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From chemical engineer to community manager

Barbara Lo is anything but your typical property management expert.

A double-degree holder who is fluent in Cantonese and English, the 29-year-old was working as an industrial chemist for a Melbourne adhesive company when she began contemplating a change in career.

The manufacturing company she was working for had lost work to cheaper, more agile offshore competition. As a result, the Australian business had begun a series of lay-offs and remaining staff were asked to take a pay cut or risk having their positions made redundant.

While she still enjoyed her work, Barbara came to the realisation that to progress any further in her career she would be required to move overseas – or at the very least, adjust to life as an interstate fly-in fly-out worker.

Neither move proved particularly appealing as Barbara had already purchased her first apartment in Brunswick and had been looking forward to staying in the city to enjoy it.

While aware that no job is 100 per cent recession-proof, she was looking for a position that would be relatively stable and secure and where there would never be a shortage of roles.

“Property seemed to be a good fit as I was already on the committee of the owners corporation, so I was familiar with many of the ins and outs of strata management anyway,” she says.

Her first role was as an owners corporation assistant at a boutique property management firm in Cremorne. After spending a few months learning the ropes, she was promoted to manager and in mid 2019 she joined the team at Smarter Communities’ subsidiary, Victoria Body Corporate Services (VBCS).

While the hours are similar, on the face of it her two careers would not appear to have much else in common.

But Barbara says a lot of the skills she learned while working in her previous job have proved valuable in her new role. Much of her work as a chemist was about attention to detail and data analysis. Property management is similar, she says.

“Every year you have to set a budget for owners, for sewerage for example. You can try and predict how much it’s going to cost but, at the end of the day, it requires a lot of analysis of previous years to come up with a reasonably accurate figure.

“Those analyst skills also comes into their own when, for example, I find that a complex has spent $10,000 over budget on plumbing. I need to be able to ascertain whether it’s because costs have escalated or whether there is a major leak or some other issue at play.”

Now a senior community manager at VBCS, Barbara says the one thing that has surprised her most about her new career is the diversity of both the properties she now looks after as well as the types of people who own them.

Previously a stickler for routine, Barbara says she has enjoyed never quite knowing what issues await her attention. While one week she will arrive at work to find just one email about a minor issue, the next she can be facing a multitude of communications with problems ranging from flooded bathrooms to fix to complaints about noise control.

“It can be a really mixed bag and so you’re really kept on your toes. I really enjoy that part of my work as well as the problem-solving aspect of it. While you don’t get a tremendous amount of feedback because a lot of what you’re doing is in the background, it’s really nice building up rapport with your customers. Like a lot of jobs, at the end of the day it all comes down to relationship building,” she says.

With firm plans to continue upskilling, Barbara says anyone considering a similar move should do so with an open mind.

“As with any job, there’s going to be good and bad days. But once you’re in it, learn from your peers, be transparent and make sure you build that relationship with your owners. This is one of those careers where you can have a very real effects of people’s lives, it can be incredibly rewarding.”

If you’re looking for a change of scene and feel that you have something great to contribute to the strata management sector, contact Rebecca Henwood, Senior Business Partner-People and Culture at Smarter Communities.

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