7 questions for... Clemens von Radowitz

With around 70 employees, Immobilien Basel-Stadt is responsible for all strategic and operative tasks in real estate management throughout the entire life cycle of a property. The portfolios it manages include the properties of the canton of Basel-City, the municipality of the city of Basel and the Pensionskasse Basel-Stadt (pension fund) with a total vale of around CHF 10 billion. As well as traditional investment properties in the residential and business area, Immobilien Basel-Stadt is responsible for corporate real estate management of the properties that the canton administration itself uses. In this interview, Clemens von Radowitz, Chief Financial Officer, talks about digitisation, new technologies and changing requirements.

1. Give us a small insight into your digitisation strategy. How did the transformation begin in your company?

Clemens von Radowitz: It all started 15 years ago. When I joined Immobilien Basel-Stadt back then, the company was in the middle of a restructuring process. It was the time when real estate that companies were using themselves started to also be viewed as key assets. Many new tasks, such as establishing professional portfolio management, and far too few human resources – even for the traditional tasks – forced us to drive forward the rationalisation of work processes through increased automation. We started by introducing a professional portfolio management tool and MIS (Management Information System). Even SAP® RE classic, which is what was available at the time, wasn’t really suitable for mapping real estate processes in a streamlined and efficient way. The digital invoice receipt with automatic account assignment and preliminary posting of invoices was another milestone. In 2010, after we had set up a professional IT infrastructure, we started thinking about also digitising business processes outside the office. At that time there was no tried-and-tested solution for mobile processes on the market in Switzerland. We visited a lot of trade fairs and spoke with young companies. Finally, we discovered PROMOS. The first work processes that we developed together with PROMOS were the safety inspections, purchase orders and defect reports while on the go as well as mobile residential property inspections. The introduction of the tenant app was a further step in which we also integrated our customers into the digitisation.

2. Has the coronavirus pandemic strengthened the focus on expanding digital services?

Von Radowitz: Yes, it actually has helped greatly in dismantling mental barriers. Overnight, even IT-avoiders were forced to look at the digital options and try them for themselves. There has never been a more successful Chief Digital Officer than Covid-19. Today, our ideas for digitisation are met with considerably more goodwill and interest within the company and there is hardly any resistance. The former scepticism towards changes and digitisation has even been replaced with a certain amount of optimism. Now employees can see the opportunities that digitisation provides. The imagination knows virtually no bounds.

3. How are new digital solutions created in your company? Do you have a specific recipe for success?

Von Radowitz: For one thing, we take a very systematic approach. We analyse our business processes to find potential for improving efficiency and quality. In the beginning, highly repetitive processes are suitable for achieving rapid success. It is always helpful to ask one simple question: “Why on Earth doesn’t this just happen by itself?”. Frequently the answer surprises us. In addition, we now also have to question our entire business model and think about how we can continuously improve and reposition ourselves to ensure that we are not overtaken by a newcomer. For this, we visit trade fairs and events that deal with digitisation in the real estate industry. The fact that we were one of the first major established real estate companies to become a member of SwissPropTech has also been crucial in allowing us to come into contact with young start-ups. This exchange with the start-ups is a constant source of inspiration. All established companies can take a leaf out of their book when it comes to their way of thinking, working and, above all, making decisions. Even events from outside the industry provide exciting insights into technological development.

4. And what are the most important new technologies that you are working on right now?

Von Radowitz: We are working with a really new start-up from Switzerland on implementing a microlocation rating that works beyond municipal boundaries and is precise down to 25 m from the analysed property. This involves big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence and, of course, a number of smart algorithms. The result is remarkable: at the press of a button we have a microlocation rating for every type of use and for any address. The tool can even predict the most suitable use for a property in the future. I know that sounds almost like a crystal ball, but actually it’s pure technology combined with our knowledge of real estate.

We are constantly working with PROMOS to continue developing the tenant app. PROMOS’ initiative to integrate its customers into the cross-company working group is extremely useful here. As customers, we can pool our resources for further development and, as a result, save them. The advantage for PROMOS is that they don’t have to implement every idea individually for each customer and the priorities are clear. This makes things faster, simpler and cheaper for us.

We have also started the process of introducing the PROMOS rental solution including the potential tenant app. When we saw the solution at the OpenPromos User Forum (OPUF), we were immediately full of enthusiasm. Finally an end-to-end solution for marketing – from termination to contract conclusion. SAP-based but without the need to introduce the ill-conceived role of “Prospect” from the SAP standard system. We are excited to see the result!

5. What kind of impact will the new technologies (big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning) have on the real estate sector?

Von Radowitz: They provide huge potential for faster and better decision-making. Our new microlocation rating is just one small example of this development. Processing a large volume of figures using artificial intelligence is one thing, but having machines read and summarise text in fractions of a second offers possibilities that can hardly be foreseen. Added to this is the power of predictions through machine learning from past developments. If the machine answers questions based not only on figures but also text analyses, this opens entirely new horizons. Even the possibility of using chatbots as virtual personal assistants or to answer tenant queries by phone or in writing is a tremendous opportunity.

6. In your opinion, what are the biggest changes that digitisation will bring for your company?

Von Radowitz: Transformation as a constant. The working world has never been changing as fast as it is today. This will only continue to intensify, bringing with it challenges for the management and recruitment of employees. Ongoing training alone has no longer been sufficient for a while now. Everyone in the company must have a flexible attitude and view changes as an opportunity rather than a threat. This requires us to talk to people a lot and always clearly show which improvements and personal advantages will arise for them.

7. To conclude: When was the last time you experienced a magical moment in which an innovative technology truly astounded you?

Von Radowitz: Oh… there’s been a lot of those! Not that long ago, I had such a moment at the last OPUF during the presentation of the PROMOS rental solution, and there was another one recently when our new microlocation rating solution was presented to us for the first time.

Thank you for the interview.

The series "7 questions for ..."

is dedicated to digital innovations in the real estate industry. How well placed are companies? Which measures are they focusing on? Experts and industry insiders answer questions in brief interviews.

Part 3:

Clemens von Radowitz, CFO of Immobilien Basel-Stadt

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