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Venturing to BTR? An insight with an expert …with Pierre Melhado

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​Pierre has over 15 years’ experience in the US multifamily market, holding senior positions for key operators including Laramar Group, McCaffery Interests and Magnolia Capital. Pierre has recently relocated to the UK with his family, joining CA Ventures.  CA Ventures are a leading developer and operator of purpose-built accommodation, with over £10 billion pounds worth of assets under management, and several more under development. Pierre is tasked with spearheading CA Management’s expansion in the UK and European build to rent market. 

Listen to the podcast to find out Pierre’s views on the future of build to rent or read the transcript below.

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  1. What was your starting point, and how you got to where you are today?

I have been working in the Multifamily/ Build to Rent sector for over 15 years, but like many people in property management, I didn’t choose property management as a career. Back then it was not seen as a career path quite truthfully, but now it is. There are now universities in the USA that focus on property management, it’s become a legitimate, lucrative and rewarding career path.

I grew up in Belize, a small country, with hopes of opening a resort when I finished university. I went to university for hotel, restaurant and tourism management. My Mom had a couple of bed and breakfasts and my Dad ironically, a landlord for smaller developments (single family homes). But I did not pay attention to my Dads side of the business, hoping to open up a hotel or something or that sort. I was very interested in hospitality and tourism as that was Belize’s main source of income. It seemed like a safe bet. Both my brother and I were pursuing hotel management because both wanted to open this dream resort in Belize. We were in New Orland’s, a great town to study hotel management, because it’s got the eco system with all the bars, restaurants, the Mardi Gras festivals. We had a lot of fun there, I did also manage to get some studying done.

I ended up staying in the USA after university…you know the story, boy meets girl, this is a dream to be around the dream girl. So, I ended up working with Starwood Lodging as a Guest Services Agent and eventually worked my way up to Head of Guest Services. After a few years, I was burnt out because hotel jobs are long hours, you can go for long stretches without a day off. You get great benefits, the heavily discounted hotel rooms but mostly my family and friends would enjoy those perks, they would send me pictures of where they were staying at…I was always working.  I was very intent on moving up quickly because my parents installed a very strong work ethic in me.

I was always one of those kids who always had a side hustle. When I was eight years old, I would buy basketball cards in bulk and resell them to other kids for a profit and back then there was only one airline that flew from Belize, so US merchandise was a hot commodity. By the time I was in high school, my brother and I were running holiday trips from Belize to other destinations. A lot of fun, but we learnt a lot about being financially rewarded pretty young, but even today I still have side hustles.

Long story short, I was burnt out working in the hotel industry so I went back to university to work for my MBA and at the point I decided to turn to the world of real estate but I wanted to be on the development side and not property management. However, while working at a hotel I was approached by a developer and he offered me the opportunity to manage a large community with great benefits like a live in apartment. I said sure, why not. It was my first stab at property management, and I ended up loving it. There were so many opportunities to elaborate, meet residents, solve problems and build a community there.

  • Having worked in hospitality before, did you find that experience transferable to Multifamily?

It absolutely is, because in hotel management you focus on operations as well as maintaining high levels of customer service. Quite truthfully, I think it’s harder than hotel management, as you are always on. And if it’s a rainy day, you need to be smiling and somehow need to keep the guest smiling as they want to get out to the beach but it’s raining. It definitely is a benefit have experience in hotel management. A lot of property management firms in the UK look at hotel operators as a place where they can find staff. I was pretty fortunate. My current boss at CA, Steve Boyack, provided a really good opportunity for me back in 2007 at Laramar where I would move to a new city every year, including Miami, New York City, LA, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago.

The opportunity to manage all these types of buildings, from high rise to mixed use, bank owned, and garden style developments was so intriguing for me. Not being from the US and having the opportunity to work in a new city every year was exciting. Having a career path, which was Property Manager to Senior Property Manager, to Junior Regional, to Regional, Director and eventually where I’ve been for the last couple of years at the Managing Director level. It was a great, have had a lot of fun doing it.

  1. What was the main motivation behind the move to the UK?

There were quite a few reasons for the move. Quite truthfully, my wife and family have British citizenship and her parents were thinking of spending more time here. Better work life balance, exploring the UK and Europe, I love to travel. Seeing different cultures out there, I’ve been to 48 countries and hope to do more once we get out of this pandemic.

Being on the ground floor of BTR, being a collaborator with others, sharing best practices and apparently, I’m addicted to start ups. Launching BTR for CA in Europe was very appealing. The last job I did was a start-up as well. I keep saying I’m not going to do it again, but I keep being drawn back in.

  1. Are there any noticeable differences between working in US and UK property industry?

Yes, I think so. The process moves quicker in the USA as it’s a ‘GO GO GO;’ all of the time. On the flipside, even though the process is slower here, there is a better quality of life. The USA is more open to data sharing, a lot to do with the market is 30 years older. There has been more time for the talent and infrastructure to be developed. The model is more evolved due to being a more mature market… proptech, revenue management, amenities, customer service, transparency…it’s already been there for a while. The good news is the UK can learn from our mistakes in the USA and play quick catch up. I think BTR is having a moment here.

  1. What do you find are the fundamental differences between the UK Build to Rent and US Multifamily market?

Multifamily has several segments such as high-rise, downtown buildings, low rise, garden style buildings. They renovate really old buildings, there are various segments where BTR has focused on high rise, urban living. The garden style model hasn’t quite made it over to the UK, but I do think that will change. In the US, there is an amenity war in multifamily, things like roof top pools, dog spars, indoor basketball courts etc. are very common. Everyone is trying to out-do the next building. There are amenities in BTR, but the brits are being a lot more sensible in their approach here.

Its more established and institutional there, it’s in its infancy here. The US has its established management models, a holistic property management approach, established software solutions and revenue management. It’s still in its early stages here. With that holistic approach, it’s very typical for one company to manage the apartment community, the property, facilities and the lettings. Whereby here, there might be 3 companies which could lead to a fragment customer journey and experience. I think that’s slowly starting to change as its only been here a few years, we are seeing the opportunity to do all these things under one shop.

  1. In your view how should we attract and retain tenants?

Quite truthfully, you attract tenants by buildings the right apartment community for the neighbourhood. You’ve got to work with the local communities and local stakeholders as partners, you meet with the specific needs of the neighbourhood, otherwise you will be creating a product that does not resonate with the community and it’s really important to create an atmosphere where residents can thrive, personally, professionally, academically. Once you’ve built the right community, been through the process of addressing all the stakeholders needs, then you ensure you are using the right marketing and technology to attract prospects, who eventually become residents.

I cannot emphasise how important the training of your team is. You can have the best technology, but if you don’t have the right people, it’s a fragmented customer journey. This really begins by putting people first in every decision we make. Our platform at CA is all about an investment and what’s best, our passion is to deliver results, our people make it happen. It’s all about our people; we invest in technology, revenue management, amenities and more, but most importantly we invest in our people.

  1. What do you consider to be the most important for tenants? Locations, amenities etc.

Customer service…you can have a roof top pool, but if your customer service isn’t top notch your residents will go somewhere else. Thankfully, companies like Homeviews are make it easier for tenants to know what apartments are offering the best customer service. We see that transparency coming to market, and I think BTR as an in industry has sprouted because consumers are tired of dealing with individual landlords, who don’t offer a holistic approach to offering quick and reliable customer service, having the right amenities in place, placing wellness, wellbeing and sustainability. All of these things resonate with the consumer, so having a brand that has this and places residents first, will be the ones that stands out. No longer will the residents just want their management company to collect rents and address service request. It’s all about the customer service and experience that is offered, and that’s what people want

  1. Do you think there is an importance of sharing data amongst operators to help the PRS/BTR industry grow?

Absolutely. The only way the industry can grow is by sharing best practices and becoming more transparent and data sharing. I do think there has been a move towards more collaboration since covid-19. The industry has come together and become more open to data sharing. I sit on a couple of committees that have met virtually during the pandemic, and we have worked on solutions whether it be operational, on how to deal with covid-19, or what technology is out there to assist the lettings process, sustainability, how to reduce costs, etc.  It’s a lot easier when you have group of people and we can share these best practices.

There is so much technology out there, and for us to spend our time to go through dozens of companies, whereby others have been through the process already, they can tell you the best two companies for revenue management, health and wellness…it reduces the amount of time of finding the right company and then you can focus using this time on giving your customers the best experience.

  1. What are your predictions for the BTR sector in the near future?

I wish I had a crystal ball; we’ll see whether my prediction is right. I think the BTR sector is likely to see a short-term impact on landlord revenues, but longer term the lockdown is unlikely to dampen investors growing appetite for the sector. The fundamentals for BTR investing in the UK is very attractive, there is a housing shortage due to a supply and demand imbalance, and many of the regional cities are experiencing employment growth and simultaneously the number of owner-occupied homes has decreased, which contributes to the supply imbalance. Build to Rent is addressing the continually increasing need for housing, and fulfilling the need for professionally managed, amenity driven communities. In addition, it provides a long term income stream for investors. There are some cities like Manchester where there is an oversupply, but that’s helping to stabilise rents. Long term, we have a very positive outlook on the BTR sector, it will continue to grow.

  1. What challenges are you and the sector facing due to Covid19? How will the sector respond?

There are so many challenges quite truthfully, even those with a crystal ball didn’t realise how much it would have an affect globally. From an investment perspective, there is currently a higher cost of debt to making deals work. However, BTR has a track record performing better than other sectors in real estate, and demand is still high, and it is performing better.

In terms of technology, it’s more important than ever for developers and owners, to choose the right infrastructure and network during the design phase. There will be bigger demand for the use of virtual and augmented reality to facilitate the lettings process. This is evident right now as many property managements companies here have been forced to pivot over to virtual showing, uysing touchless tech to ensure people feel safe in their homes. We are also looking at smart video cameras with heat mapping, that will help ensure social distancing norms we have been accustomed to are adhered to. Currently we see a need to invest in holistic solutions to encourage social distancing, whilst being mindful of the health and wellness challenges of physical separation. We need to make more instances of togetherness, to solve for isolation, especially as more people are now working from home. Some of the things we are focusing on, and part of the multifamily sector in the US, allowing tenants to have a home office, having more green space, more in person and virtual health and wellness events, enclosed spaces for residents to take a mental break i.e. have a video chat with others, take calls and feel comfortable they are in a bubble of protected isolation.

The pandemic has shown a light on the need for adaptability in BTR communities. While we cannot predict the future, we can proactively build strategies for long term resilience. It’s become a dry run for the sustainability agenda, and an opportunity for companies to see how they expand and tackle a wide range of environmental, social and governance challenges. The risk of the pandemic was known, yet the crisis exposed as lack of adaptability and resilience form any companies. How do you address that? Flexibility is the key word. You need to design, build and operate with flexibility in mind. If you do that systematically, you’re going to ensure your clients, residents, amenities are safe.

Both during normal time and emergency times, it’s all about being resilient…withstanding impacts of negative events and continue to grow despite them. We need to build resilience-based business strategies and flexible design to adapt to these challenges.

  1. What does CA do, and what does the future look like?

CA Management Services is the property management arm of CA Ventures. CA Ventures develops student housing and BTR communities globally. They are in the US, Latin America, Europe and the UK. In addition to support CA Ventures properties, we provide third party management services to other developers and owners. We oversee a £10 billion portfolio across the globe and provide amazing experiences to over 30,000 residents. We are focused on technology that overall improves residents experience, creates operating efficiencies for property management and creates net operating income for investors. We will be delivering housing across several cities in the UK next year, with the first deliver in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Sheffield.

We create the right infrastructure that has allowed us to utilise smart technology, aligning for smart security intelligent temperature control, Bluetooth activated access and location intelligence decision making. That allows for the capture of demographics, the human mobility pattern, the optimal floors between space density analysis. This data is critical in letting you know which spaces are being used, thus optimising your current and future developments. You can use that to work in conjunction with geo-marketing, to know which residents like what events, and can end up customising your health and wellness events to your residents. Tech is very important to us, as well as health and wellness, sustainability and prioritising our residents.

Having an inhouse innovation team, allows us to be agile and forward thinking with an adaptable set of skills where we can offer customer solutions to the market. All of these areas are areas of focus, when a product or service can serve all the stakeholders…the residents, your investors, operational efficiencies for staff, that’s the tech we look at to integrate. Is it solving a problem or just a fad? Having all these department heads, we use this expertise to create value to an asset’s lifecycle. We like to closely collaborate with our clients and partners to deliver the perfect model with the residents in mind. It truly is all about the resident.

  1. What cities are you most excited about?

So many, so many to think of…Edinbugh, Glasgow which were delivering housing next year. Also bullish on Liverpool, Leeds, Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol and Brighton. BTR is really having its moment now.

  1. What advice would you give to someone looking to start a career in property?

Meet as many people as you can. Become engaged in conferences, webinars, groups like Bisnow and the UKAA. You’ll have a better understanding of the sector, and the many career paths available. Don’t be shy in reaching out to people, become educated.

  1. Experience or Personality?

Entry and mid-levels roles, always personality. You cannot train someone to be hospitable and have a heart of service. This is why those from the hotel sector typically make a good fit for the property management sector. We want employees who care and truly provide good customer service. Personality hands down.

  1. Can you define your leadership style? 

I am laid back, I do not micro-manage as I hate being micro-managed. Very strategic in my approach to ensure the vision is being executed properly. I also believe in having fun in the workplace…we play a lot of games in the workplace and virtually, to keep the vibe and culture going. I also like teaching, sharing what I’ve learnt with others. I want my team members to be brighter than me, so we can collaborate and bring ideas together. Most ideas are not mine; they are my team members. I just help guide and transform the idea or process. Leadership really is the capacity to translate visions into reality.

  1. How do you ensure you are fitting in enough downtime?

It can be challenged quite truthfully when you love what you do. Thankfully CA is a company which respects work life balance which helps shutting it off. Outside of work, I do like to take time out to explore the beauty of the UK with my wife and very opinionated dog. There are so many beautiful parts of the UK to explore. We’ve spent the past few weeks in Yorkshire Dales, the beauty here is breath-taking, and I’m not sure if I’ll return to London…just kidding. I really try to find time to be outside, and this environment has provided that.

  1. If you had 10 minutes alone with Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, and Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, what would you say, what would you want to ask?

Having worked in cities like San Francisco LA and New York where rent controls are in place. It doesn’t work as it stifles innovation, capital reinvestment into buildings, thus not achieving the goal of making housing affordable. These happen to be the three most expensive cities to live in the US, and that’s not by coincidence. Rent control or rent caps is a form of price control, and the market really works best when supply and demand are allowed to find a natural balance. This is what’s occurring in Manchester. We have an oversupply which is driving rents down and making it more affordable to live in these communities.

The other issue with rent control is it creates scarcity and makes it difficult for others to get housing. Developers are less incentivised to build new housing, if there is a ceiling on what can be charged, the cost of land for development is already at an all-time high so we don’t need further restrictions.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Having a percentage of your housing affordable is different and its viable. Percentage will vary by location. Areas where the land is expensive, as are the building costs, you might be limited in the number of homes which can be offered as affordable housing, otherwise the development isn’t financially viable. However, there are ways to get around this like increasing the density of the development. We really need to come up with friendly business climate incentives that continue to push BTR developments and not discourage it. BTR is the quickest way to address the UK housing shortage, that would be something I’d share with them and if I had the opportunity to ask Boris Johnson anything, it would be….’Given everything we know about the financial impacts of covid-19, would there still have been a push for Brexit?’

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