Property manager's entry to career was learning experience Woman attributes success in male-dominated field to creating networks

June 28, 1998|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Torrie Johnson decided to plunge into the property management business in January 1991, she was told she would never make it.

It wasn't because she lacked the skills or that the market was saturated.

It had to do with Johnson being a woman.

But here she is seven years later, building a firm that now manages almost 50 properties.

Although the property management field has been dominated by males, Johnson has seen times change for the better.

Johnson, president of Canfield Property Management Inc. on South Calvert Street, didn't have to fight for her right of entry. There was no resentment -- at least none that she could detect. Rather her struggle came when she tried to connect into the business relationships that had been reserved for men.

It was more a learning experience than a gender crusade, Johnson said.

With a high degree of tolerance, Johnson, 40, just let the power of business work its magic. She ignored incidents such as the time a potential client assumed that the male building supervisor was her boss.

"People do business with people they are comfortable with, and if you have not grown up doing business around women, let alone black women, then you have to establish a relationship in order for them to be comfortable with you," Johnson said.

Basically, it came down to creating networks among property owners and offering something that other property managers lacked.

Johnson was convinced that the market needed property managers who focused on small- to- midsized real estate owners who handle up to 200 units. Most large management companies focused on larger property owners, missing clients with fewer properties such as rentals or storefronts.

Today, Canfield manages 48 properties, most of which are residential. The remainder are commercial and parking facilities.

Johnson said she started working with large management companies who would refer small jobs her way. This networking can lead to financial success in property management, according to Johnson.

"A lot of relationships that have been established, have been established by an old-boys network, and I'm trying my best to get my foot in that door," she said.

Johnson said such companies as Casey and Associates/Oncor International and Colliers Pinkard have worked closely to establish joint ventures.

"Whenever I see an opportunity for Torrie and our company to work together I don't hesitate to open that door," said J. Joseph Casey, chairman of Casey and Associates/Oncor, a full-service real estate property brokerage management company.

Greg Pinkard, vice president of property management for Colliers Pinkard, a full-service real estate firm, said that Canfield's services come in handy for small properties that don't need a lot of financial analysis and detailed reports. He said Johnson is good at finding the right contractors and services to get the job done.

"The value she adds to the table is she can push the right buttons at the right time to get the right things done," Pinkard said.

Johnson's interest in real estate came from her mother, who owned property in Baltimore.

After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, Johnson worked as a counter manager for Estee Lauder and later as a field representative for the Southland Corp.

But she wanted to break out on her own. She went to work for Edison Parking, a firm that manages parking facilities, and finally decided to get into the property management business.

She did a marketing survey that told her there was a niche for the type of company she had in mind. So she took $10,000 she had saved, bought two computers and hired a staff of three. And Canfield Properties was born.

"I look at the industry, and in my niche there are not many of us," she said.

Bill Roberts, then her supervisor at Edison Parking, was surprised that Johnson was going to jump into the field but said she had the right attitude.

"She helped me tremendously," Roberts said.

Over the years, Johnson has capitalized on the flexibility of a small business, allowing her to deal directly with prospective clients and respond quickly to questions.

She said many property owners don't know that management companies do more than collect rent and maintain the property. They also offer cash management, coordination with contractors, pay bills associated with property, take tenants to court, if need be, and at the end of the month generate a financial statement.

And while directing her business, she has made it a priority to get involved with the community. She has served on the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce, acting as the chair of its small business committee, and has served on the board of the Maryland Low Income Housing Coalition.

For Johnson, property management combines the intangible world of real estate investment with the very real world of being a landlord.

These days, Johnson's phone rings more with people looking for management services. Yet, Johnson said more inroads need to be made into the still predominantly male profession. But most definitely, she said, the door's open for other women. "If I can do it, divorced and with two children, teen-agers at that," she said, "then you can do it."

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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