Every year, more than 200,000 people complete their service in the United States military and begin what is called the “civilian transition.” Among the tasks on their checklist at this time is career exploration. From keen leadership skills to creative tactics for problem-solving, veterans’ skill sets are highly prized by employers.
For some veterans, roles in property management make for perfect transitions, allowing them to continue serving others, thinking on their feet, and leading teams. To highlight the mutually beneficial relationship between veterans and real estate management, here are the stories of three property managers, their journeys from the military to their careers, and why they think this profession is such a great fit for other veterans.
Toni Harris, CPM, ARM, CEO, KAT Professional Development, LLC, Reisterstown, Maryland
The path to becoming a property manager is often not a direct route, and that was certainly true for Toni Harris, CPM, ARM.
Harris joined the Army right out of high school to become more independent and avoid college tuition bills. A sergeant in the Light Infantry Division, Harris used her innate communication skills as a spokesperson and liaison, a role that taught her strategic planning and honed her tactical skills. After eight years of active duty, Harris then completed two years in the National Guard. During this time, she thought a lot about her next steps.
“Initially, I thought I wanted to go to law school and become a paralegal,” she says. “While I was in junior college and working part-time jobs here and there, someone approached me about becoming a property manager.”
Working and going to school as a single mother of one daughter at the time, this seemed like a great opportunity. Harris signed on as a senior housing recertification specialist, where she worked with residents to ensure they complied with low-income housing requirements.
Immediately, Harris saw how well the skill set she developed in the military aligned with the job.
“The military taught me the art of negotiation and how to be a critical thinker and strategic planner,” she says. “It also taught me how to work within a diverse workforce, be accountable, and gain focus.” Her roles also ingrained in her the value of reliability, flexibility, and calm under pressure.
Another strength she developed in the Army that she finds herself using frequently is negotiation, being flexible where necessary.
“People in the military can be seen as rigid and inflexible, but it’s just the opposite,” Harris says. “We like to see everybody win. We say, ‘Here are rules, and if everyone follows them, then it’s success for everyone.’ We’re just looking for ways to make rules better, not break them.”
While her expertise matched the needs of the job, the good fit has gone both ways. Harris’ career has been fulfilling for her personally and has allowed her to continue serving.
“In property management, you get to be a protector and a helper, protecting the community, persons, and property,” she says. “Protecting is what we do in the military; we’re just focused on protecting the country. The residents require a level of concern and attention, and, for me, it answers that question of, ‘What are you doing that’s going to make the difference?’”
Mel Schultz, CPM, CCIM, chief manager, Clarity Commercial Services, LLC, AMO, St. Louis Park, Minneapolis
Mel Schultz, CPM, CCIM, was out of the Navy for more than a decade before he found his way to property management. He joined the Navy right after high school—a move that quickly taught him responsibility. “For most people joining the military, it’s their first time out of home, and they’re forced to grow up quickly,” he says. “For me, they were very formative years, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”
During his Navy years, Schultz trained to be an electrician and worked in the Line Division as a plane captain. In this role, he helped manage the launch, recovery, maintenance, and inspection of aircraft. He also traveled with and supported the pilot group.
After serving for eight years, Schultz accepted a job in the medical device field. “My supervisors quickly noticed that I had good work habits and ethics, and that I was reliable,” he says.
“I eventually went back to school, and I got my bachelor’s in organizational administration. Then I worked as a supervisor and manager in the medical device field,” Schultz says. The G.I. Bill, which provides benefits to qualifying veterans, helped cover some of his college expenses.
But shortly after, the medical device company Schultz worked for reorganized and canceled the product line he worked on. After briefly working as an executive director of a Bible camp, he finally got his first taste of property management.
Schultz’s wife owned a virtual office support company, and after renting some space in an office park, she was asked to manage the surrounding offices. The timing was right for Schultz to jump in and help.
“By April 2003, I had my real estate license and was managing properties,” he said. “We had raw land, offices, medical, retail—all kinds of different projects.” In January 2018, Schultz launched his own company, Clarity Commercial.
He credits the knowledge and character traits he gained in the Navy with his ability to adapt to this new career so quickly.
“In the military, you have to be ready to take the lead, knowing what to do and doing it without being micromanaged,” he says.
“You have to be self-motivated because nobody is going to do the work for you.”
He says veterans—particularly Navy veterans who worked on aircraft carriers—are some of the hardest workers out there. “It’s high pressure,” he says. “In the military, you’ve got to listen to each other and trust each other. You talk to people who were bomb makers in the Navy; there aren’t many jobs for bomb makers in the civilian world, but their skill set
that comes from that hard work, pressure, detail, and chain of command? Those skills apply in far more places than not.”
Julie Welter, senior vice president & general manager, JLL, Chicago
Julie Welter was ready to put her Navy training and formal education to good use when she finished her six years in the Navy.
Welter attended a recruiting event hosted by the recruiting firm Lucas Group, which helps place military officers in civilian careers. Welter likens the event to speed dating, where prospective employees and company representatives can spend a few minutes together and see if there is a potential fit.
Along with her military experience, Welter had a robust formal education to back her up. She had attended Miami University on an NROTC scholarship before beginning her service. She even earned her MBA from the University of Arizona during her last two years in the military.
JLL happened to be participating in that hiring conference, looking for candidates with MBAs and leadership experience to fill assistant general manager roles. JLL was willing to teach those qualified candidates everything about property management, Welter says.
And she definitely had the leadership skills they were looking for. In the Navy, she was a surface warfare officer, serving as the ship’s navigator. Responsible for the vessel’s safe navigation, she planned all transits and ensured they were on time, safe, and in support of the transit’s mission. “I presented briefings to the team in advance of each transit and reported directly to the ship’s captain on all navigational issues,” she says. “In addition, I oversaw a team of sailors who supported all aspects of the ship’s navigation. I oversaw their activities, supported their growth and development efforts, and addressed disciplinary issues.”
JLL recognized her as an ideal candidate.
“That’s how it all started,” she says. “I fit the bill, and after the hiring conference, I went through the rest of the typical interviewing and hiring process.” And the rest is history. Welter has been with JLL since 2006 and currently manages the office portion of Chicago’s historic Marshall Field building, now the Macy’s store.
Welter was able to put her training and knowledge to use right away. “Speaking from the perspective of a military officer, I think there are so many transferable skills: leadership skills, problem-solving, communication, teamwork, organization, working well under pressure, dealing with emergency and crisis situations,” she says. “There are, of course, different skill sets for more technical skills.”
Like Harris, serving others has been a strong throughline in Welter’s military and civilian careers. “People spend one-third or more of their days at their job, and before COVID that was in the office,” she says. “This career path gave me a small chance to make a positive experience in these people’s days.”
Stability of location was also a plus for Welter when she accepted her position. “A lot of time in the military is spent away from your home,” she says. “You move around a lot. Our career path is appealing because you can put down roots; location is based more on your choice and not where you get assigned.”
While in the military, Welter liked the pace of the job and the need to be constantly learning new things. She feels the same way about managing properties.
“In property management, there is a mix of routine tasks that you can crank out, but I feel like over the last 15 years, I’ve continued to be challenged and faced with situations that have made me grow and learn,” says Welter. “COVID is the perfect example. Everyone is dealing with it. Commercial property managers had to rearrange practices and had a strong desire to keep everyone safe.”
The next generation of veterans
Harris, Schultz, and Welter agree that property management companies should strongly consider veterans for open roles.
“Building relationships with vets is an important and underutilized resource,” Harris says, advising that there are several ways to meet transitioning veterans and begin the hiring process. (See Recruiting military candidates sidebar below.)
For companies looking to recruit veterans, it’s essential to understand the veteran’s situation and experience, Welter says. “If I’m the company, it means being able to understand how those unique experiences can translate into a successful career in property management,” she says.
“Ask them about an example of a time they had to deal with a high-pressure situation. As you’re listening to those answers, they may be talking about things that seem foreign, but you’ll see the underlying skills that are there.”
Schultz agrees and says that increasing outreach will bring more veterans into the real estate management profession—a win-win for both property management companies and veterans.