Editor's note: As the economy struggles to find new footing, this occasional series will focus on areas of emerging demand for workers and the forces behind it.
By the time developer Michael Pestronk closed on the deal to buy the old Goldtex textiles factory near 12th and Callowhill Streets, vandals had stripped out all the copper pipes and plenty of Philadelphia's graffiti "artists" had signed their names on the walls.
With buckled floors, pigeon poop, and missing windows, it was a mess.
But to Pestronk, president of Post Brothers Apartments, the high ceilings, spacious layout, and upper-story views of City Hall spelled an opportunity, especially at $5 million in October, down from $12 million in 2007.
The building also looked pretty good to Pestronk's newest employee, property controller Joseph Siejk, who was hired in December. For Siejk, who had been out of work for more than a year, the building was more than an opportunity - it was a second chance.
The same wretched economy that pushed buildings into foreclosure and forced them back onto the market at rock-bottom prices is creating new opportunities - and new jobs, namely, accountants who specialize in managing the books for troubled or vacant properties.
"When you are a small company, you can't afford the right way to do accounting, but when you work with big investors and big bankers, you need to do things better," Pestronk said.
That's why he hired Siejk, who, frankly, needed a job.
When Siejk quit his last job in October 2009 to care for an ailing parent, he never expected - with his resumé and work history - to have a hard time finding another position.
He was wrong. He got swept up in ongoing job losses in real estate and accounting that persist even now, with 15,600 jobs in those sectors lost last month.
"When I was looking for work, people were being let go," he said. "I was always fairly successful. I never had a challenge like that."
Ironically, Siejk's new opportunity arose precisely out of the bad economy.
These days, commercial mortgage delinquencies are on the rise as more office buildings, shopping centers, industrial parks, factories, and apartment complexes are falling on troubled times.
Properties that were once unaffordable are now available to developers who have managed to preserve financial solvency.
They, like Pestronk, are expanding their portfolios, and when they do, they need a type of specialized real estate accountant to handle the financial workings, said Kenneth Dubin, president of the Dubin Group, a Bala Cynwyd recruiting company that specializes in financial personnel.
"Last year alone we did 15 of them, and we did one already this year. People are hiring property accountants because they need them," Dubin said.
Some are property accountants who handle daily and monthly financial functions for a property or two, paying vendors, collecting rents, and drawing up reports.
Others are higher-paid and more-experienced property controllers who may supervise several accountants and who may have more of a strategic role, monitoring cash flow and handling taxes.
Typically, experts say, financial patterns in the commercial real estate sector lag behind the residential sector. So for a while, as the housing market's meltdown pushed the American economy into recession, the commercial side held its own.
"When the housing meltdown happened, if you looked at the statistics for commercial delinquencies, they were at all-time lows," said Kyle Holmbeck, controller for Athenian Properties Inc. in Philadelphia.
"But everyone knew there would be a lag," he said.
Athenian Properties makes its money, in part, by managing properties that banks acquire. "Banks make loans; they don't manage properties," he said.
In December, Athenian hired Andrew Bostic, of Levittown. He had been employed, but wanted to return to Philadelphia from Florida.
Bostic's responsibilities include the accounting for Chalet Gardens, an apartment complex with 484 units in Pine Hill in Camden County. The bank took it over after the prior owner defaulted on loan terms.
"You are always the knight on the white horse," said Jacqueline Buhn, Athenian's president. "Usually the tenants are suffering. They aren't getting the services and the buildings are not being cleaned."
Often, accounting has also fallen by the wayside, as cash-strapped owners try, not always successfully, to take on that role, said Buhn. She plans to hire more property accountants like Bostic, who spend part of their time trying to untangle the records.
"You see lousy or no accounting," said Buhn. "You see the dirty underwear of the last owner."
Lawrence R. Zipf, president of Fameco Management Services Associates, a Plymouth Meeting company that manages shopping centers, is also hiring property accountants.
His reason is different, but still relates to tough times.
With revenues down as skittish consumers stay home, national tenants, such as Gap, are scrutinizing every dollar on the expense side, including their share of common-area maintenance fees, which cover such services as plowing, lighting, and garbage collection.
In good times, the fees get paid without much questioning, Zipf said, but now, "they are challenging these costs."
Zipf speculates that the tenants' own auditors are working harder to find savings so they can justify their own salaries and perhaps save their jobs.
Meanwhile, Fameco hired two accountants last year to respond by providing increased documentation to justify the common fees.
Fameco also collects rents, and retailers have been falling behind. One of the two new accountants now focuses on prodding tenants to pay.
"Our business has grown," Zipf said, "and our people were working a lot of hours. But you can't keep expecting them to do that. We needed to let our belt out a little."
Responsibilities: Day-to-day accounting on specific properties, including journal entries, financial statements, payment of expenses, and cash-flow monitoring.
Education: Bachelor's degree in accounting or finance.
Preferred background: Experience in public accounting with real estate clients, or two years of experience in the real estate field.
Salary: $45,000 to $60,000.
Moving up: Property controller - Supervises accountants and has strategic, budgeting, forecasting, and tax responsibilities. Advanced degrees and credentials. Six to 10 years of experience. Salary $65,000 to $85,000.
SOURCE: The Dubin Group, financial recruiter EndText