Plugging property’s data hole

Firms chasing chief data officers are encountering a number of obstacles, including real estate’s perception as a tech laggard.

Chandra Dhandapani joined one of the world’s biggest real estate companies 18 months ago as an executive without any real estate experience.

Dhandapani, a former technology executive at Capital One Financial and now CBRE’s chief digital officer, is one of a wave of data-focused executives plying their trade in private and public real estate.

“In general, it’s either much smaller or much larger firms that seek this type of hire,” says Jennifer Novack, head of global real estate for executive search firm Sheffield Haworth. “At the start-up end of the spectrum, groups are looking to disrupt and this is one of their competitive advantages; at the larger, and sometimes global, end of the spectrum, firms will have the resources and scale to support this hire. They will also have the large data sets that make the application of data science truly interesting and game changing.”

Dhandapani’s role at CBRE focuses on surveying the landscape of commercial real estate to understand how technology could impact the industry, including areas of data management.

“Without leadership in organizations that understand the potential of data, in a lot of cases what’s being used by data scientists will be used in a way that’s not beneficial.”

– Lisa Picard

Other firms, including those in the private equity real estate space, are taking things one step further, considering positions with an explicit data focus that typically report directly to the chief executive or a commercial chief operating officer, Novack says. They generally use the title ‘chief data officer,’ though there are variants, with job descriptions and titles that include facets of technology management beyond data.

Lisa Picard, president of Blackstone’s Equity Office Properties, lured Ryan Salvas from construction company Skanska, last year to address EOP’s technology needs. As the vice-president of real estate technology, Salvas oversees everything from drone usage to data management. For such a position, Picard recommends firms hire people with a built environment background – real estate, architecture or development – and with a passion for technology. The firm should also have a clear responsibility set for the position, with an eye toward data monetization.

“Ryan is dealing with data, but because real estate is late to the game, we also have to implement technology that collects data,” Picard says. “Without leadership in organizations that understand the potential of data, in a lot of cases what’s being used by data scientists will be used in a way that’s not beneficial.”

For EOP and Salvas, that data use goes beyond tracking patterns such as employee arrivals to buildings to include, among other things, local housing occupational patterns:if EOP can identify residential developments, for example, insights about where tenants may find future talent moving to an area become possible.

Hiring challenges

Recruiting for an executive-level, data-focused role is challenging, however.  chiefly because of the industry’s perceived technology lag. CBRE’s Dhandapani says two years ago, she estimated real estate was five to seven years behind banking in terms of technology adoption, though she thinks that gap is now closing.

Another hiring challenge stems from broad interest in data-focused positions, particularly at the executive level.

“Real estate is unsurprisingly not a leader in hiring for this role,” Novack says. “Traditional financial services and asset management and of course tech are further along. As a result, talent must be hired from other sectors. The good news is that it expands the pool. The bad news is it’s a hot market across all sectors with broad-based competition.”

Dhandapanisays while she was among the first digital-focused executives in commercial real estate 18 months ago, she has since seen others arrive. In a year from now, she predicts many of CBRE’s peers will have some variant of a chief technology, data or digital officer.

“My belief is you can absolutely be part of a tech company with a lot of people who already are steeped in technology trying to change the world, or you can come into an industry where the technology is still relatively nascent and help people reimagine what’s possible in this industry,” she says.