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The Innovators: RefineRE

In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.

Commercial real estate data and analytics firm RefineRE has been offering corporate customers and CRE tenants timely data about space usage and other underlying cost factors since its launch in 2017. 

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the data analytics firm was stopped in its tracks and left to second-guess the best way forward as CRE faced major upheaval.

Turner and his team quickly pivoted to create new data solutions. Early in the pandemic, the team launched a tool and a dashboard for commercial real estate owners and managers to track the spread of the pandemic and its effect on office users and commercial locations.

As the pandemic wore on and the conversation shifted toward what returning to the office should look like, the team then designed analytic and data tools to help companies determine what space usage model will be most cost-effective for them in the future as more employees push for hybrid and work-from-home office strategies. With RefineRE's solutions, businesses can track how their core, flex and work-from-home strategies are playing out in their real estate in real time by going deep on data about usage — who is using what and why. 

Bisnow discussed Dallas-based RefineRE's quick pandemic-induced shift with the firm's CEO and founder, Ryan Turner.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

RefineRE CEO Ryan Turner turned pandemic blues into a new data solution for clients.

Bisnow: So in 2020, a pandemic hits. You have brokers going home along with the entire CRE landscape. What were you thinking at the time? Where was your company and what was happening with your platform when all of this was taking place? 

Turner: Obviously, it was a terrifying time as a business owner or for anybody that owns, operates or runs a business. When you have that much uncertainty show up on your doorstep out of the blue, it is really confusing and hard to figure out. I took a big step back and said let's pause. Let's stop and think about what our customers are going through. So when you think about corporate occupiers, what we deliver to them is a whole platform to help them solve all sorts of problems as it relates to their occupancy of space.

We didn't think anybody was going to invest in that at that particular moment in time. We polled our existing customer base at that point. I think we had upwards of 20 or 30 customers and tried to figure out what is their biggest fear at this moment? I think the thing we heard the most was, how is this going to affect our employees? We really set out to solve that using data analytics. The fun part about what we do is there is a huge universe of data out there as it relates to pretty much anything, whether it's facilities or workforce or the Covid-19 pandemic. We took all of that global pandemic data and applied it to our customers' real estate portfolios. We really set out to assess what are the biggest risks from an organization's standpoint on behalf of our customers.  

Bisnow: It sounds like the first couple of months you were looking at how employees were affected and who was more likely to be infected by the virus. What data did you use to give those insights to them?

Turner: The first piece of it is the World Health Organization bringing in all of that infection rate data as it started to unfold. We also dug pretty deep and found the [National] Governors Association to figure out which states' policies were coming into place and when. That was one of the big pieces of this: We didn't know which one of the states was closing down, when they would close down, when they were thinking they could reopen and what those policies look like.

Imagine if you are running a real estate portfolio with four or 500 locations from a centralized place in Detroit or New York or Chicago, you don't have a clue on what is really going on on the ground in all of these facilities. We thought it was our job to surface information and put it all in one place on top of our customer's real estate portfolio.

Bisnow: It sounds like you then created products that reveal for end users what type of workforce they should have — office, hybrid or work from home. What applications do you have on those issues?

Turner: We kept hearing that the way we work is going to change and we are not going to be back in our big office and that took some time for our customers to wrap their heads around for their own business. We did a lot of research and we partnered with Virginia Tech to do a research study on which factors affected those decisions the most within our organizations. We partnered with CoreNet Global to focus on the remote work problem. Does it become hub-and-spoke? Core and flex? 

With that in mind, we set out to bring flexible workspace opportunities to our customers. The traditional way of having to think through who occupies your site was how many people do we have there? How many seats do we have there? That was it. We realized there was a real need to create a model in which we could think about which people sit there? What do they actually do? Which groups are they a part of? Do they have direct reports, meaning they are more likely to have to be in the office at some point versus they have no direct reports so they could probably be more remote.

And then, really breaking it down by the job code. What do they do? Are they engineers? Are they sales people? We gave our customers the framework to be able to include that information from their HR systems anonymously, obviously. From there, we could then figure out again where do they live? Where are they most likely going to want to be based? That's from the demand side, and then it's just aligning with the supply side.

So we have all of the data from over 3,400 flexible spaces, the WeWorks, the Reguses and the mom-and-pop operators of the world that comes into our platform every single week with availability and pricing. We can show you from where your employees are and based on those parameters where an ideal location would be for an engineering group or for somebody else who we know needs to come into the office, or groups that we know need to come to the office two or three days a week.

From there, we point out the supply. Here's what's available and here's how much it costs, and then we compare it to your existing model and also based on your lease expiration give you a date as to when you can actually do something about it.

Bisnow: Are you able to do a comparison on whether it is more affordable to stay home or go into the available workspaces that are within the geographic area of your employees?  Are you able to break it down so they can determine even what type of workforce model they want to have?

Turner: That framework really consists of some simple tools to help them run that analysis and give them the ability to plug in line item by line item what does it cost us to move an employee to a work-from-home scenario. 

We built this core flex, work-from-home calculator where all of your existing information is already in there. We know how many employees, and we know what they do. We know what that cost is if we shift that workforce to work-from-home and assign some cost for doing that, and then to our ideal flex sites, we know the cost of that. Now we can get to total cost of strategy on a site-by-site location.

Bisnow: The rest of this world is trying to figure out how to measure the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their workplace solutions. Is this where you think you can fill the void?

Turner: It is. You are seeing sensor technology and low-res camera technology being used to track how many people are in our space, and where do they sit and what they do? We also implemented our own WiFi technology solution where we can resolve Mac IDs to figure out how many people are in your space at any given time and about where they sit on the floor. With that, we can start to triangulate some of this and see in our core offices that have come back who has come back? The marketing department is here, the sales team isn't and accounting is. So we can figure out which type of space we need going forward and adapt.

Bisnow: Who is a potential customer for you?

Turner: We focus on office, warehouse, distribution, manufacturing and industrial occupiers. Typically, they've got some form of complexity, meaning they've got a lot of locations and some pretty complex problems to solve where Excel is probably just not going to get the job done.

RefineRE founder and CEO Ryan Turner, second from the left, with colleagues

Bisnow: Are you noticing any trends in terms of where the workforce is shifting? Are you seeing hub-and-spoke models as more affordable or is having a full on-site workforce more or less affordable?

Turner: I think the megatrend is every company is now forced into becoming much more employee-centric and focused on what the employee wants. The typical company is now faced with employees who tried something different and liked it in a lot of cases. Work from home is almost a nonstarter if you are going to force people to come to the office. I think that's here to stay. That's the big trend is that the companies are hearing that and saying we need to focus on what the employees want.

Bisnow: The rates are always changing, particularly with empty space and sublease space numbers growing. How do you factor available concessions and rent changes to determine what solutions are most affordable for a client today? 

Turner: There is a lot of nuance, and it varies by those micro-markets around the country. We have seen concessions going up on average by 7%, and we are pulling that information in from Moodys Analytics and our data partner. With all of that concession information based on actual transactions that have happened in the marketplace, we bring that in at scale and we make it relevant specifically to our customer's sites so we are only going to compare your site to sites just like yours in that market to get to here's about what the transaction will look like. 

Bisnow: Working with the occupiers, do you have examples of how after using your tools they went a different direction?

Turner: We have over 18,000 leases that are on our platform across the globe and that represent our customers' real estate portfolios that are active right now. For those 18,000 leases, we did an analysis in April last year, the average lease term remaining was a little over four years. When you went above a 10K SF space, meaning your larger core offices, you got closer to five years. Meaning we can't do anything about this to go wholesale and cut costs until those leases start to run off. This is an aircraft carrier, and it's really hard to turn around and shift especially when you have hundreds of locations like our customers do.

When we talk about the wholesale change that we've seen it's in mentality or it's a mind shift. The biggest shift we've seen is three years ago when we talked to corporate end users, nobody talked about data. Now, when we talk to them they want to talk about data. Where do you get your data? How good is your data? Can it use our data? Can you help make our data better? It has completely shifted in terms of how these end users think about real estate data as a data-driven component of their businesses.