The Seasoned Expat
written by Bernie Cahiles Magkilat, published in Manila Bulletin
The real estate industry in the country has been enjoying tremendous growth with no let up. With that, property management and consultancy firms are also on their toes to provide their services and expertise.
JLL (NYSE: JLL), the world's leading professional services firm that specializes in real estate and investment management, has reinvigorated its Philippine presence by appointing a new Country Head, Christophe Vicic.
A seasoned expatriate, Vicic comes at the most exciting time of the Philippine economy. There can no greater time for his assumption as country head as JLL also celebrates its 20th year in the country this year.
Established as Jones Lang Wooton Wharton in London 250 years ago, JLL entered the US market in the '70s. The success they enjoyed in their US operations on the back of a strong global potential led them to merge with the La Salle Partners in 1999.
A Fortune 500 company, JLL helps real estate owners, occupiers, and investors achieve their business ambitions.
JLL creates value for companies and institutions that invest in and use real estate. With more than 78,000 employees across 300 corporate offices worldwide, JLL serves local, regional and global real estate needs of corporates and investors in more than 80 countries. The company's integrated services offering is grounded in expertise in all property types, a deep understanding of real estate and capital markets, and is coordinated and consistent across geographies.
JLL started operations in the Philippines back in 1997. It turns 20 this year.
According to Vicic, JLL has fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis that hit most companies in Asia.
Despite those challenging times, JLL never thought of leaving the country.
"We believe the country has always been strategic and we will never leave. With the size of the Philippines, we had to be very strong in our focus because there were not so much deals, but that was only two years as against 20," he adds.
With perseverance, the Chicago-headquartered JLL came a long way in the country.
Vicic hopes there will be no repeat of that global financial crisis, which was triggered by the overheating of the financial system and over exposure on debt ratio on the capitalization of banks.
"There was also a bit of craziness in consumer consumption at any price and the lending was not done right like in the assessment of criteria. So that provoked a meltdown of the financial system," he adds.
But countries have learned a lot from that crisis. "We've learned our lesson especially the big countries like the US and EU. I think we should be watching, we should not relax our standards so as not to create another crisis soon," he adds.
He cited the Philippines whose monetary officials are a bit more on conservative side and seeing to it that the lending market is under control.
Asked how JLL will be in the next 20 years, Vicic said JLL should continue flourishing.
"I'm very excited about the future," he adds.
Indeed, the Philippines has fully recovered from the crisis. So does JLL. Vicic expects to grow more than 25 percent in terms of sales this year from last year's 10 percent. "We believe in the development of this country and strength of our company, and there is interest from China. These will fuel our growth," he says.
JLL is also strengthening its existing products and services as well as offer new ones. Along with growth, JLL is keeping its policy as a very ethical company in all of its endeavors.
"We will be working at launching on a new product called the 'Future of Work'," he says. This new product is all about a service that JLL has already started to offer worldwide to its big investors. It is about the new way of working apart from the traditional employment contract wherein an individual wanted to work in a company and on agreed salary.
"Today, the individual chooses how to work, where to work and for whom. It is a completely shift of the real estate of the future. No closed offices, open space, no requirement for 8-5 work schedule, but work on demand and real estate space on demand," he adds.
This trend will affect decisions of companies and investors on where to invest and locate their operations.
This kind of shift is largely driven by technology and innovation. Because of technology, there is a new brand of employees nowadays. These employees are more demanding.
More people will be looking for space that maybe of different construction. Perhaps, instead of big towers, they will need small buildings. They may also need to go outside of city centers and into greener space or areas with cultural heritage. There is also a kind of new positioning for cities.
"Cities will be cities but there is a new way of understanding work and how companies attract the best talents," says Vicic, who used to work for 9 years as Managing Director in different countries for DHL International Limited.
All these factors, he said, will affect investment decisions and real estate developments. This is where JLL as the world's largest property management and consultancy services company comes handy.
Advisory is one major business of JLL. It advises clients on how construction of residential and office buildings should be like in the next couple of years.
Its business is still on the average 50-50 for leasing and property management. Of the property management, 70 percent is local and 30 percent international.
"We have the most complete set of services and the widest number of lines and leaders. Overall, we have the best clients and we are the market leader and we intend to keep that," adds Vicic.
So far, business from the provinces still accounts for a smaller 15 percent of its total business in the Philippines. But the provincial business is improving because of the push of the government to create opportunities for Filipinos in the region and to help decongest Metro Manila.
He cited Cebu as an alternative center just like Subic and Clark because of the ready infrastructure in these areas. Companies like BPO firms normally operate in clusters and are also moving out into other key cities for practical reasons.
So, there is competition in some new areas for businesses. All these are going to create opportunities in the provinces.
In fact, the assignment of Vicic to the Philippines is an indication of JLL's strong faith in the domestic economy, which GDP growth is only second highest to China in the region.
He admitted though that the market is still developing and there is more room for improvement, but JLL has been anticipating for strong growth potential as the government is pouring in huge amount of investments in infrastructure.
"We are linked to infrastructure and country development," he adds. The challenge though for foreign investors has always been in the land ownership policy where full foreign ownership is limited up to 40 percent only.
"The work is in progress and there is an enormous potential and these opportunities are not only in real estate but for any company. There is a bright future with the huge population," he adds. The Philippines is also strategically located between Austral Asia and Middle East.
The huge infrastructure push will be the main driver for growth and will push diversification of businesses into the countryside. Infrastructure also adds value to investors.
"I believe the government is doing the right thing. But they really need to deliver all the major projects," Vicic says of his general assessment of President Duterte's government.
In the short period that he's been here, Vicic has seen more and more investors in the real estate sector. Foremost, he found the Chinese very aggressive.
"More and more serious investors are coming over and also a bit more are going into our real estate business. They are very serious Chinese private investors in the real estate looking at setting up operations in the Philippines," says Vicic.
There is a constant interest of Singaporeans, Koreans, and Japanese businessmen on a weekly basis but nothing can beat the very aggressive Chinese. In fact, he said, three out of 10 of potential investors in the Philippines are Chinese.
"These are not Chinese tenants and not government-owned enterprises, but these are Chinese conglomerates and they are building mixed-use residential hotel offices, they are investing in mini- cities. These are the kind of investments we are seeing now," he adds.
Vicic believes that after BPO, the next real estate boom would be in the tourism sector. He expects growth in tourism to overtake the BPO, which has already reached a certain maturity level.
"I think it is also a government strategy and objective to build other industries," he adds. The tourism sector will also fuel investments and social infrastructure such as hospitals and schools, which can be implemented via the Public Private Partnership scheme.
Another industry that is just waiting in the wings is the logistics and warehousing. Because of the growing need of goods to be made available quickly and the current lack of infrastructure support, there is a need for creative ways to address logistics challenges.
Vicic has only high praises for the dedication and professionalism of the JLL Philippines' team of 600 people. He just wants them to prosper as well. Thus, even as he is hands-on he also delegates some of the work to pass on responsibilities and make his talent grow some more.
"I am a very fair person and at the end of the day there is a company performance," he adds. His work is largely to bring his team together to be able to achieve their goal.
"And I feel this is my responsibility," he adds. Vicic was also amazed for having a hardworking Filipino team, who put customer service at the heart of their job. JLL has always emphasized on being customer-centric.
Not only that, Vicic cited the high level of education of his team, most of them coming from the top universities in the country. Some already held foreign assignments. They are highly motivated individuals.
His role now is to bring a new way of doing business from abroad, new technique perhaps, process-driven initiatives like understanding about KPI for his staff who are mostly younger than him with average age of 30.
"We have lots of youngsters in our business line and we have senior people but young at heart despite being in the business for quite sometime already. They ensure quality of the overall work of JLL," says Vicic, who holds a degree in industrial drawing, hoping to become an architect but instead went on to finish his MBA at the London School of Business.
Vicic cited JLL's open culture, allowing everyone in the organization to do whatever they think is important for the company and for their professional growth. This is also the same culture at his previous jobs.
"There is freedom within the framework, if you have ideas, then you are free to suggest and try it," adds Vicic. This is the kind of openness that makes JLL a dynamic organization.
One thing that Vicic would like to introduce in the Philippine unit is to institutionalize the company's corporate social responsibility program.
Vicic also loves to assimilate with the locals and the French business community in Manila. In fact, he is a big fan of authentic Filipino dishes, particularly the pork-based dishes. He loves adobo, sisig and lechon.
A meat lover, Vicic loves to explore the Saturday market in Salcedo, Makati, which displays all kinds of food and fruits that cannot be found in Europe.
An advocate of work life-balance, Vicic does not want his people to work on weekends unless necessary. His weekends are mostly for sports and long walks with his wife. A keen traveler and sportsman (yachting, sailing, trekking), Vicic is an accomplished runner with 11+ marathons completed. He runs 30 to 50 kilometers three times a week to keep fit.
There is no need to learn the local language though but he manages to catch some Spanish words and phrases.
A French national, Vicic started his Philippine job only in January this year. Prior to this appointment, he was COO for JLL Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States based in Moscow.
Vicic said he did not hesitate coming over. Upon arrival, he found the far away country in the tropics lovely.
A seasoned expatriate, Vicic had been assigned for work from his previous companies to some challenging markets like Africa, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe and had to adopt always to different cultures.
The Philippines is his first country in the southeast Asia region. He had been to Hong Kong and Singapore but did not work and live there for more than two months. Normally, a country manager has a tour of duty of six years.
"It is very nice, very charming and people are very educated and there is strong domestic economy. Personally, I value that," he adds.
After the freezing temperatures in Moscow, the warm temperature in tropical Philippines is a welcome destination for Vicic.
"After Russia, it's lovely. This is my new home," he says noting that they always have snow and very short two months of summer in Russia.
Vicic, who comes from Normandy, north of Paris, still refers France as home despite his long absence of continued stay. He hopes to someday retire in Nice or near the French Riviera area.
A seasoned expatriate for 34 years in 10 countries, including the Philippines, Vicic has always been a gracious guest.
"Always remember that you are not in your home country so you should behave according to the local culture and local people. It may not be all the time that everything is positive and good, but even in difficult times respect individual's culture and how things are done and still continue to deliver your message and achieve the objective. This has been my motto wherever I maybe assigned because this is how you also want to be treated," he adds.
The second lesson is that wherever you may be, whether it is a developing, emerging or a developed economy, achieving quality and excellence is always possible.
What is common among the countries he went to is there is always the opportunity to do business.
"There is always a need for something in a country, I am not saying it is easy, but there is always an opportunity to do business," adds Vicic.
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