Propertyshe podcast: George Roberts Head of UK & Ireland at Cushman & Wakefield

Posted on 20 May 2021

Customer experience and that customer interface with the landlord has changed but it’s going to change and it’s going to change quickly and I think we as an industry, as agents, have a really important part to play in helping to interpret what that looks like and helping to provide the kind of services that our clients need to provide that, that really close association. 

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 the key influencers in the world of real estate and the built environment.  Today I am delighted to welcome George Roberts.  George is Head of UK and Ireland at Cushman and Wakefield, one of the world’s largest real estate advisors.  Prior to assuming his current leadership role in 2017, he led the firm’s London Markets division with overall responsibility for its occupier representation, leasing, capital markets, residential and development teams, specialising in London real estate.  With over 25 years of experience of the London office market, he has advised on some of the capital’s most high profile office relocation projects and pre-leasing acquisitions on behalf of its largest occupiers.  And now we are going to hear from George Roberts about life at Cushman & Wakefield and his views on the changes impacting the real estate sector.  George, welcome, it’s good to be talking to you today. 

George Roberts

Susan, thank you for having me. 

Susan Freeman

So, before we start discussing what’s going on in real estate at the moment, what made you think of real estate as a career, how did you get into it in the first place?

George Roberts

Gosh, that’s a good question.  It’s quite a few years ago, Susan, now.  I guess I never wanted a career that was going to keep me pinned behind a desk, I always wanted to have a career that was diverse, that allowed me to get out and to see people, to experience new things and I knew a few people who worked in the real estate world, I did work experience when I was 16-17 up in Liverpool where I come from and I really enjoyed it and I thought well, do you know what, I’ll try and do a real estate Degree, if it doesn’t work out I’ll go into the Army which was something I was thinking about at the time, I went to Oxford Poly and really enjoyed the course, always wanted to go back to Liverpool but as time went on in my Degree course, it became more and more apparent that London was the place to go and I was lucky enough to join, to have a choice of joining two firms, one of which was Debenham, Tewson & Chinnocks as it was known at the time, or DTZ as it became, or Cushman & Wakefield as it is now, and I joined as a graduate then so, I was, yeah, fortunate to secure a position there back in the ’92 in the depths of a recession as it was then. 

Susan Freeman

So it’s interesting, you did the graduate programme at DTZ so things to a certain extent have come full circle.  So, you’ve been Head of UK and Ireland at Cushman & Wakefield since 2017 and in that time, things have changed quite a lot.  So, I just wondered how many people are you responsible for and how has that role changed as a result of the pandemic?

George Roberts

So, we’ve got over a thousand staff spread across the country.  Yeah, it’s been quite a period of change so you think over the last few years, we’ve had Brexit, we’ve had an election and then we’ve had Covid so, I think you could say it’s not been dull, Susan since I took over running the UK but equally, some fantastic things and out of the challenges that everyone in the industry has had to face, genuinely comes opportunity and I think we are starting to really see those opportunities coming through now which is great.    

Susan Freeman

And how would you describe your professional style, and is that something you’ve had to adapt as you have progressed in seniority?

George Roberts

Yeah, so my approach has always been to be very open, I have never been someone who believed that, I never believe in hierarchy in the sense of not of believing that just because you have twenty years of experience makes you any better able to voice an opinion on something, I’ve always been somebody that believes that everybody should have a voice, everybody should have an opinion, everyone has a chance to improve something so my style is one of being open, encouraging, engaged and those are things that I’ve sought to do right the way from the start of my career through to the position that I’m in today but at the end of the day, you know, one gathers information and then makes decisions and works with the team to implement those decisions so, we could go on for a long time but that’s, in a broad sense, that’s the sort of the driving influences on my work ethos, or management ethos.    

Susan Freeman

And as you say, it’s been, you know, a pretty interesting time since you took over and, you know, Brexit we knew was coming, obviously the pandemic not at all so, communication with, you know, the teams that you are working with is probably more important than ever.  And I wondered if we could talk a little bit about the merger so, 2015 DTZ and Cushman & Wakefield came together and I just wondered how that’s changed the business, do the two businesses have complementary footprints and culture and, you know, what have been the issues in terms of integrating two different businesses?

George Roberts

Yeah, so, I think the… both firms I would describe as challenges.  Both were challenges in an industry where others had scale and I think both firms were sort of fighting hard to secure the big ticket mandates that were available at the time but I think it’s fair to say when you look back, both had to fight really hard.  The biggest change I think came through the scale that came through the merger and I think over a relatively short period of time, the shift I think we saw was one of not necessarily being seen as a challenger but someone who was expected to be at the top table fighting for those mandates and projects, significant projects, across the country and the scale of the business I think allowed us to win instructions that we would have struggled to win previously and that’s probably the biggest sort of single shift that happened and I think from that, you know, a real confidence came that actually our scale gave us a chance to do something but I think, Susan, one of the things that maybe it’s the sort of Scouse mentality, I’ve always believed that being a challenger is a great place to be, it’s great to be able to look in front of you and to see where you want to go rather than sort of standing back and patting itself on the back and saying aren’t we wonderful and the ethos of being a challenger is something that, frankly, until the day I leave the industry, will always be a challenger because I think that keeps you on your metal.  But that scale made a significant difference.  The merger gave Cushman the ability to have a regional presence that I think was lacking previously so, more scale in the regions, more scale in sectors so for example, public sector was something that the historic Cushman business probably wasn’t particularly strong in, equally Cushman was probably perceived as a more retail focussed brand, again much more diversity in other sectors through the merger so, in every single team, the combination of adding people who culturally were very, very similar, I think allowed us to do things that we hoped we could do and I think a short period after merger, you know, we felt actually, yep, this is achieving what we hoped to achieve. 

Susan Freeman

So, no, it sounds as if it, you know, it’s been a pretty good fit but, you know, it’s always challenging, to use your word, to integrate two, you know, two businesses even if, you know, culturally they are quite close.  And I just wondered how you would now differentiate your brand from the other large property services companies?

George Roberts

So I think, I think there are probably four things that are going to differentiate the larger firms and within that, you know, we’ll reinforce and rebuild our, and build up our capabilities, I think those four things are, and what… we’ll stand back and say what do I think clients expect?  I think clients expect the larger global practices to be able to tell them what does best look like?  What does best look like across the world?  Best buildings, best in sustainability, best in customer experience, best in technology.  So being able to utilise that global platform, truly join up global insight, that’s really important.  Secondly, it’s all about the end user, it’s all about the occupier.  Being able to interpret what’s being discussed around the boardrooms around the world for those clients who are making decisions in the UK and Europe is absolutely critical and being able to access those occupiers so, again, truly being able to differentiate through that insight into occupiers is absolutely critical.  Being able to advise on complex transactions and I think the days of single, vanilla services in complex transactions have gone, I don’t see in, and you won’t in your world either Susan, you’ll see very few large, complex projects where you’ve just got one particular service line that’s supporting on that transaction the ability to bring in cross-disciplines is absolutely crucial.  And then finally, and I think increasingly importantly, we have a raft of proprietary data that we capture day in and day out, and the opportunity is there to pull that data together and to help clients make smarter and better informed decisions and so when you say, how do we differentiate, it’s those four things that I think will increasingly differentiate the larger firms and from our own perspective, it’s encumbered on us to make sure that we do it better than everybody else.    

Susan Freeman

No that’s good because we’ll get into some of these issue further into the conversation and I just wanted to ask you about the restructuring because I think you’ve taken the opportunity to, you know, now post-merger restructure the business so, what does the restructure look like and what are you hoping to achieve from it?

George Roberts

Yeah, so you talked at the start of the conversation about the business coming together on merger and the way we organised ourselves internally, up until February this year, was very much a product of the merger and needed to pull teams together to make things work and I think what for me became increasingly apparent was that actually whilst that had achieved many things, looking at what our clients wanted going forwards I felt that we needed to reorganise the way in which we operate.  So, what I had historically was a mixture of, and this is an internal facing conversation but what we had was a mixture of teams based on geography, teams based on sectors, teams based on service lines and so candidly and truthfully, you know, you got a little bit better or a little bit worse as you cross from one geography into another because I didn’t feel that we were sort of sharing the best practices of one to another and increasingly, clients were expecting complete consistency in that approach.  In terms of our sectors, again really important that we are able to bring knowledge and insight irrespective of whatever service you belong to in your particular sector and so the changes that I made were to reorganise our business into three distinct sectors, so an offices sector, a retail and logistics sector and we pulled the retail and logistics teams together, recognising the convergence that we are seeing in retail and logistics, and then finally a speciality sector, what you might traditionally have called the alternative sectors.  So we’ve got three sectors, everybody in the organisation belongs to, or has the ability to belong to at least one of those sectors, and we share knowledge and insight in those sector groups.  In addition to that, we’ve got out service lines: leasing, valuation, capital markets, asset services and development.  And the importance of the service lines is to make sure that we provide consistency in our approach, the innovation that we make and the changes that we make are applied right throughout the country.  So, in essence, what we are doing is creating a bigger scale business that drives more insight through the sector and consistency through the service lines.  Geography still remains important and it’s really important that we drive and support our clients in local areas but, again, the service lines and sectors is probably the biggest change that we made and what we’ve heard from our people and from our clients has been really positive.  We’ve got more work to do but I’m convinced that driving knowledge through sectors, being able to tell clients what we’re seeing across those sectors and how they should be responding is a differentiator going forwards.

Susan Freeman

And it certainly makes sense to bring the retail and logistics together so, rather than having everything operating in separate silos.  So, just turning to the clients because, you know, you’ve mentioned, you know, their expectations and, you know, what clients need.  What are you hearing from clients on how they see the future of the office because there are so many conversations going on at the moment and, you know, everybody wants to know, you know, to what extent are corporates expecting their people to work from home or work from a third space?  What are clients telling you?

George Roberts

I think it’s really shifted, Susan, I think if I go back nine months ago and many of the companies that were I think promoting a virtual world have shifted their position, I think that the position is fluid, I think what’s been consistent in every conversation we have with clients, is that the office remains a really important component of the work ecosystem, if that’s the right word.  I think increasingly, we’re seeing the importance of the office get greater, if that’s the right word, as time has gone on.  And whilst I think there will inevitably be, there will be more flexible working, there will be a hybrid way of working when more people are working flexibly, the office will still be by far and away the dominant place in which work is done but I think that companies will respect the flexibility that employees want and provide the means by which that happens.  I think what that means to your question on the office, is a fascinating one and it’s a massive opportunity which is that I think the purpose of the office shifts and I think there is a real opportunity for landlords in particular, developers, to really stand back and to say okay, how do we make the office really drive productivity on behalf of end users and that I think requires landlords to think again about the kind of customer experience they deliver for end users, the kind of technology that’s provided, the kind of social benefit that buildings provide and, again, the sort of the environmental issues that buildings have and how you offset against those.  There’s a massive opportunity to rethink, as I say, the purpose of the office.

Susan Freeman

And just from the Cushman point of view, how do you expect your teams to work?  Are you expecting to see more remote working and is it compatible with client facing work?

George Roberts

Yeah, so I think for the vast majority of our teams, I’d expect our colleagues to be office based, our clients I think want to see our people face to face, particularly in our brokerage market so our clients expect us to be in the office, they expect us to be doing viewings, they expect us to be working in the markets in which we are operating so I think for the market space teams in particular, I would say the expectation is that that would be a very substantially office based focus.  There are teams which are very much more task based which, again, probably lend themselves more effectively for remote working so, again, for those teams, I’d expect, again, perhaps a more hybrid form of working but I think what’s, you know, everyone has said it and I totally support it, the benefits of bringing people together in one place from a camaraderie perspective, from a learning and development perspective, from a just sparking different thoughts and ideas off each other, that comes best I think from having people working together so, I think from my perspective, even if people are going to work remotely in some instances, they would still be coming into the office to share in some of those key benefits that I’ve talked to so, we’ll continue to monitor it and we’ll continue to evolve but that’s how I see it at this particular point.    

Susan Freeman

Yes, it will be interesting to see how it pans out and you mentioned the opportunity for landlords to help drive productivity and you also you mentioned property data before.  How do you see data and the data that companies like yours can provide as helping your clients in their decision making and is the real estate sector actually ready to share data because a lot of people have built careers and benefitted from the general sort of opacity of the sector?

George Roberts

Yeah, so let me give an example of to the first question of how can data benefit our clients?  Let me give you a sort of a practical example.  So, I talked to you before about the importance of being able to advice occupiers so we’re very fortunate, you know, we’ve acted for some of the best occupiers, you know, in the country in acquiring space for them so, we probably would undertake about a hundred acquisitions a year, for every one of those acquisitions we’ll start by really trying to understand what the needs are of a client, well we’ll typically weight what a clients looking for from a building and we’ll go round every single building with a client and we’ll assess each building against the needs, the weighted scores as it were, of that particular client.  Now, that generates a huge amount of data and if you can take that data and you could overlay that data, you are in a position to be able to quite quickly say what does an HR person want to see from a building, what does a finance person want to see from a building, what does someone in the tax sector want, what does someone in the legal sector want?  And it’s perfectly possible to then take that data and to be able to assess any building against that criteria so to be able to give a really informed view on the suitability of that building for a particular sector and that’s I guess a really simple example of taking the data and insights we’ve got and applying those to landlords and then helping them position the product that’s going to best suit their particular target market.  So, that’s proprietary but that’s the kind of information that we’ll be looking at.  Again, another good example, being able to look back at how areas have performed in terms of land values and to be able to sort of pick apart what the characteristics were that led to that outperformance and then to be able to take those characteristics and overlay them against perhaps new areas to see where there are common characteristics that could then, again, point to outperformance.  Sounds sort of futuristic but actually fairly simple and stuff that we’re doing now in supporting our clients so, it’s that kind of insight that is going to be critical I think, that is there today and through machine learning, investments and technology, I think will help our clients going forwards.

Susan Freeman

And I believe you are also involved with a project to collect data around the return of work.  Is that the Property Advisors Group, formerly known as the Windsor Group, and what sort of data is it collecting?

George Roberts

Yeah, so, really interesting project.  I think we felt that it would be valuable to try to find a data set that would measure how change in office use is taking place on a week by week basis, really to try and give confidence to companies that office return was happening.  I think probably also to give insight to Government and public bodies about what we were seeing and also to help landlords in how they might position buildings to, again, give confidence to customers coming back.  Really sort of set and framed around the need to really try and get people back into the office and so what we’ve done is, we pulled together hundreds of properties across the main cities in the UK and we’re monitoring how return to work is changing on a week by week basis, we’re working with Remit who put together the service charge and rent collection data and we’ll make that information public, it’s not something that we want to keep to ourselves, it’s something we want to share and it’s something that we want to make available, as I say, with the primary aim of trying to encourage people to come back so, we’re excited by that, the first data should be available this week and, again, we’ll be working with the BPF and others to publicise that information. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah, I think that will be very useful and actually see, you know, real data rather than just, you know, the results of polls.

George Roberts

Yup.

Susan Freeman

And just turning to technology, I know you, I mean, it’s an area that you are particularly focussed on and you’ve said that technology is transforming our industry and this has clearly accelerated as a result of Covid but I just, I wondered where are you seeing technology having the most impact of real estate and where, you know, where do you think the big opportunities lie?

George Roberts

I think it’s across the whole spectrum, I don’t think there’s any sector that’s untouched by technology.  I think in the office sector, you are starting to see the emergence of smart buildings, smart technology that really does, does I think two things, one I think it helps to provide data that enables occupiers again to use space in the most effective way and then I think, really importantly, it allows us, landlords and occupiers, to measure the outputs from buildings to then particularly, you know, in trying to reduce carbon footprint, to measure output and then to be able to make the interventions that then potentially reduce output.  I was talking to a client recently and we were talking about where was technology heading and she was using the example of a tech company that can read where people’s calendars look and see where capacity is going to be in a three or four week period of time, to then make sure that, you know, on a campus that’s got 50,000 people that your ordering outputs, catering, food etc that’s sized to who you think will be in the campus at the time, to pre-buy the power based upon the anticipated weather conditions at that future point in time to make sure that you are not overusing inputs, and that organisation has been able to reduce its costs on a 10% per annum basis for the last five years and again it just goes to show what technology can do and that’s one occupier’s example, there’s no reason why that can’t be applied to any large building, office building.  We talk about retail, retail has clearly gone through, and is going through, a transformation at the moment which offers up real opportunities but again technology will play a really important part in helping to drive footfall, measure footfall, drive footfall as rents turn to more flexible rents, more turnover base rents again technology will play a part in that so, again, as I said Susan, I don’t think there’s any part of any sector that’s not touched by technology so, really exciting. 

Susan Freeman

Interesting, the point you made about being able to reduce costs by just looking at data, seeing what would be needed.  There are economies of scale there and again we know one of the questions is whether we’re going to see more operators, you know, the flex office operators who can build the scale and introduce economies of scale which are more difficult for individual property companies to do if you just own one office building, you may be able to, you know, operate it, manage it very well but if you bring an operator in with those economies of scale, there are going to be costs involved with that so I wonder whether we are going to see more of that?

George Roberts

Yeah, I think we will.  I think, again, I think one of the biggest shifts that we’ll see in the real estate sector in the coming years is the move towards, or the importance of an operator platform, value I think will increasingly align to success of the operations of a landlord or who the landlord chooses to partner with to make a building, whether it be an office building or a retail building or a student accommodation or residential investment more effective so, I think the operational aspects are going to become increasingly important and, as you say, I think there is an advantage that operators of scale have got both in terms of providing a consistency of quality and probably also being able to sort drive pricing down as well.    

Susan Freeman

It’s interesting, there are going to be so many sort of different ways of working and, you know, one of the things that’s going to be key for the real estate sector is the relationship between the landlord and the tenant and you have the advantage of having an occupier background, you headed the occupier representation team.  I just wondered what your thoughts are on the way the sort of rather adversarial landlord and tenant relationship needs to change and whether you are already seeing it change?

George Roberts

Yeah, I think it’s come quite a long way in the last five years but I think it’s got a long way to go, yeah, I think landlords recognising their tenants are customers I think is probably accepted, it’s easy to say it but what does it mean?  I think the expectation from occupiers is going to be one of expecting landlords to be much more vested in the whole delivery and use and productivity of space so I think the days of providing a lovely, shiny box and then saying ‘over you go’ I think will go.  I see a world where occupiers will expect landlords to delivery the box, to help them work through how they should most effectively work through the box, to work together to decide what the right customer experience needs to be, where the landlord provides the data and the insight that helps to show how effective the occupier is using space against pre-agreed KPIs and where modifications are needed then the landlords vest in those modifications, a sort of an MOT of a building if you like but again, I see occupiers increasingly saying, ‘You’re the landlord, you’re the expert, you’ve got the capability.  Help me be effective.  I’m not interested in doing all these things, I want you to deal with that,’ and I’m seeing from our clients, definitely a shift in the last, particularly on the bigger clients, a shift in the last few years in particular for a real sense of partnership, you know, large occupiers saying ‘I really want to understand, is this landlord going to be a partner for me?  Do they understand me?  Do they have a mindset that wants to understand and to help me deliver a solution because that’s what I’m looking for?  If I’m going to keep growing then I want to make sure that the landlord is going to grow with me’ and I think that increasingly will be something that, particularly the larger scale occupiers will continue to use so, I think back to your question, customer experience and that customer interface with the landlord has changed but it’s going to change and it’s going to change quickly, and I think we as an industry, as agents, have a really important part to play in helping to interpret what that looks like and helping to provide the kind of services that our clients need to provide that, that really close association. 

Susan Freeman

So, there really is an opportunity now for real estate advisors to play a more strategic role in advising customers and what do we need to do to actually sort of change the perception of the real estate advisor to step up to that more strategic role?

George Roberts

Again, it’s a great question but it’s a simple one to answer, which is value, value add.  The real estate advisory community has got to be able to show that it can generate value and impact and through doing that, it’s relevance, you know, will only increase and I think, again, that goes back to some of the things that we’ve been talking about.  Intuition in real estate is really valuable and there’s always be a place for intuition but evidence based decision-making is where the world is and where the world will be and the value will come from advisors who can provide that evidence base in order to provide well-informed advice to clients and I think through doing that, the value of the real estate profession will increase.  And actually Susan, I think that, you know, as I stand here today, without sounding like a salesperson, the industry has such an opportunity because I don’t think clients, clients don’t have the answers, many of the questions that are being asked there are no answers because we are in a new world, you’ve asked about return to work, you’ve asked about a lot of areas where change is taking place and there is a massive opportunity, an open door for the real estate industry to step through and to really provide advice, quality advice, that I think resets how the industry is perceived. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, and I’m thinking back to the BPF Perception survey in 2019 which showed that only 27% of the public had a favourable view of the sector so, do you think the sector needs to be more vocal about the positive contributions it makes and in particular, you know, the value that it can provide now because there are a lot of very positive stories to tell and they just don’t seem to be getting across?

George Roberts

Yeah, I think the industry has a lot of work to do, first of all to explain what it is to people who it wants to attract in the future and I think the industry has been pretty poor at explaining to your 13-18 year olds today sitting in secondary school just what the built environment is about and, again, you know the industry needs to be more diverse clearly, it needs to attract a much broader spectrum of people but it starts with actually explaining why the industry is really interesting and why the built environment has a really big part to play so I think there’s a huge amount of work to do there.

Susan Freeman

Yes, it’s certainly a challenge and you mentioned, you know, younger people and diversity and I know that again is the focus for you and how are you approaching this at Cushman’s and what are you doing to sort of try and, you know, create more diversity and people who think differently to the standard?

George Roberts

Yeah so, a huge amount of work over the last three or four years and, you know, we are clearly on a journey and we have work to do but I think it starts with… we stood back and we had, we created different groups within different segments of our communities who we pulled together to really try and sort of again develop thinking, develop policies, we called it our Inspire Network and we achieved a lot but we stood back last year and said okay, we think we’ve achieved quite a lot but actually if we carry on going the way we are, is this going to really achieve where we want to be in the next three years and we stood back and said no, we think we’ve got to set clear targets for where we want to be over the next three years and so we stood back and said right, what are those targets because at the end of the day it’s the targets that will drive a change in performance if we are serious about sticking to those targets and measuring those targets effectively so, whether it’s the percentage of female staff that we want to have or the percentage of female staff that we’d like to have as a minimum at the senior ends of our firm, the amount of people registering as disabled, the number of people registering as ethnic or LGBT, we set targets in each of those areas that we’d like to achieve within, as I say, by 2024 and we set in place actions and interventions that we think will help us reach those targets and that requires a change in behaviours in every part of what we do in order to meet those targets but without setting targets, you’re not going to get a change in performance and so we took that bold step when we announced our new policy six months ago.    

Susan Freeman

And I think you said that you aim to be the most diverse and inclusive consultancy so you are, you are taking this sort of pretty seriously because I think at the moment the senior roles at Cushman’s are sort of pretty much male.

George Roberts

Yep, as I said at the start, we’ve got a long way to go and we don’t hold ourselves up as being special by any stretch of the imagination but we recognise what we need to do and I think through, I say, through setting the actions that we have, I would expect us to be a more diverse organisation, as I say within the next three years.   

Susan Freeman

And just changing the focus a little bit to sustainability, again, you know a big topic and your corporate clients are focussing more and more on ESG as a corporate objective.  Can landlords and landlords’ advisors be working more closely with these, the occupiers to help ensure that the buildings align more with their corporate objectives?

George Roberts

Yeah, again, it’s a great question.  The answer is, I don’t think we are yet in a place where an occupier will come to a landlord and say here’s my corporate objectives, show me how this building aligns very specifically to my corporate objectives and when we have a discussion about whether I come to your building or not, answer these questions and show me how this building differentiates against others.  Now there’ll be some clients who say yep, of course we do that but I, that will become the norm within I think a relatively short period of time and I think we’ll move from a place that says my building has this particular standard to one of this is how the building will align to your corporate objectives and that may require a building to do something different from what it does today but that’s the journey that we are on and that moves us from a position of one of just conforming to an index to one of actually seeing very positive change but that’s moving fast and, as I say, I think if we have this conversation in eighteen months’ time, I think it will probably be a different conversation to the one we are having today.    

Susan Freeman

So, looking at the future of offices, what’s your perspective and what are going to be the characteristics of a successful office building going forward?

George Roberts

I think it’s a number of things.  I think the successful office buildings will be those primarily where the landlord is able to provide services to the customer that absolutely align to what the customer’s needs are.  So, easy to say it but that is the most sort of basic sense I think is what landlords need to be able to provide so if you then break that back and say well what does that mean?  I think it’s having the technology that allows the landlord and the occupier to measure performance in a number of different areas, it might be utilisation, it might be use of utilities, it could be in various different areas.  It’s secondly about the customer experience that’s provided so a high quality customer experience that’s tailored to a customer’s needs that might have wellbeing as a sort very central part of it, it might have experience as part of it and then we talked about sustainability, again having a building that is highly sustainable, one where, as I say, the impact of use of space is negated by I think largely technology in, as I say, efficiently running that building so, again, I think it’s quite simple I think what, you know, what the occupiers are looking for and I think you’ll start to see, I said it before, I think you’ll start to see an alpha type building start to emerge beyond what we would typically call a sort of Grade A building, being those buildings that can provide high level sort of technology, high levels of or adherence to the highest sustainability standards and a customer experience that goes beyond the norm and I think that’s, those will be the buildings that will outperform longer-term buildings that aren’t able to provide those key qualities.   

Susan Freeman

I like that expression, alpha buildings and you have to wonder what will happen to the buildings that don’t, you know, meet those standards because not all of them can be repurposed successfully as residential or other alternative uses. 

George Roberts

I think, again, many of the buildings that, it doesn’t have to be a brand new building to I think adhere to those alpha standards, I think, again, from a sustainability perspective, retrofitting a building is a more sustainable use than rebuilding so I think you can absolutely retrofit those buildings.  For the smaller buildings where landlords haven’t had a larger portfolio, I think it’s about really using the portfolio as a network to provide services to clients and I think you’ve got to look to occupiers and I think you’ve got to look at it as a network and I think, again, that then comes back to, you know, if you have a big portfolio, what does it mean to be a customer of X?  What does it mean?  What can I expect?  And so I think, again, for those portfolio owners of assets, really important to stand back and think what am I actually offering beyond the building?  What does it mean to be a customer in my buildings?  And I think that, again, will become an increasing focus going forwards. 

Susan Freeman

Just focussing in on London for a minute so, one of your other previous roles was leading the London Markets division so, I just wondered what you thought about how London is going to retain, you know, its role as a sort of key focus for international real estate investment post-Brexit, post-the pandemic and is there anything that the London Mayor should be doing to ensure that London remains competitive?

George Roberts

Again, from the experience of talking to our investors, talking to our occupiers, London absolutely remains a global city.  I think, you know, despite the sort of political movements over the last 24 months of Brexit and whatever, London still remains a global city.  London has that cocktail of multiple uses, a cultural capital of the world, a place where talent wants to come and all of those things I think, you know, give London, should give London the confidence that London is going to continue to be a highly successful city.  I think in answer to your question, what should the Mayor do?  I think two things, transportation, let’s get transportation right, let’s make transportation more flexible.  I’ll watch with interest to see how flexible ticketing happens over the sort of coming weeks but we’ve got to be flexible and help people to want to come in.  And then secondly, it goes to housing and making sure that we are providing the level of housing that’s going to attract the younger talent.  And then I think probably finally, in relation to our retail space across London and indeed some of our office space, be more forward looking and openminded in terms of the uses that we promote, truly, truly promote a multiuse, multisector sector and don’t hold to some of the strictures of the past, I think those would be the things that I would highlight.    

Susan Freeman

That’s good, you’d make a pretty good Mayor, I think. 

George Roberts

I don’t know about that, I think I’ll leave that to others.    

Susan Freeman

So, what sort of signs of recovery are we seeing, particularly in London?

George Roberts

So Susan, we track the number requirements that are in the marketplace and we look at the number of viewings that we do week in, week out so if I give you a little bit of context.   So, in May 2020, we were tracking 45 requirements across the marketplace and we were doing 10 viewings a week at that time so, May 2020.  We fast-forward twelve months to May 2021, those 45 requirements have turned into 125 and those viewings have gone from 10 to 30 so, I think that gives a sense of what a different place we are in twelve months later and I think, you know, we watch it week in, week out but I think it gives a real pointer to recovery and then equally, we track closely the amount of serviced office requirements that we are receiving and what we are hearing from the serviced office providers is that enquiries are up to the levels they were pre-Covid, with the size of requirements slightly increasing as well so, again, some interesting initial pointers of recovery. 

Susan Freeman

We’ve identified that real estate really is changing at the moment and there’s a lot of change to come so, you know, people have always said that real estate is about relationships and about who you know.  Do you think it is still like that or is that changing as well?

George Roberts

I think there’s always going to be, real estate is always going to be about who you know, I think relationships will always be important.  I think what we’re seeing on a global scale and we started the conversation talking about some of the sort of global themes, there’s no question I think from the largest occupiers and investors that they want to deal, I think, with a smaller number of providers that can provide services on a global scale and I think obviously relationships with those investors and occupiers is really important but I think increasingly that will become a major influence across the industry and I think, again, that’s to the benefit of organisations like ourselves, that still requires who you know but I think larger organisations will increasingly, I think, manage largescale accounts which I think again will increasingly dominate the sector going forwards.   

Susan Freeman

And in terms of getting encouraging younger people to come into real estate, I mean we talked about the image issue, you know, and also the challenges of attracting, you know, bright young people in from different backgrounds.  How do you see that and what advice would you give to young people thinking about coming into the sector?

George Roberts

I think I’d just say look around you, you know, look at the projects that real estate is involved in, you know, Battersea Power Station, being sort of regenerated, given a new life, a new purpose, multi sectors, look at King’s Cross, look at Stratford, look at Birmingham Smithfield, look at any large city across the country and it’s all in front of us and the opportunity to get involved, going back to what I said right at the start, the opportunity to not sit behind a desk, to get involved in shaping how our cities will be in the future, what a wonderful opportunity and that would, that I think would inspire me as a 15, 16 year old thinking about what I might do in the future.  Get involved, look around you, take advantage of what I hope will be increasing opportunities to access the industry and then make a difference.    

Susan Freeman

I agree with you, I think, you know, I think it is such a great opportunity and particularly now to shape, you know, the places that people are going to live and work in and, you know, spend their time so, let’s hope all these young people are out there listening. 

George Roberts

I hope so.    

Susan Freeman

So George, thank you very much, that was great. 

George Roberts

Ah Susan, thank you, it’s been great talking to you and some great questions, thank you.   

Susan Freeman

Thank you, George, for giving us some real food for thought on the changing role of the real estate sector.  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.

George Roberts is Head of UK & Ireland at Cushman & Wakefield, one of the world’s largest real estate advisers.

Prior to assuming his current leadership role in 2017, he led the firm’s London Markets division with overall responsibility for its occupier representation, leasing, capital markets, residential and development teams specialising in London real estate. 

With over 25 years of experience of the London office market, he has advised on some of the capital’s most high-profile office relocation projects and pre-leasing acquisitions on behalf of its largest occupiers.

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