CREtech London | GPE boss calls for real estate skills reboot

Skills that traditionally underpin real estate are no longer fit for purpose, Toby Courtauld, CEO of GPE said at the first session of CREtech London this morning.

Speaking to Melanie Leech, CEO of the British Property Federation, Courtauld said that the whole structure of the industry is based on a skills such as project and asset management – but what it needs is a customer-centric approach.

He said: “I’m not interested in having people who can read a lease or negotiate a rent review. I’m really interested in having a people who believe in purpose and delivery of what we’re trying to do… and who understand the needs of our customers.”

Focusing on the urgent need to decarbonise, Courtauld said the industry must be “less focused on the idea of a profession and far more focused on this idea of creating long-term value for the communities that we operate in.”

In order to address sustainability, GPE, formerly Great Portland Estates, set out targets about three years ago.

While he admitted that the company is behind on some of those targets (though ahead in others), the key was to change organisational behaviour.

For example, the company started a decarbonisation fund. For every tonne of carbon it emits, GPE sets aside £95, which it uses to retrofit its existing portfolio.

“It’s an internal tax, and that internal tax is beginning to impact the way our people think about our buildings,” Courtauld said.

“When we underwrite a new acquisition, or we underwrite a refurbishment or anything, into the underwriting goes that tax. And you can see already that is beginning to feature in discussions that people are having around the office every day.”

Obligation to occupiers

Asked whether occupiers are receptive to behavioural changes, Courtauld said: “I think we’ve got a long journey to travel there. You’ll still hear: ‘Yeah, but I need that running 24/7’”

The problem, he said, is that the businesses have yet to properly calculate the cost of not taking a sustainable approach to real estate, both financially and socially.

Hybrid working, in particular, is a trend that occupiers have yet to respond to in their real estate strategies: “Our experience so far is, by and large, businesses are not reducing their space take-up as a consequence of hybrid working because they’re planning for max occupation.

“Now, that actually is increasing the environmental footprint per employee, not reducing it, because they’re using the space less and they’re now using their home office if they have one.”

Landlords like GPE, Courtauld argued, have a hands-on role to play in bringing in these changes. While real estate has traditionally been a remote business, it needs to get involved in wider behaviour change in how we all use buildings.

He said: “Ultimately, we have an obligation to help [tenants] understand the holistic cost equation, to get their [carbon] footprint down.”

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