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Real Estate Leader Spotlight Series: A conversation with Curtis Knapp

May 9, 2024
Curtis, thanks for joining us. What initially led you to Corporate Real Estate?

At first, it was the fundamental belief that real estate influences how people work. When fully aligned with HR, IT, and other corporate functions, the workplace experience is all-encompassing. Ultimately though, I have stayed in this career path because of the opportunity to integrate and streamline siloed functions within CRE. Sewing a thread that connects brokerage, project management, design and facilities yields an efficient, effective, and easily maintained portfolio.

Real estate has historically been perceived as a cost center. But does it seem like the world is finally recognizing that at its core real estate is actually a value driver for the organization?

I do believe so. While each company is different, I have generally seen company leadership lean into understanding all the benefits of workplace when making real estate decisions. They still have high expectations for cost management, but they are also willing to spend money where it improves the employee experience.

Tell us about your role at Ryan LLC. What functions do you oversee? How large is the team? Where does your department sit within the organization?

We have a centralized corporate real estate organization that manages the global portfolio. It's led by a senior vice president who reports through the operations side of our business, which includes HR, IT, and all other corporate functions, with the exception of finance. The entire CRE team is lean. We have about 15 FTEs that manage our portfolio of a million square feet and 100 locations. We deliver strategy, project management and facilities in-house. We out-task brokerage and design locally.

My role is supporting the transactions that are completed by our SVP, corporate initiatives, as well as leading the project management team that oversees design, construction, moves and space management.

We also dip a little bit into facility management. If you took a floor plan, flipped it over and gave it a shake, anything that falls off the plan would be our facilities leader. Anything that doesn't fall off sits within the project management team. For example, repainting the walls sits with project management, but coordinating maintenance with building management falls with our facilities team.

You mentioned roughly 100 leases today. How is that evolving? How do you expect it to change over the next several years?

I’d describe it as an accordion. We expand and contract, expand and contract – often doing both in different locations at the same time. Our expansion comes through acquisition and organic growth. When I started about two and a half years ago, we had a portfolio of about 80 locations. Within 18 months, it had expanded to 150. Another 12 months later, it was back down to 100. So, we had a net increase of 20, but initially, it was almost 100% larger.

In addition, we continue to evolve the workplace design and strategy for each lease renewal or consolidation opportunity. We had a hybrid solution before hybrid was the popular name for it. Our space is now more collaborative and community-oriented to accomplish the other things that can’t be done at home.

With so much expanding and contracting, it must be complex to manage the portfolio. Could you share a story of a project or initiative you spearheaded recently that impacted how the team thought about managing the portfolio?

One of the reasons I was hired was my experience integrating international locations into the portfolio and understanding the nuances of how space gets delivered in non-US markets.

Our culture requires a uniform, consistent, orderly, white-glove experience. This caused CRE to reconsider both the delivery of space, as well as ongoing management, especially given we operate as a centralized team without local real estate and facilities resources on site.

An on-site employee is told that they'll be the point person for all things real estate and facilities, but that’s not a competency or expertise in them. They're primarily a point person to meet a supplier who shows up to fix the problem.

That forced us to think differently about supplier’s capabilities, since they are real estate and facilities ambassadors into those local sites. While they are a vendor to Ryan, they are really an extension of our team. We brainwash – for lack of a better term – our suppliers into our way of thinking about customer service, because that is the expectation we have set for our team members in those remote locations.

In terms of how you manage the portfolio at a more tactical level, what is your tech stack today? Are there any favorite tools or processes that you think others would find value and interest and learn from?

We manage our portfolio with an Excel spreadsheet that is updated manually. There is a learning curve and a loss of knowledge whenever there's turnover for whoever manages that data. While it’s not the most sophisticated approach, I have also worked at companies with large, robust IWMSs and getting a report out of that system often required an integrator and several thousand dollars.

Despite the lack of purpose-built functionality that Excel has from a lease administration and space utilization point of view, it is still easy to generate graphs and reports in a useful format. There’s a benefit to quickly and easily producing reports that tell the story, but the tradeoff is that maintaining data is a lot more cumbersome and not as easily updated.

What challenges do you see in the industry today? How do you think leaders need to evolve to address it?

Rather than talk about the utilization of space and commercial markets, I’ll focus on transforming the workplace and workplace experience.

I hear some of my CRE colleagues experimenting with the allocation of different space types and in-office perks. They ask questions like, “If we offer beer and pizza on a Friday, will they come in?” And as a result, there is a lot of speculative design going on and an expectation that what works at one company can be universally applied to all. But in practice, beer and pizza worked for a couple of weeks, and then everybody realized that they liked their pizza delivered at home better.

My view is those are just band-aid and shoestring solutions to the key question, which is: what does each employee say about what they really need?

There is no way of knowing the answer unless you ask each one individually. My advice is to never presume to know what employees need to get their jobs done or offer a generalized, one-size-fits-all solution. Delivering a solution that meets each employee's individual needs can only be accomplished by talking to them. Individual accommodations are practiced daily when educating students. Why would we expect every knowledge working professional to accomplish their unique tasks in the same type of space with the same equipment?

Data and factual information seem to be void and absent from decision making processes with a lot of projects that I've worked on. Going to the source, to the actual employee, is going to provide the information that you need to deliver a fully functional, and successful workplace.

Aren’t humans bad at predicting their own behavior? Do you combine surveys with observational data to test and learn?

Humans are the best source, and it’s bad questions that yield bad predictions. That said, at Ryan, we've constructed 15 new locations in the last 18 months, and they are not homogenous. Each location has regional nuances that were incorporated based on lessons learned throughout each step of each project. After 15 projects, we are closer to meeting the needs of the people in the last location than perhaps we were in the first location. But the needs are different between the first and the last. We've refined and improved, but we don't operate with the idea that we found the magic decoder ring and it's the uniform solution for every project going forward.

What do you think is next for the industry? What are you most excited about?

What excites me the most is what corporate real estate is going to be 15 years from now, versus what it was 15 years ago.

If you were to define corporate real estate only as a physical solution that includes a building with signage that houses workspaces, it's not going to be that.

15 years ago the concept of fluid on-demand space didn't exist, and now it's a common portion of a lot of companies’ portfolios. I can't predict what the future options are going to be, but I know it's going to be different than and better than what it is today.

How can people get in touch with you?

I'm active on LinkedIn. You can find me by searching Curtis A. Knapp. You are welcome to message me directly, and I’ve also included my personal cell in the contact section.

I'm always interested in meeting counterparts in corporate real estate because somebody else has solved a challenge I’m working on – and I’d much rather start with a conversation than with a blank sheet of paper. My commitment is to share whatever I can when somebody else has a question on the subject as well.

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