Archilyse is Asking: How is the Real Estate Industry Standing up to
Sars-Cov-2?

Interview with Peer Kocur, Head of Real Estate Portfolio Management at Migros Pensionskasse

Today, we are proud to bring you insights from Peer Kocur, Head of Real Estate Portfolio Management, one of Switzerland’s biggest pension funds. In this interview, he shares his experience of how he and his company are dealing with the current situation.
In our “Standing up to Sars-Cov-2” interview series, every week we are featuring personalities from the real estate industry. We want to promote the exchange in the industry and encourage all real estate players to stay strong during this challenging time.

1. In what ways were and are you – as a company – most affected by the Sars-Cov-2 outbreak (e.g. decline in orders, termination of operations, etc.)?

The Migros Pension Fund (MPK) is divided into

  • the pension schemes
  • asset management and
  • the directly held real estate.

As Head of Portfolio Management Real Estate, I only comment on the real estate division.
The portfolio is spread throughout Switzerland and is managed from three locations (Schlieren, Basel and Ecublens). Around 80% of the portfolio is residential property, the remaining part is commercial property. We are currently confronted with various challenges:

External:

  • Restrictions on viewings (rental property handovers, renovation planning, maintenance measures, etc.)
  • Strongly reduced volume on the transaction market
  • Rent reduction requests in the commercial segment from existing tenants
  • Reduced demand for rental space in the commercial sector
  • Additional expenses for organising changes of residence as of 1st of April

Internal:

  • Home office: Provision of infrastructure (laptop and software) and lack of direct contacts
  • Limited work opportunities for janitors

We have already carried out telephone & video conferences between the branches in the past. What is new, however, is that we are now also doing this with external discussion partners and internal employees who could otherwise be briefly spoken tête-à-tête bilaterally.

Not everyone has a fast fibre-optic connection at home.
Meetings where, for example, floor plans are to be optimized (e.g. for renovations, project developments), where “earlier” it was possible to sketch with a pencil in the plan, become challenging.

2. What measures (technical, organizational, customer-specific) have been taken in your company? What tips can you give others based on your experience?

After the official announcement of the BAG, we began to oblige employees to work from home. For this purpose, they had to be partially equipped with the necessary infrastructure (laptops, software). 

The on-site presence of our employees in the various teams was reduced to a minimum and/or distributed to different locations (office splitting). However, we are endeavouring to keep all channels open for our tenants, and for a high number of tenants, this still includes the mailing route.

Right from the start, Risk Management (RM) informed the staff, sometimes several times a day, posted information on the intranet and was available to answer employees’ questions.

Behavioural documents were made available for the superior positions. The RM also looked at the travel activities reported by the workforce in order to be able to take action if necessary.

Thanks to an existing organisation for emergencies (emergency staff, business continuity management planning), we were thus prepared, not specifically for SARS-Cov-2, but for an exceptional situation. As a result, the RM only had to make relatively minor adjustments.

3. What was your approach, e.g. did you think in different scenarios? Which sources of information or methodological approaches did you choose?

On the one hand, an emergency task force already existed, which held crisis meetings shortly after the Federal Council announced the measures. Within the Migros Group, there was also a national crisis team with representatives from various areas, e.g. HR, which was available to provide documents relating to employment contracts. One major challenge was to equip all employees (and not only the cadres) with laptops, which was the case after about three weeks after the lockdown at the beginning of April.

The information for superiors and HR staff was continuously adapted to the new resolutions of the Federal Council. Deployment planning (home office, split office, on-site presence of individual employees) was carried out weekly and the rhythm of team meetings (only via telephone or video conference) was intensified.

4. Looking back on the last few weeks, what would you do differently today? What conclusions can you already draw from this?

On the whole, our measures have proved their worth and operations have been maintained.

I should have enjoyed the time over a coffee with one or two people from the industry more.

5. Where do you see the greatest challenges or threats in the current situation? How do you deal with them?

At no time in the past have the different markets been so interwoven as they are today. The resulting risks of the further course of the pandemic (second wave, increase in the infection rate after the first relaxation of measures) and the economic impact on our tenants (residential and commercial space) are very difficult to assess.

Owners of commercial portfolios are already confronted with questions such as: “What liquidity and long-term economic strength do the tenants have? How will their sales develop after the exceptional situation? Is their business model flexible enough for such a situation?”

Hectic action has never been a good advisor. In the near future, the focus will be on finding solutions in partnership with customers in order to avoid long-term vacancies as far as possible.

6. Are there any positive aspects you can draw from this crisis? What opportunities are there?

The crisis has shown that working with digital tools can be done well. Work@home and videoconferencing are likely to remain important in the future.

Everyone in the home office with a family can now spend more quality time with them. I think that’s great and I admire all those who smoothly combine the challenge of work and family.

People only know what they had, when they lost it. All that interpersonal interaction, discussing topics together over a quick espresso or a long lunch is then missing. The situation makes what used to be considered normal and every day appear in a new, brighter light.

7. Let’s travel into the past before the crisis – what tips would you give yourself from today’s perspective?

Professionally, it is still too early to talk about tips, especially as we as a pension fund can face such an event calmly, as we are long-term investors.

Privately, I should have stayed longer with my daughter in Germany last time.

8. Let’s travel into the future and think of April 2021 – What will have changed permanently as a result of this crisis?

We will learn to deal with the situation. The situation may drag on longer than we think. 

  • Why should we continue to accept long travel times if it also works via web conference? 
  • If it is possible to work outside of the office, why should we give up this independent of location? 
  • If that were the case, we could think about the office space requirements. Would that be reduced? Companies would be able to slim down their fixed costs.
  • As much as I personally enjoy attending the various industry events, I find the online panels that are currently taking place very welcome. Hopefully they will continue.
  • In addition, I can well imagine that the crisis will be a catalyst for various topics already known: E-learning, online commerce, digitalisation of businesses, communities and other services.

Life will not do a U-turn and I hope that we can all return to our interpersonal normality as soon as possible.

Thanks a lot, Peer Kocur, for doing this interview!

Stay tuned!

Read also the other exciting interviews with Marcelo Collins from Viva Real or with Jan Eckert of JLL. Our next interview partner is coming up soon.