‘Commerce, industry and society are being assaulted on all sides; it’s one challenge after another’

RealService associate director Justine Johnson finds out what makes GPE’s David O’Sullivan tick

Thank you for your time today, David. Please tell us about yourself and your role at GPE.

David O’Sullivan

At GPE I’m currently the Director of Occupier and Property Services. And in this ever-changing world, I don’t know how long my title will stay – it makes for a very big business card! What it means is that I’m effectively responsible for everything you experience when you walk across the threshold of one of our buildings – from the way it smells, the way it’s lit, the way the lifts work, the air conditioning, the receptionist – every single element of your experience in the building is my responsibility.

I’ve been at GPE for almost 4 ½ years. I joined quite a conservative company and so my role has been to drive forward a customer-centric focus. We saw the market was going that way and were one of the first real estate companies in Central London to acknowledge and address the shift towards customer centricity, which had been driven largely by the likes of WeWork and co-working organisations generally.

We’ve started a huge journey, but there’s still plenty of distance to travel yet. It’s been, and continues to be, great fun. 

So, tell me about what you’re working on and what we should be looking out for?

My main focus is pushing on with customer service and customer centricity; looking at talking more to our customers, which is something that real estate companies don’t do particularly well or if they do, they do it once a year and you know they’ll deliberate over the results for another six months! 

‘We need to speak more to our customers, to listen to them’

That feedback loop is too long so the idea is that we need to speak more to our customers, we need to listen to them and more importantly, we need to ask them what it is that they want from their real estate, because that’s changed. 

Over the last six to seven years, it’s very much accelerated to be something that all organisations are talking about. Real estate businesses need to catch up!

Pre-pandemic, we were one of a very small group of real estate companies willing to put ourselves out there to be surveyed fully with our occupiers and then to listen to what they said and see if we could do something about it. The pandemic then hit and everybody went to work from home, which made the requirement for an office and an office environment very different.

‘What people want from an office today is different from five years ago.’ Pic: GPE

What people would expect and want from an office today is different from what they wanted five years ago and certainly even longer than what they wanted 10-15 years ago. But the office market hasn’t really moved on. And I think that that presents an opportunity for us. We can be seen as part of the vanguard and be instrumental in changing what real estate means to people.

It should no longer be just about the place you go to work, where you meet your colleagues and then go home. It needs to be more than that. It needs to appeal on many different levels.

The challenge is when you’re dealing with an industry which has been slow to adapt, it’s quite hard to get everybody to come along. So, you have to look at who you partner with because not everybody has the same vision for real estate as we do at GPE.

With that in mind then, what are the main things that have changed when it comes to office space?

Today, people want more than an office. We all learnt quickly that we can work from home and while that suits some, it doesn’t suit everybody. It’s been a very interesting experiment, but my personal view is that it doesn’t provide the best platform for collaboration and for the exchange of ideas and information.

So that’s where we have seen a shift. People have voted with their feet. There’s been a silent revolution whereby people are coming into the office 3-4 days a week. Friday’s definitely a work from home day. Monday was also quiet but in the last few weeks it seems to be getting busier and busier.

‘We have to work harder to provide better amenities.’ Pic: GPE

So, it looks like we’ve arrived at this four-day week solution and that means we have to work harder, provide better amenities, a better environment, better opportunities for cross collaboration when people are in the office, because not everybody is in the office at the same time.

While being creative, do we have to be responsible too?

We provide amenities in many of our buildings and it is a big worry of mine. I must admit if I advertise a “Ted Talk” with Bill Clinton one evening and then beer, pizza and ping pong the following night, the beer and pizza would be vastly oversubscribed!

So, there is a concern that we are accommodating too much socialisation, thinking perhaps too much of personal demands and not necessarily balancing that with productivity.

What I am heartened by is the fact people have been enormously creative in how they make use of their time even though it’s a shift away from traditional working patterns. But that’s based on the past and not the future, so I’m interested to see how this does pan out, particularly against a financial slow down.

‘When Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was very unlikely we will experience power outages this winter, I took that to mean we are absolutely going to experience power outages’

And so therefore, David, what’s keeping you awake at night?

Apart from the rotating door we have at Number 10 and the impact that’s having on the financial markets, it’s the energy crisis that’s keeping me awake. It’s a huge challenge, especially when we think ahead to April next year.

It’s going to be a challenging time for commercial buildings. With the cost of energy so high, keeping buildings operating is going to be far more financially demanding than in the past.

When I read that Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was very unlikely we will experience power outages this winter, I took that to mean we are absolutely going to experience power outages and shutdowns!  That is something that we all need to think about.

Commerce, industry and society is being assaulted on all sides, it’s one challenge after another. I’ve just touched on energy, but interest rates are also going up, plus the cost of living crisis generally is going to have a particular impact on young people. It just feels like a perfect storm. So, whilst this all creates opportunity, we are in uncharted territory. It’s a challenging time. The next 12 months are going to be very interesting, not just in real estate but in all sectors.

Does overcoming these challenges call for more innovation and creativity or is it about standing firm?

I think it’s a bit of both. At GPE we have been early adopters of technology and innovation. For example, you haven’t had to use a plastic access card to get into any of our buildings for three years. But there is always scope for more. We collect a lot of data that we can interpret to help give people what they’re actually looking for rather than what we they think they’re looking for.

But also, we mustn’t forget that we’re in the business of offices. It means we are keen and interested in keeping our buildings open and as functioning as well as possible, so we also have to bring a degree of creativity into that. So, how do we make buildings more attractive? What are we providing for them to feel so?

As for standing firm bit, that’s also true. We are a real estate company that’s provided high-quality offices for over 50 years now and we will continue to do that. The product has changed, and our challenge is how we keep up with the demands of customers, whilst delivering and developing buildings constrained by planning considerations.

So, whilst there are challenges all around, I think if you’re in our industry, being in the centre of a challenge is exactly where you want to be because that way you can influence the outcome rather than wait for it to be determined by others.

Given all the above, then, what advice would you give to someone new to the industry?

You don’t have to be CEO at 27 years old. I used to think I knew everything at 25 but at 45 I realised I knew nothing at all.

Real estate is a business in which you continue to learn. Every day I learn something new about what I do and how I do it. If you’re a young person and you have an inquisitive mind, you’re curious, and you’re open to new ideas and you are happy to work hard then the real estate industry is a great opportunity. It really is.

I think people who have joined from outside the industry are the best people I’ve worked with. They are the ones that have really thrived and really brought something new to the table.

So, if you are a young person coming into this industry, this is a lifetime career, but don’t rush to be the top dog too quickly.

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