C-Suite Spotlight: ROOM CEO Brian Chen
This series gets into the heads of the decision-makers of CRE, the people shaping the industry by setting investment strategy, workplace design, diversity initiatives and more.
Brian Chen is CEO of ROOM, a furniture provider that specializes in prefabricated and modular products. He co-founded the company with Morten Meisner-Jensen in 2018 and has watched the uses of his products expand from office into multifamily, hospitality and even retail, part of what he sees as a larger shift in the industry.
“We see the distinctions between asset classes blurring all the time, and I think we’ll see this trend accelerate, especially as momentum builds for the ‘work-from-anywhere’ trend,” he said.
Chen, an outdoorsy guy who loves to travel and who always dreamed of launching and leading his own firm, said it is easy to romanticize leaders and leadership. But the pandemic taught him to take a more practical view of the job and helped him distill some simple guidelines for management — be honest and be yourself.
The following has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
Bisnow: Tell us about your leadership philosophy and what experiences, words of advice or mentors shaped it along the way.
Chen: For me, leadership boils down to being honest with your team and being authentic to yourself.
The experience of navigating ROOM through Covid is easily the most formative experience that has shaped my leadership philosophy to date. The experience taught me that there is no playbook to follow, there is no right answer, and I say this as someone who loves reading biographies of great historical figures in business and entrepreneurship and enjoys being very academic about leadership. It is fun to romanticize the characteristics and tactics of famous leaders, and in some way, I think we all hold out hope that there is a secret leadership code that just needs to be cracked so that we have a clear road map of how to be a better leader, and so that we have something to aspire to.
But Covid taught me to be very practical about leadership. Every situation is different, every constellation of personalities is different, and during a time like Covid, you could ask 10 people what they would have hoped to see from their leaders, and you would get 10 high-conviction but conflicting answers back.
If you want people to follow your lead and trust in your leadership, the best you can do is be honest with your colleagues so that they can trust your intentions and your judgment. And if you are not authentic to yourself, you simply won’t last as a leader because it is neither viable nor sustainable to operate outside your limits or in fundamental conflict with who you are as a person.
Bisnow: How has the role of CEO/business leader changed over time — especially when considering the early days of your career to now?
Chen: Storytelling has become a whole lot harder as a business leader, but also more important than ever. The world we live in is one in which information proliferates, and there is nowhere to hide. Whether it’s product reviews or Glassdoor ratings, it is relatively easy for any employee to very quickly understand how you are doing as a company, how much money you have raised versus competitors, how many employees you hired in the last six months, etc. Whereas transparency used to be an active choice that business leaders could make in front of their employees, I no longer think that transparency is opt-in.
This means that today a CEO needs to be able to take all of those disparate pieces of information and weave a consistent, compelling narrative that will get employees, investors and customers excited and aligned around a single vision. If the story of a company is not told well and repeatedly, then it’s too easy to lose the narrative, which results in lack of focus for the company or lackluster performance.
Bisnow: What will the role of CEO look like in 10 years?
Chen: When it comes to what I’ve said about leadership philosophy and storytelling, I don’t see the role of CEO changing much.
Bisnow: Was leading a company always a goal for you? If so, why?
Chen: Yes, but for me it was less about leading a company and more about starting one and scaling it. I was born in Colorado but moved to Taiwan with my parents when I was 11 years old and lived there until I went to university. While living in Taiwan, it became deeply embedded in my worldview that Taiwan emerged from poverty and became a developed economy on the backs of great entrepreneurs. With this in mind, I grew up with entrepreneurs as my heroes and always thought that entrepreneurship was the path to having the greatest impact in the world.
Bisnow: What has been your biggest mistake as a leader?
Chen: Trying to shoulder too much burden on my own. Any time there is a business setback, it is natural to want to downplay its impact or to try to go into hero mode to solve it. But trying to shoulder the burden all by yourself is almost always a mistake because it’s simply too much to take on, and you build trust and resilience within your team by sharing both wins and setbacks alike.
Bisnow: Has your thinking changed about the workplace between 2019 and today? How? What will your office strategy be moving forward?
Chen: Yes. Prior to the pandemic, we communicated flexibility to our employees, but everyone still defaulted to five days a week in the office, and working from home was the exception. Today, we continue to preach flexibility, but the default is hybrid, and that changes everything about the workplace — the density of the office, why and when people come in, what office perks to offer, etc.
At ROOM, we are still taking an office-centric approach to building company culture, but when it comes to our real estate strategy, we are willing to be much more distributed than before. Being office-centric typically translates to employees being in the office about three days per week, and we are trying to coordinate schedules such that those days in the office are impactful in terms of collaboration and culture. In terms of real estate, we are in the process of opening up new “hubs” in different markets, which means that rather than hiring remotely, we have a strong preference for hiring talent near hubs so that we can maintain office centricity. We then have a challenge of bringing people from different hubs together, but we think this is a fun challenge and a nice feature of the model in terms of building community and cohesion. Still plenty to learn and experimentation ahead of us!
Bisnow: There is a massive conversation underway regarding advancing more people of color and women into the C-suite. What are you doing to address those voices and that movement within your own organization?
Chen: Ideally, we are not just addressing “those voices” and “that movement,” but we are incorporating them directly into our organization. That said, building a diverse and inclusive organization at scale is not something that happens overnight, so it is important to acknowledge that this is going to be a process and not something that gets resolved with a few Band-Aid solutions.
At ROOM, we have put into place a few measures in our People Operations processes to eliminate unconscious bias. For example, we ask candidates to submit examples of work product, which are easier to judge objectively than an interview. We also try to ensure that there is gender diversity within the hiring committee for every single new position.
But we want to take a long-term view on this, and it’s not just the employee base or the C-suite, but it is also the board and cap table composition. As CEO, it is my goal that ROOM is an organization through every level that is representative of our user base, which is highly diverse and global. This is a journey that will never be complete, but we will seek to lift up role models for underserved parts of the population and to combat systemic biases that exist even before candidates show up at our door. Honestly, I wish we could be doing more than we are today, but I think ultimately it will be the persistence of our effort that will yield long-term change.
Bisnow: What do you think about the recent focus on sustainability and climate change? Is it overblown? Insufficient? Is your company tackling climate change in any way or taking it under consideration in your planning?
Chen: Insufficient. The built environment has a huge responsibility in fighting climate change, and building for sustainability is a key tenet of how we think about ROOM products and our role within the broader landscape of companies touching CRE. For us, the materials that we use in our products are a starting point, but the greater impact we have is in designing for durability. Our ambition is for our product suite to replace cycles of wasteful office demolition and build-out, and for our products to easily configure and reconfigure to the changing needs of tenants without having to send product to landfills.
Bisnow: What is something CRE gets wrong in your eyes?
Chen: The industry fails to appreciate that their final product is consumed by people. There is a very strong B2B mindset within CRE, but increasingly, the power is shifting toward consumers and individuals, and the industry still does not quite grasp the full impact of this shift.
Bisnow: What asset class or location will perform best over the next five years? Why?
Chen: I think industrial real estate will continue to see accelerating demand for a long time, but honestly, I don’t have an investment view on real estate asset classes. The primary reason being that at ROOM, we benefit from our products being relevant across asset classes. While office real estate is still where the large majority of our products are located, we see our products increasingly used as amenities in hospitality, multifamily and even retail real estate. We see the distinctions between asset classes blurring all the time, and I think we’ll see this trend accelerate, especially as momentum builds for the “work-from-anywhere” trend.
Bisnow: What book, article or TedTalk meant the most to you? Why?
Chen: I was absolutely captivated by The New New Thing by Michael Lewis when I first read it as a recent college graduate. It was intoxicating to learn that entrepreneurship could be a career the way that it was for Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics and NetScape, among other notable companies.
I didn’t quite see a blueprint for myself in the book, but I was introduced to the idea that there is an ecosystem, a whole community, built around venture capital and entrepreneurship, and I knew that I wanted in some way to access that community of people inventing new things and bringing them to the world.
Bisnow: What is your all-time favorite TV show? Why?
Chen: Freaks and Geeks. I find the show to be incredibly funny, and it’s amazing to see such an all-star cast together at the beginnings of their respective careers.
Bisnow: How do you spend your Saturdays?
Chen: Away from the desk and with my wife.