Gabrielle McMillan CEO, Equiem

Posted on 19 November 2020

“Someone once asked me what advice would I have for other real estate technology, you know, start-ups coming into the space. And I said, ‘Patience.’ Patience, you know if you can demonstrate patience and grit and resilience because everything takes a lot longer than what you expect that it’s going to. So, sometimes it’s a waiting game."

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the wonderful world of real estate and the built environment. We are still recording the podcast digitally so the sound quality may not be up to our usual studio standard.

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Gab McMillan. Gab is the founding CEO of Equiem, leading the business from its 2011 inception to become the world’s leading tenant experience platform used by 165,000 plus people across 60 million square foot of prime commercial real estate worldwide. Named in Business Insider’s Coolest People in Australia Tech 2016 and honoured in Bisnow’s 2019 NYC Power Women List, Gab is an exceptional leader with a commercial acumen honed across 15 plus years of leading and growing organisations. In the space of just eight years, she has developed the Equiem team from just two to over 230 employees. Today, Equiem manages a client portfolio of more than 145 buildings across Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the USA, leading the firm to be named in Deloittes Tech Fast 500 A-pack 2016. In 2017, Gab moved to New York with her family to spearhead the company’s expansion in the United States. She was previously Director of sales and marketing and group general manager of Advanced Marketing, a leading marketing organisation operating in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. She is also a published writer and an accomplished global presenter, having studied Business and Communications at Monash University in Melbourne. So, now we’re going to hear from Gab McMillan, on the exciting Equiem story to date and how technology is changing the way we work.

Gab, welcome to the digital studio. Where are you speaking to us from today?

Gab McMillan

I’m in New York, Susan.

Susan Freeman

Which is where you were, I think, right at the beginning of lockdown and for me lockdown started with a panel that we did where you were unexpectedly locked down in, I think, West Chester in New York. We had Angelica Denarti who was locked down in Italy, and it really brought – I was in the studio – and it really brought home the fact that we were going into something pretty serious. So, you know, thank you for joining us today. Let’s just start out with how Equiem was founded. I think you started in Melbourne, Australia in 2011 so can you tell our listeners really what Equiem is and how it came about?

Gab McMillan

Absolutely, Susan, and thanks so much for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. Let me tell you how Equiem started. I met my, my Co-founder in Equiem, a guy by the name of Lorenz Grollo, back in late 2010. The Grollo family, if you know much about Melbourne real estate, the Grollo family is kind of synonymous with real estate and real estate development in Melbourne. So, over three generations the family have actually developed and constructed many of Melbourne’s landmark towers. And so when I met Lorenz, he was looking after his family’s joint interest in a building that they had built 25 years earlier called Rialto. So, Rialto is second tallest office tower in Melbourne. It’s about a million square foot. Beautiful, you know, asset that kind of is very iconic to Melbourne. It was 25 years old when I met Lorenz and he was really looking at some pretty serious vacancy risk. So, he had about 30-40% of the tenants that were expiring and he was talking to me about, “How can I actually take a 25 year old asset and regenerate it? How can I, you know, take a 25 year old asset and reposition it such that it remains relevant? How do I retain the tenants that I have today and how do I attract quality tenants to this asset when I’m competing against newer shinier buildings, you know, that are being constructed all around me." And he had quite a comprehensive strategy when I first met him. A lot of what Equiem is today was really Lorenz’s ideation. As a landlord, he firmly believed that technology could play a big role in terms of connecting and adding value to the asset. So, when he thought about his regeneration strategy, he described to me that he wanted a digital ecosystem, a technology layer that would effectively connect every part of the asset. And I guess the key innovation – remembering that this was 2010, right - the key innovation here was that as a landlord he was thinking about his customer as the employee. So, he had moved beyond the kind of traditional construct of real estate where the landlord deals with you know, one person in each tenancy once a decade to renew the lease. He was thinking about the building as a product and he was thinking about the consumers of that product as the employees of all the companies in the building. And so, that was really where Equiem began.

He had this kind of three point wish list, which was, you know, “Gab,” he said, “I want a database of every single person that’s in this building. You know, there are somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 people a day coming in and out of Rialto. Working here, spending more hours a day here than they do at home. Waking hours at least. How do I collect data on those people?  How do I get to know them? How do I understand their preferences, the demographics, so that I can service them better?”  The next thing he wanted to do was really connect to the retail using technology, so how do you drive transactions and benefits and perks and connection between the retail tenants and the employees? And the certain thing for him was really about hospitality, you know, his family were… owned several hotels and had some time earlier brought the Western Hotels to Australia and so he was very hospitality forward, you know, which is a phrase, Susan, we use a lot now in real estate but it wasn’t used that much back in 2010. So, he really wanted to create what he described as his ‘Unparalleled Level of Service’ and he knew that to do that en masse, to do that with 4,000, 5,000 people, you need a technology layer. And so that’s where Equiem began, essentially this digital ecosystem to connect a building and create and unlock asset value through, you know, better communication, data and insights and really driving a sense of community that would make people sticky to the building.

Susan Freeman

Very interesting. I mean, he must have been a real pioneer. Did this concept actually exist in the worlds of commercial real estate in 2010?

Gab McMillan

I don’t think it did and we actually, when Lorenz outlined this to me I said, “Look, that all sounds great, Lorenz." I actually knew nothing about real estate, I’d come from running another, a sales and marketing business for the 13 years prior and so I was on a really steep learning curve but I spent about 14 weeks kind of living and breathing the asset. I met with all the tenants. I met with the retailers. I followed around the property management team, much to their horror and kind of unpacked, you know, a bunch of opportunities. But the question that you just asked, Susan is the one that we asked next, which is “Okay, this looks really simple. Like, there’s a lot of opportunity here." There’s this access card database that’s not being used very well, you know, the property management team really don’t have a database or a CRM or any kind of communication system that they’re using. They’re doing a tenant satisfaction survey but it’s happening once a year with one person, you know, so… and the disconnect between the retailers was very obvious as well. So, we immediately said, “Look, we know now what problem we need to solve and we know how we’re going to do it. Is there a platform like this that exists?” and we did look around. So, Lorenz was interviewing for new property management at the time at Rialto, so we had the opportunity to kind of do a bit of a beauty parade so to speak with the CBREs and John Laing La Salle’s of the world and they didn’t have anything and you know, we used Lorenz’s contacts to speak to other property groups in Australia but also we spoke to the Shard in London at the time and a few other global groups to kind of say, “Hey, have you got anything like this?  Is there a platform out there that we could use?” and the answer was kind of, no and, and interestingly the answer from the Australian groups was that look, they weren’t aware of a platform like this that existed but tenant engagement was their single biggest challenge and if we built this platform they wanted to roll it out in their buildings as well and that became an interesting… you know, up until that point it had kind of been this very interesting project and it was that moment I think for me that I kind of saw the opportunity from a business perspective and the opportunity to kind of create a global business that could transform one aspect of the real estate landscape and kind of create this more customer-centric, data-driven model through technology.

Susan Freeman

And did you… was it difficult to get buy-in from real estate companies because there has been a sort of reluctance to really embrace technology and to do things in a different way?  There’s been very much this attitude, “Well, nothing’s broken so we’ll carry on the way it is.”

Gab McMillan

I think that’s true. I used to say in the early days… I mean, Equiem’s been going for nine years now but I remember those early years. I mean, we did do a pretty good job of getting good traction in the Australian market, you know, over the first three or four years we, you know, we were able to partner with 10 out of the 11 largest RETS in Australia and today we’re in one in every three office buildings. But those first few years were definitely a grind, Susan, you know, and it sometimes felt, you know, like people didn’t… couldn’t really see the opportunity and I do think, I often said, we would talk about, because we didn’t really have any competition either so that can be a good thing or a bad thing but I used to say our biggest competition is Apathy. You know, the biggest reason why a landlord will or won’t choose Equiem is we’re actually fighting apathy. We’re fighting, Why?  Why do I need to do this?  Why is it urgent?  Why do I make the effort of engaging with, with the employees?  Or customers at all for that matter?”  because, you know, there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in real estate and there hasn’t been a lot of change and I think that’s because there hasn’t been a lot of reason to. You know, you look at real estate and it’s had its ups and downs and its cycles but fundamentally, most people have made a lot of money out of real estate without having to have this kind of business to consumer service-oriented mentality.

Susan Freeman

Yeah. Probably, until now. I mean…

Gab McMillan

Yes. Good…

Susan Freeman

…so much change in such a short period. So, which countries are you now in?  Obviously, you started, you started in Australia but I know you’re now, you’re now in New York, so where has the Equiem empire expanded to?

Gab McMillan

Yes, we’re on the path to world domination. Where are we?  We’re in the UK obviously and that includes CBD but we’re also in, in a number of regional areas in the UK so we’re expanding very rapidly there. We launched into London with Lendlease actually. Our first asset in London was the International Quarter out in Stratford. The old Olympic site. And the team have been doing a really good job of growing that region. We’re also in Ireland and obviously in the US where I am. So, I relocated here to New York two and a half years ago to oversee our expansion and we’re in… where are we now in the US? 14 cities and 12 states. So, we’re kind of coast to coast. We’ve got an office in New York and also in LA and people in Boston, North Carolina. Obviously, we’re in Australia. We’re launching into Canada, I can share with you, early next year. Which we’re very excited about so, we’ll be launching into Toronto.

Susan Freeman

That’s great. And I think you’ve got about 175,000 users, although that’s probably going up on a sort of weekly basis. Now that you’re working in different, different jurisdictions, different cultures are you seeing different attitudes to your platform in different areas you’re working with or are any jurisdictions more advanced in their adoption of Prop Tech or can one sort of generalise about, you know, the real estate sector and say, it has been quite resistant to change and to technology?

Gab McMillan

It's a really, really interesting question. There are definitely regional differences. So, if we look first at the adoption of real estate tech, I actually think, and you know, people will say I’m probably biased because I’m Australian but I actually think Australia is ahead of the curve in some aspects of real estate around place-making and around technology because those things tend to kind of go together and when you’re in Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane are now big metropolitan hubs you notice the difference. Every kind of premium and grade A office tower quite a number of years ago went through a process of kind of refurbishing the lobbies, creating cafes and lounges and wellness and amenities. So, that all happened in Australia before I moved to New York and so even just setting aside technology for a bit I think that Australia has led in many ways and I don’t know why. I don’t, you know, one argument could be that Australia wasn’t as impacted as heavily by the GFC as other countries and so was able to kind of keep innovating where others had to really deal with the basics. Another argument is that it’s a very, like Canada, Australia is a very small market and there’s really these 11 large RETS that control about 80% of the premium and grade A office real estate and they all compete with each other and so I think that creates, you know, rapid innovation cycles. And so when I first you know, when we were first looking at global expansion, we were trying to work out… we’d earmarked the UK, the US and Singapore actually as three possible first regions to expand to and we were very interested in which would be better and why and what the attitudes would be and what the market demand would be and what the competition would be. And back in 2015, 2016, when we started really focusing on global expansion we, you know, I remember the first kind of trip that I did - this ‘Global Tour’ we called it, I think - but you know, I came back and said to the Board, “Look, I think the UK is about a year behind Australia and I think America is a lot further behind” and so I said, “Look , New York is massive, America is massive, that’s the market we have to win so we’ve got to go there but I think it’ll take longer to take off. I think the UK and Europe are much more in-tune with, you know, these trends and focused on customer and adopting technology. The UK at the time was in that kind of  ‘We’re Open For Business’ mode, you know and there was good trade as well between the countries so, that was my original view. And the UK did grow faster in the first year but the US has now really exploded. So, I think the US has this capacity to move very quickly once… once they decide something is a good idea, the adoption is actually very rapid, whereas I think the UK mode of doing business can be more conservative, you know and if I, I just look at our sales numbers. Deals take longer to do in the UK than what they do in America. The deal cycle is much shorter in America.

Susan Freeman

I was thinking about how Equiem’s been affected by Covid because I remember at that panel we did in March and you were wondering how you were going to arrange launches that you’d set-up as live events and, you know, you said, you know, how are you going to do them virtually?  But I imagine that, you know the business has been transformed during, during this period. How did that journey go?  So, you sort sat there and said, “Well, we’ve got these launches coming up, how are we going to do them?”

Gab McMillan

It was a bit of a war room for the first probably four weeks, Susan. It really was and I’d say for any CEO in any organisation no matter what industry you were in, it was a very intense time in dealing with, you know  first and foremost your priority is your own people, you know, so I think we grounded everyone mid-March and once you’ve kind of got the health and safety of your team under control, then you worry about the health and safety of your business and try to work out how much are we going to be impacted, you know and as a software business, we’re lucky because we’ve got long-term recurring contracts. We don’t have revenue that just disappears overnight, you know, like it can in the hotel industry or elsewhere and so we were lucky in that regard but we were very focused on delivering value and on one hand like all businesses  we were you know, we were concerned. We were thinking, “Well, what does this mean for Equiem?”  On the other hand, you know, if I’m going to be really candid Susan… we saw it as an opportunity and I used the phrase, “Make lemonade” a lot during Covid because of course nobody wanted Covid and we’re all stuck in our houses and threatened, our actual health and livelihoods were threatened but , you know we talked a lot at Equiem in the early days about making lemonade. Because we did see that now more than ever, landlords had to, they absolutely must, engage with their end users. When users are not even working in the building any more, landlords desperately need technology to kind of (a) continue engaging with those users, which provides valuable insights; (b) communicate to build trust and bring them back safely. They need the technology to actually make the building Covid-safe. But now landlords have got two problems. One is, how do I actually get people safely back to the building? Two is, are people even going to want to come back to the building?  So, you know the next thing is, well how do you retain tenants as you look after 21, 22, 23 and leases that are expiring – how do you differentiate and create an experience at the office that’s more attractive than the work from home or the work from the café or the work from anywhere kind of mentality?  So, Equiem has gone through a huge period of change, Susan and I actually think we would never have wished for this but we have made an awful lot of lemonade I think. And demand is through the roof, you know, I was looking at the quarterly numbers for last quarter and even just website enquiries for our product is a good, I’m sure all of our competitors are experiencing the same increase in demand. The sales opportunity enquiries were up 96% and that is already on top of quarter on quarter unbroken growth for the last kind of three years. So, we are experiencing, you know, a huge increase in demand.

We did have, I think you talked about virtual launches. We had I think, I think we’ve done about 30 roll-outs now since April – all virtual. And so that did present some challenges for our team because our old  model we would fly people in and literally the team would be in the lobby welcoming people as they arrived to work in the morning and saying, “Hey, you’ve got this new app for your building. It’s really cool. You can do all these great things. You need to register." So, we had to very rapidly work out, well how on earth do we get to people at home?  And so that really necessitated more of a focus on the key tenant contact and the HR manager. And I think that that’s been really interesting actually and I think that that’s very powerful for the landlord at the moment to have that contact and to be very integrated with those, particularly the HR teams at the moment because they’re really leading the charge around the future workplace and the health and safety of the employees. So, working in partnership with the HR manager I think has been, you know, something that we always talked about but this has really forced us to put it front and centre and I think it’s been a really key innovation for us through this period for sure.

Susan Freeman

Yes, that sounds positive and I think in August you launched your remote platform which enables your customers to communicate with all their tenants whether or not they’re in the office, working from home, wherever they are. But I mean, how did you manage to add those sort of features to bring in people working from home so quickly?  Bearing in mind that Equiem was, up until then, an office service so, it must have been an area that you hadn’t had to think about previously?

Gab McMillan

Well, we had a lot of existing partnerships that we used and the rest of it was just hustle. I mean, my team worked around the clock for the first few months of Covid, I mean, it was absolute madness. We, I mean we, like you said earlier we have a hundred, a bit more than that now, so, close to 200,000 users on the platform. We had to work out how to keep them engaged. We were like, “Well, no-one’s in their office building anymore. Do they want to be part of an office community while they’re in the middle of Covid working from home?”  The answer is, “Yes, they do." We had regions and buildings where usage actually increased by up to 30% but that was a big focus for us to start with was making sure that for our existing customers, that we were offering them services that would keep them coming back to the platform. And so, yeah we did. We launched virtual fitness classes, virtual meditations, virtual happy hours, trivia nights. My favourite latest partner that we have is a group that run virtual cocktail making events. So, you sign up, you get it sent to your house and then you kind of tune in on Zoom with everyone else and you make your cocktail. It’s very cool. But people told us, I mean, by the time kind of Easter rolled around, the users on our platform, the sentiment was obvious. They were really grateful to have this way to still connect and kind of have this cultural hub and have somewhere to come that would break up the day a little bit or that they could stay connected and they were really grateful to their landlords and the property managers for keeping that going. So, that was kind of… remote was created, Susan in about five days. It was extraordinary. And then we turned our attention to a return to work which we knew would be the next big issue for landlords – is how do you get people back safely? And that also involved tweaking aspects of what we had already so, we transformed our booking system, which is now being used all over the place to actually book arrival to the building, book exit, you know from the building. Which I don’t think any of us ever expected would be something that anyone would ever do. We weren’t really thinking we are going book to go into our office building but you can book a lift it manages capacity, you know those, those groups that have started to reopen kind of their fitness centres and their wellness centres you know, it’s being used to manage capacity. And then from a technology perspective we augmented what we had with a bunch of partnerships to really add on around visitor management, to do safe check-ins to make sure that we had mobile access so that you could have touchless entry all the way through the building into the lifts etcetera. We’re working with British Land at the moment on, you know, comfort control so, touchless lighting and heating and so that’s been a big… kind of we had remote and then we had return to work and now we’re really focused – I don’t know why we’re calling them all names with ‘R’ - but now we’re really focused on an initiative that we’re calling ‘Retain’ and it’s all about renewals. How do you retain tenants? How do we… so, because we’ve got so much data on our platform we really understand, you know, the employees and their sentiment and what they want through polls and surveys and through the activity on the platform itself. We can you know, with our smart building technology we can measure occupancy, air quality, etcetera and so you take all that data and you triangulate it with the context around when are these tenants due to renew and it becomes a very powerful dashboard. So, I think just yesterday, possibly, we launched that aspect of Retain which is a leasing dashboard, which effectively brings into play the renewal dates of all the tenants across the portfolio so that you can actually look at your tenants, look at who’s coming up in ’21, ’22, ’23. Size, industry and really dig into what these tenants want and use that to make sure that you’re servicing them well and retaining them.

Susan Freeman

And I know that you’ve said that, you know Equiem started by solving a problem and you continue to have a daily dialogue with customers about how you can help them solve their problem so it seems to be like an ongoing dialogue and then, you know, what do we need next to help our customers run their businesses and retain their people?  So, I guess it never stops, there’s always something new to think about. And I think you must have had a very busy August because in August you released your Global Office Tenant report so using all the data you have on all your occupiers to find out how people were feeling about working from home, what they were missing, what their concerns were. What are you seeing?  Because initially people, it was a bit of a novelty for a lot of people, you know, if they could work from home – this was rather nice and the sun was shining and they didn’t have to commute. But are you seeing a move away from that to, I’m missing working with my colleagues. I’m missing the collaboration you know, and sort of reality setting in?

Gab McMillan

Yeah. We did. We’ve done two, two rounds of a kind of official Covid-related surveying, let’s call it. The first one ran through April. We had 4,500 individuals across maybe 700 or 800 different companies were represented and it was all four countries participated and yeah, it was…  a lot of the data out of that really drove a lot of what we did around return to work because we asked people, what is going to stop you from coming back?  When are you thinking of coming back?  What do you need from your landlord?” and you know the biggest issues was really around communication and trust. And, you know 60, some 64% of people at that time said, you know, they weren’t going to come back until they felt safe. And that was really interesting because that was kind of an ‘Aha’ moment. It seems really obvious now but, you know, I think what we predicted at that time – which is what has transpired – is that companies are not going to take the view that you’ve got to go back to the building. It’s going be a long time, post-vaccine before most companies are going to say to their staff, “You need to go back to the office." So, it actually is and it’s the irony because it’s where Equiem began was actually putting the employee as your number one, right, like, they are in the driving seat and they are absolutely in the driving seat right now. So, getting people back to the building is really going to define what the future workplace strategy is going to look like because if no-one’s coming back to the office, naturally companies are going to say when their lease rolls around, “Well, how much space do I really need?”  So, a huge focus we think for landlords is really just that communication piece. You know, making sure that people understand that the office building’s actually a really safe environment and they’ve done… I mean, our landlords have been working really, really hard and spending a lot of money to make sure these buildings are safe. So, I think it’s just a matter of communicating that and building that trust and making sure that the experience is great when they come back.

There are a few other interesting take-outs from that original survey but it was, it was, it was a little bit depressing because a lot of people, I think at that point 40% of people saying they were absolutely loving working from home. You know, a few people were kind of in the middle but no-one really was missing the office and I guess yeah, I don’t know what drove that but what I can and I’m happy to report because obviously I have an office-bias given what Equiem does that come August, September we repeated elements of that. We didn’t do the whole long form survey but we repeated key questions and what was really interesting was that by you know, by that time, by September, there’d been a swing. Like, the swinging voters had gone from, I’m loving working from home to, actually, I really am starting to miss the office and we saw, you know a swing of anywhere between kind of 10 and, and 30 basis points across the regions and it was interesting. There were differences. There were differences in organisations, you know, and there were differences in buildings and differences in industries. So, it was a really fascinating thing. But I can absolutely tell you that I think the gloss is wearing off working from home. But I think we’re still dealing with a global pandemic. I mean look at the numbers now in the UK and the numbers in the US and we’re going back into lockdown mode in a number of regions. So, I don’t think we’ll have a choice for a little while but I think that definitely people are not ready to let go of the office. And they are, when we said to them, what are you missing most about the office?  Actually and this even surprised me despite the fact that I’m biased towards it, people did say that they were missing that building community most. You know, it wasn’t about work set up and internet connection and things like that. They’re actually missing being around other people and it wasn’t just limited to colleagues. We asked them about colleagues and we asked them about building community and the numbers for building community topped the others. So, I don’t know what that’s about. I wished we’d asked more questions. We will do next time. But is it the Barista? Is it the vibe? Is it, you know, is it, is it other things that happen as you kind of go about your work day? But there’s an element there that I think is really interesting and maybe this will be the most important thing going forward because we need something that overcomes the commute. You need some motivation, why do I get out of bed? Get out of my Ugg-boots and go to the office now when I’ve demonstrated that I can work from home?  So, it is going to be a lot about the experience and about the community. Because that’s what you can’t get at home.

Susan Freeman

No and it’s a fantastic opportunity to actually drill down into that data and actually really find out what motivates people and you mentioned British Land and I mean just a few months ago I think British Land chose Equiem as its partner to deliver a digital tenant engagement app across its mixed-use London campuses. So, I just wondered you know how that came about? Was it a game-changer? And when did the discussions start?

Gab McMillan

This is a loaded question. I’m not, speaking of conservative British sales cycles, that one was one of the longer ones and I’m sure Sally and Jules and others that were involved won’t mind me sharing. I think we started talking to British Land a few years ago actually and they came to market a couple of times to try and select and you know, they’ve built their own technology as you know. So, they’ve got Vicinity which is kind of property operation technology for managing and streamlining operations. So, they, they were, I think, oscillating between, Do I… do we just keep building technology and build, you know, a platform for tenant engagement as well and to manage flex space because they’ve rolled out Storey – Storey Club as you guys in the UK know well or do we outsource and they came to market a number of times and they were genuine at each point I’m quite sure but they were just trying to work it out. And that’s not uncommon with our large landlord customers around the globe. I think that there is a degree of uncertainty and you know there is, it’s a lot to navigate. Especially in our landscape at the moment with so much competition and it’s changing so quickly. So, you know they said that over the time they spoke to Equiem they felt that we had, you know, moved forward the most in terms of technology, which is really pleasing for me as CEO because we’ve been around for nine years. So, you might think that we wouldn’t, you know, but it’s great that we’re actually in the last couple of years, have continued to innovate and continue to really accelerate ahead in terms of our technology offering. And we were very, very, very, very pleased to be appointed by British Land. It was a big celebration on the Equiem side, that was for sure. I mean, they’re a wonderful, wonderful partner. We have a terrific relationship with British Land, really collaborative, really constructive. We’ve worked together to create some really special elements for Broadgate and for 100 Liverpool Street which of course is the brand new building at Broadgate. So, we’re very excited about that relationship. But yeah, it was a long time coming.

Susan Freeman

Well, it sounds, it sounds as if it was really worth the effort and the perseverance.

Gab McMillan

Oh it was worth it. I think sometimes, you know, someone once asked me on a panel I think, what advice would I have for other real estate technology you know, start-ups coming into the space and I said, “Patience.” Patience, you know if you can demonstrate patience and grit and resilience because everything takes a lot longer than what you expect that it’s going to. So, sometimes it’s a waiting game.

Susan Freeman

I think that’s probably very good advice. Now, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is you are a very female company and I think your Chair, obviously you, CEO, COO and many other senior roles in the company are represented by women. Do you think that gives you an edge in the world of real estate which is very male and you know, Prop Tech is also quite a male industry. So, have you found it an advantage or a disadvantage being a female leader in a male sector?

Gab McMillan

Hmm. I get asked a lot of questions about being a female CEO but I’ve never been asked whether I think it’s been an advantage. What I would say is it’s not been a disadvantage. You know, and I have never, and I will say with the credit to my very white male counterparts in real estate, I have never ever, ever felt you know disadvantaged by being a female and I’m often and especially at the beginning, often the only female in a boardroom of males, you know presenting. And I think that I’ve developed what I know describe as Gender Blindness. You know, sometimes I will walk out of a room or something and someone will say, oh wow, you know, did you feel you know, were you bothered by the fact that you were the only woman in the room and I was like, I didn’t even notice, you know, literally. So, it’s not been a disadvantage. I think that maybe it is an advantage in some ways because it’s different and different is memorable, as long as it’s not different bad. Yeah I don’t know. And yeah, I mean I think that Equiem is a very di… I mean, diversity you know, is a phrase that gets used a lot but Equiem is just naturally diverse and always has been. And diverse you know, beyond just gender diversity but we do have a strong female line-up and you know I think it is true… I laugh and say to the team, subconscious bias is a real thing. Look at Equiem you know, I hired women. So, it’s something you have to be careful of on both sides, right but I think you just have to hire the best people for the role but if you can build a company that has a lot of diversity and diversity of thought, diversity of background, diversity of style – there is a bit of magic in that and I personally, really enjoy building diverse teams because I think that it creates something pretty special.

Susan Freeman

And just building on that as a female Founder you know, because you, you know, started this company from scratch. Did you find that it was you know more difficult to get equity and funding because you’re always hearing that you know particularly in Prop Tech that you know female Founders sometimes find it more difficult or, or was it just a level playing field as far as you were concerned?

Gab McMillan

I think I was really lucky, Susan, is the truth of that one. So, I mean Lorenz Grollo as Co-founder. He’s wealthy in his own right. His family, you know are one of the largest private family offices in Australia and so he was able to effectively fund Equiem through its early years and so we didn’t go out and raise capital until maybe 2015 when we were starting to think about going global and really ramping things up and that was when we created the independent board. We brought Tanya in as Chair who’s just been terrific and really built that structure and governance around the company. But having Lorenz as a Co-founder, you know, I’m really not qualified to speak about what it would have been like if I was a female CEO on my own trying to raise money. I have also, through some of Lorenz’s connections and through some of my own connections now have met a lot of women who are backing women – female-led businesses so, I would like to think… I mean, I would actually like the whole who runs the business to disappear because I think it should be irrelevant. But, if we’ve got a limitation in that space at the moment then I think it is good to try and balance things up and shine a spotlight on it and create funding which is directed at that just to make sure that female-led businesses can get access to capital and I think there are a lot of… there are stats I think that female-led businesses often perform better, you know, so, that’s, that’s an interesting stat as well and should drive lots of funding to female-led businesses.

Susan Freeman

Yeah. I think that’s right because I saw a stat that the percentage of female Founders in UK Prop Tech is something like 9% which you know, I think we probably could do, could do better. And I just I wanted to ask you about you know, we talked about data. Are there issues around data security and you know, we hear a lot about cyber-crime at the moment which has apparently rocketed during lockdown. Are those issues a problem for you and what sort of systems do you have to put in place to deal with those risks?

Gab McMillan

It's a hugely important issues and we at Equiem spend a lot of money, is the truth and I presume our competitors would do the same but it is something that I caution landlords about as they’re choosing any real estate technology, is that this stuff is expensive and critical. So, you know we do a number of things but I mean you cover the basics. Obviously, we’re GDPR compliant as it relates to the UK. But we adopt GDPR, most people are aware is one of the more stringent sets of privacy legislation in terms of what it sets out that you can and can’t do with user data and how that data has to be handled and secured and so we actually adopt those measures across the globe, even in regions where the privacy legislation is not quite as stringent, you know, I guess one thing we decided early was that we didn’t want to take any risks in this space and that we were entrusted by very, very large institutional landlords with their tenants, who in their own right are often very, very large FTSE-100 or, you know Blue Chip organisations and we just didn’t want to take any risks in this space. So, we spend a lot of time and money making sure the data is secure. We have external auditors come and look at what we’re doing on a regular basis. We do a lot of testing to continually test because it’s something that you, it’s not something that you put in place and you’re done. It’s constant, Susan because what you mentioned, you know, people are finding new ways to work around things all the time. So, it’s constant. You have to be very clever. One of the things that, that we’ve done because we also have transactions on our system, so we also as well as the privacy we need to be PCI compliant which is a banking regulation around how money is transacted. The other thing we do that I think is important is that we actually anonymise all the data. So, as we… as the data comes into our actual data analytics warehouse that is exposed to our customers, so that they can get insights we actually strip out the personally identifying information and that de-risks things a lot for our customers who are handling this data. It makes it much harder for them to have a mistake happen where personal details leak right, or someone gets access to them. And we’ve taken a view as well, you know, we’ve got other customers that suck the data straight out of our system and up into their own private data cloud and all that kind of thing. So, I want to be very clear. We don’t own the data. We don’t control the data. But we do, you know, safeguard the data on behalf of our clients and a lot of them don’t want to take on that risk and a lot of them don’t want to put their property management teams in that situation and so our view is that you can get all the insights that you need with anonymised data. I don’t need to know that Susan Freeman ordered a coffee, you know, at 9.00am and then ordered a donut sometime later and then went to the gym. I just need to know that this certain person who works at this certain company, did that right, and it’s actually the numbers in aggregate when you look at companies and industries and look across your portfolio to look at trends and analyse and benchmark. That’s where you really get the value, not at the individual level. Does that make sense?

Susan Freeman

No, it makes a lot of sense and obviously preferable from the GDPR point of view because you don’t want personalised data… One of the things I wanted to ask you was, you know, we’re seeing a growing realisation that the value for property assets goes far beyond the bricks and the, you know, the space and it’s actually about people and experience and community. Are you able to demonstrate yet any sort of added value which comes from having an Equiem-powered building?

Gab McMillan

Well, that’s the million-dollar question isn’t it?  Or perhaps the billion-dollar question. I’m going answer that question by saying, yes and no. So, I think every landlord is often looking at real estate tech and saying, well, show me the direct impact. Show me the correlation between I rolled out Equiem and I renewed this tenant. The reality is, that an Equiem platform is like a layer, you know, the Equiem platform is not necessarily the reason that they’re going renew but it’s the… it’s all the things that the Equiem platform allows you to do, you know, which on one side is providing an improved service and experience to the tenants and on the other side it sucks that data out to see whether it’s working or not. That’s where you can kind of continuously improve the service and therefore the satisfaction of your tenants and you know there is obviously a correlation between tenants who are satisfied and those that renew. In reality the decision to renew or to pay more rent you know, as we know is made up of a lot of different factors and sometimes you know, you can have a tenant who is incredibly satisfied with the building, incredibly happy with the service that they’re getting but for reasons due to location, a change in their workforce needs, or price, they still move. So, I think that as we analyse and continue to be very fixated around delivering a return and delivering value to our landlords you know I would really point to two things; one, an improvement in the experience and satisfaction of tenants that is delivered through the technology and two, that engagement. All of that engagement and all of those happy tenants, that’s actually because it’s happening on its software platform giving you data that you simply cannot get anywhere else and it is that data that’s going to give you the insights to make the right decision. So, I see it there’s a relationship, you know, it’s the Yin and the Yang. We provide an experience here and that allows us to get data here to provide a better experience here. I don’t see honestly, that if you’re serious about running real estate and offering real estate products in the future, that you’re going to be able to do that without some form of technology. How can you possibly manage relationships with all of those customers that you have especially in a world where lease terms are shrinking and the workplace needs are becoming more and more flexible. You have to have technology, you have to use some kind of software. You have to have a digital connection and engagement with those customers.

Susan Freeman

Yes and I think Covid has really accelerated that and has shown why we need technology. I have a final question for you, Gab. You presented to the ULI Europe Tech Council a couple of months ago and you were talking to us about the Equiem lockdown journey and you made a comment that change will take longer than we think and I just wondered why and whether it’s… I mean because of the things that we’ve discussed today that it’s going to take us longer than we think to get through you know, to feel safe going back to the buildings?

Gab McMillan

Yeah with, I think, like every other company in the world we’ve plotted this Covid timeline a number of times to try and predict what the market is going to be doing and how we can best meet the needs of the market, you know, as they move through the cycle. I think that it’s great news that has been released recently that they’re making good progress with the vaccine and I think that gives us reason for a lot of optimism. But realistically to vaccinate the globe is going to take a very long time. So, if we just look at the pandemic I think we need to be realistic and I think that we have a bias towards, everything will go back to normal ASAP because that’s what we want and we’ve never lived through anything like this before but when you really think about it I think that we have to expect that we’re still going to be rolling out – assuming the vaccine is successful and we start rolling it out late this year, early next – I still think it’s 12 months before we’ve got enough people vaccinated such that we’ve got genuine herd immunity such that we can resume really life as it was. So, that’s one reason why I think this is all going to take longer than what we think. I think we’re going to be living in various peaks and troughs of lockdown and kind of a forced work-from-home environment for a little while longer yet.

In terms of real estate and how it’s going to impact real estate, I think that that uncertainty… I mean, on one hand you’ve got a lot of companies that are under threat and are looking to reduce costs anywhere they can. So, that, there’s no doubt that that puts an immediate pressure on landlords but most of our customers are still receiving you know, 90% plus of rents. They’re still collecting rent and I think the Governments in all the regions where we’re operating in have done a good job of supporting businesses. So, I think what happens, Susan, is that while you’ve got downward pressure on costs you’ve also got a huge degree of uncertainty and you’ve got HR managers going, well, I don’t know what our workforce needs are going to be and I need time to work that out and they’re seeing what we’re seeing which is their employees are becoming less and less excited about working from home and they’re demanding places to go other than their kitchen bench and they’re going to want different things from their workplace for sure but they’re not ready to let it go. So, I think what’s going to happen is you’re just going to see this period of stalling. Decisions will get stalled. If it’s an easy decision to cut some costs that will happen but through this extended period of uncertainty I think you’ll have a lot of people and landlords are going to want them to do this. You’ll have a lot of companies that will just extend. They’ll extend their lease, let’s say if my lease is expiring in 2021, I’m probably already talking to my landlord about it. I’m probably going to change what I can but probably just kick the can down the road a little bit longer until I can work out what I really want to do because I can’t get rid of it altogether, you know, if I’m a reasonable-sized company. Like, I look at our offices in Melbourne city and Brisbane. We’re not touching any of them. We’re not thinking about touching any of them. So, if you’ve just fitted out an office and you’ve created a great workplace and you’ve got an active lease I just think it’s going to take time to flow through. I think the renewals that are up in 2021, a lot of them will get extended and so the real change is not going to happen until kind of ‘22, ‘23, ‘24. You’ve got to remember I mean, you look at real estate most, you know, we’re now looking at renewals across our portfolio – it’s a long game. And that’s the other reason you asked me earlier in this call about innovation in real estate, that’s why there’s not much innovation either, because it’s a long, long, game. These cycles are long. The leases are – they’re shortening, absolutely – but a lot of leases are still 3, 5, 10 years. So, it’s going to take longer than people think for this to all flow through. There is absolutely going to be an increased demand for flexible workspace options and you know I think a lot of the co-working groups are finding this period difficult for obvious reasons and so one of the things that we’ve predicted that more landlords will step into offering different real estate products. You know, version 1.0 was the landlord did the traditional stuff and then you put WeWork in or Industrious or you know, whoever, to run your co-working. I think that you’re going to find landlords are going to move into that space. They’re going to have to and they’re going to need to work out how to run these different… and offer a sale market and operate these different real estate products. And that’s one of the things that Equiem’s working very hard to be ready for, is to have that full, you know product suite so that a landlord can do that should they, should they wish to. But it’s coming. A change is coming. I’m not predicting everything’s going to stay the same, I just think it’s going to take a couple of years. It’s not just going to be like – boom, vaccine’s out in January and by March, 40% of all office buildings are operating flexibly. It’s going to take years for that to really flow through.

Susan Freeman

Yeah. I think, I think that’s probably right, we should, we should probably speak again in a year’s time hopefully face-to-face and see, and see where we are. So, Gab that was terrific. Really, really interesting and pretty inspiring story so keep going. Thank you very much.

Gab McMillan

Thank you so much Susan for having me. It’s been an absolute pleasure to chat and yeah I do hope that we get to meet in person again sometime soon.

Susan Freeman

Thank you, Gab McMillan for joining us today from New York to tell us how you took an idea and created Equiem and how technology is changing our relationship with our workplaces. That was really inspiring.

So, that’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation. Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very soon.

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes. The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app, and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use. Do continue to subscribe and let us have your feedback and comments and most importantly suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe and on LinkedIn for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Gabrielle is the founding CEO of Equiem, leading the business from its 2011 inception to become the world’s leading tenant experience platform, used by 165,000+ people across 60 million sq ft of prime commercial real estate worldwide.

Named in Business Insider’s Coolest People in Australian Tech (2016) and honoured in Bisnow’s 2019 NYC Power Women list, Gabrielle is an exceptional leader, with a commercial acumen honed across 15+ years of leading and growing organisations. In the space of just 8 years, she has developed the Equiem team from just two to over 230 employees. Today, Gabrielle's Equiem manages a client portfolio of 145+ buildings across Australia, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the USA, leading the firm to be named in Deloitte's Tech Fast 500 (APAC 2016). In 2017, she moved to New York with her family to spearhead the company’s expansion in the USA.

Gabrielle was previously Director of Sales & Marketing and Group General Manager of Advance Marketing, a leading marketing organisation operating in Australia, New Zealand and the UK. She is also a published writer and an accomplished global presenter having studied Business and Communications at Monash University in Melbourne.

How can we help you?
Help

How can we help you?

Subscribe: I'd like to keep in touch

If your enquiry is urgent please call +44 20 3321 7000

Crisis Hotline

COVID-19 Enquiry

I'm a client

I'm looking for advice

Something else