CRE Success: The Podcast, S01E05
JAMES WOODBURN, WPP
commercial real estate, people, industry, real estate, wpp, podcast, hong kong, cre, business, success, working, cover letter, australia, role, managing, asia pacific, sharing, james, countries, deal
Welcome to CRE Success: The Podcast, where we help people working in commercial real estate achieve their professional goals. Check us out online at cresuccess.co/podcast. And now here's your host Darren Krakowiak.
Hello, once again, this is Episode Five. We're here to help people working in commercial real estate, who are looking for some support with their own professional development, to achieve success more quickly and become leaders in their slice of the industry. So far, we've spoken to two service providers and two founders and CEOs on the podcast and today we are speaking to James Woodburn. He has had a varied career in the industry, but for over a decade, he's been on the client side and he's currently based in Hong Kong serving as the head of corporate real estate within Asia Pacific at WPP. I'm pleased that we're able to bring you yet another relevant perspective on the podcast.
Before we do bring that interview to you, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for listening. We have already reached the top 20 within the Apple Podcasts Careers chart in three countries, Australia, the Philippines and South Korea. We got to number 26 in the same category in India and we also have had listeners tune in from Singapore, the United States and several countries across Europe, which is very exciting. So, wherever you are in the world, thank you for giving us your time and I hope you enjoy this episode.
If you would like to share our podcast with anyone, or submit a question to be answered on a future episode, one way to do that is to use our hashtag which is #cresuccess or you can find us on all the major social media channels: @CRESuccess All right, my chat with James Woodburn from WPP starts in 30 seconds.
And now it's time for the interview on CRE Success: The Podcast.
James, welcome to CRE Success: The Podcast.
Thank you, Darren. Nice to be talking to you.
Well, James, the first thing we do at the start of each podcast is We ask our guests to step into the virtual elevator and to give us their 20 to 30 second introduction their so-called elevator pitch.
So, James who are you?
I'm James Woodburn, I work at WPP which is a large global marketing services organization and I'm responsible for their footprint of offices for the group across Asia, covering the management, workplace fit out and the facilities operations we have around about 300 properties occupied spanning 21 countries in the region, which is home to about 30,000 of our staff.
Brilliant. So how big is the team that you're managing at the moment?
The direct team is a small team about 10.
And are they all with you in Hong Kong.
I have one in India, in Mumbai and the balance in Hong Kong and one sort of side report in Singapore.
Very good. So let's go back to the start. Where you started in real estate. Do you care to tell us how many years ago that was?
Um, 28 ish, about 28, 29. I started in property at the grassroots level. I finished a tourism management degree course at the end of that my lecturer, who done land economics, suggested I was more suited to the real estate career. And it was back during the last recession that we had to have in 91. So I looked into residential sales at the age of 22. On the lower North Shore, Sydney, from there I transitioned to commercial leasing on the north shore and then to the Sydney city.
Real estate was something that you fell into at the end of a course that you were doing on the advice of a lecturer who just told you to get into real estate?!
That's right, yes, it's somewhat accidental. But really found myself loving the mixture of deal doing dealing with people being in an office, at a desk, out in buildings, working, creating things it really hit the mark.
Well looking over your career, it's been quite varied when it comes to real estate, you've worked as an agent and advisor. You've been working on behalf of commercial real estate investors and for the past decade, working at WPP in a corporate real estate role. So based on your experience, are there any common traits that you think are important to be successful in commercial real estate regardless of the position that you're in?
You need to enjoy a mixed. You need to be passionate, hard working at whatever you do. And for me, it was enjoying networking, managing numbers/analysis, negotiating, you've got to be good at it. There's no point doing something that you're not good at, and you need to enjoy it. Generally, if you work hard at it, you'll end up being good at it. My bias of interest was always leaning towards the tenant side and helping them navigate large complex lease negotiations.
And how did this switch from residential to commercial happen?
That really came about just by being exposed to an office small office, which had a combination of leasing and residential sales. And I just found myself gravitating to, I guess what I regard as less fickle, negotiations and commercial advisory than what was happening in residential. So enjoy. Yeah, I've always enjoyed negotiating. But I just found what I was observing with the team next to me that was less fickleness, a bit more commercial.
So, you mentioned earlier about the importance of passion, and it's not good enough to just be good at something, but you've also got to enjoy doing it. So what is the thing that you enjoy most about working in our industry?
I love the diversity of the industry, and that it brings to the daily role. For me, I really love negotiating. That's the thing that ticks my box, and especially when they're large and complex. It's a bit that gets me out each day and just enjoying what I'm doing.
So what's the key to a good negotiation?
Wisdom always would tell you that it's a win win. My personal views always been that it's a a win and have the other side think they've won.
So, it's a bit of psychology involved?
So tell me a bit more about your current role. You're at WPP. You're the head of corporate real estate in Asia Pacific. What does that involve
As I mentioned, I cover about 21 countries. WPP, for me, was a client back in the 90s when tenant advisory as a discipline was just emerging. I looked after WPP as I moved between a couple of different commercial consultancy companies. And then in 2001, the opportunity arose to move internally and effectively fill the role of what I regard as my favorite client. So, I jumped at it. And then I've managed that team remotely from Australia for about seven of the last 10 years. But more recently, our campus programs accelerated, that necessitated move to be on the ground in Hong Kong and that's where most of the team of 10 are dedicated working; got a large collective of outsourced partners to bring on the management of the portfolio.
What was the biggest surprise about moving to Asia to take on the responsibility that you already had? So, you had some idea about the role but not being in the thick of it in Hong Kong? What was the biggest change that you perhaps didn't see coming?
I certainly didn't see typhoon Manjit coming. Even though it was warned of, and I didn't see the riots in Hong Kong coming and I didn't see COVID-19 coming. But obviously all of that as hit more than just Hong Kong orbit. The riots are pretty specific. But on the positive side, really this the convenience of getting around the region. It's been so much easier to move between countries than it was coming out of Australia.
For you, what do you find the most challenging thing about working in commercial real estate but within a business whose core activity is not real estate?
You need to remember that the role is to service the business; we’re not the income producers. We're here to help the creative businesses optimize the performance by providing them with great workplaces, which respond to the industry changes and challenges that would be consistent across all different industries. And it's not at all easy with real estate being an expensive and long-term asset, and given it to creative industry, that inherently brings additional challenges as creative minds not always as commercial as you'd like.
So, what's hard to do you think: being a service provider and educating a client about commercial real estate, or being on the inside and working for that company and trying to advocate for commercial real estate within the organization?
With having done both, they both have different challenges. Neither one is easy, they probably look easier from the outside as the advisor you think “Wouldn't it be great to be on on the inside controlling things”, but I can tell you from the inside, it's equally as hard to get your advisors involved and also to get some of the decisions. It's a safer, more sort of certain and consistent role, when you're internal because you are the center of excellence, there isn't that competition within advisory teams. On the other hand, you don't have quite the diversity. And you don't have a group of common skill sets that are working for the same cause, you're just on your own, largely when you're in a corporation.
So how do you continue your own professional development as a commercial real estate professional, when you're working in an organization where that is not the…the core purpose of the company?
Yeah, good question. It's, it's something you do need to invest in. So, you see a lot of corporate real estate people attending that industry conferences, and a part of networking groups, often sometimes in informal ones, but just getting together and talking about common issues and challenges. So really doing a lot in the in the industry, either by speaking and giving back and that way, engaging and creating conversations. I often do a bit of that at conferences and I do it both because I enjoy sharing knowledge, but equally I find it a way to, to start and challenge debates. And then that gives me new ideas.
I have seen that you're certainly not afraid of putting forward an opinion when I've observed you at CoreNet and other functions. What advice would you give to the commercial real estate services firms about how they can better serve the needs of people like yourself who are in regional corporate real estate roles within large occupies in Asia Pacific?
I've always encouraged them to understand their clients as best as possible, not to think of their advice as a deal, as a transaction. But rather think of what, what is the best interest long term of the client and always be trying to convert advice and knowledge with that frame set in mind. If you're thinking that way, then the best outcome will come through and the clients will then start to respect you for that, rather than perceiving you per se as a broker trying to chase a commission.
So I know you've worked on some very large and high profile projects in the region. Is there one in particular that stands out that you're particularly proud of?
I'm generally, not always, but generally proudest of the last project we have to do because it's always an improvement on the ones before. But when I look back, there's been a few really significant ones that have lasted the test of time and I'm quite proud of dating back to you I was the architect of the the Westpac Kent site during 2002. And seeing that transaction stand the test of time is still there was huge, around 76,000 square meters, and I executed it post a bout of cancer. In Asia our Shanghai campus put a campus deals on the map for the group globally, as well as been the largest office deal at the time in Shanghai, and it remains itself the largest true campus, integrated campus, in our group. Most recently, Mumbai was a huge success with about 4,000 staff moving in and as we speak in the middle of Covid19 we have 1,500 people transitioning in Hong Kong campus, which will be the newest and more integrated fourth campuses.
So James, I'm appreciate you sharing such a personal moment there, regarding your own cancer battle back in the early 2000s when you're working on the Westpac project. How do you what's going on in your personal life impact the results that you get and the satisfaction that you get from, from some of the projects that you're working on?
Well, that that experience…Wespac came just after I finished treatment. So I finished, I’d beaten it, just given birth to our first son, so quite a lot was happening in 2001, gosh even September 11, and it had happened earlier in that year. So, a lot of happened. And so really for me, getting into the Westpac deal and executing it, was more proving that chemo hadn’t fried my brain, that I was still an effective contributor. So in some regards, I didn't really reset as you often hear, people sort of have a health scare and take a tree change or something like that, if anything I'd probably stepped it up a notch and strived harder and faster for something and maybe then later had a bit of a, okay I've done it and a reset. Ineeded to prove a point I feel personally.
Thank you for sharing that it sounds like you you're well and surely proved it and and glad to hear that obviously you came through it so well.
You're the head of corporate real estate as we've established the WPP in Asia Pacific you not only lead that team, but you also work with the senior leaders within WPP C suite to ensure real estate supports the strategic priorities of that business. You're working with some very high caliber and high profile people. Can you share one or more attributes that you think makes a great leader?
Sure, look, I'm not probably the one to be called a great leader necessarily. It's probably more a question for my team. Albiet but I do feel they would walk over hot coals to support me. So I guess I'm doing something okay. Being confident, particularly in times of crisis, or difficult times, being confident and calm, managing pressure well, gives confidence to your team around you. Being able to present well and engage with people. And particularly being able to translate corporate real estate speak into plain English business language. When you're dealing with the c suite. We have our own vocabulary like every industry does. It makes us sound more intelligence and complicated, but at the end of the day, you're dealing with business managers who don't understand those nuances and languages. So we need to convert to their language and understanding to help decisions made and also seeing the bigger picture and the longer term goals so that you can really help people navigate short term challenges, are attributes, I think, help confidence in a leader.
So you mentioned there the importance of remaining calm when you're under pressure. Do you have any strategies that you deploy to ensure that you can remain calm when the pressure is?
Breathe, I said to myself breathe. Count to 10 has also been a good strategy. And something I need to practice more of is not replying quickly to emails,
Very good advice!
Sleeping on them, or putting them into the draft box. And then coming back the next day and deciding whether it's the right email to send.
I have done that myself. And usually, it's not an email that I would send when I look at it the next day.
Yep, too often.
How do you continue to grow and improve as a leader?
Certainly, I feel as you get on in time you feel like it's probably you're growing less, and there may be some truth to that. Initially, growth was all about technical skills, about learning markets, developing negotiation, wisdom and expertise, my growth area these days is more about managing people and the interpersonal side. And the key skill set, really in corporate real estate, in many roles, is actually stakeholder management. That is, that's, that's, they expect you to have your base real estate skills, but it's about having a skill to manage multiple stakeholders is where, the money, the value really is. And I have over the years invested a lot of time coaching and taking on coaches. That's something I continue to do to try and improve. I could do with more, of course, and as I mentioned earlier, I like talking at conferences because I find that a way of, both sharing but also gaining insights through the exchange.
So is there something that you deliberately and consistently focus on that you feel contributes to your own personal success?
Look, I've always been ambitious, and wanting to be the best at what I do, or one of the best at least, and for me that was evolving around lease negotiations and tending to be on the tenant side because I felt they valued and needed the help. So there's always been an intrinsic driver there. But for me my internal I think drivers that push pushing for success, is working hard, sometimes never turning off, to my detriment. Whereas now focusing on being able to switch off, and have some downtime, is a valuable skill set just to reset yourself. Also being able to alternate between the detail and then the big picture, I think is a handy attribute that is often overlooked. Sometimes they blur to the picture and miss the detail. And other people can be too stuck in the detail and missed the big picture. Being able to see both and alternate between both is a valuable skill.
So is there any specific or is there one particular piece of advice that you would give to someone at the start of their commercial real estate career?
I'd advise anybody starting out to really mix it up, expose yourself to different sectors of the industry or different skill set areas, different departments, because all of that experience that you gain will be adding skills to your toolbox that you'll use later in life and draw upon. But focusing trip what intrinsically you enjoy doing and then pursue that with a passion. So, for me it was a mix of working city towers and helping tenants navigate an area they had little expertise in, and then doing it ultimately with an industry that contributes to and shapes the daily lives of everyone, every day. And having the ability now to be exposed to a range of cultures, which has kept it interesting for me. You don't succeed by accident, you need to map it out with a plan, write it down, execute it, don't worry that the plan doesn't go according to plan, because often it will change over time. But writing it down does help organize your thoughts and helps you move towards action.
Finally, before we go, what's your strategy to balancing life's competing priorities and how has that perhaps developed over your career? You talked a little bit about the difference between working hard and you know, focusing on strategy, but when it comes to that work life balance, how have you become I guess more balanced as you've progressed and become more senior throughout your career?
Yes, or reflection on perhaps what I should have done differently. Firstly, because as I've alluded to, I haven't always I don't think had the well-balanced life from it certainly from an Australian standard. You mellow over time, though, and you do get better and more expense experience with what you're doing. And so you become more efficient.
What do you mean by that in terms of you haven't had the balance from an Australian perspective do you mean that you’re a work hard, intense person?
Yes, yeah. And Australia is regarded as a culture, a country where work life balance is very important and cherished and pursued, I think a lot. A lot of areas in Asia don't have that reflection on balance. It's more work, work work.
How did you overcome that?
I think just with time you did become a little mellower and saying you become more efficient with your wisdom and everything, so you can do things more quickly. But then you do ultimately have to put some boundaries, you know, reserved some time for proper downtime to re energize. I've had the benefit actually in the GFC of a short redundancy period, that gave me another opportunity to refocus and clarify career ambitions. That's effectively how I've ended up here with WPP. So, I think, for many people these times in some perhaps being out of work last, it's tough. It's a rare window of time to look at your long life ahead and organize your priorities, plan what's important, it also long term as I map it out, write down the pathways, imagine where you want to get to, the pros and cons of each, and then plan the journey and start to take action.
Great wisdom that you've shared there, James, I want to thank you very much for being with us on CRE Success: The Podcast, thanks for your time.
It's a pleasure to talk to you. Take care
For more information about our guests visit cresuccess.co/podcast. And now a final thought from Darren Krakowiak.
Thank you once again, James for your time.
As you may know, I started CRE Success in April 2020 to be a coaching consulting and mentoring service for the commercial real estate industry in Asia Pacific.
One thing that I didn't anticipate when I started the business was, the most common inbound inquiry being, can you tell me how to get my next job? It's something I hear from people who are in the industry, but also from those wanting to get into commercial real estate.
Now, perhaps that being the most common inquiry is a reflection of the times that we are in. Or it's because this is what people most need professional support with, or they are most aware of it being something they need professional support with, as opposed to leadership coaching, which can often be an unaware problem.
Getting a job is a topic I do know something about because I've literally interviewed hundreds of candidates over my career. And I've also been on the other side of the table, and gotten through some competitive recruitment processes as a candidate.
As I've helped a few people with this topic over the past couple of months, I've noticed some common questions that are coming up. So, I thought I would share some of that with you.
One particular area that I think can see people need help with customizing their approach to prospective employers. I've come across people who think it's a numbers game, and they're inclined to send applications to as many companies as possible, kind of passing their resume around, like confetti at a wedding. In my opinion, this will only lead to frustration and self-doubt, as you're very unlikely to get much traction this way. When it comes to job applications, I think quality is more important than quantity.
Apart from optimizing your resume for the position, the company and the person who will be reading it, which is a whole topic in itself, and of course, using your network to find common connections in the target company. One thing that can really help you stand out from the pack is to write a killer cover letter.
I think sometimes people get lazy they think that the cover letter is optional, so they don't include one or perhaps they just rehash their CV, or they make the cover letter really generic and bland and use it as a template for every position they apply for. A cover letter should be hyper optimized for the position. While it's not critical to have a cover letter for every position, a well written and targeted cover letter will make your application stand out from the pack.
I've prepared five tips in a document I've shared with CRE Success subscribers called write a killer cover letter. One of the benefits of being part of our community is that every week I send out an email with new and relevant content for people working in commercial real estate. If you'd like to receive a free copy of that document, Write a Killer Cover Letter. Just jump onto our website. I've set up a special page for you to access it, cresuccess.co/cover letter, Get on there and you can check it out for yourself.
That's all we've got time for this week. Thanks so much for listening, and I will speak to you soon.
Thanks for listening to CRE Success: The Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure you subscribe to us on your favorite podcast platform and be sure to leave us a five-star review. For more information about the show, just check the show notes on your podcast app or visit us online at cresuccess.co