Just before catching a flight to Geneva for IDRC's Fall Congress, Michael A. Bell, president of IDRC and director of corporate real estate at Dun & Bradstreet, takes a breather to discuss corporate real estate issues for both of his organizations and the industry in general.
Step right up and see Michael A. Bell performing one the greatest juggling acts today: He maintains two high-profile titles at two separate international organizations. As president of the International Development Research Council (IDRC), Norcross, Ga., he recently wrapped up its European Fall Congress in Geneva and a president's tour of the Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore and Sydney chapters while also preparing for this month's U.S. Fall Congress in New Orleans. At the same time, he juggles the responsibility of handling Wilton, Conn.-based Dun & Bradstreet's 11 million sq. ft. global portfolio, a duty that includes strategic planning, facility management and lease administration. Being able to keep all these responsibilities in the air, so to speak, makes Bell a perfect candidate to discuss the ever-changing role of corporate real estate and its executives.
NREI: What are some important trends occurring in corporate real estate today?
Bell: Well, I think there are really three key trends. The first trend is that (real estate) is becoming a global responsibility. More and more of our companies are expanding into Asia, Latin America and Europe. And this requires a whole new skill set in terms of doing corporate real estate work in international markets. And here again, the IDRC is a tremendous resource in helping our membership learn how to conduct business in these international markets.
The second key trend is the continuing trend of outsourcing and strategic alliances. More and more of us are outcasting a lot of the key operational responsibilities such as lease negotiations, site selection, design, construction management and facilities management to service partners. We enter into contracts with these service entities as almost part of our staff. Our company has entered into a number of agreements of this nature both here in the states and in Europe. So the second trend of course is outsourcing.
The third trend is this continuing invasion of technology into the workplace. More and more of our employees now are working remotely or from a mobile standpoint using the portable technology - lap-tops and cellular phones. So we've had to redesign our offices to accommodate a much more transient workforce. And this gets into the area not only of managing the physical space of bricks and mortar but also the area of networks and telecommunications infrastructure and data systems.
NREI: How has your job at D&B changed over the past few years?
Bell: Certainly, it has become more and more a strategic responsibility as our company has gone through massive change it's been critical that we've redefined our office requirements and our site location criteria and moved more and more toward a virtual workplace model. So I've gone from more of an operational focus when I came here to a more strategic focus in the last several years. I think this is typical of most corporate real estate executives now.
NREI: In an interview with NREI in September 1993, D&B was in the process of making itself more efficient and now you say it is trivesting. Where is the company in that process?
Bell: The company is breaking into three new companies. So it's a radical change from the strategies that you perhaps had read about in 1993. And this is being driven by the need to be more focused on specific markets and specific products. It is really the ultimate decentralization. It's to really empower the business units with total autonomy around their markets and their customers. So we're moving toward a very decentralized kind of model, and you of course can't do that without a very strong information infrastructure, which is really the core of our company. From a real estate point of view, the portfolio is following the three new companies, so we are dividing the portfolio up into three new portfolios. And we weren't really able to do that efficiently without having the computer database we developed over the last several years.
NREI: And what will the three company names be?
Bell: There will be the new Dun & Bradstreet, A.C. Neilson, which is a global market and research firm, and the third firm is a new name, Cognisant Corp. Cognisant is a company that consists of three major businesses: The Gardner Group, which is computer and technology marketing research company; IMS, which is a global pharmaceutical research company; and A.C. Neilson Media. And so those three companies will be publicly traded companies in November. The stock holders will in fact have three shares of stock for their current share, theory being that those shares will row at a much greater rate. It's easier to grow a smaller company than one large company. That's the theory behind the divestiture.
NREI: What are some of the topics being researched or discussed in the educational programs at IDRC?
Bell: There are a number of key areas: strategy, the alternative workplace, the whole issue of remote work - telework and virtual offices. There's the issue of strategic alliances, the topic of how do you manage in a global marketplace - the globalization aspect. There's the issue of technology, impact of technology and not only on the workplace itself but also in the service delivery. We also have a separate research looking at various delivery models and looking for best-in-class or best practices in service delivery. And when we say service delivery we mean the full range of services: brokerage, site selection, construction, architectural design and property management. Another key area is leadership, how to develop leadership skills in a corporate real estate arena is a major research agenda item for us. And finally finance. We are looking at all kinds of financial techniques and tools that can help the corporate real estate manager enhance value of their real estate holdings, both from a cost standpoint and also an asset appreciation standpoint.
NREI: What are the plans for replacing Prentiss Knight at IDRC?
Bell: We have initiated a full-blown executive search effort. We are recruiting one of the three top executive search firms. I don't know at this juncture who that will be, but it will be a top industry leader in the executive search area. And we've set this process as a top priority for the board of directors and the executive committee. I will be attending to this process personally.
NREI: What was the purpose of the proposed merger between IDRC and NACORE, and why didn't it happen?
Bell: I believe that there were some that felt that economies of scale could be achieved by merging the two associations, particularly from the staff standpoint and a budget/financial standpoint. The reason it didn't happen is frankly we have a different focus - the two associations have a very different focus in terms of their programs and so forth and, indeed, in their membership profile. IDRC has a strong orientation toward strategic planning, strategy, future-trend analysis, and the impact of these trends on corporate real estate. NACORE, I believe, would have a strong orientation towards operations and on more of a tactical aspects of the business. So it's really a difference in focus, and we believe that when we analyzed the benefits of the merger that they just didn't outweigh all the complication and complexity of going through a major or merger. While we had tremendous momentum as an association, we were focusing on our research; we thought it would distract us from what we had to get done.
NREI: What kind of relationship does IDRC have with NACORE now?
Bell: I think we have a very positive relationship. In fact, we just had a joint chapter social event in New York a couple of weeks ago involving an event that raised $20,000 for a city charity, and that was a collaboration of our New York chapter and the NACORE chapter. So we look for opportunities to collaborate and to get together on various programs or social events or educational opportunities, etc.
NREI: With what other organizations is IDRC interested in making relationships?
Bell: We have a very strong relationship with SIOR, the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors, and we offer a number of joint educational courses with SIOR. Another organization that we have a strong affiliation with is the IMA, the Institute of Management Accountants. IMA and IDRC are now collaborating on a research project, and we also offer a number of courses in the area of accounting and cost analysis through the IMA. Another organization that we have a strong affiliation with is the International Facility Management Association, IFMA. And we, again, have done some joint research with IFMA. So we have a number of collaborative arrangements with some the key sister organizations in the industry.
NREI: IDRC and MIT have partnered on several projects. What can we expect in the future from this partnership?
Bell: MIT continues to be a major key research partner of IDRC. They ate now involved in a number of research efforts. But we've also added a number of other major academic institutions to our research partnership: Cornell University, Carnegie-Mellon, as examples. And also a number of major universities in Europe are collaborating with us on various research projects. So its a growing network of leading academic institutions that are involved in this world-renowned research effort.
NREI: Why did IDRC and MIT create the BCCR designation?
Bell: We felt that the current designations were not fully comprehensive and reflective of the knowledge base that is needed in the corporate real estate field. There are various designations offered out there, but none in our view were sufficiently comprehensive enough. We believe we needed a designation that would be the equivalent of a Ph.D. or a equivalent of a CPA. And this is the only professional designation in corporate real estate that is Board Certified, that actually requires significant testing to be eligible for the designation.
NREI: What's in the future for IDRC?
Bell: We are planning to open several new chapters this year. We've already opened two in Latin America. And we have targeted yet another in Beijing, China, and we possibly could even go for a fourth in Seoul, South Korea. From an educational standpoint, we've really set a goal to have a very hard linkage between our research products and our educational services to really make that linkage very explicit so that what we learn from the research we want to convey to our members through our educational services. And finally, we have a major initiative in diversity to improve the diversity of our members and also of the geographic diversity and diversity from the companies themselves. We want not only large corporate members, but we also want members from start-up companies, from midsize companies, and from companies that represent different cultures and different points of view.