Venterra Realty was founded in 2001 by John Foresi, Andrew Stewart and Greg Finch, with the intention of building a great company in multi-family real estate. They saw this as a venture into new territory so the name “Venterra” was formed from the words “venture” and “terra” meaning land. The company was founded on a set of core values as the basis for how company decisions would be made, how people would act and how business would be conducted. Those values are very prominent in the company today and as CEO John Foresi says: “it’s okay if you don’t live these values, but you just can’t work here.”
The company originally managed four communities (about 800 apartment homes) in Austin and Houston, Texas and only 35 employees. Venterra has since grown to own and manage over 15,000 units with over 500 employees. The company currently manages a portfolio worth over $1.2 billion with total revenue of $170 million and average annual growth of more than 19%. But at Venterra, expansion isn’t just about size; it’s about paving a new way in the industry, where employees can really make a difference, career growth is available, and where residents are provided an amazing living experience!
Venterra’s Executive Team has always believed that a strong company culture is the foundation of a great company. A strong company culture is critical to having highly engaged employees – those that look forward to going to work, care about the quality of their work and are highly committed to delivering the operating vision of the organization. From our beginnings, we expected that these high levels of engagement would allow us to deliver strong operating results which would in turn allow us to continue to grow our organization. While creating a strong company culture is obviously good for business, Venterra’s goal has always been to be a company that improves the lives of our employees by providing an environment where people want to come to work and become better people because of it.
Venterra’s commitment to a strong company culture is evidenced by the fact that our Core Values were created at the same time the company was founded. Complementing our Core Values is Venterra’s Employer Promise. Our Employer Promise defines the work environment we are committed to providing to our employees, and the standard to which our managers are held accountable. While many companies say they provide a positive work environment, we took the additional step of defining what we wanted that to look like so that everyone could understand our vision for the work environment. And then we measured it!
After communicating our Employer Promises, we wanted to measure how well we were delivering on our promises, identify areas in which we could improve, and ensure our employees have a voice. This led us to deploying our first annual Employee Engagement Survey with our research partner, National Business Research Institute (NBRI). We’ve conducted the employee research through NBRI every year since then, as we feel it plays a key role in informing and improving our culture. Through the survey, our employees get to share their voice and play an instrumental part in who we are. Having a great, unique culture is critical to being a world-class organization and to our pursuit of excellence.
Make a Promise. Make a Difference.
We feel the survey has played a key role in achieving a great culture. In addition to giving our employees that voice, we have a very valuable measurement tool that allows us to closely monitor our performance. We can see the things we’re good at, maintain our best in class scores and identify where to make the most valuable improvements that mean the most to our employees. In turn, this equates to positive results for our bottom line.
Not only do our survey findings tell us what we could improve in, they also tell us where. Our results give us insight into weaker performing regions and in those cases we look more closely at the top to ensure our leaders are upholding our Employer Promise. Where we find this is not the case, we provide good coaching and ultimately make personnel changes if necessary.
What We’re Good At
Part of the culture that we strive to create is an environment in which our employees feel that what they do matters. Our Employer Promise states that “We are committed to providing our employees with a Positive Work Environment where they have the opportunity and resources to grow professionally, achieve success, fulfill their potential and truly make a difference.” We have been pleased in successive years to see best in class scoring on the question “What I do makes a difference in the lives of my customers” evidencing that our employees know that what they do really matters.
WOW. This is what gives all employees the chance to make a difference. In its essence, our WOW Culture is about story telling. Anecdotes from employees are shared on our company intranet and compiled in an annual book. The stories are about what our employees have done to provide exceptional service and how it’s made a difference in our customer’s living experience. Where other companies hide behind “policy”, we encourage our employees to find opportunities that change our customers’ lives, make memories and turn them into raving fans. We’ve even put our money where our mouth is by incorporating a significant annual budget for front-line employees to provide amazing personalized experiences for our customers.
What Means the Most to our Employees
Through the survey results we recently identified that our employees felt that we could improve in the areas of compensation, benefits, training offerings and performance evaluations. We have since then set out to identify what specifically is seen as important, related to those areas.
Benefits. We found that our employees are passionate about investing in their future and retirement so we added a company match to our 401k plan. We also found that affordable health plans are important to our people. So we have worked creatively at a solution that allows us to offer the same rates to our employees for the last 2 years, despite the overall increasing costs of healthcare. The survey tells us that these efforts are getting results. We’ve seen our benefits score increase by 7 percentile points since our first deployment.
Compensation. In early surveys we conducted a competitive analysis of our compensation plans and made improvements to our commission and renewal structures, in addition to implementing a quarterly salary review where salaries are benchmarked against market industry data. Our score for compensation is now one of our strengths, and we’ve moved this 4 percentile points across the company.
Training. Our Employer Promise states that “we will invest in your professional development” so for starters, we added resources, doubling the size of the training department. We implemented a learning management system that allows employees to receive online training at their convenience with access to 100 online courses. We’ve made improvements to our onboarding process, our mentor programs and have improved the overall quality of our training. With our 15 percentile point improvement since inception, I would say that our improvements in training have been well received by our employees!
Performance Evaluations. This was one area in which our survey results surprised us. We consider our performance review process to be one of the many advantages of working at Venterra. We pride ourselves on our open and candid environment, quarterly evaluations and thoughtful, comprehensive feedback. These are intended to give our employees the opportunity to improve and meet their career goals. But our scores in this area were lower than we expected, so we increased the frequency of performance reviews and implemented an online performance management system. We now have a much greater ability to track and monitor employee performance, ultimately resulting in better career growth for our employees.
Our participation levels are very important to us. At Venterra, we don’t just want to hear from raving fans and those at the top. We value feedback from every employee and encourage participation at every level. Prior to conducting the survey, we communicate the survey’s importance and encourage everyone to give candid, honest feedback. This is critical to providing clarity on where we need to focus our efforts to continue our progression to being a World Class Organization. Our managers communicate this to every member of their team during their weekly “huddles”. We also encourage our managers to make it fun. Some of our teams have a designated “survey day” where they have lunch catered or provide milkshakes to the team and have a designated computer available for anyone to complete the survey during working hours. We also have team members available to help those who might have technical challenges in completing the survey online. And we offer the survey in both English and Spanish. On average in the last 4 years, we are pleased that 89% of our employees have responded to the survey.
Acting on Results – the Most Important Part
Venterra’s Chief Operating Officer and Director of Recruiting and Employee Development review the survey results in detail. All survey data points are analyzed in order to identify progress and trends in each of the areas covered by the survey. A company survey action plan is created on the basis of that review. We then focus on improving areas that are showing a negative trend or in which we see opportunities.
While our survey is confidential at the individual level, results specific to regions are communicated to senior management to help us better act on the data at a local level. Our senior managers solicit feedback from our on-site managers in a meeting that includes an overall presentation of the specific region’s results as well as brainstorming sessions to dive into some of the feedback. This helps us better understand how we can act upon and improve the results. Based on the survey results, as well as any feedback we receive from our managers about their teams, regional action plans are created.
As part of our candid and open culture, we share the results and plans with all employees and show where we’ve improved or declined. We do this to better understand what is important to all our employees, identify areas to improve and most importantly, to confirm that changes we have made in the past year are moving us in the right direction.
We also incorporate our action plans into our company operating plan. This plan highlights our top 25 priorities for the given year. The plan is updated monthly and communicated to all employees so everyone can see what we’re working on, the changes that we’re making, and how it impacts them.
We work diligently with our departments and allocate resources where needed to implement the plans. We also incorporate key note presentations related to our findings from the previous year’s survey in our Annual Leadership Conference and Annual Kick-Off the New Year Company Party.
How it affects our Bottom Line
We want for all our people to feel that the experience of working at Venterra improves their lives and makes them better people. A great work culture also goes hand in hand with superior operating results. We have achieved great operating results over the past decade and we believe these are a result of our commitment to providing a great company culture, where our employees are engaged and enjoy working at Venterra. The employee survey allows us to maintain this high level of employee engagement, which in turn makes it possible for us to provide an outstanding living experience to our residents. The ultimate result is strong operating results which allow us to continue to grow our organization. Some of our recent achievements are noted below:
- Quarterly NOI growth performance – #1 amongst public REITs over last two years
- 92% of residents surveyed online say they would refer their family and friends to our communities
- Made the prestigious national “Top 5% Rated Award” by ApartmentRatings.com.
- Recognized as being in the Top 3 of the industry, based on the Ellis Performance Management System Benchmarking survey which assesses the overall quality of the leasing experience.
- 50% of Property Managers, 42% of Maintenance Managers and 74% of Corporate/Regional Positions are a result of internal promotions
- 30% of employees are a result of employee referrals
Clearly our strategy is working. Our commitment to cultural excellence and the success of each of our employees has driven us to great operating results, which further enables us to become the world class organization we strive to be. The NBRI survey continues to provide us with a valuable tool in the transparent pursuit of never-ending improvement.
Bridget Sherrod is the Director of Recruiting and Employee Development and has a BBA in Management and Real Estate from Baylor University. She and her team are largely responsible for attracting, selecting and developing employees, in addition to branding Venterra as a great place to work. Bridget is a true example of Venterra’s Employer Promise that “we will invest in your professional development and strive to promote from within.” She started her career with Venterra as a Leasing Consultant and this year celebrates her 10 year anniversary with Venterra.