As the executive director for Mount Laurel’s stylish Atrium Executive Center, Laura Hart operates South Jersey’s standard for flexible workspaces. The 27,000 square foot center is known for its furnished offices and cluster suites, meeting spaces, business services and innovated Virtual Offices, a favorite of mobile executives. South Jersey Biz spoke with Hart about leadership, flexibility and growth.
1. Where did your path to leadership begin?
I started my career in HR, which is the one department in a company where you can see the big picture and understand what everyone is contributing to the bottom line. I was also in a position to do a lot of public speaking at a young age, teaching me how to find a confidence in myself, even if I wasn’t necessarily feeling it. I think that’s a quality that every good leader is able to channel at a moment’s notice. My dad has always been an entrepreneur so I knew I wanted to follow that path and be in control of my own destiny. I paid close attention to the leaders around me and emulated the parts of their styles that felt natural. I’ve never been too intimidated to ask for advice. Luckily for me, my neighbors at Atrium are either business owners, professionals or entrepreneurs. Being able to chat and share ideas daily and informally about different business strategies is invaluable to me. Also, my fellow directors at Atrium are an amazing group of women who are all experts in their field and I continue to learn about leadership just by working beside them.
2. How has your company handled the ups and downs of this economy?
For the last few years, occupancy rates are high and rents are low, which is not typical for our business. Usually, you can fill the building at lower rents, or have some vacancies, that are offset by higher paying tenants. It’s been a challenge to have to deal with both. At the same time, as long as we can be flexible, we’re in a position to be the solution for people no matter what the economy is doing. It’s a scary time for business owners to make long term commitments. People are hesitant to go out and sign a traditional 5 year lease for a 3,000 sf office, and rightfully so. They don’t know if they will grow or shrink, or what the future will bring. We see a lot of people come to us from traditional office space with a big sigh of relief that they don’t need to guess where they’ll be in six months. They can stay here month to month or indefinitely and we make it easy for them either way. Our Virtual Offices have really helped people over the last few years, especially the startup companies and those faced with closing an office and going out of business. This economy has created an entire industry out of the Virtual Office, and it’s something we’re very proud to be a part of. When the economy turns around, these same people can easily add more space, either with more offices or with one of our suites. Having the ability to help anyone of any size and any budget is a wonderful feeling.
3. How has it grown during your time there?
It’s an exciting time for us and we’ve really tailored our business plan around the economic environment. This puts us in a position to grow the company and open more offices, creating local employment opportunities. We also recently made a commitment and an investment in the technology and communication package we offer to our tenants. This allows unlimited growth in the Virtual Office market and also allows us to keep pace with the way our tenants are conducting business.
4. What are your short-term and long-term goals?
For the short term, we plan on opening at least two more centers over the next year - that should keep us busy. For the long term, I want to make sure I stay connected to my tenants and potential tenants. I have to be able to step back at any point and take a fresh look at the business. I want to keep an open mind and remain flexible to change.
5. Describe your management philosophy.
My background in HR helped me to learn early on the skill of fitting the right person with the right job. When an employee loves what they do, even if they don’t love every task, they want to come to work every day. Everyone shines at something and can do that thing better than anyone else. There’s no sense making someone with a natural sales personality sit behind a desk every day writing reports. I want to empower each employee to become the expert in their field. I believe that part of my job is to break down the big picture so that each employee understands why they are valuable to the company and are part of something bigger. This makes those everyday mundane tasks have meaning and helps keep enthusiasm among the whole group. In the hospitality industry, there is a high standard for customer service. Atrium employees have a lot of accountability and autonomy in getting issues resolved and there isn’t much that I need to micro-manage. That being said, when an employee makes a decision on the fly, they know I have their back. We have such a good group and without exception, every employee has risen to the occasion and exceeded my expectations.
6. What’s the best business advice you ever received, or could give to others?
Growing up, my grandmother had a framed copy of Desiderata by Max Ehrman. This now hangs in my house, and I would encourage everyone to read it in its entirety. However, as it relates to business advice, when I have a particular challenge or decision to make in my career, I refer this paragraph:
“Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let not this blind you to the virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.”
7. What are the major challenges in your industry? How do you approach them head-on?
Marketing is probably the most challenging part of our industry. Since we provide four distinct services, we need to make sure we are reaching the right audience for the right service, at the right time. If someone isn’t looking for office space, it doesn’t matter how wonderful you are or how great your website is - they aren’t looking for office space. The day they need an office, you can only hope they remember you, the ad they saw, the little league team you sponsor, or that cool t-shirt with your logo on it and make the connection and make the call.
8. What’s the best part of your job?
I’ve been working with small business owners and entrepreneurs for most of my career, so I understand their unique needs, fears and challenges. If I can save someone money, give good advice, or refer an important business contact, I know that makes their life or their job easier. I especially love working with startup companies. I almost hate to say this, but when a startup tenant moves out because they have outgrown us, although it is bittersweet, I can’t help but feel a part of their success.
9. What gadget can’t you leave home without?
10. What do you like to do to unwind at the end of the day?
A good dinner with family and friends, laughing, running, golfing, Words With Friends, Songpop and a good book.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 2, Issue 9 (September, 2012).
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