relationships with shops and businesses to support the local economy, incorporate some of their products into move-in packs, and share their details via our newsletters to keep our residents informed.

The BTR industry has an opportunity and responsibility to build value in the community, have the right people on site who will care for the residents and to be accountable to our investors but equally to the neighbourhood.

Via effective recruiting, we can also create jobs in the local area, build careers and (hopefully) attract staff who feel invested in the building and the residents because we are invested in them. It used to be that if you started in lettings, you stayed in lettings, but that is no longer the case.

Since I have been in the UK, I have seen vast progress; employee and customer care really took off during Covid and I think the social value idea progressed more quickly than it had, historically, in the States.

What are the next steps?

There is a great need for sharing and transparency which is an area where the US does seem to be way ahead of the UK.

Ideally, we would sit down more consistently and share ideas as readily as we do across the pond. 

We are becoming more open in the UK but in the US there’s a willingness to admit what didn’t work, how we picked back up, and we need to be able to have those conversations, just as much as sharing our victories.

You would not want to give away state secrets, of course, but the more we band together as an industry the more effective we will be.

In the States, we used to have a monthly round table in our sub-markets and a lot of camaraderie came out of it. We could talk about new tech, programmes, trainings, even availability – I would pass on a lead for a three-bed if we didn’t have any available and vice versa.

We even discussed financial trends, shared open roles and were trying to be realistic around EDI. We would ask: “What are you putting in place, how are you recruiting, how are your internships going?”

Another area to focus on is recruitment and career-path development. It’s important to create a whole-company feel so everyone feels valued and a part of the business. For example, we can develop more content in industry events and training so there is as much value to maintenance teams and leasing agents, as to the senior management teams. Can we also create a ‘comfortable networking’ opportunity to build peer groups and see how other companies do things?

While I wouldn’t be so bold to think that the UK should work exactly as the US does, I would say let’s start by becoming a little more open.