Village Green CEO Diane Batayeh wants to mentor next generation of real estate leaders

What issues have you faced as a business during the pandemic with tenants struggling to pay rent? How did you reach out to those who were struggling?

We actually didn’t see the number of defaults and inability to pay rent to the extent that everyone feared. Have we seen a downturn? Absolutely. But it wasn’t nearly what everyone feared. I think, of course, the rent relief programs that started flooding the market, although at first it was complicated to figure out how to access those funds, but we immediately set up a program to reach out to the residents, which sort of were on the list of companies and industries that have shut down and experienced massive layoffs to get ahead of them early on. To work through payment plans, to work through, “How do we keep you in your unit? Fear not’ and get on their side of the table, so to speak. So, having this program in place from the start, we reduced the risk that the residents would feel scared and not approach us and crouch down. While I think some operators have experienced this, and that became problematic.

You said at the start of the pandemic you saw rent strikes. Did you keep seeing them? And how do you deal with it when they appear?

We were actually threatened with a rent strike. It only happened once, and it was at the Iowa market. One resident was essentially trying to rally support among residents and had circulated a petition to encourage the rent strike. So we got wind of the petition, we actually met with this resident and we had a very dynamic dialogue. We have been very transparent about the cost of running the building. … We said: ‘We will show you, we will open the books. This is where your rent money goes.’ And that was really effective. I think they had a misunderstanding that they pay a dollar and a dollar goes in the owner’s pocket. Little did they know that 95 cents of that dollar goes towards paying staff, utilities, taxes and child support. So when you show them that level of detail and transparency, it was a 180 and we didn’t have that strike.

Were you surprised that it’s so easy to deal with?

Yes, I was pleasantly surprised. Because when I think emotions come into play and you get upset when people are talking and there’s a false narrative, they can absolutely get traction and the irrational side of people can come out. Honestly, there were some people who went dark and didn’t communicate and chose not to pay rent while they were still employed. Just take advantage of the situation. Luckily that was a minority. But I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to talk to (the organizer of the rent strike), how reasonable. I think they just want to be communicated.

What did you do when you acquired Village Green to change the way we do business?

The focus wasn’t necessarily on talent retention and culture, and I knew that when I started. We decided that we wanted to make the business purely third-party. We split the assets side of the business into a sister company and so I took over the management of the service company. And I knew that to be a great service company, it started with great people. … We wanted to change the culture from a wealth-centric to a more people-centric culture and put people first. … We measure this with employee feedback and employee retention. So we had to look at compensation and benefits. We had to take care of recognition and rewards. We had to look at the performance metrics. It took us about three years to firmly anchor this culture change.

How would you describe your leadership style and how was it shaped?

I call it relational. It’s really more about empathy and building those relationships with trust and then inspiring people. Having been in their shoes for a number of years, I think this has positioned me well as CEO. … Their voices are what drive me. I believe in transparency and building these relationships on a basis of trust.

You have a large family – you are the third of seven siblings. How does this affect your management style and how you deal with people in the company?

The word “survival” comes to mind. … I was the quiet one, the more strategic one. My sisters came to me to solve and mediate problems. I think that was instilled in me from a young age. I didn’t want drama. I wasn’t in the middle of the fighting but there was quite a bit of bloodshed as you can imagine. I think having honed some of those negotiation skills and strategically critical thinking skills served me well later as CEO. I will also say that I come from an ethnic family, very traditional… and as a female child, being in the background strengthened me. Thanks to a high school teacher, a band teacher, I reluctantly stepped out of my comfort zone. He taught me a lot about how to earn my spot. … He was the person who pushed me to go to college. When I was accepted to UM I actually considered not going because I was afraid it would disappoint my parents. Her idea of ​​success was marrying a man with good health insurance and that was it. He pushed me out of that comfort zone and ultimately I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

Read more of Crain’s conversations at crainsdetroit.com/theconversation.

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