The following transcript is from two interviews with corporate real estate experts in Korea – Rob Wilkinson, Managing Director of Colliers Korea and Patsy Li, Executive Director of The Executive Centre Korea. Both parties sat down to discuss their early career choices, the most significant risks they have taken, how they define company success, leading their companies into a post-pandemic world and much more.
Could you kindly describe your job, duties and responsibilities?
I have been with Colliers for almost ten years. I currently manage the business here in Korea, which means I am responsible for the strategic direction to spearhead growth and attract market-leading talent to lead our industry into the future. As my background is in transaction management and corporate real estate strategy, in addition to managing the business, I also like to stay close to our clients and be quite hands-on with some of the larger assignments.
My role at The Executive Centre (TEC) is twofold; as the Global Community Director, I am responsible for developing the “TEC Community" across our 14 global markets, which means overseeing the event programming and business partnerships we tailor our Members. In early 2020, I was also appointed as the Executive Director in Korea, which is a role that focuses on expanding this new TEC market and leading the team here whilst also instilling our signature company culture that I have been a part of for 15+ years.
How did your earlier career choices lead you to where you are now?
Given I have been with Colliers for nearly a decade, I know the company well, and the company recognises my commitment, so there is mutual trust. I was also part of a very successful team during my time leading Corporate Solutions in Hong Kong. Colliers not only values but rewards enterprising professionals who demonstrate an entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit, which is why I was entrusted to lead Colliers Korea in a new direction and to grow the business. I am truly passionate about the Colliers brand and our mandate to accelerate the success of our clients and our people.
I began my entire career at TEC in 1998 as an Engagement Associate. As a fresh graduate from Hospitality Management, I applied the delightful customer service skills that I learnt not only from my studies and internship within the hotel industry into my job. With TEC’s rapid growth and success, there were ample opportunities for me to grow, learn, and develop within the company. After working five years in Hong Kong as General Manager, I had the chance to relocate to Shanghai, the most dynamic city in China, and that kickstarted my international career journey. Before the pandemic, my dual roles frequently required me to travel between my three bases in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Korea to lead the business expansion, group service & system integration to rolling out global projects in the Asia Pacific Region. My career path has developed both vertically and horizontally with the trust built with the TEC team, customers and business partners.
What has been the most considerable risk that you’ve taken in your career so far?
I think the biggest risk I have taken in my career thus far is moving to Korea and taking on my current role. Prior to that, I had just moved to a new apartment in Hong Kong, my wife was heavily pregnant, and COVID-19 was just kicking off. Regardless, I am genuinely pleased that I took this opportunity. Seoul is a wonderful city with great energy and an exciting mix of old and new buildings. There are not many places where you have 500+ year old palaces right next to prime grade office buildings. In addition, the culture is fascinating, the people are great, and there is a terrific buzz about the place. Once travel restrictions have eased, I would highly recommend anyone who hasn’t been to Korea to visit.
It’s also an exciting time for the Colliers business in Korea. We have a great team who have closed some outstanding deals this year, and we see a massive opportunity for the future. I am currently spending about 70% of my time recruiting. Attracting star talent is key to our growth.
The most considerable risk I have taken is the many times I accept new challenges and opportunities throughout my career path. For example, most of the latest projects I’ve undertaken has required me to make a substantial life choice that, in hindsight, made me nervous but were absolutely the right choices for me. For example, many of the new projects and opportunities presented to me required me to relocate to cities where I had no business connections or friends. Sometimes, it would also mean moving to a location where I don’t speak the local language.
In 2012, I decided to leave TEC – where I by then worked for 14 years already and made a choice to relocate to Shanghai and once more begin a new career. After some years and gaining new experiences, I returned to TEC with new perspectives and strategic angles towards resources, revenue, and stakeholder management. Of course, I had not planned to leave and return to The Executive Centre, so both decisions were a risk for me. However, the reward has been so great as I’ve learned to stay positive during trying times and become a compassionate leader for my team.
How does your company define success, and how do you instil this value in your team?
Success to us is to do what’s right for our clients, people and communities. So when asked what differentiates Colliers, I always say that it is not what we do, but how we do it. This is a key part of Colliers’ culture.
Ultimately, by doing what is right by these three groups of stakeholders – our clients, people and communities – we will build a successful business where people trust us to maximise the potential of their property. With our clients, I emphasise the importance of fostering long-term relationships. We are not just here to close the deal in front of us. Instead, we want to surpass their expectations on the current deal and retain their trust so that they will come back to us for their subsequent transactions. This mindset has led me to work with some of my clients for nearly a decade.
As for our people, I try to be transparent to build mutual trust and loyalty and do anything I can to help them develop their own careers and accelerate their success. Regarding our community, Colliers places great value on ESG and diversification; as a father of two young girls, I am passionate about gender equality and want to make sure that this is a crucial part of our culture at Colliers. I am proud to say that our Head of Global Tenant Representation, Finance, Research, Marketing, and People & Performance (HR) are all female, as are our top two brokers and rising stars from last year. This commitment to recruiting talent from different backgrounds sets us apart and is also what makes Colliers an attractive place to work.
Success can be achieved via setting concrete goals and being flexible. You will easily find that team members within The Executive Centre always have a “can do" attitude and entrepreneurial spirit. We believe in successful workplace collaboration. This means the bringing together of groups of talented individuals instead of opting for top-down decision-making. Through listening and respecting one another, seeing the value within each person, we collaborate better and make the right decisions to achieve outstanding business results.
Combined with our company culture and belief in putting our Member’s needs first, we believe that through listening, meeting and exceeding the corporate requirements of professionals and businesses, we will succeed. From this perspective, many of our company innovations and product developments were grown. In many regards, this Member-First philosophy is one where we drive to improve everything we provide at TEC, and it’s how our team-members entrepreneurial spirit is fostered and nurtured because we believe success is the culmination of all our individual efforts.
If you can go back in time and give advice to the you who was still deciding to take this opportunity to travel to Korea for your current position, what would you tell yourself?
I would tell myself to learn the language sooner. I currently have a one-on-one Korean lesson at 8 AM every morning which has helped me settle into Korean life. Although, I must say that the language is not the easiest to pick up. However, the benefits of learning Korean have been immeasurable as not only does it make my day-to-day life here easier, but it also opens doors for business. Most importantly, it shows my commitment to my team and the community I am now a part of.
I would tell myself that this timing is perfect for me and remind myself that I’m ready to take on this new challenge and excited to join the team. In addition, if I have the time, I should pick up learning how to drive and start to learn the Korean language as soon as possible before embarking to Seoul.
How do you envision the corporate real estate industry in Korea in a post-pandemic world? And what changes do you believe organisations must consider today to transition into that future successfully?
In Korea, we have been quite fortunate that we have not had a full lockdown. Whilst many parts of the world are having “the great debate" about whether they will go back to the office, we haven’t heard many clients here considering downsizing. Instead, many will keep the same footprint but will increase the amount of space dedicated to collaborative space as they will adopt new ways of flexible working. A major trend is that many companies will offer more flexibility regarding work location going forward, with the coworking sector standing to benefit the most.
In our own office, our team has the flexibility to work from wherever they feel most productive. Finding a balance to work and family life is really important. We don’t have any restrictions on how much time anyone can spend out of the office; however, collaboration is crucial to driving exceptional results. While communication tools such as Zoom and Teams are good, nothing beats the face-to-face interaction and the amount of information you can learn from formal and informal conversations between colleagues. Although I encourage the team to work from wherever they feel most productive, I am also a big believer in the importance of good company culture to develop a strong sense of trust and belonging.
This is hard to achieve should one work in isolation for too much of the time. Therefore, the office should still be the principal place of work. All companies are different, though, so rather than prescribe something that works for some of us, I believe it’s essential that each organisation reflects on their own objectives and operational requirements before setting the work environment and rolling out the policies to help achieve those goals.
In the past 14 months, we have been fortunate not to see any prominent impacts on Korea’s corporate real estate industry. However, at the moment, we still see high demand for Grade A Office Building and Flexible Workspaces within significant business districts. This could be because many companies are re-evaluating their actual office space requirement and are reducing their traditional portfolios by supplementing their real estate with flexible workspace solutions or hybrid work models. In addition, the economy is forecasted to recover with rental growth and job opportunities becoming available in the market, so optimism amongst our Members and prospects is growing.
Flexibility and the capacity to be agile to changes are becoming an increasingly important asset in a rapidly changing economic and social environment. Flexibility is no longer just a perk but an actual strength for businesses to stay afloat and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Moreover, organisations need flexible leaders that are able to face unpredictable circumstances and make the choices required to adapt and implement changes. Whether businesses are upsizing, downsizing or relocating, flexible workspaces provide the freedom of scale, which is invaluable during the pandemic and future of work. It’s also essential that decision-makers understand that even short-term decisions, although temporary, can have a lasting impact on your long-term success. It’s the culmination of small achievements and decisions that lead to the overall success of a team, organisation or business. So having the right people in the correct positions and instilling them with trust and loyalty for your team and company is critical. In addition, businesses will undoubtedly need a strong vision, transparent leadership and the flexibility to evolve and adapt according to the pressures or opportunities of the day.
As Managing Director of Colliers, Robert is responsible for the Korea business’ strategic direction, leading the growth and diversification initiatives and developing leadership talent. He is certified by the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors (SIOR) and is designated as an Office Specialist. Rob is based in Seoul and has been in Asia for over 20 years, with stints in Beijing and most recently in Hong Kong, where he was focused on corporate real estate strategy for MNC occupiers.
Colliers is a leading professional service and investment management company, with operations in 68 countries and more than 18,000 employees working collaboratively to provide expert advice to maximise property value for real estate occupiers, owners and investors. Colliers has been in Korea for more than 25 years, making it the country’s oldest international real estate services company.
Patsy has 20 years of experience in China and the Asia Pacific market at large in the Flexible Workspace industry and has worked for a leading business association. Patsy has recently relocated to Seoul and now serves as Executive Director of The Executive Centre in Korea, while also serving in the role of Global Community Director.
Prior to that, Patsy worked at the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai as Director of Business Development, Marketing and Events for nearly five years.