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Mar 31, 2019

Thirty Years A-Growing


Having bumped into an old friend and professional colleague at an industry event recently I was transported back in time to when we were both young surveyors in London in the late 1980s. Reflecting back on those heady days as I approached my 30’s in 1989, me an Irish youngster trying to climb up the lofty real estate ladder, it turned into a milestone year professionally. It marked my first transatlantic business trip to New York City and my final transition from mainstream surveying to a life focused on advising the corporate occupier. 
Little did I realise at the time that learning all about “tenant representation’, which was then a fairly novel approach in Europe, would end up as a major corporate services offering, which is now a significant revenue stream of property firms such as CBRE and JLL. Also, how much it would dominate my working life and my perspective of the FM/CRE world. I could say that bumping into my old friend and reminiscing about the ‘old times’ did trigger what some would term a “Proustian moment” – or in my case an “O’Sullivan moment”!

The Great Blasket Island, Ireland

For those not familiar with one of the gems of native Irish literature, I’m referring to Fiche Bliain ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing), an autobiographical book written by Maurice O’Sullivan, which is in much same vein as the French Marcel Proust’s great work of remembrance of things past. The book has great resonance for me in many ways, as it tells of the simple life of a society that no longer exists. as well as tracing the story of a boy’s growing up on a sparsely inhabited, Gaelic-speaking island off the west coast of Ireland.  It also looks back on the development of human life with ‘20 years a-growing’, which causes me to reflect on my personal 30-year journey and how real estate was at the beginning of my career and how it has evolved over the years. 

It was another publication which influenced me back in the mid-1990s, when I finally took the decision to switch sides and focus on real estate from the corporate perspective. CRE: The Strategic Management the Fifth Resource, this particular magnum opuwas published in May 1993 and it is interesting to note that some of the recommendations actually may be coming of age 26 years later! It was my template guiding me through how to add value through CRE at both the Walt  Disney Company and then at the BBC.  

Managing a property portfolio then used to be about the cost-control agenda — in which efficiency was the only factor we cared about. – and even though a great deal of water has passed under the bridge since those days and our industry has advanced significantly, we still have plenty to do. We all have to come to terms with the reality that our lives as CRE professionals are changing dramatically and it is no longer just about doing good real estate deals, efficiently operating the facilities or delivering good construction solutions etc. For many CRE leaders, it has been frustrating to see the lack of progress towards our sector being perceived as a true strategic resource in the organisations they serve. 

Overall, the industry is not really aware of how to create value  outside of property  – adding business value is an alien concept, when it should be a core element of business thinking. The workplace should no longer be regarded as a high-cost liability, but as an asset from which hidden value can be unlocked. It should not be seen as cost centre any longer but a profit creator. 

The first step is to align with and understand the nature of the business we are supporting. We need to understand the ‘bigger picture’ of business in the 21st-century. For me, it can be summarised in one word: ‘change’. Today we are caught up in a tidal wave of change that is unprecedented and unrelenting. The goalposts are shifting and organisations are trying to cope in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment, where the role of those responsible for enabling business must be reinvented.

During my tenure at the BBC, my principal concern was to turn property into a strategic asset. Over this transformational journey, we sought to understand how broadcasting was changing in order to anticipate the needs of the BBC in the digital age. The BBC’ s move from analogue to digital taught us how to see the bigger picture: we started to look beyond rent per square foot or building specifications to grasp the wider, positive impacts that a relocation could make on enabling organisational evolution. With this in mind, whenever a new facility is required it should never be seen as just a ‘property move’, but rather a valuable business opportunity to drive change and align with strategic goals. 

Over the years, I certainly have broken ranks with the old real estate paradigm and escaped from the gravitational pull of ‘mother property’. I have built an understanding of how business value is created from an enterprise perspective rather than just  from the viewpoint of property and investment. In the future, the office will remain the centre for most enterprises, but it will no longer be the only focus. Businesses have to move from a single dimensional workplace to a multidimensional network of workspaces where consumers are given the choice to configure it to how they want it, to suit their requirements. 

In this multidimensional workspace, CRE practitioners will need a fresh approach and a new set of skills to generate business value for the enterprise from their offices and the people working in them. A key consideration for our industry is how to expand our focus beyond how the building works efficiently towards a greater understanding of how the people in that multiplicity of workplaces, work most effectively. CRE, FM and workplace managers need to move from being inhibitors to enablers and from gatekeepers to creators.

The rapid growth of technology has helped to facilitate more effective workplaces by speeding up and simplifying the processes that keep an office working. However, there are still difficulties and inhibitors that prevent people from doing the best job they can. We need to be better at enabling work that has shifted from being singular and tethered to a single workplace towards being one that is multi-faceted and always switched on. I have always advocated for a fresh approach to managing people and the places in which they work in. As I see it, one of our roles in CRE is to be able to help the C-suite and managers navigate their organisations to generate a more productive and healthy environment for their people.

Admittedly, this is a far cry from the nascent world of CRE which I joined in the early 1990s. Yet it is important that we need to be aware of the big changes taking place in the world at large. For me, change has been a constant companion during my 30-year journey as a CRE practitioner, yet so many of us struggle with the challenges that this brings, in whatever field we are in.  

Yet if we don’t embrace change, as Maurice O’Sullivan’s grandfather says in Twenty Years A-Growing, about the phases of human life, which inspired the title of the book: “we are twenty years a-growing, twenty years in bloom, twenty years a-stooping and twenty years declining”. If we don’t accept change in our industry, then we are all condemned to ‘a-stooping’ and ‘declining’. 

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