Interview with Karen Conlon, President and CEO of Sequoia Grove Consulting, Inc.

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Karen Conlon is widely recognized as one of the key leaders that transformed California’s community management industry from an unfamiliar occupation into a professional “credentialed” career. Karen, along with a group of HOA management company owners, formed CACM in 1991 to create a “professional organization dedicated to ensuring the quality and standards of practice in the California community association industry.” As CACM’s founding Executive Director, Karen directed the development of its Statewide Expo & Conference, established a Professional Standards Committee to oversee the development and enforcement of the Code of Ethics, and spearheaded its first Law Seminar and educational programs to include more than 100 offerings. In 2002, the Certified Community Association Manager (CCAM) designation was recognized by California with the passage of AB 555. Since 1991, CACM has grown to over 3,000 members and continues to be California’s premier resource for the improvement of community managers and their affiliated vendors.

Please tell us how life is treating you outside of CACM. How is your new job? What new perspectives do you now have about the HOA industry – if any?

I retired from my position as President & CEO of CACM at year-end 2014. Since then I have been working full time with my own consulting firm, Sequoia Grove. We provide a variety of services, including governance training, strategic planning with HOA’s and other professional and non-profit associations. I also serve as an expert witness for the community management industry and love the special projects I’ve been hired to perform for management firms, service providers and affiliate partners. Although I hadn’t initially considered it as part my firm’s services, earlier this year I was retained by two HOA boards to perform an executive search for their general manager positions. Both had very successful outcomes, they had managers placed and the associations are extremely happy. It was very satisfying getting personally reacquainted with many community management professionals who are looking for those opportunities to advance their careers – they are amazing! And yes, I have also been traveling. All-in-all, I am very blessed.

What is the most important thing that Community Managers should know about advancing their careers and making a difference in the HOA industry?

There are many factors that community managers should take into consideration, but the biggest hurdle is making a professional commitment to the industry as a career. Here’s why! While at the helm of CACM for 23 years, I recognized how the organization needed to design and develop education for those evolved areas of specialized management. Now, a manager can achieve their state-specific certification, AND advance to specialized credentials for high rise, portfolio, new development, large scale, and other avenues of community management. The opportunities for advancement and a six-figure salary are attainable. Getting there takes courage, hard work and gumption! I love seeing individuals enter and excel in their career path.

What are the most common mistakes that Community Managers make and how can they be avoided?

It’s easy to spot those individuals who are not interested in this industry as a career. Those managers who go to their board meetings and sit at the table only to take minutes – will not last. However, those who are committed, are willing to gain the skills, do the work, and are not afraid to take on the tough assignments will thrive. Boards are hungry to work with professionals who guide them through the tough business decisions; while also being candid with a board if the board members aren’t following the Business Judgment Rule. Boards must also realize that hiring a CCAM, a MCAM or a CCAM with a specialty certificate warrants higher compensation levels. I applaud those management firms who support their managers in obtaining state-specific training and credentials. There are none better in the nation than California certified managers and the ACBM management firm.

What do you see as the biggest issue(s) facing the HOA industry? What can be done about it?

Honestly, I don’t think this has changed in the 37 years I’ve been in the industry – it’s how management firms price their fees. Relinquishing margins, undercutting competitors by a ridiculous amount, and diluting indemnification provisions in the management contract, all contribute to commoditized pricing. Some say it’s all about the numbers – “managing more units we can afford to lower our management fees.” Simply not true, is the response many management firms have told me. Are there factors that have led to these behaviors? Yes and no. There are no easy answers. Be willing to stand your ground on your management fee, provide the level of service the HOA is willing to pay for, and most important – management firms MUST provide great customer service.

What is the most important “best practice” that builders should always implement at their new communities?

Builders still need to keep open and transparent lines of communication with their new communities and listen to the hired management professionals. They also need to train (hey I’m available!) the reps who sit on the boards of new communities for the developer. By training, I mean providing the tools necessary to be good board members. This can include a working knowledge of the governing documents, what fiduciary duty means, their roles and responsibilities as directors and officers, and what lines in the sand not to cross, while simultaneously wearing the developer and board member hats. Having worked for Shapell Homes (now Toll Brothers) for 7 years, creating all of their HOAs from new subdivisions, I was able to develop the tools necessary to train the volunteer directors and owners. They too, have defined roles to fulfill.

The recent consolidation of HOA Management firms, the wrap-up by Associa from Texas and FirstService from Canada happened quickly. Do you think this consolidation is good for the HOA industry? What dangers do you see and what opportunities do you foresee with this wrap-up?

Consolidation of our industry was and continues to be inevitable. Although, I am now also seeing quite a few new start-up management firms, because the economy is improving and new HOA communities are coming into the market. There is room in California for management firms of all sizes. However the differentiation gap that I see growing is that those firms who provide excellent customer service are faring better in terms of pricing, margins, and retention, than those that do not.

Tell us something that no one knows about you.

I am very adventurous and have a lot of gypsy blood – that means I love to travel and undertake new adventures! I have crewed as a cook on a 40 ft. sailboat in Central and South America, going through the Panama Canal, San Blas Islands and Cartagena, Columbia. I love zip lining all over the world. One of my more memorable and physically difficult adventures was driving a herd of horses over 60 miles from snow elevations to the lower pasture areas in Arizona and New Mexico. Along the journey, the trail boss captured a wild stallion, his mare, and their colt. It was an amazing thing to see. My African safari adventure changed my life; the trip to China was unique. Climbing to the top of the Sydney Bridge in Australia challenged my fear of heights and the vacation in Tasmania yielded an encounter with a few Tasmanian Devils (yes they exist). I just recently completed a driving trip through Ireland, Wales and England. Yes I am blessed.


J. David Rauch Bio

Dave Rauch is the Founder and President of ProTec Building Services (ProTec). He ensures that work quality is consistent.  Dave maintains a consistent presence within the company.  While managing the growth of ProTec, he strives to improve everything that ProTec does, especially exceeding client expectations.  At Mr. Rauch’s previous company he designed the original HOA manual and monthly building maintenance programs specific for each HOA. In 1996 Dave opened ProTec, which now provides maintenance programs to over 600 communities and other services to 2,000 communities.

George Van Oosbree Bio

George Van Oosbree is the Senior Vice President and Director of Operations in Nevada. He has been a manager with ProTec for 17 years. He holds a California/Nevada General Contractors and painting license; as well as, certifications in Playground Safety and SWPPP. He is also a United States Green Building Counsel LEED Accredited Professional and EPA Certified Lead Renovator.  Developers rely on George’s knowledge (nearly 100 High-rise and Mid-rise Projects) and 30 years of experience to construct sustainable and maintainable projects.

Andy Henley Bio

With over 20 years’ experience in construction management and janitorial, Andy knows what it takes to repair and maintain your largest asset, your homes and common areas at your community. Not only will Andy provide unparalleled customer service for all ProTec’s work but he will ensure that all jobs and service exceed client expectations. Call Andy and request to meet at your community. He will walk your community, detailing what maintenance and repairs are needed to keep your property values increasing.

Candy Allen Bio

ProTec’s controller, Candy Allen, has over two decades of experience in accounting and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the executive team.  Candy also has extensive HR, office management and organizational skills derived from her years of experience in the service industry.  What truly sets Candy apart from her peers is her energy and zeal to get the job/challenge done correctly and immediately.  She’ll explain that her success comes from devoting herself to creating a team environment in which the company can accurately track and maintain their various business and accounting systems.  Teamwork, honesty and hard work are all core elements of Candy’s work ethic.

Laura Swirski Bio

As ProTec’s Human Resources Manager, Laura Swirski, brings knowledge and experience in HR and Organizational Development from a variety of industries ranging from property management, non-profit, government, public utility, and hospitality.  Laura enjoys an employee focused and hands-on approach to HR.  She believes employees are a company’s most important resource.  An organization is successful when employees are in the right job and are involved, committed, and work together toward shared goals.  Laura is conscientious, a hard worker, and desires to learn, improve, and make a difference.

Fernando Urrea Bio

Fernando Urrea began his ProTec career in 2009. After a short leave he returned to ProTec in 2014 as the San Diego Maintenance Division Manager. He holds a General Contractors License; as well as, EPA Certified Lead Renovator. Fernando worked at Standard Pacific Homes and Pacific Bay Homes in the San Diego Divisions and has over 15 years’ experience in new home construction management. While working in Military Housing for 10 years he was able get hands on experience on all trades and management skills. His new home building and maintenance knowledge are unparalleled and is what makes Fernando a great asset.

Mark Adams Bio

Fascinated by construction from an early age, Mark developed the skills and knowledge to construct and repair any building. Prior to ProTec, Mark honed his skills at Quality Built Consulting on construction defects/diagnostics nationally. Mark is a licensed California General Contractor and a certified applicator in Excellent Coatings (Waterproof Coatings), SIKA Products (Sealants), PROTECTO Wrap (Waterproof Membranes) and Superkrete (Overlay Concrete Systems). Mark has been a manager at ProTec for 15 years and is the top HOA estimator in San Diego County. He prides himself on being able to assist HOA Boards and Community Managers resolve any type of repair or construction project.

Lee Sterling Bio

While attending Arizona State University pursuing a degree in engineering, Lee Sterling enlisted in the United States Army prior to Desert Storm. After completing his service he began working in the property service industry. Duly licensed as a Building (B1) and Roofing (C39) contractor, Lee rose through the ranks of the industry becoming the Division Manager and acting Chief Engineer for properties in San Diego, Irvine and Brea. His commitment to quality and superior service has earned him recommendations from his peers, clients and customers.

Cesar Ibarra Bio

Cesar Ibarra is ProTec’s Janitorial Manager and has been with the company for 8 years. He ensures that the janitorial work quality is consistent and manages the planning of large level custodial projects. He prides himself in his knowledge of janitorial services and has over 10 years of experience in the Commercial Cleaning Industry. He and his team devote themselves to our clients and provide customized janitorial services that are specifically tailored for each community or project.

Paul Mayeski Bio

Paul oversees ProTec’s Maintenance Manuals and Inspections Division. Before joining the ProTec team in 2000, Paul spent 4 years converting his Industrial Arts education into becoming a trained cabinetmaker, followed by 13 years building custom homes and then 7 years administering building maintenance programs and overseeing maintenance manual implementations for one of San Diego’s largest community management companies.  Because of his combined experience in the building and community management industries, he is uniquely suited to ensure that our clients’ projects are successful.

Chris McHenry Bio

Chris has over 25 years of construction experience in the residential and commercial industries. He has done everything hands on from operate heavy equipment, ro build and remodel custom homes, and commercial tenant improvements. He started working in his family’s business building custom homes during the summers in high school. He moved on as a Project Manager for an apartment maintenance construction company in Rancho Santa Margarita. He proceeded to get his contractor’s license and owned his own company for 7 years. Chris also holds the positions of superintendent on a high rise construction project and Project Manager with an industrial/commercial company.

Sal Mendoza Bio

Salvador Mendoza is our Los Angeles regional manager for ProTec Building Services. Since starting with the Company in 2008 he has devoted himself to the challenging world of maintenance for mid and high rise buildings. Salvador’s past experiences of running his family owned construction business, along with his real estate and mortgage banking experience, provide him with a unique perspective within our industry. He has a created the company’s first Planned Maintenance Contract (PMC), which allows for a custom annual maintenance calendar of the building components for each individual building, enabling clients to plan ahead and have an annual maintenance budget

Mirzet Velic Bio

As ProTec’s Vista Maintenance Division Manager, Mirzet brings immense experience in the HOA industry and knowledge of maintenance, repair and construction methodology. Mirzet joined ProTec in 2006 as an Account Manager.  Prior to ProTec he honed his experience at All American Construction as a Maintenance Technician.  With over 15 years of experience in contract management, construction, electrical, and property management Mirzet can solve any technical problem. However, Mirzet’s true tour de force is his Customer Centric service model; he takes care of clients’ needs before they even know they have a need. 

Timothy (Ty) Haisch Bio

Ty is ProTec’s Construction Division Manager for the North County San Diego region, working out of the Vista office.  Ty joined ProTec in 2010 as a Project Supervisor.  He has moved up in the management ranks due to his excellent work record, supervisory skills, hard-work and dedication to getting jobs done in a timely manner that have made him a “go-to” manager at ProTec.  Prior to joining ProTec, Ty was a manager at TDT Construction.  Yes, Ty has many years of experience, but it is mostly his excitement with solving complex problems, that cause Ty to stand out among his peers.  Ty loves challenges and will happily solve our clients most vexing or technical problem(s).

John T. (JT) Anderson Bio

John learned the value of hard work at his family business at the early age of 5, where he started out as a janitor.  He went on to learn additional trades and skills, where he eventually left the business world to attend college at The University of Hawaii and the University of Utah.  He received his degree in Political Science and Business.  After moving to San Diego in 2004 he founded Elite Services, which provided building services to Commercial and HOA clients.  In 2016, John saw an opportunity to join the ProTec team where he has put his many talents to work, expanding ProTec’s list of 172 services and engaging new clients.