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Rise of the Multilingual Manager

Property managers are adding foreign languages to their tool kit.

A good property manager needs to be organized and detail-oriented as well as a quick thinker and problem solver – in other words, a real multi-tasker. But these days it helps to be multilingual as well. New York City has never been more diverse – more than a third of all residents are now foreign-born – and in order to keep up with the growing immigrant population, more management firms are hiring agents who can speak their language, whether it’s Chinese or Russian or Polish or Spanish.

“New York is an ever-changing landscape, which is a beautiful thing, but you have to adapt,” says Stuart Halper, co-owner and vice president of Impact Real Estate Management, which oversees 70 co-op, condo, and residential buildings in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester. “When ethnic populations and neighborhoods change, so do shareholders and board members. It can be very hard for managers who only speak English to relate to immigrants, especially if they’re first generation. You’ve got to flow with the tide and accommodate them so you don’t get left behind.”

To overcome the language barrier, Impact now has a manager fluent in Cantonese handling its properties in Chinese communities in Queens, as well as two agents who speak flawless Russian managing buildings in south Brooklyn. One of them, George Schatiloff, the son of Russian immigrants who learned the language growing up in Long Island, puts his bilingual skills to good use in Brighton Beach. “In the buildings I manage, 95 percent of the population is Russian,” he says. “There’s a reason they call the neighborhood Little Odessa.”

There are all sorts of circumstances when Schatiloff’s services might be required. “When older shareholders call the office with a problem and ask for someone who speaks Russian, I’m there to help,” he says. “Or when English-speaking board members are interviewing a potential buyer who only speaks Russian and there’s a disconnect, I can come in as a translator. And even at board meetings, members will just start speaking Russian rather than English because they feel more comfortable and can express themselves better. It becomes a common thread between me and them.”

Howard Lazarus, managing director at Tudor Realty, agrees that managers can no longer rely on English as a lingua franca. “To be an effective manager requires many skills, and communication is one of the most important,” he says. “We have more than 90 properties with multilingual clientele throughout the city, so as a practical matter many of our people in our office speak more than one language, whether it’s Spanish, Russian, Polish, or Chinese.”

Tudor even has a separate office in Manhattan’s Chinatown dedicated solely to Confucius Plaza, a 762-unit housing cooperative where 100 percent of the residents speak Chinese. “When we were staffing up we needed people with experience in administrative assistance and management services, who were also fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin – which was an unusual situation,” Lazarus says. “That meant we had to be flexible with hiring requirements and do intensive, ongoing skills training.” As Halper sees it, investing in bilingual managers is a sure bet. “We’ve acquired new buildings we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise because of our diverse staff,” he says. “When you speak someone’s language, the more you’re in sync and see eye to eye. It’s better business for everybody.” Or, as Schatiloff puts it: “Limit yourself to English, and you limit your clients. Broaden your horizons, and you’ll expand your business.”

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