Meet The Man Tasked With Turning Oxford Properties Into The Company Of The Future
Oxford Properties has a challenge. To keep paying its pension liabilities, it needs to double the C$58B (US$45B) of assets it has taken about 60 years to build up — only this time in seven years.
To do this properly, Oxford President Michael Turner realised that you can’t just buy more and buy faster. You have to build a different type of real estate company. But he also had another realisation. The real estate company of the future can’t be built by real estate people alone.
So he looked outside the sector — something relatively few major real estate investors have done in their C-suite.
Enter Dean Hopkins, who joined Toronto-based Oxford Properties last year as chief operations officer with a mandate to build “Oxford Properties 4.0”, as he puts it, as part of a wider reorganisation of Oxford's senior management.
He is one of the most senior individuals in UK real estate to have come from a tech background, and he has been tasked by Turner to reshape Oxford, from the way it uses technology, to its organisational structure and the skills of the people who work there, which will change dramatically over the coming years.
“To keep our pension promise, we have to double the size of Oxford Properties in the next seven years,” Hopkins told Bisnow in an interview at Oxford’s office in the Cheesegrater office tower in London, his first interview since taking the role. “So we’ve got to do in seven years what it has taken us 60 years to do so far. To do that we need to learn to be a more sophisticated, global and tech-forward business. We need to design the real estate company of the future, Oxford Properties 4.0.”
Hopkins said in all sectors of industry, it is very rare for organisations to radically change without some sort of influence from outside their sector: The pull of legacy systems and ways of thinking is just too strong.
“Michael Turner considered this challenge and had the sense that it would be difficult for someone within the industry,” he said. “It occurred to him that someone from the outside would be a better fit. It is often very difficult for institutions to undertake major change on their own. Very few have done it, IBM famously in the '90s, and now Microsoft. In both of those cases it took a different way of thinking.”
Hopkins’ background is pure tech: He founded and led an internet strategy company for a decade before starting a consultancy where a major client was information business Thomson Reuters, which he advised on its technology strategy. Immediately prior to Oxford he was chief executive of OneEleven 111, a Canadian tech incubator and accelerator.
A major part of his role at Oxford will be helping it innovate in the way it uses technology, to make the company as efficient and intelligent as possible.
“To achieve our growth ambitions, we need to think of ourselves as a global business powered by tech, which will help us double our assets without having to double our costs,” he said. “That means taking repetitive, lower-skilled tasks and absorbing them with technology that is much better suited to the task. If you can take 40% of someone’s job that they don’t want to be doing and give that to technology, which might be really good at those tasks, that is incredibly powerful.”
Examples include leasing management software system VTS, which Oxford is rolling out across its entire 100M SF global portfolio, and Procore, a construction management software system it is utilising on new developments, as well as technology that compiles reports.
Hopkins predicts that changes in the technology used by property companies, and the analysis required to undertake real estate transactions well, will change the skill set needed not just by real estate professionals at Oxford, but across the whole industry. In the future, there will not be a clear split between client-facing real estate professionals and back of house tech staff.
“Real estate professionals will increasingly have skills and capabilities that draw on technology as part of their jobs,” he said. “They will understand automation, write code, have skills like programming and data analytics. They are not going to need to turn to a programmer for most automations. While a background in real estate is still key to understanding the data, technology skills will increasingly move from the middle-office to the front-office. Those with these kinds of skills will move through the industry quickly.”
While software is becoming increasingly sophisticated and widely adopted by real estate firms to manage their processes, the technology being utilised in buildings is way behind where he expected it to be, Hopkins said, and he believes this is holding the sector back.
“Operating technology, which operates buildings themselves, is Palaeolithic in real estate,” he said. “Some buildings are very advanced, but the lion’s share were built more than 20 years ago when little modern technology was available. Complicating that is the vendors of solutions in these areas have created closed systems, whether it is elevators or air conditioning, so every building is a snowflake.”
For a large company like Oxford, the lack of homogeneity between the systems managing buildings makes it very difficult to create efficiencies and run its business better. He also pointed out that it hinders growth and slows down transactions if every time a company buys a building it has to grapple with a new and unique operating system.
“We have more than 400 assets in our portfolio and each of them is different,” he said. “This makes it very hard to aggregate to a portfolio level. It is challenging to generate big data and see trends which allow us to better manage our portfolio: It is hard to compare two buildings, let alone 400. What I would like to see is something along the lines of what the UK has done with Open Banking Standards. We need Open Building Standards to unleash the level of innovation that is possible in our industry.”
He is a big advocate of digital twins for buildings, which allows their systems to be managed and mapped virtually, an idea that is gaining traction in real estate if the amount of times it is referenced at Bisnow events is anything to go by. He compares the possibilities of the technology to the introduction of Amazon Web Services in the data storage world.
“Amazon’s AWS is a great example of the impact that ‘virtualization’ can have on an industry,” he said. “Amazon created Amazon Web Services internally to help it accelerate its own technology development. By separating the physical data centre from its digital equivalent, suddenly developers could have access to resources much more quickly and with less effort. It was so popular that their customers asked if they could get access to the same capabilities and AWS was born.
“Our industry is embarking on something similar with the concept of digital twins. Such virtual representations of buildings and their systems open up significant opportunities for innovation around how buildings are designed and managed.”
Internal systems and processes will be as important as technology in creating Oxford Properties 4.0. In that area, Hopkins is making sure Oxford thinks and acts like the global company it has become. In the past 15 years it has expanded from a company with a presence only in North America to invest in London, Paris, Berlin and Sydney, with plans to expand further into Asia.
“We want to be operating as a truly global business, shifting away from a set of regional offices, as that is what will give us truly global scale,” he said. “That will allow us to increasingly take on large, multinational, multi-sector portfolios.”
So what does that mean in practice?
“Currently, our vocabulary and roles are slightly different in each global market, along with the processes and systems, and that can slow things down when we work globally,” he said. “We’re trying to put in place a model that allows us to move people around to different places, pick up the local nuance, but use their skills where they are best needed. Allowing teams to really collaborate across the world unlocks a huge amount of potential.”
That will entail a shift in Oxford’s culture, and Hopkins said any company trying to adapt needs to be open to that kind of change.
“You have to have a culture that is ready to modernise and embrace different ways of thinking, that is ready to experiment and take smart risks,” Hopkins said. “If the culture doesn’t align with the strategy then the company will be drawn in different directions and struggle to deliver on the vision.”
Bringing in the outsider is just the first step.