Brian Rosen | President & CEO | Canada | Colliers International | Technology, tenant experience, and connection to community and amenities


DA: Welcome to TEN, the Tenant Experience Network. I’m your host David Abrams. In this episode, we are connecting with Brian Rosen, president and CEO, Canada at Colliers International. In this episode, we’ll learn about Brian’s non-traditional journey to commercial real estate, and his experience bringing teams together to create opportunities where one plus one equals three. We discussed the long term nature of the industry and the role that buildings will play in supporting their business partners. Brian goes on to say, the best operators are investing in amenities and engagement with the tenants and community. And that’s why tenant experience apps are going crazy. Our conversation also addresses the importance of ESG, as just one example of delivering on what tenants want and how the same attention to environmental concerns, was an early impetus to the development of HILO, in order to reduce print communication and move buildings towards digital connectivity. Brian is not quite ready to give up on the notion of location, location, location, as a critical driver of real estate decisions, but he does believe it’s critically important for properties to have a vision and a commitment to technology, tenant experience, and connection to community and amenities. We’re excited to be sharing this podcast with you. So be sure to subscribe to TEN, so you never miss an episode of the Tenant Experience Network. And now I’d like to welcome Brian to the show. I’m really glad you’re going to be with us today. How are you?

BR: I’m doing well. Thanks David, thanks for having me on.

DA: My pleasure. So tell us about your journey to your current position, your current role, how did you get started? 

BR: Sure, so kind of non-traditional little bit, for this position, but joined Colliers in 2019, in the days, when people could actually get together more frequently. But it came from my background, I spent many years, about a decade at Iron Mountain, which is a large co-occupier, it’s a , and spent time in Corporate Strategy before that, but I joined Colliers in 2019 to assume a new position, the Chief Operating Officer for Canada. Really it was a plan succession role for our longtime CEO for Canada, David Bowden, who has subsequently moved in and started a new business for us in Canada, our strategy and consulting business, but it was a plan succession, and I came in in 19, spent a year learning the business, meeting clients, meeting employees, going around everywhere. And then I stepped into the CEO chair on March of 2020.

DA: Good timing.

BR: Very well timed, it’s interesting. I was on a different podcast, right in the middle of the pandemic, and we made a joke that I’m kind of a black swan. I graduated undergrad and, bust and graduated business school, great financial crisis. So kind of was fitting that I came on board during that time period. But it’s been great, I’ve been in the chair almost about two years now. And Colliers was looking for a little bit of a different perspective on the business, someone outside the industry, but real estate adjacent, and that’s why they looked at me, and I came on board and it’s been a great ride for two years. Crazy, weird, wouldn’t have ever in a million years guessed it would’ve been like this, of course, but still fun nonetheless.

DA: Yeah, Interesting. I once heard a founder of another startup talk about how they recruit and how they often will look outside of their industry, which is very atypical. Often you want someone to let’s say have sales, you’ll find someone in sales at a previous SaaS startup, but his approach is, I can do that already, it’s not that hard to find someone that’s done what we already do, I’d rather bring someone in it, but it’s a completely different approach, different experience, and we’ll look at it, really in a very unique manner. So I think that’s awesome when people have the wherewithal to actually exercise on that plan. It’s not easy always.

BR: It, isn’t. And we are typically don’t do that. And so I was definitely in that standpoint, but we’ve done it in our business, particularly in our brokerage business, we’ve mixed in over the last years, a lot of new MDs from outside the industry, we’ve blended it, because you can’t have all new people in there. You have to have a mix of some experienced hands to train them and provide, this is how it’s been done and how it will be done, but it’s been really, really effective for us getting experienced business leaders in, that can add a different perspective for our brokers and for our clients. But they have to be quick learners, you have to get up to speed in this business, you got to want to get out there and do it, it’s people business.

DA: Yeah, for sure. And again, the nontraditional entry into real estate. So again, I’ll ask, why do you think you were so uniquely suited for this opportunity? So what helped you to become successful in this role, which was perhaps unique to your experience?

BR: I think I’ve had a lot of experience with bringing together teams, and Colliers has multiple different types of businesses. Now we’re very decentralized, that’s part of what makes us special, it really derives from the Peter Drucker School of Management, Jay Hennick, our global CEO and, larger Shelther, he was literally a mentee of Peter Drucker. So that methodology has been infused in our business. So we’ve built all these amazing engines that run almost independently for years. So what I have a lot of experience doing, is bringing together and integrating value propositions and getting teams to work together and collaborate and bring out the old trite expression, one plus one is three. And so that experience with just a large complex organizations, and really being in a professional services organization, you have to want to be with people all the time. It doesn’t have to be in person as we’re going to talk about always, but being with clients, being with people, I think it’s such a critical element, that’s something that for me, has been part of my management journey for 20 years.

DA: 20 years, don’t don’t date yourself.

BR: No don’t worry, I go like this. And I feel some smooth, and that dates me pretty quickly as well.

DA: Listen, there’s a lot of commentary right now around the return to the workplace. And there are some very extreme opinions being expressed, often confrontational, sometimes polarizing, my team and I really believe that everyone needs to live and work in the world, as it is right now. We’ve decided that this is it. There’s no imaginary date in the future, this is the world as it is. So I’m just curious, the commercial estate industry and employers, I don’t think we continue to projecting, to that date, as to what that might be. What is the return to normal? and perhaps living in the world with COVID as it is right now, is our new normal. So I’ve got a few questions to ask you, in all that preamble, what do you think this means for the commercial real estate industry?

BR: Yeah, that’s a big question. let me unpack some elements of that. I think I agree with you that we can’t always be looking out to what’s going to be the final place. I go back to the, the dot com situation in 2001, where what happened was we had this huge rush to E-commerce, all these new things that no one ever saw before, and then it blew up. But where the reversion to the mean was the resting place, was still much more advanced for E-commerce. Even though there was a humongous reversion. So I think we’re in the middle kind of, of a little bit of a market correction, but there will be a reversion to the mean. I think some of these proclamations were way too early, we were saying what the world was going to be like in the middle of an experiment with no variable in control, there was only variable.

DA: We also thought that experiment was going to last six weeks, or three months or six months. So that was part of the problem.

BR: And it was impossible to determine what it would look like because when 90% of people are working from home, of course it worked better than it would be if you’re at 60 40, or 40 60, or 80 20, it’s just an unfair comparison. So I think we are in no position to make those proclamations. So I think pragmatically, I agree with you. We’re in the world, we’re in right now. And we have to make it work for the foreseeable future, But real estate is a 50 year game, We build assets that last a long time. So we have to project, we have to make decisions on what it’s going to be like. And we have to take a little bit of a stance and say, I’m going to sign a 10 year lease, got to have a little bit of a sense of what the future’s going to be and how much space they need. So I think there is a projection that has to be made about, what do we really think is going to work? And we can get into it. I have my points of view on the office and the importance of it. But I do think you have to recognize where we’re in now, but you have to make a five and 10 year view in our business or else you can’t make an investment. No one would ever buy a building again, because it go like, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

DA: Right and certainly there have been lots of transactions that have taken place over the last, year or two, and certainly the last many months. So listen, I think buildings are critical, I think they’re part of an ecosystem now versus a standalone that the world stops and starts with your workplace. I think the workplace and what workforce needs, is going to continue to evolve. So from your perspective, any thoughts on how buildings can continue to be important to businesses and people?

BR: Absolutely, first of all, they’re, incredibly important for collaboration. And you can do collaboration over video. It absolutely can happen. It’s not as good, and so when you, get people together, there’s a certain level of spark innovation. There’s collaboration, there’s relationships, it’s what and teams, and everything has enabled us to do is, continue to foster relationships to people we know. What’s missing is sort of the inadvertent relationships, and the micro relationships. So we’re kind of still coasting on a lot of the relationship capital we built pre pandemic.

DA: Absolutely.

BR: It’s the new people and that’s where we’re missing. There’s that real gap of new people starting in a company, hell if I didn’t have that one year to meet everyone, I’d be so much more challenging in my role as a CEO, but I built up relationships with people, and was able to manage through that. So the office provides particular great area for this collaborations, relationship brainstorming, et cetera. So I think as a communal point for that, it’s going to play a critical role for foreseeable future. Then now how does that evolve? Do people need to always be sitting at their desk by themselves, staring at a screen? That’s not really collaborating. It’s not really . So there’s a balance, and some roles absolutely are well suited and the technology has enabled us to become more hybrid for that. So it really depends on your industry, it depends on the type of role that you have within an industry, but there is a role that the office plays and will continue to play for that.

DA: Agreed, I really believe that buildings have an obligation, perhaps more so than ever before, to work with employers, to help attract and retain the best talent, and ultimately bring people back to buildings, because that where to your point, creation, collaboration, inspiration, culture gets built and I’m not saying it can’t be done just to appease those that are, the right side of the conversation. I’m not saying that any of those cannot be fulfilled in some form or fashion virtually, but I don’t think it’s quite the same. So from your perspective, do you think the building has a role to play in supporting the employer, creating this new way forward.

BR: A hundred percent, and you see that with the best investors that are landlords, they’re not just sitting by and go come to my building, it’s a good building. It’s, Hey, I bought this, that’s all I need to do. No, no, they’re doing investing in it. The amenities are so critical in becoming even more critical. How do you attract people back in? Well, you have to redesign the traction of coming to an office. So historically, that’s why you have, think about Toronto, the path system and all the retail, and maybe that’s going to have to evolve too. So we see malls evolving the mix of stores, just people, the in-person shopping experiences changing. We’re going to see that with retail in the retail, that’s in a building, the amenities, the ability to have tenant experience apps, all the different functionality that comes with that engagement with tenants, and engagement with the building, and engagement with the community, it’s critical. That’s why tenant experience apps are going crazy. I know it’s a vested interest in this audience here, but I would be saying that if anybody off the street was to ask me about this, and I spoke at another event about it, it’s because the landlords are engaging with the tenant, they have to make this a place. Even another example of that, think about the ESG initiatives that are going on. Some of that’s because it’s business, it’s cheaper to save money on energy. Some of it is because of, morality and societal desires, some of this because you want to engage with tenants who are demanding it. And so there’s an accountability on the landlord and the building to cater towards the tenants, what they want. You will attract a better higher covenant or valuable tenant with larger needs, If you offer more things they will want.

DA: I think you’ll agree that landlords building owners, operators are certainly listening more so to tenants than ever before?

BR: Yes.

DA: And it’s not just the person that signs the lease, it’s really understanding the needs of the entire occupant experience. So that’s a good thing, I think, for the industry. And it’s interesting when you talked about ESG because that really in some indirect way, that is really one of the reasons why HILO even exists today. When I first wrote the strategy document for creating a digital communication platform delivered through your smartphone, it was because buildings were going at that time for their lead certification, they were thinking about being more green, more eco-conscious, more sustainable, and the main method of communication at that time was print. And we were just dropping all kinds of printed materials on everyone’s desk and all of a sudden, everyone was saying, that’s not going to work anymore. So it’s interesting to see, what is now all about really tenant experience, but it started more from an environmental push. So I just reflected on that as you mentioned that.

So we believe the pandemic has sort of re-calibrated the market to recognize that buildings are really places for people. We’ve all got buildings right now, in some cases they’re relatively low occupancy levels. I think we’ll agree it’s not much of an asset when there’s nobody in it. So people are the real asset, not the building itself, and as a result tenant experience to your point earlier is now becoming, the real differentiator and is driving real estate decisions, perhaps more so than those historic determinators, such as location and class. So I’m just curious, if now is truly about creating the best customer experience for tenants, can you share your thoughts on how we will define that, in this new world today and going forward?

BR: Yeah, I still think location, location, location is a good way to think about it. I mean, why is a building so desirable if it’s on a transit hub, if it’s, got the surrounding are, I think location is so inextricably linked with the building’s value, but you can have two buildings in the same location and why is one more popular than another, and that’s where the age of the building, the amenities, the layout, the design, the tenant experience, all that starts to play in there. So all things being considerable location is still obviously I would say, an absolutely essential and critical factor for the building. So and getting back to the question.

DA: Yeah, yeah. Just sort of, how will we define because if experience is going to be a major differentiator, maybe not the only one or maybe not even more important than location, but pretty significant. What does that look like? And in a world where we’re trying to now recognize that, hybrid will likely win the day, my perspective, people going to work where it’s best, how does experience within buildings, what role does that play?

BR: It, it plays a big role. So one of the things we didn’t talk about before, and that it’s tagged to this is, there’s a flight to quality in some regards that’s going on right now. And so no more is that more apparent in Calgary where you hear all these horror stories about the vacancies, which is real, but in the highest caliber office in the area, that the vacancy is not nearly the same as it is in just slightly lower class, the B and C buildings. So it’s very clear even at very tough market. The vacancy is low because there is a flight to quality and you see that going on right now, still, too in the major markets, Toronto, Vancouver, et cetera.

DA: I really like that perspective that bringing in the notion that quality can now be the reason why you can offset some of the downside.

BR: It is, and that’s where some of the experience comes in and what it looks like, I don’t think it’s going to be cookie cutter. I think, as we’re talking about tenant experience and the ability to deliver more amenities, is going to be critical. So the ability to deliver amenities can come in different ways. It come through the technology in the building, having modern technology that makes it easy and seamless to interact with the building, whether it’s, the touchless type of stuff or the, or the smart elevators, all the different types of things that just make the building easier and better and more enjoyable and interaction, and lower operating costs too, which the tenants bear as well. So there’s that aspect of it, there’s the tenant experience, there’s also the selection of how your building is connected into the amenities of the area. So we talked about location, are you located on transit hubs? Are you located by great retail? What type of retail is in your building? What type of entertainment is in your building? So as before, maybe you get a RA bar, a convenience store, maybe you get a shoppers or things like that, and maybe that’s exactly right for the location you’re in, but maybe actually having an escape room building’ is probably better for you. I don’t know the answer, the answer is, it’s going to be bespoke. But as we start seeing these, we call it placemaking where you’re creating a place, you’re seeing this in mass now where you see these large plots of land that start getting developed into innovation hubs or life science hub. You’re going to start seeing that with these buildings too, at an asset level, this is now a life science asset where the building’s going to have headquarters for 18 different startup tech companies and life sciences, et cetera et cetera. So it’s those types of things where it’s the overall experience can take many shapes and forms, but it’s a track to the target group that’s looking there, so it’s a little bit of a punt on the answer, I’m not going to give you specific, but it’s a catered bespoke offer that. That’s why it makes it so important that you have a vision in mind for your asset or for your community, even more so the place.

DA: I think we’ve got, several examples emerging in our city that speak to that. And I think it’s also speaks to how and why we design , as a platform and not just a building app completely confined to four walls of a building, because to your, to your point, yes you can determine it needs a RA bar, it the dry cleaner, but maybe it does need the escape room, but maybe the escape room is three blocks away. So are we really design high low to not only capture what’s in the building, but also connect to the neighbor, connect to the community, and draw on those resources, so they’re actually seen as amenities as well.

BR: Exactly, everything is appropriate for the area that you’re in. And that’s why there’s no negative or positive with having something associated with an asset. So I talk the same, same breath of having a high end restaurant or a convenience store. Well, it depends on what your population of your business, they’re both great. So there’s none of are pejorative, it’s what’s appropriate for the asset and for the community, as you said, it’s the community. So the whole live work play, which is why I thought the whole death of the city thing was such a hot take that was irrelevant. cities have through plagues, and fires, and everything, and people come back because it’s a congregate setting where everybody’s together, there’s entertainment, there’s action, there’s the tribal aspect of people being together. That’s not going to go away, just because you can get a little bit more space, for some people sure, but then there’s other people that are going to come right back in, and fill the void.

DA: I agree a hundred percent. Listen, let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back.

Commercial Break

DA: We’re back with Brian Rosen, President CEO, Colliers Canada, a global leader in real estate services and investment management. Thanks again for being with us.

BR: Glad to be here.

DA: We’re living through a pandemic. It certainly has been challenging for so many people, but it’s also provided an opportunity to, as I like to say, be better, do better and build something better. Can you share any details on any aspect of your business, some part that you can share with our audience or listeners, that is now being re-imagined to reflect reality of where we are today.

BR: So I think there’s a lot of different parts of the business that we’ve flexed and changed. I think a big part, like a lot of other companies, is how we’ve adopted to blending into a hybrid management. So as I look across them, we have a extremely different set of workforces. So we have, probably the largest third party property management, the largest third party project management firm, those types of firms, as an example. Plus the brokerage, are completely different needs, So our project managers have found the ability to work remotely absolutely is great. It’s, adding the ability. They don’t need to be in an office, because they’re usually with a client, or their home, or whatever you’re managing a project. So it’s incorporating that, but the brokerage side of the house, can’t wait to get back in the office. And the property management is kind of a mix they’re on the actual assets, they’re in the office, accounting teams, you think while accounting, they can work for anywhere. Sure, there’s also benefits from being together. So it’s adopting that, how do we actually figure out the space in our building? So we’re advising our clients on that and we’re struggling and trying to figure it out ourselves. And this group’s 50%, this group’s 80%, this group’s 20%. How do we use our tenant experience apps to help book desks? I’ve put my office up on the block. So if anyone wants to use it, when I’m not here, I’m traveling, absolutely, it’s not that big, don’t worry. It’s the exact same as every other office.

DA: That’s all right.

BR: So, but it’s that type of approach, but also we had to make a major investment to retrofit our board rooms, and conference rooms to have teams technology, they were all mishmash. And so that was a big investment we made at the end of last year and into this year. So it’s that type of, I wish I could say it was novel, but we’re going through it just like everyone else. And it’s beneficial for our business to figure out how to do that because we’re trying to adapt also what the talent wants, and some talent wants to be in the office, some wants to be a remote, to be honest, we don’t have a choice like your job necessitates one or the other, so that’s the, just the nature of the jobs.

DA: Yeah, I think the this yourself, as a corporate entity and sharing it publicly, thank you with our listeners, also helps in your discussions with your tenants as well have empathy toward what they’re trying to figure out, what they’re going through, and provide counsel, also based in part, I would imagine on your own experience.

BR: Exactly, and we’ve gone through each iteration, I’ve signed multiple leases during this pandemic one for slightly reductionist space, one for an increase in space, so we’re going through all the different types of efficiency benefit. We’re growing so fast that we actually need more space. So I would say, adopting to, how do you actually make it work? So going back to our first conversation, actually projecting forward five years and saying, how could we make some of this work? And what are some of the optionalities if things change.

DA: Right, great insights, Brian, thank you so much. Our closing an opportunity to get to know you a little bit better. So here we go, can you share one way in which pandemic has changed your outlook on life?

BR: So I’m going to be boring on this one. It hasn’t at all. I don’t know why it would, other than, I’m bored. Like a lot of other people, I haven’t traveled in two years and I haven’t gone to restaurants, I my family would probably would be more on the cautious side. So we just don’t do that, but that hasn’t changed my outlook. I’m still the things I like are the things I like, the things that are important to me, the things that are important to me, I just wear a mask more often and I’m more bored right now, but,

DA: Okay, fair enough. Well, you spoke about travel. What travel destination do you miss most?

BR: My folks live in Florida and I’ve been going down there every year since I was born, because my grandparents lived there too. And so not having a chance to go down there for a couple years has been not so great. We have a trip book there finally, so we’ll be going there in April, but that’s been the one spot that’s been, there’s a whole bunch of places I want to go that we’ve canceled the trips and stuff, but that’s the one that’s the, because it’s seeing my family too.

DA: Most important, totally get it. Anything new on your bucket list that you’d like to try to experience?

BR: I don’t really have a bucket list. There’s going back to the travel thing, probably going to different places. Like we want to go to Costa Rica, Australia and so, but I don’t know, I don’t think that far ahead from my personal life business, I got too many five year plans for my business, so I can’t five year plan my life.

DA: You don’t want to strategize your life in .

BR: I let my family do that for me.

DA: Okay, what’s your favorite technology that is new to your life?

BR: So I don’t really have personally anything new, but from the business perspective, I do enjoy the Tenant Experience stuff, and the apps and I’m looking forward to using it more in terms of with the building, engaging with booking desks and things like that. It sounds boring, sounds like a boring real estate guy answer. But for me, I’m pretty, non-tech inventive at home, but I’m actually spent most of my career selling technology.

DA: But I think the practicality of it and therefore it will impact your day-to-day life in that. And so I think that’s a good thing.

BR: Yeah, absolutely.

DA: Personal choice for days spent in person with your colleagues versus working from anywhere.

BR: I’d rather be with my colleagues and most of my career I’ve been able to, because I was in a corporate strategy roles for a while, where you could work from anywhere. And then, my first leadership role, half of my team was in Montreal and the other half was in Toronto. So and then the next role I had after that, they were in four different cities in the US. So most of the time I’ve actually been working with virtual, as a portion of it. So I’m very comfortable with that, but I’m an extrovert, I’m a people guy, I’m a brainstormer, I stand up comedy, all these things, I want to be with a crowd, in a crowd, in front of a crowd, and that’s what makes me go. So that’s, that’s my choice.

DA: Okay, I don’t have a question about comedy. Are you serious about standup comedy?

BR: I used to do it. Yeah, I used to do it. It’s been a while, it’s been about 10 years, but I did it for about 20.

DA: Very cool.

BR: 15 sorry, not that old. Over my great head. I did the math on that one. Doesn’t work out.

DA: Rosen Brian, thank you so much for being with us today. There’s so much to continue to talk about in and around buildings and the return to work and hybrid. And it’s exciting to be able to connect real estate professionals and have these conversations. So thank you very much for coming on the program, I look forward to continuing our conversation, and perhaps even having you back on the show on a future date.

BR: Great, I had fun. This was great, thanks, David.

DA: Okay, thanks so much. You be well now.

BR: Take care.

DA: I want to thank Brian Rosen for joining me on this episode of TEN and for contributing to the global conversation around buildings, being part of a robust ecosystem that can help to build great companies and that they are vital in the effort to cultivate and support great people and teams. The future of the workplace will likely take many forms and we will continue to explore what that looks like together. Subscribe to TEN for more conversations with leading CRE, industry professionals, and experts, who all have something to say about tenant experience, and the future of the workplace. We love hearing from you. So if you enjoyed this episode of TEN, please share, add your rating, and review us through your preferred podcast provider. If you or someone you know, would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly @david, And until our next episode, I wish you continued success in building community where you work and live. Thank you.

DA: I want to thank Brian Rosen for joining me on this episode of TEN and for contributing to the global conversation around buildings, being part of a robust ecosystem that can help to build great companies and that they are vital in the effort to cultivate and support great people and teams. The future of the workplace will likely take many forms and we will continue to explore what that looks like together. Subscribe to TEN for more conversations with leading CRE, industry professionals, and experts, who all have something to say about tenant experience, and the future of the workplace. We love hearing from you. So if you enjoyed this episode of TEN, please share, add your rating, and review us through your preferred podcast provider. If you or someone you know, would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly at And until our next episode, I wish you continued success in building community where you work and live. Thank you.