EASTWAY – On the Level loves it when our victims do our work for us.
Such is the case with Phil Henderson.
He comes complete with a narrative, a country boy from Yadkinville, the seat of Yadkin County, nestled in the foothills of the Yadkin River valley, where short-leaf tobacco has given way to vineyards, and the town motto could easily be: “Hey, we’re not Boonville.”
Henderson, 50, likes to play dumb like a possum likes to play dead, and he has parlayed the naïve act – plus a double-major degree from Appalachian State in marketing and business management – into a booming business with an office out by Independence Expressway: Henderson Properties, about which we’ll let the country boy explain later.
He’s even got athletics, playing running back in high school (No. 32) and receiver in college (84). Now he coaches at midget leagues and local high schools where his ball-playing sons, Blake, 18, and 15-year-old Grant, play. His wife, Shelly, is the team mom.
He’s self-deprecating, a favorite trait of OtL’s. “App State is good now. I played when we weren’t any good. We stunk. Like 5-5.”
Most important, Henderson knows how to tell his story in a way that lets OtL just type up what he said verbatim, with little prompting.
Henderson is going long. There’s a high spiral. He makes a fingertip grab. He scores!
Don’t let the country boy thing fool you for a minute.
How did you become master of your domain? Let me give you the narrative. I started the business in an unfinished attic of our Plaza Midwood home in 1990 to kind of supplement my job – I sold medical equipment to hospitals. It grew, and I was full-time doing this by 1998, out of a small office on Commonwealth, a little office around the size of this little conference room. Really. At first it was just rental property management, investors who didn’t want the hassle of dealing with tenants, repairs, evictions. There was a strong need for that. There were maybe three big companies doing that, and only one, or maybe two, doing a good job, customer service-wise. We continued to grow, making a good name for ourselves, and started getting inquiries about HOA management. For a couple of years, I would answer, “We don’t do that.” I’m a country boy from Yadkinville, and there I was saying, “We ain’t got no HOA management.”
Ha. The light bulb finally went off in my head in 1998. People were saying “My HOA company isn’t this and that,” so I did a little investigating, and there was an even greater need; there were even fewer companies doing it, and those few were doing a horrible job. So I hired a woman doing condo management in Myrtle Beach, and we started saying “Yes” to some of those inquiries. That business just took off because a) there was a need, and b) we developed relationships with some developers. That was the good old days when new neighborhoods were popping up all over the place. Pretty gradually, by about 2000, we had 150 rentals and 15 HOAs.
Wow. Well, it gets better. We were subbing-out maintenance. If a toilet was stuck, we called Joe the Plumber to be there at 4 p.m. But Joe the Plumber didn’t always show up at 4 p.m. We decided at that point to take control over that timeline, and ensure that our tenants got good customer service. We started our own maintenance department, Henderson Handyman and Maintenance Services. We started with one or two technicians, and now we have seven techs in the field, a project manager and two dispatchers – 10 employees, and 6,000 work orders this year. We do a lot of work orders for people who are not even our clients now, with the general public.
What next? By about 2005, when the boom was booming, we had a lot more investors wanting to buy more properties, or wanting to sell one, and we were referring them out to brokerage firms. I’m an old country boy, and I’m a little slow to catch on, and it took a while, but we decided to start doing that in-house, too. We already knew the inventory, we had the repair records. We had an internal database, which we call the hot-sheet, that goes out to our clients before a property goes on the market. So it just blossomed into doing a regular brokerage.
And then the boom stopped booming? Yeah, our timing was not very good on that. We still have it, and it’s growing. So now we have four divisions: rentals, HOA, maintenance, and the brokerage. We have 750 rental units, about 50-50 single-family houses and small multifamily. We have 100 HOAs. We have six Realtors on staff. We’re now the biggest agency that does all those things. I like to say we’re the biggest full-service real estate agency in the Charlotte area.
What’s the key to success, country bumpkin? Ha. First off, it’s a service business. We’re not making widgets. Second is to have adequate staff. We have 45 employees, 55 if you count part-time Realtors, too, all organized along departmental lines; everybody has a specialty, leasing agents, inspectors, maintenance. Third is to utilize high-tech solutions to problems so they’re not problems any more.
High-tech solutions? Our HOA homeowners can pay assessments online, for example. We have an intranet site accessible only by the homeowners of an HOA where they can do everything, see the rules of the pool, pay assessments, find out when there are community events. When a tenant moves out, we go out with a laptop and fill out what we call a make-ready list, checking out every light fixture on the laptop, so we can send an email directly to the service department, generate a bid that we can send to the owner/investor, and turn it all around quick so we can get another tenant in there.
Service business, customer service – the word service keeps popping up. But you’re basically a landlord. The key word here is customer service. When we call you, it’s not always good news, but we’re going to do exactly what’s in the contract, the lease, whatever agreement we have with you. Customer service is not keeping everybody happy – you can’t do that, anyway – it’s responding immediately, or at least within 24 hours at the outside.
Still, nobody loves a landlord. Exactly. It’s a tough business. We’re the middleman between the tenants and the owners. On the rental side, we have to do what’s legally required, provide safe, fit and habitable places to live. On the HOA side, the board of directors is like the owner, and the homeowners are the tenants, and again, we’re in the middle. We’re just the messenger, doing what the board tells us to. A lot of homeowners think when we send an enforcement letter, that we decided to send it, when in fact we’re just doing what the board tells us. Homeowners don’t always understand that and we take all the arrows.
“Dear landlord/Please don’t put a price on my soul/My burden is heavy/My dreams are beyond control/When that steamboat whistle blows/I’m gonna give you all I got to give. . .” What the. . . ?
Sorry. Why do it? A lot of people ask me that. A lot of people, my friends and family, tell me I’m crazy to do this.
Crazy like a fox, you. Ha. You can’t say you haven’t benefitted from the housing crash in that more people are renting than ever in this economy. We were very blessed by that, it’s true. But that was not by design. I’m just a country boy, not smart enough to figure things like that out. Folks couldn’t buy, folks moved out of their homes. We were there. And that’s still going strong. Rentals are still very strong. And more investors, some big investors, too, are making lots of acquisitions. And we’re making acquisitions. On the HOA side, we keep taking over for – or just taking over from – companies that are not doing a good job. Our growth is not done.
Not bad for a country boy come to the big city. Why’d you pick Charlotte? It isn’t Yadkinville.