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‘They Monetized Change’: Big Commercial Brokerages Reach Deeper Into New Realms

Raj Singh is looking to invest in construction robotics. That’s not head-turning news for the head of a typical venture capital firm, but that’s not where he works.

Singh is a San Francisco-based managing director of JLL Spark, the technology investment arm of the Fortune 500 commercial real estate services giant that can trace parts of its company back to 1783. It’s not exactly an obvious move for JLL, primarily known for brokering office sales and leases. To Singh, however, it makes perfect sense.

“There’s only two strategies in the world: bundling and unbundling,” he said. “We’re currently going through a bundling phase. Our scope has expanded greatly, we’re looking at things much more far afield.”

Brokerage firms are expanding their reach into more and more parts of commercial real estate.

Funding a robotics startup joins the long list of new ventures, initiatives and programs that the commercial real estate industry’s big brokerages are launching, which is diversifying their businesses at a significant clip.

Some have invested in or launched their own coworking brands, bought or invested in tech firms, services and workplace consultancies, and CBRE has even acquired a bank that funds casinos and gaming. Singh says he has explored fields as diverse as delivery and parking.

“How do I help you, as a client, manage the complete life cycle of your commercial portfolio?” Singh said in describing the global brokerage’s long-term strategy.

The big brokerages — JLL, CBRE, Colliers, Cushman & Wakefield and others — have traditionally been seen as transaction-driven and tech-averse. This expansion outside of traditional broker business has been a longtime coming but has been accelerating over the past decade.

After they struggled to recover from the last crash, they responded to both that downturn and the increasingly tech-focused, consultancy-driven needs of their clients by becoming bigger and more diverse, said Stephen Sheldon, an equity research analyst at William Blair who covers many of these companies. Hit incredibly hard during a real estate-driven recession, many had significant leverage on their balance sheets and saw their stock performance suffer, which is when he said their push to diversify really took off — and it paid dividends during the low points of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Management teams wanted an event to test these new business models, so they could show how much change they’ve put through since the last recession and how much better they were positioned to handle choppiness in the general business environment,” he said. “They all performed incredibly well.”

Sheldon sees significant change in the industry in the near future, and a lot of secular growth trends and corporate needs pushing these firms to expand even further.

“They’ve monetized change,” he said. “Bigger firms will get bigger, taking market share across different services lines.”

The biggest area of diversification has been outsourcing, such as property management and facility services, steadier businesses and recurring revenue streams that often work on multi-year contracts. Sheldon points to the second and third quarters of 2020 as the perfect examples of the strength of this strategy; during a once-in-a-generation pandemic pause in the market, many of the brokerages he follows were profitable and generated positive cash flow.

“Our efforts to transform Colliers into a different kind of professional services company has paid off handsomely,” Colliers CEO Jay Hennick said on his firm’s Q2 2020 call. “Recurring services now represent the majority of our revenues and earnings.”

Colliers’ revenue was roughly 60% derived from “high-quality recurring services” and 40% from transactions, according to its most recent earnings report. Project management, for instance, had become a $450M business for Colliers, including work in Australia, India and France.

CBRE CEO Bob Sulentic said on his firm’s Q3 2020 earnings call that occupier outsourcing, industrial and logistics space, and workplace experience services, among other things, were strategic investments that underscore “the progress CBRE has made in building a more resilient business since the last downturn.”

Recurring revenue means steadier growth, more predictable performance, and therefore, more investor confidence. Compared to property sales and financing, these services businesses don’t lose revenue and profit when the deals dry up. During big sales quarters like the previous three months, which set an all-time high in property sales transactions, according to Real Capital Analytics, it turns a good quarter into a blockbuster.

In just announced Q3 earnings, CBRE said advisory services set new records for net revenue and operating profits, up 13% and 29%, respectively, from the same quarter in 2019.

“Brokerages are all trying to diversify from the transaction, which remains the core, and provide more services,” Singh said. “Give the clients everything their employees want.”

JLL CEO Markets Greg O’Brien

In addition, firms have invested in myriad ways to offset their dependence on office sales and leasing. Sectors like industrial and life sciences can offset retail and office downturns, and many of the biggest brokerages have also expanded their global footprints in recent years, making them more likely to balance out losses in one region with high performance in another country or continent.

“It’s really been about increasing specialization and helping the client solve a bigger problem,” Greg O’Brien, JLL’s CEO of regional and market operations, told Bisnow. “Technology in the workplace was de minimis for most of our clients 10 years ago. Now we’re on the precipice of it being everywhere.”

Going forward, the goal is to be a one-stop shop for large corporate clients — a lease is just the initial challenge, O’Brien said. JLL is focusing more on business strategy and labor shift, and it isn’t alone among brokerages searching for ways to keep pace with this complexity and become more strategic partners across geographies. That begins with overhauling their own operations, including hiring more data analysts, consultants and tech specialists.

Avison Young CEO Mark Rose said along with hiring, this evolution and diversification also mean creating a more collaborative culture, “restructuring everyone into a collective intelligence,” a radical shift for an industry traditionally focused on individual deals and achievement.

“Internally, brokerages face the same challenges as their clients: Technology is eating into the way that we do things,” Singh said. “We’re trying to come up with the right set of tools to help our brokers. We have 90,000-plus people. We want to have tools that make sure even the newest broker understands the data, and spends less of their life doing the basic stuff and legwork and much more on the high-value stuff.”

But new services also play a big role going forward. Singh pointed out the increasing focus on sustainability and environmental performance, and how New York City’s Local Law 97, which sharply limits building-related emissions, and a number of European laws are pushing him to aggressively seek out sustainability-related startups for investment.

There’s a “huge opportunity to build out an operating system for both properties and tenant experiences,” Sheldon said, speaking to the potential value brokerages with robust tech solutions can offer their clients.

A key question is how large an office footprint most companies will have post-pandemic. Brokerages are preparing for numerous scenarios.

On one hand, the increasing focus on workplace strategy and services positions bodes well for a world where companies utilize a hybrid setup and turn offices into large collaboration spaces. Sheldon believes the amount of square footage per employee will actually go up in this scenario, and brokerages that can offer robust services and facility management will thrive.

Alternately, brokerages are also investing significantly in coworking and flex space. Cushman & Wakefield invested $150M into WeWork when it went public, JLL has taken over locations of defunct coworking operators, Newmark bought Knotel out of bankruptcy, and CBRE, after a failed attempt to launch its own flexible office arm, bought a large stake in Industrious.

For the brokerages, flexible space is another tool in the toolkit to help their clients evolve and to help services firms become better strategic partners. O’Brien said as firms change their business strategy quickly in a more complex market, brokerages need to offer dynamic solutions and different ways to use space. His firm has had to “develop a slightly broader advisory capability,” including the ability to help find the right markets for labor talent and enable them to quickly set up shop in a new city during an expansion.

Or, as Singh frames it, the goal of JLL Spark is to put the firm “ahead of the curve,” making the kind of tech and services shift that’s been seen in other industries. Tech is a tool to expand the total addressable market, and give the firm an entree to work with a broader group of customers, or work with them in a broader way than they can today.

It is clear what potential curve is ahead: Transaction services have long been discussed as a field ripe for automation, and decreasing reliance on them increases resilience.

“iTunes didn’t come from Sony and Netflix didn’t come from Warner Brothers,” Deskpass CEO Sam Rosen said. “It’s hard to believe a disruptive transformative force upending commercial real estate will come from an older brokerage model. This space is ripe for disruption or removal of the middleman, maybe more so than any other industry.”

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