Immobel is one of the most prominent real estate developers in Europe. They are specialized in mixed-use buildings and are committed to sustainable development. In Poland, they are present in the country’s largest cities where they revitalize strategically located buildings in the city centers.
Immobel's history in the real estate space is truly impressive, growing and diversifying for almost 160 years now. To start off, can you please contextualize your presence in Poland?
We have been active here for 15 years and throughout this whole time we worked with local teams, but also found a way to bring the DNA of Immobel Belgium and infuse it in the local approach. This is mainly the reason why I have been sent as a Belgian representative to Poland, to act as a “bridge” that streamlines the process and narrows the gap in terms of cultural differences. The Polish team is really competent and it doesn’t need as much a team leader as a liaison to our HQ in Brussels, and this is how I see the main focus of my role.
I’m intrigued by these cultural differences you referenced. What are some of the most notable?
Every company has its own DNA. I recently read an interview with the CEO of Blackstone on the future of offices in real estate and he made a really important point in saying that if his people would no longer come to the office and he would need to hire a bunch of new, random people, he would simply lose the Blackstone identity. Our thinking is similar, so we made an effort to bring our “identity” and imbue it to the Poland quarters, as we find it extremely important to have a standardized approach in all Immobel branches.
This is not about finding a culture better than the other, but because we have specific company values and a way of interacting with people, we need to maintain these standards. In Belgium we are a high-quality brand, we’re the oldest listed company on the stock exchange, after the National Bank, so we want this culture to be perpetuated in all the other countries we conduct real estate business in.
Looking at your international presence, it's interesting to see Poland sitting alongside markets like Germany, Luxembourg or France. What called Immobel's attention here?
Historically, one of the main shareholders of Immobel was Polish, a family office that owned almost 30% of the company. This was the initial link and how we got involved with Poland. It is also a strategic point, geographically speaking, because we can go from the north of Poland to all the countries where we have business in: Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Spain.
The political situation in Poland is sometimes perceived as a tough environment to conduct business in, but this is just the picture the press paints. In reality the situation itself is quite good and I can attest to it.
How does this political situation affect you?
We faced some reluctance from certain investors, but the opportunities we found here trampled all other downsides. The growth we have experienced in the Warsaw market was impressive enough to shift this perspective. So far we grew by about 4% every year and we have reasons to believe this trend will continue.
You have several segments that you work in: office, residential and retail. Can you tell us how each of these contribute to the business you have in Poland?
Just now we are executing an office building in Warsaw (Central Point) that will be ready by summer time. As for the residential market, we have one of the biggest projects ever in the city center of Gdansk, with 515 apartments, a big parking lot, a hotel and a retail section on the ground floor. This pandemic made people shift towards investing in a secure asset class so these apartments will be exactly this economical “refuge” they search for.
The residential sector was not as influenced by Covid so Gdansk was Immobel’s best performing project in the whole of Europe last year. Also, the hotel business will definitely pick up after this global crisis and we expect an impressive wave of tourists to come. I think in Gdansk we are strategically positioned for success.
You mentioned that your Warsaw office project is meant to be finished in the second quarter of 2021. Seeing that we are still in the middle of a pandemic, how safe is it for people to go back to the office now?
There are a number of measures we can take to make meetings safe. For example, we have a system in meeting rooms where a red light flashes when the quality of air starts to go down and we have to take a break and get out of the room so that it gets ventilated. But this is only a temporary solution as I see it, the real long-term fix would be to have a good threshold of people vaccinated.
Your business often talks about “offices 2.0” or “cities of tomorrow”, so I’m curious to find out how you go about imagining what people will want 20-30 years from now?
We’ve put in place a think tank about the offices of tomorrow, and by “tomorrow” we really mean the near future. One of the approaches is “circularity” which means we don’t demolish the old buildings but instead we repurpose them. Also, we are thinking about an increased flexibility, so in 20 or 30 years from now we may be able to transform an office building into an apartment building, for example.
Being ever adaptable, thinking out of the box and working with the best professionals is the recipe of success. For example, 80% of the quality of a building is represented by the façade and our Central Point building has by far the most efficient and energy intelligent façade there is.
Looking at the next 2-3 years, what are the objectives you are pursuing with priority in Poland?
Now the priority is leasing Central Point in Warsaw and the apartment building in Gdansk. We are focused on refining the details as much as possible for both projects because this is what makes us stand out from our competitors and keep the Immobel quality standard high. In the meantime we are prospecting new projects, of course.
Do you have a final message for investors that are eyeing the Polish market?
They are going to embark on a long ride, both with positive and negative aspects, but it is definitely going to be worthwhile in the end. So don’t be afraid and keep on pushing.
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