Today we get to know Dan Haefner, CEO of Buyers Access. Buyers Access (BA) provides purchasing optimization solutions for multifamily owners, operators, and properties. Let’s see how Dan got started and how he got “smarted” about those purchasing decisions.
Chili – Tell us about your first job, so we can discover a little about your background and business approach.
Haefner – My first job was in a grocery store, when I was probably 12 years old.
Chili – An early start. Studies show people who get jobs at an early age tend to be more successful, so it makes some sense you started so young.
Haefner – Yeah, back when I was in sixth grade, the child labor laws were a bit different. I don’t think they let anyone 12 years old work anymore.
Chili – Apparently the laws were changed by people who didn’t read those studies I mentioned. It looks like you grew up on the west coast, attending high school and college in California.
Haefner – I was born in Michigan. My father worked for IBM, which stood for “I’ve Been Moved”. We hopped back and forth between Michigan and California. My family finally figured out the California weather was too attractive to ever live in Michigan again. Eventually I ended up in Atlanta to be closer to, at the time, my wife’s family.
Chili – And stayed on the east coast?
Haefner – I followed the jobs, all east coast opportunities. Yes, I’m an east coast fan and love it here.
Chili – Easy question…the hard ones come later. Most of your career was involved in multifamily management or ownership. How did that prepare you for your position at Buyers Access?
Haefner – My experiences were very cumulative. I’ve been blessed with several great mentors who allowed me to take on a range of responsibilities. That helped me become a “Jack of All Trades”, master of none. I’ve worked in accounting, legal, insurance, acquisitions, development, construction management, and property operations; all important for a CEO, because you need knowledge in all areas of the company. Despite all those experiences, and while I love what I do, I still can’t tell you exactly what I want to do. I’m still figuring that out every day. But I can tell you what I don’t want to do, and I’ve been able to avoid that.
I’ve been able to use that wide-ranging experience in my role now. I’m a people person and a process guy. Those experiences helped me learn how to set a plan in place and let people execute. Of course, on the backend, you must trust and verify. I think someone else came up with that phrase, but it works in business as well.
Chili – At the start of 2020, every interview – I think it’s required by federal law – asks for predictions. Use your multifamily crystal ball and make a couple of predictions for the upcoming year.
Haefner – I know multifamily will more thoroughly embrace technology. We are traditionally 10-15 years behind banking and other industries. We’ve finally concluded the data now available helps make property manager’s and resident’s lives easier. The push for AI and IOT will go deeper into more properties. Residents want it, and it’s now a business necessity, and it didn’t used to be so.
Chili – That’s one prediction. What else?
Haefner – I think the apartment industry growth and expansion wave will continue strong. Most people are asking when this solid growth will be curtailed. But I see us in the 7th inning, with more time left in the game. If Trump gets impeached in the Senate, or there is significant political or economic turmoil, my prediction might not look so good.
Chili – Our company, ASM, is based outside of Washington, DC, but we prefer to talk about baseball and the World Series Champion, Nationals, not politics.
Haefner – Even though we are in Atlanta and have a rivalry with Washington, I am happy for you. I was never a Houston fan, and it was a long time coming, so it was good to see you win it all.
Chili – My next question is about technology. I didn’t know you would bring it up in your predictions. What role does it play with Buyers Access and your clients?
Haefner – To be candid, not enough of a role. It’s one of our company’s points of emphasis. We have a push to increase our technological capabilities in 2020. A lot of what we do to refine purchasing decisions involves data analytics. To the extent we can utilize technology to replace manual processes our customers are more efficient. And everybody profits then.
Chili – Any “old school” characteristic you still consider essential despite your emphasis on technology and innovation?
Haefner – Absolutely. Everything depends on people and relationships. That’s a constant. Customer relationships remain the most important aspect of business.
Chili – Fill in the blanks on this question. Buyers Access solves the ______________ problem for customers.
Haefner – Good question. I’ve never had to put it in one word before.
Chili – It doesn’t have to be just one word. For example, ASM solves the problem that clients don’t have the time or market expertise to negotiate the best possible ancillary services agreements.
Haefner – BA helps customers identify and improve on challenges or solve problems they aren’t even aware they have. For example, everybody is rightfully focused on five- and ten-dollar bills and don’t focus on pennies, nickels, and dimes falling out the bottom. And those fall out hourly and accumulate into lots of five- and ten-dollar bills over time.
Chili – ASM does precisely that in telecom or other ancillary services; we give clients time to focus on residents and leasing priorities.
Haefner – I might rephrase the word “problems” as we see it as an opportunity to help them improve. We turn problems into opportunities.
Chili – What are the top 2 or 3 ways you benefit their bottom line?
Haefner – One is identifying standardization/consolidation and recommending alternative purchasing opportunities. Two would be creating visibility through data analytics, allowing customers to make faster, better, and more informed decisions. And third, but equally important, is our account management and member services teams, which act as an extension of the owner/operator team, freeing up time so they can focus on their core business.
Chili – Changing gears somewhat…what do you do when management signs a deal and the field doesn’t embrace it.
Haefner – Our approach is totally different. We work to get in front of any deal to ensure it’s not crammed down from the top and it is collaboratively developed with the field. Whether it’s the next software rollout or introducing a new process, it’s about getting buy-in at all levels, so everyone is involved and has skin in the game.
Chili – Multifamily, as opposed to most industries, has not consolidated. The 80/20 rule doesn’t apply. There are thousands of owners, none having more than 3-4% of total units. Do you see this consolidation increasing in the future and what impact does this distributed ownership have on your company?
Haefner – There are many small owners, and often for an investment vehicle it doesn’t pay to try and consolidate 12- or 24-unit properties. And even for the larger properties, I see the industry continuing to be very fragmented.
Chili – Wrapping up our session I want to shift back to the personal side. Do you have a recommendation for a book that inspired you or one you recommend? Are there any books that you give to other people?
Haefner – Absolutely, and I strongly suggest you read it. It’s also a movie now. It’s called “The Ultimate Gift”. I got it in a Christmas gift basket probably 15 to 20 years ago. I don’t even know who it came from. It’s by Jim Stovall, and worthwhile for anyone.
Chili – I will get it. And are you a digital reader or do you still like to read books?
Haefner – I’m still a paperback reader. Mostly because you use to have to shut off your Kindle on take-offs and landings.
Chili – Last question. What question should I have asked you that I didn’t ask?
Haefner – My favorite question in an interview I once had is – if you could pick any other time to live in, what era would you pick and why?
Chili – That’s a toughie. Are you going to answer it or are you just going to give me the question?
Haefner – I would have picked the Wild West.
Chili – Not the TV show with Artemis Gordon and James West?
Haefner – Loved that show but now I love reading Louis Lamour books. And for some reason, I don’t know why I like that time. It was a much harsher time, but it was also about hard work, integrity, and reputation. Those things, I feel are essential to me, and maybe don’t get emphasized enough these days.
Chili – I get the last word and will give you a book recommendation, “All the Pretty Horses” by Cormac McCarthy. It fits into your love for the west and was a movie too. The movie has a young Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, although the book is much better. Thanks, that’s a wrap.