A DECADE AND A HALF IN THE PROPERTY SECTOR
PROVOCATE talks to Shaheen Adams – a man passionate about transformation in the property sector, and who carries a deep concern about social housing – about his career in the property sector.
After the first five years of my career, which were spent mainly in marketing of macro-economic research, I made a conscious choice to enter the property industry in about 2007. Peter Golding (of the Pam Golding Group) played a crucial role in this ambition, by being first to bring me on board with Pam Golding Commercial as an investment broker. His support, leadership, humanity and mentorship during this time were invaluable – my entry into the sector was perfectly timed to coincide with the global financial crisis.
When the bottom fell out of the market, I recall stepping into Peter’s office as if it was yesterday. I wanted to propose a reasonable repayment plan for commission advances made to me, which I now knew would take me a longer time to fulfil. Peter calmly heard me out – then, instead of discussing payment plans, he forgave those debts in an instant.
I was humbled by the humanity of the moment. To this day, it’s the type of leadership that I have aspired to myself.
After the brokering false start, I transferred to Pam Golding Property Management Services as a portfolio manager (under the tutelage of Mike Morey, a property management CEO par excellence). There I was given free rein to rehabilitate a troubled portfolio of properties (in excess of R2-billion in capital value), whose contracts had been transferred over from another property firm which had mismanaged them.
This was my first foray into asset management success, bringing properties that were mostly in the red squarely back into the black through systematic hard work over two years. It gave me the renewed confidence I needed to surge forward. It also felt good to be able to repay in some way the kindness that Peter had shown me a few years prior.
I’ve partnered with Elemental Property Developers, and we’ll be pursuing residential development in the Cape Town area for the next few years. Elemental has been a trustworthy partner, and I look forward to us doing great things together.
Let’s suppose that, even with the Grant, Social Utopia is unable to feasibly develop New Dawn. Let’s further suppose that Social Utopia fortunately has adjacent land it had previously bought, and therefore is also able to include a market related development into the scheme to be developed on that land. Let’s call this market related development New Heights. The blended yield of the entire development (inclusive of New Dawn and New Heights) now makes the development of New Dawn feasible for Social Utopia.
I balance my development aspirations with generating enough cash flow to see myself through the long lead times that are needed for developments to come on stream.
To keep the lights burning, I consult in asset management, property management and the development space, basically becoming a bit of an “outsourced property department” for my clients for the duration of the contract. My specialisation in consulting is – ironically – anti-specialisation. Because of my extensive executive experience, which provides exposure to multiple disciplines, my main area of value to clients is to synthesize a solution across multiple disciplines in a manner that is “board-ready”. When necessary, I draw in specific expertise depending on the job requirements – but ultimately, I take 100% responsibility for my projects, and engage directly with the CEO and/or the board as required. Clients therefore realise great value compared to going to any large-scale consultancy that needs to charge at a rate commensurate with their significant overheads. I strip down the work for a client to the bare essentials with maximum value for them, even if this means less immediate income for me.
What do you think is the greatest lesson we should learn from the pandemic?
Humility, gratitude and not taking anything for granted. Strengthen all of your relationships, in life and in business. We all need each other – even if we sometimes like to pretend we don’t.
What do you enjoy most about your consulting work?
The variety of work, spanning every facet of the property sector – development, asset management, property management, and other elements such as law, corporate governance and stakeholder management.
Because my work involves a lot of synthesis, every problem and every solution is completely unique. The work ranges from capital raising for a property venture capital fund abroad, to helping a company do their 10-year property capex planning and property strategy. Every day brings new and exciting challenges. But what really gives me the most satisfaction is a happy client at the end of a project.
Given your experience in government, what is the one change that you believe would make the greatest difference to government delivery?
One phrase: unity of purpose. It is understandable that different political parties would have differing mandates, but the degree of waste that occurs as a government sphere transitions from one administration to the next every five years is alarming.
And that’s just referring to ground-roots impact of projects deferred, parked or shelved, never mind the amount of governmental human resources and funds invested into projects up to that point, or investment by private sector into various RFIs that lead nowhere.
Even when government spheres are concurrently run by the same party (for example, a city and a province under the same political party leadership), the inter-governmental ineffectiveness caused by institutional politics leaves a dizzying effect.
Without a real financial bottom line enforcing a need for some sort of survivalist efficiency, the degree of largesse and wastage in government can sometimes make your head spin. You have many good, talented public servants, caught in a system in which who gets the credit of the ribbon-cutting is far too often placed ahead of the true needs of the people.
Any entrepreneurial advice for anyone looking to make a start on their own?
The first habit to unlearn is the expectation of the regularity of a monthly paycheque. This habit pattern in formal employment of the (almost) immediate financial payoff for your “labour” is perhaps one of the greatest stumbling blocks to realising entrepreneurial stamina, and is embedded deep in the subconscious. To overcome it requires quite intense introspection.
Formal employment weakens the natural relationship between your true effectiveness and your remuneration, in a sense softening that correlation. Your entrepreneurial instincts get dulled out, because your “salary” is sourced not only from what you do, but from the effects of a host of other drivers, such as your company’s brand equity, prior years advertising and marketing or a buoyant market. It’s like your salary is an insurance payout you make to yourself, to hedge your own bets for and against yourself about whether or not you will “make it” at some future point in time. Therefore, making that mental leap towards viewing those initial months of (possibly) no income as an “investment” in yourself and your success can be a daunting walk on a tightrope.
In entrepreneurship, the truth of the natural effectiveness/ remuneration relationship is displayed in neon lights, every day. If you are ineffective, you don’t get paid – not now, not ever, simple as that. When building yourself up initially, your efforts may only result in income months, perhaps years, later. And being able to sustain yourself for that period while maintaining motivation is key. As Nassim Nicolas Taleb wrote, you need to be more than just resilient to change – you need to be “anti-fragile”. You need to strengthen and progressively evolve at a faster rate as you make daily micro-adjustments based on the livestream of information feedback coming your way, watching your actions constantly crashing against the shoreline of your reality, and trying to make sense of what you see in the froth. Your income will come under severe pressure, so build your anti-fragility by proactively reducing your expenses as much as possible before you make the change. Let “tap water with ice and lemon please” (emphasis on “tap”) become a mantra at restaurants. Say it with panache – the waiter and your guests will assume you’re rich.
Secondly, value is everything. To your clients, the only thing that matters is the value you can bring. Be willing to do work free of charge if needed to prove to prospective clients that you can be of value to them.
Who has had the greatest impact on your life, both personally and professionally?
My dad has been a major influence. He grew up in District Six in the 1940s and ’50s – poor but talented, making the most of his circumstances and life, a young man chopping wood on Devil’s Peak for an hour every morning (for that evening’s fire) before walking 5km to school. His vision was to give his children the tertiary education he himself was unable to pursue. He approached it with a single-mindedness and determination that saw him succeed spectacularly in this regard, putting all of his children through UCT. He taught me my first lessons about excellence and work ethic, two cornerstones of my professional life to this day.
Between him and my mom, I learnt that I am no worse than anyone, and I am no better than anyone. So whether you are a CEO of a company or a hawker at a traffic light, I am treating you with the same respect. There is no premium paid, or discount given, based on anyone’s so-called “station” in life.
Business principles you abide by?
Effectiveness, efficiency, economy. Even before the pandemic, these three principles were my mantra – they are even more so now. These are the fundamental building blocks that guide me in making the most of my time. I ask myself daily: 1) Are you doing the right thing? (Effectiveness); 2) Are you doing it well? (Efficiency); and 3) Are you doing it most cost-effective way? (Economy). If I can answer yes to these three questions, I feel at ease that I’m on the right track. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.
Trust and relationships are everything. Place value for your client at the forefront of everything you do. Always be prepared to take a short-term loss, if it means cultivating a long-term relationship of trust.
What do you believe to be the biggest business myth?
The notion of the “self-made” man or woman. In my view, there is no such thing as self-made, even if it apparently seems so on the surface. Every person comes from their own set of circumstances, parents (or not), influences and background; and each person has throngs of people helping them along on the journey, from family to friends and co-workers. To be self-proclaimed as self-made is to be either unaware or aware and unappreciative of the myriad of forces that got you to where you are.
Major changes coming to the sector?
The pandemic has accelerated the trends that were pre-existing before lockdowns hit the globe. Flexibility will increasingly become the core principle that underlies property use, especially in the commercial space. The ability to quickly and cost-effectively adapt and modularise space around client requirements is the new norm. Buildings will be developed for flexibility not only in terms of adaptability for client requirements, but also keeping the ease of future use-conversion potential in mind.
Mostly, however, across all sectors, Covid-19 has meant battening down the hatches, consolidating what is there, and realising as much efficiency as possible. The consequence for the commercial property space is a demand-side constraint expected for some time, exacerbating an oversupply of space. This will force the hand of some building owners to look at conversions, and require developers to be fleet-footed and flexible in terms of expectations, to ensure that their developments coming on stream remain profitable, albeit below initial expectations at the time of project conception.
Thanks to: Gary Fisher
Gary is an inspirational leader and very successful in the private sector, having taken the property fund CBS to a JSE listing in the mid-2000s. He is currently executive chairman of Capitalgro Properties, a R1-billion (and growing) unlisted property fund.
Gary joined the Western Cape government in 2011 as head of public works. The following year, I was appointed as chief director of immovable asset management (IAM), moving from the City of Cape Town, where I was also in a senior role within the IAM space.
I was responsible for managing the huge provincial property portfolio – in excess of R100-billion in capital value – as well as a team of more than 100 staff in the property department, under Gary’s leadership as head of public works. I’m proud of what we were able to achieve in the time we shared in government, most particularly the enormous amount of foundational work that was put in place to get the Conradie mixed-used property project on the rails.
When times were at their toughest, and there seemingly weren’t enough hours in the day to get the job done, Gary reminded the staff that they’re “human beings, not human doings” – leading from the heart, with heart.
We share a strong bond of kinship and trust to this day. Sometimes in life you need people who have a greater faith and vision in you than you may have in yourself at that time, and Gary is certainly one of these people in my life.
Thanks to: Simon Bridges
Simon is the managing director of Elemental Property Developers. We met about two years ago, and had a good connection from the outset. Early last year, Simon contacted me and proposed we partner up for certain projects in the residential space. A month or two later, we had inked an agreement and moved forward in pursuit of development opportunities together.
While empowerment deals that involve listed companies or politicians typically make the headlines, it’s the deals that happen with no fanfare that are often the true foundation of grassroots empowerment. And while I’m aware of the value I bring to the table, it was never a certainty in my life that I would have a seat at the table to begin with. This is the challenge of any established professional seeking to bridge the chasm from formal employment to accessing capital in the pursuit of opportunity.
I was grateful for the approach made by Elemental, and that we were able to come to an agreement. I look forward to the great work we will do together in the coming years.