Neil Lacheur, EVP & Principal, Avison Young | Building your own story & starting as an entrepreneur | 34:49

Transcript

DA: Hi, I’m David Abrams and I want to welcome you to this edition of the Tenant Experience Network Podcast. I want to welcome today’s guest Neil Lacheur, Executive Vice President of Real Estate Management at Avison Young. One of the world’s fastest growing commercial real estate firms operating in 15 countries with 400 million square feet under management. In this episode, we will learn about Neil’s journey to his current position at Avison Young, where he combines his learning from being an entrepreneur with his corporate experience. We will tap into his thinking around building your own story as one of his keys to success and get a glimpse into what is top of mind for Neil, as he continues to navigate through new challenges and emerging opportunities. We’re excited to be sharing this podcast with you, so make sure to subscribe. So you never miss an episode of the Tenant Experience Network. And now I’d like to Welcome Neil to the show. Hey Neil, glad you could be with us today.

NL: Hey David, thanks for having me.

DA: Let’s jump right in. Let’s start with your journey to your current position at Avison Young. How’d you get started? Walk me through that process.

NL: Yeah, it’s been a long journey. I can’t believe I can say that, but that’s the stage that I’m at now. Lots of experiences, right? So I went to school on the West coast at the University of Victoria, took an economics degree just because I was interested in business and that was where I was going, but I didn’t have a plan. And I finished up my degree and moved to Vancouver. I worked for a management consulting firm and it was just the most incredible first job. And I think about that a lot in terms of how that’s guided my career and the experiences that I had. So that we’ll talk about that a little bit later, but I was doing socioeconomic analysis and cost benefit analysis and things like that. Very interesting projects. And what it taught me was, you’re a consultant so hard work for sure. And also accountability. I was responsible for producing reports and doing research that, as a kid right out of the school, back in the early 90s was just unfathomable to me. So that was just an incredible first job. But then I did that for three or four years and then hit a crossroads. It’s like, okay, where do I want to start to ground my life? Do I want to stay on the West coast? And there was a few things that drew me to Toronto and I moved to Toronto with really no prospects in play. It was just like, okay, I’m just going to hop in my, I think Nissan Pathfinder, at the time, and drove and threw all my worldly possessions in the back seat and off I went and drove across the country.

DA: That’s great.

NL: And got here and my brother was here, we started banding about ideas. What’s going to happen? What are we going to do? He and I had already talked about getting into business together or doing something interesting. So I won’t get into all the details, but we started the company that ultimately became The Elevator News Network, which at the time it was that, but ultimately became Captivate, which is still a going concern. And I’m no longer involved obviously, but that was in itself an amazing experience because that was super entrepreneurial. It was a startup, things that you can relate to David, bootstrap financing, new concepts, really pushing the envelope, talk about hard work. Like that was really hard work, but incredibly gratifying and exhilarating. And we grew that business from 1995 is when we started. The internet was dial up internet. So just for perspective of anybody that doesn’t know what dial up internet is, like the world has changed a lot and we’re piping content into elevators by the dial up internet. And we grew that business across North America and raised a whole bunch of dough. It was just an incredible run. Then the dot bomb crash happened and our financing, we had lots of money, but the prospects for future financing weren’t that great. And our biggest investor was Goldman Sachs and they basically said, you got one competitor, merge it up. And so we merged with Captivate out of Boston and I did that for another couple years and then left. Because all that sweat equity hadn’t turned into significant personal equity. I still had to work. And so I was again at a crossroads, going what’s the future look like? And my role at ENN had a lot of real estate requirements. So I was the guy selling the product in the real estate marketplace. And one of my clients was Manulife. And Manulife, when I called my clients and said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know I’m moving on from Captivate’ at the time. Peter McDonald at Manulife said, ‘well, hey, do you want to come in and talk to me about a role in our organization?’ And I’m like, okay, I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. So I went and talked to Peter and another great life lesson, a career lesson, he said, I believe in transferable skills, I believe in competencies more than experience. And he goes, your experience is outside real estate. But I think there’s some core competencies that can help our organization. And he took a flyer on me and I accepted the job as a property director for the Toronto region, and what got me into property management and the real estate game. And it took guts for Peter to hire me. And I’m forever grateful for that. But you need those fortunate events and put yourself in a position for those fortunate events to happen. And so from Manulife I went on to Bentall, Bentall Kennedy, which became QuadReal and now it’s to Avison Young. And so since then, it’s just been a series of successful journeys through the real estate business. But it really all started for me on that moment when Peter said, will you come and join Manulife?

DA: Really interesting. Well, first of all, you and I, I guess we first began working together at Manulife.

NL: That’s right.

DA: And Peter McDonald was very involved in my beginning to work with Manulife as well. So that’s very interesting we have that in common. And I guess our careers are somewhat flipped in that I worked in commercial real estate, while running my marketing communications agency for the first part of my career and are now doing that very entrepreneurial tech startup, where you chose to do that first and ended up in commercial real estate. I guess we’re topsy turvy there. Interesting how things turned out. So why do you think you were uniquely suited to this opportunity? So, interesting you talked about that moment in time, but any unique skills that you think have helped you to become successful?

NL: Yeah, I don’t think I have any unique skills.

DA: Peter saw something clearly.

NL: Well, I think honestly I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded and surround myself with really great people and being able to work for some really great companies and those things combined inform your perspective and inform your decision making, but also the experiences that I’ve had along the way, right? Like going from a very super entrepreneurial environment at a startup through who, and this was honestly a conscious decision saying yes at Manulife, because I thought if I can survive in that corporate world, coming from such an entrepreneurial world, then ultimately maybe my career finds its way back in the middle and with an entrepreneurial element, by utilizing those core competencies that you learned in the corporate world. So, I think back and it was actually very conscious because I needed a job too, who’s kidding who? But it was like, if you have a few options, how does this play out in the future? And I was trying to think two or three steps ahead. So, maybe that’s a unique skill, I don’t know, but I’m certainly not the most talented guy or the smartest guy in the room. I tried to find the people who are the smartest and surround myself with them.

DA: Right. You once shared a story, I’m going to just take a different track for a moment, but you once shared a story in particular, how you chose to go to QuadReal from Bentall and you had an opportunity to go down two paths. The property management path, or the path you chose. I wonder if you could just tell me, share with our listeners a little bit about that story. ‘Cause I think it’s pretty interesting.

NL: Yeah, I’d forgotten that we talked about that. Yeah, so when QuadReal was set up, Remco Daal, the president of the Bentall Kennedy, but ultimately the president QuadReal was talking to me about future opportunities. And there is a path down the more traditional route of running a region for property management versus, Remco had this idea around the customer experience. And he said, we don’t put enough focus on our customers in this business. We were transaction-oriented, we are operationally-oriented, but at the end of the day, it all boils down to the customer. Where’s our focus on the customer? So he laid out this conceptual idea of the role as the head of customer experience that I ultimately ended up accepting because, and the reason I said yes is because I agreed with him philosophically. And I thought, if this doesn’t work out, I’ll have learned something along the way, but it’s started taking me back down that entrepreneurial path. And it gave me an opportunity and a platform to do some things, push the envelope a little bit, stumble a little bit, make some mistakes, but it was the ability to own some ideas and really push an agenda that was important to me. So that actually was a very easy decision once I weighed the pros and cons of each. And that was more true to my own heart, quite frankly, about what was going to excite me about a new job.

DA: Right. Thanks for sharing that. Any advice for someone wanting to follow a similar path? I guess maybe from entrepreneur to more of the corporate environment, or just within the commercial real estate industry as a whole?

NL: Yeah. I think that there’s a few fundamentals that apply to any job, any career, any industry, hard work, you gotta work. You just, you have to work hard, especially early, not especially early, from day one. It’s pretty basic.

DA: It never stops.

NL: I would say, be humble and humility leads into the next point, which is be a good listener, right? If you surround yourself with good people and you’re part of good organizations and you listen to what’s going on around you, you’re picking things up all the time and that helps inform your future direction, things you want to do, things that are important to you and the lessons you’re gonna learn and apply, right? So, be humble, work hard, be a good listener. And then I think surround yourself with those interesting people. And so, I’ve got teenage kids, late teens, they’re starting to finish up high school and head off to university. And they’ve actually both got their first summer jobs ever. They’ve been camp kids but camp is done, so they can’t be counselors anymore. So it’s like, you’re not sitting around all summer. So go get a job. And they were fortunate enough to get jobs, but in those discussions, I said, you’ve got to build your story, what’s your own personal narrative? And so when you go in and talk to a prospective employer, what are you going to talk to them about? You’re 17 years old, what’s your story? And it gets them thinking about what have I done and also what do I want to do? And they’ve got to build that narrative. I think we’re all still building our own personal narrative, right? Like when you talked about what led me to where I am today, that’s your story. And we all have experiences along the way, try to make those experiences as impactful as possible, I would say.

DA: Yep, that process never really ends. And I think that the notion of storytelling, the skill of storytelling serves us all very well, particularly in new venture. So what’s the biggest challenge you’re currently experiencing and how do you think you’ll overcome it?

NL: That’s a great question. I think, we’re in a pretty unique times, so it’s the answer applies realistically to all points in life, but in particular now, there’s too many things to do with too little time and too little money. And that applies personally and professionally, right? So, my role at AY I’ve got all kinds of ideas. I’ve got the runway and the support that I’ve got organizationally where we want to take the property management group at Avison Young is really exciting. And then I was just two months into this gig when COVID hit, I have to say, like we haven’t had a lot of time to do some of those things that we wanted to get done. And so the challenges are keeping focus on those initiatives and where we want to take the business while dealing with the fires that are burning right now. And, the good news is I think not that we’re past COVID, but the fires have dulled a little bit like we’ve gotten into a routine, I think we all personally have figured it out and what makes us comfortable. So I’m seeing even in my own days starting to pivot back to what I wanted to do in the first place. So it’s, I think that’s good news. ‘Cause if I’m feeling that way, I think a whole bunch of other people are probably feeling that way and life’s going to continue to carry on. That’s the good thing.

DA: Right. You talked about never having enough money, both personally and professionally. Well, today’s your lucky day. I’m going to give you an extra $100,000 now maybe for you and on this grand scheme of things that needs to be a $100 million, I’m not sure, but let’s start with $100 thousand, $100 thousand, new budget right now. How would you spend it and why?

NL: You know if it’s a one time $100 thousand dollars, which is not an insignificant amount of money, but you know what I would do with that money, David, I think that, and this is probably property management specific, but I’d try to put that back into the hands and pockets of my team and reward them for what they’ve done over the last four months. The money doesn’t mean anything but money’s still important, right? And you know these people, the property managers, the unsung heroes of our industry, they’ve been going to work every day while others have been working from home. They’re doing their regular day job while helping to develop pandemic plans within their buildings. They’re managing the commercial rental assistance program while managing tenant arrears and things like that at the same time. They got to communicate more than ever with our clients, as well as with our constituents and our customers. These are all net new things that they’re doing and the team, across the industry, but I’ll speak to Avison Young, they’ve worked incredibly hard over the last four months. I’d love to be able to say, Hey, here’s some thanks for that. The monetary thanks. Nobody’s giving me that $100,000. It’s not kicking around because things are tight. Things are tight all over the place, but that’s what I would do because at the end of the day, you got to keep your people happy and you got to say, thank you.

DA: Absolutely. So along the way, any resources, mentors, colleagues, books, that have really helped you along your journey?

NL: Absolutely. So, from a book, I think my favorite, I’m a nonfiction guy, so, I’ve read lots of management books and things like that, there’s one book that always stands out to me. And that’s a “Good To Great” by Jim Collins. Excuse me, if you haven’t read it, read it. It’s, there’s just so many lessons in there about how to go from good to great. And they’re very simple concepts, which is, that speaks to me because I’m a pretty simple guy. And so I read that book years ago, I’ve reread it a couple other times just to refresh and re ingrain those concepts. So that would be a book that was pretty impactful for me. I talked about Peter MacDonald as a mentor. He was very impactful for me. And outside of the fact that he took a flyer on me, I was a couple months into that job and I was overwhelmed. I was working very hard and I had a family illness and my father was ill. I had to go to Victoria and I was probably going to have to go out a few times and I was pretty stressed out. Oh and by the way, I was having my first baby at the same time. And, and he said, you know what, relax. He goes, this a big ship. You’re not, it’s not gonna live or die because of you. There’s lots of people to pick up the slack while you’re dealing with this stuff. And that, I’ll never forget that because I’ve tried to think the same way on a go forward basis as I managed people in teams and things like that, it’s, we’re a team and he instilled that more than ever in me. And then there was another lesson with somebody I worked with, this comes back to decision making, but he says, he goes, decision making is very simple and delegation and authority is very simple. He goes, I think about it as being above and below the water line. So your ship, if you get hit by a missile above the water line, you can repair the ship. If you get hit below the water line, the ship sinks. So he goes, I will give you as much decision making authority as you need. Just never make a decision that’s below the water line.

DA: Right.

NL: And I applied those lessons. And I think about that all the time. It’s given me the confidence and empowerment to feel good about making decisions, because I think, okay, there’s a calculated risk here, but it’s always above the water line. And if it’s below, then you talk to people and you get, you move it up the chain. But that phrase always sticks out for me as well.

DA: Okay. Can you share any details about something new you’re working on that you think our listeners might find interesting? Either in light of current circumstances, or as you mentioned earlier, you’ve got a whole bunch of new initiatives that you’re bringing to this new opportunity, this new business.

NL: Yeah. There’s a lot of things in the property management space, you’re working on some stuff around Tenant Experience applications and there’s all kinds of prop tech out there. And when I talked earlier about the runway and what we want to do, those are all things that we want to start going down the path on and are exploring. It doesn’t happen as fast this month ’cause there’s too many things to do with too little time and too little money, but that is all percolating along the road while we do all kinds of other things that are just stabilizing the business and growing the business. And my role is a new role at Avison Young. We didn’t have this national leadership in the past. So I’m working very hard at standardizing processes, establishing operating protocols, the consistency of service across the country to all our clients, stitching the various business lines together and expanding our sustainability practices and expanding our innovation, and expanding our building operations to really focus and those have those become centers of excellence and things that we can stand up against the best companies in the business and say, we’re really good at this and we will take care of our customers and our clients through all these various disciplines. So there’s lots to do on all that sort of stuff, but that’s really what we’re working on. So it’s not that sexy necessarily, but it’s pretty foundational and it moves us down the path to being able to do more and more interesting things.

DA: Right, so it’s a vision to take the company to a whole new level. And again, that speaks I guess to you as entrepreneurial, you talked earlier about sort of going to how this corporate world prepared you, but it sounds like in this new role, you have the opportunity to be both corporate, but also entrepreneurial once again.

NL: Yeah, absolutely. So I think about that and go, yeah, this is part of what appealed to me about Avison Young. Like, the culture is incredible at this organization, the people and the leadership from Mark Rose the CEO down, it’s a very caring organization. Things that are really important to me on a personal values perspective. And we can get the latitude and runway to make it our own at the same time to put our own stamp on it. So it’s a pretty neat opportunity and what am I? I’m six months into it. And it’s been fun despite COVID.

DA: Right. Okay, if you could have one superpower, what do you think that would be and why?

NL: I would like to be able to, I’m not sure if this is the right word, teleport or transport myself. Right, so just go from one place to another,

DA: A little Star-Trek-like.

NL: Exactly. Because, and the reason for that, so I love being around people. I love communicating with my team. Zoom has been fantastic, but I can’t wait to get back to the office and interact with people face to face, that human connection. And with a national role, obviously I haven’t been to any other offices. I haven’t seen anybody. Our Toronto office is now starting to softly open. And so I’m having a few personal meetings. So I’d love to be able to avoid the airports now more than ever, and just get to Vancouver. I’d like to be in Vancouver in an hour, in half an hour, as soon as we’re done with this call. And so that’s unfortunately not the reality, but if I had a superpower, I’d be able to just go anywhere at any time so that I could build those connections and be a part of the day to day life of the teams cross country.

DA: Right, well they’re saying that COVID has, is not necessarily bringing about new phenomenons, but it’s certainly accelerating the pace of change, and things that were already in play, making them happen or be needed that much faster. And I think if there was some type of teleportation in the far distant future, I think we’d all love to see that now, absolutely. And I, like you, and certainly speaking for my team, we can’t wait to get back to the workplace as well. Certainly we’ve made this work and technologies like Zoom have helped us to do that, but in our opinion, it’s not sustainable and the need to be together to, to collaborate, to have those unexpected opportunities of creativity and collaboration and just the notion of spontaneity in terms of be able to turn to someone and say, I just thought of something, what do you think it? It’s nearly impossible to do that under the current circumstances.

NL: Well I’d also, to that, I totally agree with you. And the other thing, first of all, by no means, do I think the office is dead. I think there will be more flexibility in the future. I think COVID has taught us, this social experiment, that you can make work from home possible. It works. We can trust people to carry on and complete their jobs, even if they’re not in the office. But the value of the office is those collisions – spontaneity, conversations and culture, and you can’t build a culture on Zoom, right? And so you have to be part of the office. You have to be part of this organism that is moving and shaping and molding itself every day. Now this just doesn’t happen when you have people in disparate parts of the city, communicating like we are right now. Like, it’s, you can communicate, but it’s not the same. And the culture definitely doesn’t come out. And, if you’re trying to build a long term sustainable company, the culture is everything, and that’s why we need to get back to the office.

DA: Right, you drew a correlation between the culture that you create, and then the trust that people actually, when they are working independently, will follow through. And I think you’re absolutely right. I think they’re directly connected. I think it’s all that culture that was built up prior to COVID that has allowed for that trust to actually be given and then for actually people without question to perform at a very high level, even under these circumstances. So what are you curious about right now? Anything that you’re thinking about differently in light of the current circumstances, obviously, including COVID or just the general nature of commercial real estate, but what got your curiosity at the moment?

NL: Yeah, I guess, from a real estate front, we talked about the return to the office, the other asset classes are, industrial’s rock solid, strong as ever. Multifamily is as strong as ever. Retail I think, I’m not sure how I feel about retail. I think there will be winners and losers in retail for sure. And office, I think will be unaffected. I really do. I think that it will continue to be where people want to work. And so office is going to be fine. I think within the office environment, there’s a, I would say that there’s probably some push and pull and/or evolution around sustainability. some of the practices that we’re implementing today are directly counterintuitive to trying to be sustainable, right? Like more dense filters that require you to push more air and use more energy, fresh air balances and things like that. Those don’t necessarily apply to sustainability. Masks and disposable gloves and things like that, all that sort of stuff is countered to what the industry has probably been trying to do for a long time. I think I’m curious as to where that falls out. I think that there’s going to be an increasing trend around wellness, there’s certifications, the Well certification or Fitwell other things. Does sustainability morph into wellness and personal wellness compared to the way we were before? There’s all kinds of, you’d go higher level and talk about politics and things like that. I guess the one thing I would, I guess I’d be most curious about would be we talk about paradigm shifts or it’s going to be different this time, or this is going to systemically change the way we do X. I’m curious as to whether that is in fact the case, because I think as human beings, we revert to the mean, and when this is over, whenever that is, call it a year from now, and there’s a vaccine and everything I think we’ll be packing bars. I think we’ll be carrying on. I think we’ll be working as hard. Maybe some of that work life balance that we talked about even just in the last 20 minutes that might disappear. I don’t know, but I’m curious about that because I do, I’m a little skeptical. I think we’ll learn small lessons and continue to evolve, but I don’t think there’s exponential change. That’s going to come out of this societally.

DA: I think just on that last point, I’d love to reconvene either a year or two years from now and just address that last question or that last point, because I think you’re right. We generally do return to the old ways. And I suspect there will be more change than we’ve seen in the past that will come out of this, but you’re right, we tend to go back to an old new normal, so all to be determined and that’s something we can certainly circle back on. So to that end, is there anything you wish you had known when you first started out?

NL: No, I think, well, maybe. So I think one of the greatest things that you have early in your career is naivety. And so when we were starting the Elevator News Network, I was completely naive to the limitations and how hard it would be to introduce a new product, right? So, and you’re experiencing this, right? The Tenant Experience app and how do you push that startup concept? And I was naive enough to not be afraid. And so, I guess dive right in, have conviction around what you’re doing and it’ll probably work out right? It comes back to that hard work. You gotta be smart about things, but if you work hard and have strong conviction, you can take things in the direction that you want. And ultimately, you’ll probably be successful and success doesn’t mean monetary success. Success can be experiential success that informs your future. I didn’t make any money out of my Elevator News Network experience. I gained a heck of a lot of experience that has helped me continue down the path of my career. And that’s perfect, that’s okay. It’s not about money. It’s about where you end up.

DA: Right, I’m about three or four years now into my new venture and I certainly did not know everything then that I know now, but I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t change a thing and you’re right, it is an incredible amount of hard work. And I think that anything that you really believe in, in life does require that level of hard work, nothing is ever easy, and it is all about the journey. And you’ve certainly had an interesting one, not only geographically from Victoria to Toronto, and where that has led you, but also from entrepreneur to the corporate world, and now back into is still in the corporate setting, but with an entrepreneurial flair. So I really want to thank you for taking the time to be on the show today. Really appreciated the conversation. Of course you and I go way back, but it’s always nice to learn more about you, which I have. And I look forward to continuing the conversation at a later date.

NL: That sounds great, David. Thanks for having me.

DA: My pleasure, take care all the best.

NL: You too.

DA: Bye now. I want to thank Neil Lacheur for joining us on today’s podcast and for sharing his journey from his early beginnings as an entrepreneur, to now leading the team at Avison Young. Great learning for all our listeners and an opportunity to gain insights into what it takes to be an effective leader. Please be sure to tune in again for future discussions, with leading professionals and industry experts who all have something to say about experience in the built world and the impact that technology is having on the largest asset class in the world, commercial real estate. If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on a future episode, please reach out to me directly at David@hiloapp.com. And until our next episode, I wish you all continued success in building community where you work or live. Thank you.

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