By Kathy Danforth / Published February 2016
Editor’s Note: Karen Rudder was one of five managers honored in 2015 as a manager of excellence. To read about the previous four winners, please read the October, November, and December 2015 issues, as well as the January 2016 issue.
Karen Rudder, manager of St. George Plantation since 2010, is a 2015 winner of the Manager of Excellence award. St. George Plantation won the 2014 Florida-Friendly Landscaping award for larger communities and the 2015 Financial Innovation award in the Communities of Excellence contest.
The Financial Innovation award reflects Rudder’s professional expertise. After being a financial manager in the manufacturing sector, she began her relationship with St. George Plantation through accounting. When the association’s general manager left in 2010, she was hired as the new general manager and obtained her CAM license.
St. George Plantation, a 1,200-acre HOA with more than 500 single-family homes, is located on the west end of St. George Island bordering Apalachicola Bay. Rudder shares, “About half of the properties have seasonal rentals, and for many of the owners, this is a vacation home.” With such a widespread membership, Rudder observes, “It can be a challenge to communicate and direct the owners to the vision of the board.
“We have worked to establish several policies to put best management practices in place,” says Rudder. “Financially, we’re one of the strongest POAs in Florida. Our reserves are updated annually, and we have set reserve funding at 65 percent. This is a solid number, which means our chance of needing a special assessment for a replacement or maintenance project is only three percent.
“We’ve also separated funds into operating, reserve, and capital accounts, with policies and restrictions on how these amounts can be used. These guidelines assist the board and management with spending decisions.”
The association had completed a new clubhouse when Rudder arrived, and they were paying off the loan with a $250 per year annual assessment from each property. “We took our excess reserves and paid off the loan, saving $800,000 in interest,” says Rudder. “That saved the owners approximately 10 years of the $250 special assessment!”
Rudder has been instrumental in determining staffing changes to optimize association dollars and productivity. “With the new clubhouse, the association needed a custodian because facilities can deteriorate quickly. We eliminated using a contractor to collect trash and were able to include that duty with a custodian position, saving $17,000 per year.
“When our maintenance supervisor retired, we upgraded that position and hired an expert at facility management who had formerly owned an engineering firm. He has been able to inspect our roads, which we maintain, and advise on best practices at the best cost for common areas,” Rudder relates. After investigating an HOA banking platform system, the association adopted a banking platform that includes a lockbox and provides additional services. “They send invoices, receive the money, and make deposits, which download directly into our accounting software,” says Rudder. “This was a big time saver and increased efficiency, so we can handle projects like the newsletter and maintain a new website. We’re not eliminating staff; we’re just doing more!”
The staff took over publication of the association newsletter in 2010. “We bought a high-quality printer at a discounted price, so we can do our printing,” Rudder reports. “This year, a committee will take over the preparation of the newsletter, and the staff will do the production. We also have used the printer for the annual packet. The work and cost involved in designing, printing, collating, stuffing, assigning numbers, and mailing the packets is insane! The postage alone is about four dollars per packet. Since the law has changed, we are e-mailing those once we get the owner’s approval, which has cut costs and labor. This coming year, we hope to do everything online that can be done legally.”
Rudder states, “Implementing the Florida-Friendly Landscaping policy helped our owners understand what can be done to look professionally landscaped with native plants. Our community always promoted a natural, native look—only 20 percent of a lot can be cleared, and we don’t allow all-grass lawns. We have saved $3,000–$4,000 on gas alone by going on a ‘mowing diet’ and letting wildflowers and natural vegetation grow in designated areas that were previously mowed.”
To maintain healthy finances in a community, Rudder advises, “The manager should understand budgeting and variance reporting because they are ‘the boots on the ground.’ HOAs can get into trouble very quickly if finances—including income, receivables, and expenses—are not monitored closely.”
To maintain the physical property, Rudder recommends, “Be visible and know what’s going on. As I come through the gate every day, I look at the property. Is it neat? Are the workers doing what they should be doing? Should we call in an outside contractor? I want it to look as good as it can at the lowest cost, and I have great guys to help with that.”
Rudder enjoys the variety of people and tasks encountered in association management. “I like the interaction with owners best,” she shares. “This is more like a family. And, I like not doing the same thing every day. Even if there’s something you don’t like, in an hour you’ll be doing something different.” Though Rudder loves accounting, she notes, “Being a general manager takes so much more of all your abilities. It’s a challenge, but I’ve really enjoyed it!”