Oslo Opera

Perfect Storm for Managing Agents

Consultants Howard Morgan & Jon Lovell offer a six-point solution to the problems of the property industry’s managing agents

Managing agents caught in the ever-increasing whirlwind of client demands and occupier expectations must embrace risk and innovation if they are to survive.

This is the view of two independent experts, operating in complementary spheres of the real estate industry, who are offering them a blueprint for survival.

Jon Lovell, whose Hillbreak business provides strategic advice and training on sustainability and responsible investment, and Howard Morgan, whose RealService consultancy operates in the world of customer experience, believe the role of the traditional managing agent is now in peril.

Lovell and Morgan see a perfect storm of challenges coming from two principal directions:

  • Increasing performance, compliance, cost efficiency and transparency demands from landlords, including on environmental, social, wellbeing and health and safety matters. These are testing managing agents who are going to need stronger leadership, more effective systems and new capabilities to keep ahead of the game
  • Meanwhile, those who occupy the buildings they manage are becoming fickle and savvy customers, expecting a more enriching experience, greater flexibility and reliability.

With rising expectations from occupiers and their landlord clients, managing agents are feeling the pressure.

Bill Hughes, boss at Legal and General Investment Management recently turned up the heat. Writing in Property Week, Hughes said managing agents are being asked to provide services “they are not equipped to offer” as their role moves from rent-collection and basic maintenance to provider of “customer service, facilities maintenance and engineering, sustainability and CSR strategic thinking”.

In response, property managers MJ Mapp blamed property owners for instigating a tendering process which has outsourced management to the lowest bidder. They said owners should select managers who share their values and not take management in-house, risking losing focus on their core business.

Lovell and Morgan have sympathy with both perspectives, which points to a collective market failure rather than a single source of blame.

According to Morgan, salvation for the property industry’s operational intermediaries lies in persuading owners and investors to join them in forming strategic partnerships which harness the talent of the client, the managing agent and an increasingly disparate supply chain. This would require a fundamental change in thinking from the current “hands-off” outsourcing model.

Their Six-Point Survival Blueprint focuses on:

  1. Better business alignment and planning
  2. Clearer agreements and outcome-based performance contracts
  3. Stronger leadership from senior management
  4. More effective and consistent deployment of capability and technology
  5. Greater harmony of message & transparency to customers
  6. Closer alignment between performance and remuneration

Morgan’s blueprint inspiration came from a visit to John Lewis’s state-of-the-art warehouse complex in Milton Keynes. Here he saw collaboration in action, in the form of the company’s partnership with Knapp, an Austrian firm, which enables the retailer to deliver more than 220,000 different product lines to its stores and online customers.

He says: “John Lewis’s reputation is based around customer service and it is putting that reputation into the hands of a third party. It has been able to do this because of the relationship it has with Knapp; it is a strategic partnership.

“Property companies put their reputations in the hands of managing agents, but their relationship is nothing like the one between John Lewis and Knapp. Why would managing agents embrace risk or invest in technology when there is no long-term partnership?

“Our blueprint is about taking best practice from outside the industry and working with our clients to apply it to the world of property,” says Lovell.

To collaborate successfully, Lovell points out that owners and managing agents must work together on a business plan which identifies a mutual vision and documents key areas of responsibility, risk and reward. Having clear, outcome-based objectives across the spectrum of financial performance, customer experience, environmental responsibility and community impact means each partner knows exactly what they bring to the relationship and how they are accountable.

Being on the same page enables the creation of benchmarks or indicators to monitor progress, while recognising strengths and weaknesses allows each partner to utilise their particular expertise and concentrate on their core competencies.

Any arrangement must have the complete commitment of the senior executives of both parties and be promoted consistently to customers as a partnership of equals. Financial rewards should be based on key performance indicators and provide incentives while, in terms of governance, the arrangement should be reviewed regularly, in a spirit of collaboration and improvement rather than conflict and an ever-poised stick of retendering risk.

Bear in mind too, that partnerships can take time to flourish and need nurturing.

Morgan points out that research suggests it is cultural differences, rather than financial or corporate considerations, which cause partnerships to break down, hence his enthusiasm for putting the customer at the heart of every property company’s business strategy.

Lovell says: “Dissatisfaction of landlords with the service provided by managing agents is one of the key motivations for increasing the frequency of re-tendering. They see it as a way of incentivising performance but actually it’s part of a downward spiral; a race to the bottom which actually disincentivises investment in innovation and skills.

“We need to find an inclusive approach to performance management and remuneration to incentivise performance. Investor expectations are strengthening and likewise the demands of the occupier market.

“Strategic partnerships are being trialled but currently only really in the area of energy savings and, in many cases, with the managing agent having been circumvented by the client searching for a more reliable and responsive solution.

Morgan and Lovell do not underestimate the challenge to create an upward spiral of quality and reward.

“Unfortunately, clients have, over a sustained period, driven the agenda, which has been focused on realising more outcome for less money. Margins are very, very low as a result.”

Morgan is also frustrated that customer engagement is not factored into the performance of investment managers despite evidence proving that high customer satisfaction can improve the bottom line by almost two per cent.

“You can typically get information on energy, waste and water consumption but you can’t get information on occupier engagement,” he says.

Morgan and Lovell believe that occupiers will become increasingly vocal and willing to up sticks if they can’t get the solution and quality they want from their landlords, having seen new levels of aspirational workspace entering the market through disruptors such as WeWork.

As Morgan says: “Our approach is fundamentally about creating an alignment of interests between the owner, manager and occupier.” As the strategic partnership of John Lewis and Knapp shows, it’s ultimately the customer who benefits and there lies the key source of sustainable, competitive advantage in business.”

This article was authored jointly by Jon Lovell, Co-Founder & Director of Hillbreak, and Howard Morgan, Managing Director of RealService.