Sudler, Lerner: MECA’s vital hidden resource

Posted on Fri, 04/01/2022 - 12:30pm

By Tracy Poyser

All of us at Malibu East know our trusted property manager, Violette Deschamps, and her assistant, Scott. We rely on them to keep our vertical village running smoothly, together with our building engineers, maintenance crew, doormen, Receiving Room staff and garage attendants. But, I’ll bet we don’t give much thought to the essential support they get from our building’s often hidden resource: Sudler Property Management and Dean Lerner, an executive vice president at Sudler and longtime client liaison for our Association.

You may know Sudler collects our assessments and processes the monthly financial statements. And, if you’ve been attending our monthly Board meetings, you will have seen Dean sitting next to Violette at the head table, answering Board questions and providing insights.

You may wonder why condo associations decide to retain a property management firm like Sudler rather than opting for self-management. The answer for MECA was clear right from the start: With a volunteer Board of Directors, the specialized skill level and knowledge required to run and manage a 500-unit building is best provided by an experienced and well-regarded management firm with a depth of resources no single building could match. So, let’s shed more light on the inner workings of Sudler, as well as Dean Lerner’s role and why he loves his work.

Sudler Property Management has worked exclusively with residential properties in the Chicago metro area for more than 85 years. The Chicago chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM) has named Sudler as Management Company of the Year four times since 2008. Sudler’s expressed role is to help guide its clients in creating the best living environment for residents without using a cookie-cutter approach. It offers a full range of services to associations, including the handling of financials, security, safety compliance and inspections, the incorporation of green initiatives, ongoing digital site inspections and preventive maintenance programs. It also provides a rapid resident notification system and 24/7 emergency responses to repair and maintenance needs.

Of great value are the bulk purchasing programs – especially the Sudler Insurance Risk Purchasing Group, which keeps the Association’s insurance premiums low. Recently, Sudler helped MECA select and screen providers of web-based information and communications systems and recommended the best candidates to our Board, resulting in our access to the Rise portal with all its great features.

The value we get from all these Sudler service offerings depends first and foremost on the personal relationship between MECA and Sudler’s dedicated account supervisor. For nearly 21 of the past 24 years, that’s been Dean Lerner.

Dean started his professional life in the hospitality industry. To quote from his bio on Sudler’s website (check “Few avocations better prepare one for a career in customer service than cooking. After all, great chefs are creative, detail-oriented, and most of all, passionately committed to satisfying their customers.” That describes Dean.

His education included both a degree in culinary arts from the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, as well as a master’s degree in hospitality management from the University of Houston. Prior to joining Sudler, Dean held various senior-management positions at the Hilton Hotels Corporation, where his responsibilities included the preparation and oversight of multimillion-dollar hotel property budgets.

It’s in the nature of the hotel business to move executives around a lot, and when Hilton wanted to transfer Dean from Chicago to Washington, D.C., he started looking for a job that would use his experience without requiring frequent relocations. Although it had never hired someone with his background, Sudler made him an offer in 1997.

Why property management? “I wanted to approach running a condo building like a five-star hotel,” he said. As in the hotel industry, he felt he needed to get “boots on the ground” experience first, so he spent his first year with Sudler as a property manager – at The Tiara condominium at 6145 N. Sheridan, and at the Hampton House condos in Hyde Park. He joined Sudler’s corporate offices at 875 N. Michigan (the former John Hancock Building) in 1998, and Malibu East became his client that year.

Dean’s customer-focused temperament and ability to inspire others made him a rising star at Sudler. He became director of training and customer service there and is active in a number of leading property management associations, including the board of the Apartment Building Owners and Managers Association (ABOMA), where he is the group’s president and serves on the union-contract negotiating team. He has also served on the Institute of Real Estate Management’s (IREM) board of directors and holds numerous professional designations in the real estate industry. In 2016, he was recognized with one of the nation’s premier awards for property managers: U.S. National Portfolio Manager of the Year.

Even though Dean’s corporate responsibilities as an executive vice president at Sudler have expanded recently, he’s kept a small portfolio of buildings he’s had in his care for a long time, including Malibu East. So, what’s the secret behind Sudler’s longevity with MECA or any client, I asked.

Almost anyone can keep the lights on,” he said, “but it takes a personal touch backed by all the resources of a million-dollar management firm to keep on earning the trust of the Board of Directors – and the owner/residents – year after year.”

I wondered how many of those resources MECA uses. “That varies from building to building,” Dean said, “but it takes the weight off a condo board to have a proven menu at their fingertips when pursuing a new project or tackling an emergency.” He reminds me that Board members are volunteers with different professional backgrounds and limited time, whereas the management staff’s priority is the day-to-day running of the building, so that’s where Sudler’s, and his, expertise comes in.

Sudler provides our management staff with considerable day-to-day support. Dean is in touch with either Violette or Scott at least once a day, depending on the issue – from being a sounding board for a specific issue, emergency or challenge with the inner workings of the building, to providing guidance and sharing solutions other buildings in his care may have experienced in similar situations. That includes understanding new city or state ordinances, vetting vendors or helping to access temporary staff resources.

By far the most serious recent example is how Sudler provided each of the buildings in its care with guidance and tools to protect residents during the two years of the pandemic. Here’s a quote from the May 2021 issue of The Sudler View, the company’s quarterly newsletter: “In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sudler took action. On March 16, 2020, our management met for five hours and finalized a detailed list of recommendations for condo associations’ boards of directors to consider for immediate implementation.” Since then, Sudler’s chief operating officer, Dean Andrews, has led his team’s response to the fluid situation.

Dean Lerner tells me that Sudler’s COVID task force immediately developed and shared news flashes, salient updates, suggested signage and safety protocols for building employees and residents, provided shell outline materials, vetted public mandates and updates, and helped property managers and boards ensure that this potentially life-saving information reached each resident.

I wondered about the most frequent day-to-day emergencies for residential high-rises. According to Dean, it’s malfunctioning water systems. They present a very real risk of significant damage, especially if it’s an off-hours incident.

I asked him what distinguishes Malibu East from his other client properties.

Managing a condo property is always challenging at the office level,” he explained. “MECA staff and crew did a fantastic job during super difficult times.”

Dean also praised our building’s great working environment, which has led to outstanding employee retention, especially in those less-than-glamorous maintenance jobs, and at a time when there’s a serious labor shortage. He points out that the door staff’s task is often a thankless one, and how our Malibu East doormen offer empathy and kindness to everyone.

That positive climate is exemplified by MECA’s employee recognition program, which is celebrated at the annual employee holiday luncheon (see the Dialogue’s January 2022 cover story). In turn, Violette Deschamps describes Dean as “highly professional and competent, and with the best work ethic.”

On a more personal note, I asked Dean how he feels about his job after almost 25 years.

I’ve enjoyed it much more than I ever thought,” he told me. “I love to work with people, and this is such a special environment. I’ve always felt privileged to build relationships in what is such a big part of people’s lives – their homes and community of neighbors. It’s like being part of a big, special, diverse and vibrant family.”

What about his own home?

I don’t live in a building run by Sudler,” he chuckled. Hmmm … I didn’t ask him why. I guess he needs some time off, at least at night!