Charter Hall CTO Aidan Coleman’s role is to build understanding across the property group about the ways technological disruption is relevant to the business and how it delivers better experiences for investors, tenants and communities.
Coleman believes that real estate companies that are fully harnessing technology and data will have a significant competitive edge on those organisations that do not.
“Our technology strategy is to create a digitally-enabled business that has the agility and scale to power the next phase of growth. We understand that employees and customer needs and expectations are changing and will continue to change even more dramatically so it’s imperative that how we do business reflects this.”
Charter Hall is focused on innovation from three perspectives, says Coleman. Firstly, through employee enablement and productivity through internal business systems. Secondly, developing a technology-enabled blueprint for its assets and how tenant customers engage with them; and thirdly, an improved investor experience through data and technology improvements.
Coleman placed number 23 in last year’s CIO50 list, rising 20 places to number 3 in 2018 due largely to his leadership of a centerpiece innovation, the Charter Hall PropTech Accelerator program. This was initiated as a response to the property group’s growth and long-term sustainability.
A first in the Asia-Pacific region, the program consisted of a 13-week incubation period within the business, including access to a network of educators and mentors from corporate and startup sectors to work with four selected startups to help them find product-market fit and gain traction. The program culminated in June with a demo day in front of investors, media and partners.
Coleman says 50 startups applied and were assessed based on product, company, traction, revenue model, unique advantage and alignment with Charter Hall’s business strategy.
The four businesses that were chosen included:
InSpaceXR, which provides virtual reality technology for the real estate sector with has the potential to help visualise, communicate and market Charter Hall’s assets to tenants and investors.
Bricks & Agent, which worked with Charter Hall to further develop its cloud marketplace focused on streamlining property management and maintenance.
Snaploader, a 3D company that has developed a web viewer that has been adopted by Charter Hall to build interactive 3D models of its properties (including fit-out) without the need to download an app.
Estate Baron, a blockchain-enabled platform that has been adapted to enable Charter Hall to be more efficient in its engagement in online capital formation, its communication with investors and distribution of documents, while centralising investor relations.
Charter Hall’s own internal ‘spin out’ dubbed Flexi-Spaces also worked alongside the startups to develop a short-term flexible leasing app where the organisation connects tenant customers who have underutilised space to those in needing extra space across its office, retail and industrial assets.
This is a first for the industry, Coleman says.
“Off the back of our deep engagement with startups, we have created a number of different solutions that add tangible value to our business,” says Coleman.
“For example, we have worked with InspaceXR to create an immersive lab environment at our Sydney head office in Martin Place. Through this experiential environment, we will bring to life each of our 300+ assets and allow our investor and/or tenant customers who visit our office to practically ‘touch and feel’ our existing properties or proposed future developments,” he says.
“This offering is unique to any commercial real estate company globally.”
A four-year journey
Coleman says that upon his appointment four years ago, he found a business whose leadership, although attuned to the potential of IT, was experiencing growing pains. His early focus was on business transformation, making a case for an IT-focused vision, and bringing the business along on the transformation journey.
Charter Hall has gained significant positive momentum in the last 12 months, he says, and has been able to shift its focus more towards newer innovations that add value. They give staff the tools they need and provide a better experience to tenants and customers, he says.
“Part of my challenge was to highlight the imperative of the new wave of property investors emerging, more technology-savvy and demanding than their predecessors and ready to embrace the concepts of proptech and fintech,” says Coleman.
“Our CEO and board have shifted away from a ‘cost centre’ focus for IT and are now very much encouraging us to continue to invest in and focus on improving our business through technology. The PropTech accelerator program has created a palpable dynamism within the business that we have never seen before.”
Charter Hall’s innovations resulted in the company placing number 15 in the Australian Financial Review’s most innovative companies in the ASX200. Coleman says this is a significant achievement for a business of this size with the company being the only nominee on the real estate sector.
Creating an environment of respect
C0leman influences his peer group formally by chairing the company’s EnterpRISE EXCO sub-group and sector IT strategy workshops. Informally, he coaches his peers and organises social and family events.
He says that both combine the right environment of shared understanding, respect and friendship which is critical to the success of any change effort.
“A combination of blogs, broadcast emails and texts, town halls, lunch ‘n’ learns and speaking at major corporate events, such as end of year results – all of these have been opportunities to deliver key messages, showcase our achievements but also create hope and excitement about our technology, which was very well received.”
Biggest career lesson
Last year, Coleman spoke of the need to have ‘courageous conversations’ with the CEO and board members but also peers of co-sponsors of change initiatives.
Coleman says if he was to enhance awareness of the need for technological change across the business, he would need to take a front-line leadership role and convince the board and EXCO that a leap of faith to leading the PropTech evolution in Australia would be strategically sound and in line with the company’s vision and risk management strategy.
“This did not come without its challenges. I was bombarded with interest and questions regarding the timing, relevancy, whether Charter Hall was big enough to do something significant and unique as this in the industry and of course, where funding was appropriate,” he says.
Coleman says he learned that he needed to master the art of combining strategic context, high quality communication and with a personal connection to make it real and truly relevant for each stakeholder.
“I then developed and implemented a comprehensive marketing strategy and communications plan to address what we were seeking to achieve internally within the business but also externally in the market,” he says.
“I leveraged internal and external expertise and networks which I have established over a number of years. The messages were clear, consistent and aligned to our focus as a business on our people, our investors, and tenant customers. Charter Hall now had the ambition and ability to lead on experience on these three fronts – enabled through technology.”
At the time of writing his nomination, Coleman was working with the company’s chief investment officer and heads of industrial, office and retail to finalise the company's first submission on PropTech investment to its investment innovation committee.
"This is a truly exciting departure for Charter Hall and signals a significant shift in understanding, awareness and strategic alignment of technology with our overarching business," he says.
Note: Aidan Coleman recent left his post at Charter Hall and is the new general manager, tech platforms at Scentre Group.