Savills Worldwide Occupier Services APAC is pleased to bring you this latest edition of Occupier Insights, a regular series engaging with real estate leaders from various industry sectors across APAC.
This month we talked with Robert Torrance, MRICS Managing Director, Asia Real Estate at Manulife, the Canadian insurance and financial services company based in Toronto.
Established in 1887, Manulife services the needs of more than 20 million customers and are present in 22 countries around the globe. They are now one of the fastest-growing companies in Asia and continue to grow stronger in Canada and the U.S.
A Canadian native, Rob is a thought leading and passionate real estate professional with more than 23 years experience in the Asia Pacific region. In his long career he has held positions in property management, agency/sales and consulting. Rob is based in Hong Kong where he is a leader on Manulife’s regional real estate team responsible for managing the real estate requirements (including support of investment real estate) of the business across a broad geography which includes Japan, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Q1) Throughout APAC, what would you consider to be your most challenging market/s and why?
APAC real estate markets are diverse and at a country level all markets have their peculiarities, unique risks and challenges. Understanding these markets so that we are in a position to capitalise on opportunities when they present themselves is essential to our success as a team and expected of us by our business. Having a clear real estate strategy that is accurately aligned with business strategy and future accommodation requirements is central to how we manage this in a consistent manner across our portfolio. Our presence as owner occupiers in many of our APAC markets adds a further layer of complexity to this task however. We need to stay abreast of both leasing and investment market movements. We are always looking at opportunities to align our corporate accommodation needs with the broader real estate investment objectives of our business. When we are able to do this successfully, as with the purchase and relocation of office staff to Manulife Tower in Hong Kong, the whole of business benefits are fantastic.
Q2) What factors make delivering real estate solutions in your industry sector unique?
Finance and insurance companies around the globe are undergoing a period of significant and rapid change on many fronts. Manulife is no exception. New technologies are driving much of this change – from the products we offer, the way we sell and market these products, the way we interact with our clients and, ultimately, the way we occupy and use our real estate. As a real estate team we have to stay nimble and close to our business leaders through this period of change so that we can anticipate future needs and adapt our real estate strategy accordingly. Our industry is becoming more client facing and from a real estate perspective we are increasingly being asked to explore ways in which we can support our sales staff in spending more time in front of our clients. Rolling out mobile communication technologies and providing our sales teams with access to small distributed office spaces and touch down points across some of our larger and more congested APAC locations is a key part of our strategy which we continue to explore and refine.
As with many of our peers, Manulife are occupiers and landlords in many of the markets in which we operate. Managing commercial and retail tenants in our buildings to maximize returns on our real estate investments is a dimension of our real estate role which sets our industry sector apart from many others. It makes our role very varied and the tempo of activity within our real estate group is consistently high. Our brand is incredibly important to us and something that we are typically able to leverage with great success when negotiating as a tenant with potential landlords. As an owner occupier, ensuring that building signage opportunities are maximized, that the commercial and retail tenant mix in our buildings reflects our corporate image and aspirations and generates good financial returns for Manulife means that our real estate team have to wear many hats and be aware of the broad company interests involved in any real estate decision we make.
Q3) How would you rate your industry sector in terms of being a driver of workplace innovation and efficiency and are there any developing workplace trends that point the way forward?
The insurance industry, as opposed to the broader banking and finance sector, has not necessarily been a leader in workplace change and innovation. Historically it has tended to be more reactionary, responding to changing commercial realities linked to rising occupation costs and has sought to achieve efficiencies through increasing staff density and reducing footprint. Fierce competition amongst insurance and finance companies for talent and a renewed focus and attention on staff satisfaction and retention has meant that this situation has been changing over recent years. Creating office spaces which are dynamic and which demonstrate a commitment to the well being, comfort and enjoyment of staff is something which has been gaining momentum across the industry. Workspace innovation has been something which Manulife have incorporated as part of a much broader change management program. The physical spaces we create are intended to drive different behaviours and achieve targeted operational and productivity objectives.
The experience of moving our staff from Hong Kong Island to Manulife Tower in Kowloon is a great example of how important the change management piece is to successfully delivering innovation in the workplace. Initially people expressed concern that the move to our new building might result in an increase in staff attrition, however the business took an early view that the relocation plan would also provide Manulife with a huge opportunity to create a real sense of brand and staff community and give our people a workplace experience which was new, fresh and recognised their value and importance as individuals within our business. Post-relocation, the staff feedback we received and staff retention rates achieved have exceeded all expectations. Having proved up the Manulife Tower workspace concepts at scale, we are now actively rolling out the model to our other office locations.
Q4) What do you look for in your real estate partners?
Our real estate partners are incredibly important to us. Manulife do not have a preferred partner model or operate within the restraints of a fixed global or regional vendor pool. Our real estate team is given a lot of freedom to identify and work with real estate partners in-market who we are most comfortable with and we feel can deliver us the depth of knowledge and market experience to enable us to successfully execute our real estate strategy. Consequently, our network of vendors and relationships around the region is quite extensive and this is really important when you consider that we are constantly refining and evolving our real estate strategy to meet the needs of our business and constantly on the lookout for opportunities in our major markets. Having access to a broad and long established network of real estate vendors who know us well, understand our needs, and are proactive in introducing opportunities as they present themselves is fundamental to the way in which our real estate team operates in APAC.
Q5) What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your real estate career?
Success in our line of work is based on understanding needs and requirements but above all collaborating with the right people. As businesses learn and come to recognise the value of positioning good real estate planning and execution as a central rather than peripheral business issue, the group of stakeholders involved in corporate real estate decision making will continue to broaden. This is a good thing, but it does mean that the role of the internal corporate real estate team has changed and so have the skill sets required to be an effective corporate real estate professional.
A greater part of my role is now focused on two way conversations with internal business unit leaders, management and staff to ensure that our real estate strategy properly reflects the complexities of our modern business environment. You need to be flexible and open minded and constantly challenge previous assumptions. For anyone starting in corporate real estate today the environment is very different from when I started. The overlap between transactional, workspace planning, design and project delivery, and technology disciplines is much more blurred than it has been in the past. In order to be effective and stay relevant it is necessary for real estate professionals to take a much broader interest in real estate related issues and trends and be more generalist in their approach. Having this broader background of reference is a great advantage when called upon to interact with broad stakeholder groups and distil their needs and requirements into documented and actionable real estate strategy.
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