6 Mar 2023
business district

A conversation with Alex Wilkins from the Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network

Karl Frank Meinzer

Partner, Head Real Estate Advisory | EY Switzerland

Experienced Senior Real Estate professional supporting global corporate clients both locally and globally regarding their most pressing transformational projects.

Daniel Zaugg

Partner, Advanced Manufacturing & Mobility Sector Leader | EY Switzerland

Focuses on auditing and advising international clients.

6 Mar 2023

Read in German, Read in French

Metrics in corporate real estate are not specific to any industry. The focus will be on the effectiveness rather than the efficiency of these assets.

In brief
  • The Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network encourages exchange, knowledge sharing, learning and collaboration in the industry.
  • Flexibility as the key on any high-performing corporate real estate portfolio.
  • It is not an option not to do things sustainably, whether in terms of corporate real estate or any other business activity.

As well as learning and collaborating in the real estate industry, the Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network encourages, exchanges and shares knowledge. Alex Wilkins, Head of the Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network, explains how real estate portfolios are structured, how portfolio management is organised in global companies, how the market has evolved and why sustainability and ESG are becoming increasingly important in such organisations.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter #1

Structuring of the Real Estate Portfolio in different industries

Corporate real estate portfolios are highly diverse in terms of function, quantity and geography.

The real estate portfolios of global Corporates are highly diverse in terms of function, quantity and geography. This places specific demands on the buildings themselves, the property and the facility management. This complexity must be taken into account when structuring and managing the corporate real estate portfolio. Looking at the top 15 Swiss Corporates by market capitalization (April 2022) in USD bn, the top three are involved in food (Nestlé), life sciences (Roche, Novartis) and raw materials (Glencore).

Given the top three industries, are there any differences in the real estate portfolio structure of Corporates active in these sectors? 

The food industry, the life sciences industry and the commodities industry have one thing in common. They are active in manufacturing compared to other industries in Switzerland, such as finance or insurance. Corporates in manufacturing industries tend to own rather than lease their assets. This is to ensure that they have full control over these core production assets. Particularly if an organization is going to be in one place for a long period of time, it is also less expensive to own the property than to lease it.

The implementation and maintenance of a global site strategy is often hampered by country-specific regulatory aspects and cultural differences. In your opinion, what are the three biggest challenges in relation to the above issues in different industries and how can these challenges be overcome?

Balancing unpredictable demand with slower changing supply in property markets is a challenge in developing a location strategy. In the short term, internal and external factors can and will change. So while property markets own the assets, we are in a kind of VUCA environment. In short, demand is more flexible than supply which is a challenge to overcome in developing an overall portfolio strategy for any occupier.

Second, the key is to evolve the corporate real estate (CRE) function from being a cost manager to being a productivity enabler. Post-COVID, questions arose about bringing people back into the office, developing corporate culture while working from home and the overall value of the office. As a result, the dialogue has shifted from the office as a cost liability to the office as an asset for business value creation. Incorporating the employee experience component into the physical work environment is the next opportunity to tackle. In this respect, it is important to link the CRE function closely with other organizational functions such as HR and IT, which has often been limited many Corporates to date.

Finding metrics that reflect the value contribution of real estate and not just its cost contribution to the business is another challenge I see. Metrics like occupancy, OpEx per FTE or CapEx per square meter are easy to measure and ubiquitous across occupiers. Assessing the value that the work environment adds to productivity, profitability, brand recognition and employee retention is where the industry will develop.

To sum up: Balancing supply and demand, making the CRE function a productivity enabler, and defining metrics that reflect the value contribution of real estate are the components of future CRE portfolio strategy. In the past, corporates focused mainly on controlling assets and managing expenses. In the future, it will be more about linking to corporate identity and employee engagement.

Improving business performance and efficiency to meet business objectives. This is the reason why KPIs are so important and necessary. Could you please elaborate on the key KPIs that need to be defined when benchmarking at country and global level within the top three industries?

Classic cost and space efficiency metrics will continue to exit and these are not specific to any industry or sector, be it insurance, finance, life sciences, food & beverage or retail. As mentioned above, going forward there will be a greater focus on the effectiveness of real estate (e.g. employee engagement).

Corporate real estate portfolios have a very significant impact on carbon emissions. A substantial percentage of global carbon emissions are tied up in the construction sector. They are embedded in the space occupied and the utilities used to heat and cool the space. Therefore, measuring these KPIs and using them to influence sustainable behaviors becomes increasingly important. Space effectiveness is another key KPI, particularly post-COVID. Organizations are conducting more employee engagement and user satisfaction surveys with their staff. This is to get an idea of their expectations for their preferred future working environment. However, the typical space and cost efficiency metrics, such as FTE per square meter or CapEx / OpEx spend per unit of space or per person, will remain in place.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter #2

Organization of the Portfolio Management

Managing a global real estate portfolio effectively and how to overcome operational challenges.

Could you please explain in more detail how a global real estate portfolio can be managed effectively and where you see the biggest challenges from an operational point of view?

There are a few important elements required to achieve a high-performance portfolio. One key to success is accurate demand forecasting, including from the business. In terms of stakeholder engagement, as CRE is both a supporting and enabling function, it is very important that the CRE function has a good understanding of the underlying business.

In turn, the function needs to be well connected to the local entities, as demand tends to be driven by the needs of the local business. The management of such diverse and sometimes competing requirements across the business can make it challenging to implement a coherent strategy, also at governance level. Management changes and reorganizations, as well as inflexible supply chains, further complicate the effective management of a global portfolio.

Finally, slow and moving market cycles are often misaligned with short-term customer or business needs.

Are international CRE portfolios more likely to be subdivided into country organizations, or are they usually subdivided into different regions (e.g. EMEIA, Americas, Asia-Pacific, etc.)?

CRE functions are typically organized on a geographic or regional basis, although the regions vary from one organization to another. For example, there may be some organizations where group Corporates have a specific identity (functions allocated to business units), possibly following mergers and acquisitions. In general, this does not vary across industry or sector.

Dividing an organization into regions helps the local businesses to be more agile. This is because the local experts know market conditions in detail. At the same time, it is difficult to run a large organization with hundreds of local subject matter experts.

However, the way in which capital is controlled and financial budgets are managed is highly dependent on the structure of the organization. In some organizations, the CRE function owns the real estate P&L, controls spend and then allocates that across the business. In others, spend is owned and controlled by the local entities, with governance approval by the relevant subject matter experts. However, given the dynamics of the market, and the needs for consistency across organisations, internal CRE functions tend to be global and regional. Local brokerage support is provided by third parties.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter #3

General Market Development

Volatility, flexibility and comparative advantage as key to any high-performing CRE portfolio.

Especially in research-intensive and manufacturing-intensive sectors, regional proximity of individual actors in the form of clusters is evident. This includes access to a potential pool of skilled workers, proximity to other SMEs and international organizations. When such an organization chooses or expands its location in Switzerland, what do you think are the most important location factors?

Location itself is one criterion. In general, this means proximity to customers and accessibility for employees in terms of infrastructure. On the one hand, employees want to be in a vibrant environment with amenities close by. On the other hand, they want a high-quality building that meets health, sustainability and environmental standards. The occupier, meanwhile, is going to focus mainly on the letting terms. Any occupier, regardless of industry or country, will use a combination of these to select the right location. Proximity to a talent pool for future product development and innovation may be even more important for laboratory and R&D facilities. This means that future revenue streams and product pipeline are literally dependent on these investments being located in the right place and accessing the right talent, as well as the significant CapEx that is invested in these locations.

The operating costs of Corporates that are highly active in manufacturing, production or R&D are significantly higher than those of typical property asset classes. There has been a significant increase in energy costs in light of the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine. Could you please elaborate on the measures taken to secure energy supply in such locations?

In general, the Real Estate and Facilities teams do not manage energy supply, it is managed by Procurement. However, by promoting energy efficiency and sustainability across all assets, the real estate teams contribute to securing and protecting the energy supply. The focus tends to be on manufacturing assets as these are the most energy-intensive and rely on uninterrupted power to keep machinery running.

I am noticing that more and more corporate occupiers are exploring local power, from off-grid solar and wind power generation that feeds power directly into production and manufacturing facilities. In the medium to long term, energy hedging contracts will also be common in markets where energy is deregulated, as protection against large cost spikes. In fact, to ensure energy supply and business continuity, some sites operate their own energy generation facilities.

How are the operating costs being benchmarked? Are there differences in the methodology used? Is the data typically from the company's own sites or does the benchmarking process have external benchmarks?

Occupancy costs are measured by most occupiers. This includes the energy consumption of the entire occupied portfolio. External benchmarking, i.e. comparing one's own site with industry averages such as those developed by MSCI, has not yet been undertaken by many occupiers. The focus has been more on internal benchmarking. That is to say, one region is compared with another region, or one building is compared with another. While this is helpful, it is less meaningful than a comparison with the industry or with the average. Benchmarking is therefore less consistent across organisations than the measurement of occupancy costs.

How are existing properties managed and controlled? Are there in-house facility management experts? Or are these services outsourced?

Rather than by sector, trends are more based on asset type. A mix of in-house experts and outsourced specialists are often used to provide services for R&D and manufacturing facilities. This can be in the form of a number of individual contracts, a bundle of contracts or a full IFM model. In short, activities related to manufacturing and production are often provided in-house. In general, there is often a reluctance to outsource GMP related activities, as this involves relinquishing some control over these production areas. However, in some locations this is done. Also, due to the proportion of hard services required as part of these facility management contracts and to ensure business continuity, more advanced procurement models such as IFM or bundled contracts are preferred. By comparison, smaller occupiers, possibly due to a greater focus on soft services and a smaller, or more fragmented footprint, still have more in-house staff or multiple individual outsourced service contracts.

Depending on region and location, occupiers use a variety of models for the delivery of facilities management services. The general trend is towards collaboration with external providers of IFM solutions. For example, most hard and soft services are provided by a single company per site or region, and sometimes on a global basis. In this model, internal staff and resources are still in place, but these experts focus more on vendor, supplier and contract management rather than individual service delivery.

“Flexibility as a prerequisite for highly operational real estate. This means: Operational real estate should have both development and expansion potential. With this potential, expensive relocation costs can be avoided, and the site can be developed according to one’s own needs. Are these considerations of importance to different industries when choosing a new location, or to what extent is flexibility in terms of expansion potential required when choosing a new location?

Flexibility is key to any high-performing CRE portfolio. In principle, real estate decisions commit organizations to relatively high costs over long periods of time and are difficult to change. Thus, flexibility to adapt to external changes or evolving business needs, for example COVID-19 (working from home) with minimal friction or cost is essential. This means the ability to take action and initiate actions that will have an impact in less than 12 months in a given business unit.

It is important to keep in mind that business strategy is disconnected from contractual property commitments. In the case of leases, for example, business revenue is not dependent on the length of the lease at a particular location.

Flexibility can also be linked to CapEx allocation, that is, the response to the need for adaptations in the workplace as employee demands change. Ideally this means changing the layout in a way that can be done quickly and at low cost when user feedback is obtained. Designing more flexible and adaptable spaces with desk sharing, activity-based working and occupancy measurement is required. Although there is more interest in working from home or third places, it is not something most Corporates lean on heavily. In my view, a well-negotiated traditional office lease with flexibility (break options, contraction, expansion, etc.) is generally sufficient flexibility for most occupiers.

Volatility, flexibility and the pattern of comparative advantage are not all like growth, but if you are in a B or C industry, how do you deal with it in relation to your real estate portfolio?

A certain amount of flexibility is essential for any high performing CRE portfolio at any size of organization. However, in B or C industries, the need for flexibility is considered to be greater. This is because these industries are more exposed to external factors. That means less capital and maybe greater revenue streams.

Transaction market sentiment suggests that chemical and pharmaceutical Corporates are withdrawing capital from their assets to reinvest the freed-up capital in their core businesses. What is your view on this decision - do you think it is strategically the right thing to do and do you think other industries may follow in the future?

Most Corporates do not have a lot of owned assets that they are waiting for the right time to sell off. The vast majority have already sold what they would like to sell. This is not a new concept at all, especially when it comes to offices. Unless they are located on the campuses primarily focused on manufacturing, with neighbouring ancillary activities, it is not so common to own office assets.

Most of the time, Corporates are trying to be space efficient, unless looking at divestment or securitization projects. In a nutshell, every square metre that a corporate does not occupy, does not require CapEx or OpEx. The leaner an organization is, the lower the CapEx impact and the lower the carbon footprint. Most organizations apply fit-out CapEx KPIs to encourage the design of high-performance fit-outs that are easily adaptable with minimal change costs for occupied space.

Every Corporate is different. Some are large international organizations; others are small Corporates that operate locally. So some may be very CapEx-centric and others may be very cash-flow-centric. For CapEx focused organizations, do you see any specific trends?

AW: There is an increased interest in coworking among organizations with a very strong CapEx focus. That is to say, flexible offices where no CapEx is spent on space, but where the depreciated cost of fit-out is converted into rent. In this case, real estate costs are all OpEx. This could be financially motivated as well as for reasons of flexibility. Generally speaking, this is not the norm, but I think there is a desire to be efficient in terms of capital allocation. Especially post-Covid, Corporates are focusing more on the quality of the real estate portfolio. This is not to say that more CapEx spending equals better quality. The focus is shifting from real estate as a cost to real estate as a value. This means that the portfolio has the potential to improve the productivity of employees, to implement sustainability actions for the general well-being or to improve the corporate culture.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter #4

Sustainability and ESG

Integration of ESG related issues into corporate strategy and practice.

The green footprint plays a major role for many Corporates. Many Corporates look for energy suppliers that are CO2 sustainable and can demonstrate this. They also ask whether there are photovoltaic systems available or what possibilities there are to do their own installation in order to do something demonstrably about CO2 emissions. Do you think Corporates, as occupiers of their real estate, care about these or other ESG issues in the medium to long term?

AW: I would not say that any one sector is leading the way when it comes to ESG. Almost all corporates have already defined their ESG goals at the corporate level. These are often integrated into the CRE policy. However, in some Corporates, this approach has first been applied to highly resource-intensive manufacturing and producing assets to prioritize impact. It is important to note that some CRE functions do not oversee manufacturing facilities, which may be managed by a separate engineering function within an organization.

ESG-related CRE policies focus on space efficiency, green leasing and sustainable facilities for commercial office portfolios. Focusing on embodied and embedded carbon in construction, which accounts for a very significant proportion of carbon emitted, is new. The question that needs to be answered is how this is going to be integrated into CRE policy. Preserving embedded carbon will encourage occupiers to prioritize existing stock over new construction, and digital twins (e.g. BIM models) allow better documentation of building materials and embedded carbon in buildings.

Are there any sectors where there is a clear lack of integration of ESG issues into corporate strategy and practice? If so, what is the reason for this and are there any plans to change this?

Most occupiers generally consider sustainability issues alongside site and building selection criteria when building, purchasing or leasing new premises.  Elements that might be considered include green-certified buildings, the ability to obtain green leases, or sustainable energy procurement options in a building. With respect to sustainability metrics, this is challenging. There are many standards for green buildings, but they are all different and not directly comparable. This makes it more difficult to measure how 'green' a portfolio is for any corporate occupier operating globally or in many markets. Many have developed their own internal metrics, but if not externally benchmarked, they are not comparable with one another.

To what extent do sustainability issues (net-zero targets, building certificates) play a role in building or selecting new premises, as well as in selecting global and local service providers?

In large organizations, it is common for suppliers to sign up to the company's code of ethics, the supplier code of conduct and the applicable ESG charter. The scope of services provided by the organization’s facility management providers, brokers or transaction management teams tend to already include sustainability elements. This is more or less market standard.

In addition, an increasing number of corporate occupiers are demanding and committing to green leasing principles. This is a two-way street, as it requires a commitment from occupiers and tenants to use buildings in a sustainable way. This ranges from committing to sustainable fit-out, sharing utilities consumption data with landlords and tenants, investing or co-investing in sustainable infrastructure upgrades, to supporting landlords’ building certification upgrades. The Swiss CRE Network has more than 30 corporate occupier members representing half of the SMI index so we have a significant ability to have an impact together. The more occupiers commit to operate sustainably, the more the landlord market will change.

Within a corporate ESG strategy, what is the role of the real estate team?

A company's ESG strategy is underpinned by values, and the CRE team subscribes to and operates in alignment with those values. You would be hard pushed to find a company today that does not have an ESG policy. It would be like having no diversity policy. It is not an option not to do things sustainably, whether in terms of Corporate Real Estate or any other business activity. What is really needed is a commitment to integrate sustainability into decision making so it is treated equally to CapEx investment and return on investment metrics. It is vitally important that ESG metrics are established and integrated into CRE policy and processes.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter #5

Operational Topics

Challenges and opportunities in terms of integrated lifecycle management of properties.

The demands placed on the facility management by the tenants of chemical real estate go far beyond those of an office building. In your opinion, what additional or special facility management services do chemical/industrial properties have in comparison to typical asset classes?

Chemical and industrial properties have specific additional facility requirements compared to asset classes such as office, retail and residential. Depending on the activities carried out at the site, there are specific facility requirements, such as those relating to biohazard safety levels. Facility managers need to understand the business and processes within the organization, as well as the activities of internal customers, whether they are internal, in-house teams or external service providers. These activities, such as the utilization and tracking of infrastructure assets, have many interfaces with facility management. It is only when the needs of the users are understood that innovative solutions can be created.

Over the past decades, users have defined facility management service requirements for soft services, but also for some hard services. In general, customers tend to ask for last year's model, but at a lower price. Understanding the user's core processes and associated needs is critical when proposing what is needed in the future. Then we can influence those needs to ensure a more efficient, flexible, adaptable and sustainable use of space. In order to best support the business, high performing facilities teams - both internal and external - can identify appropriate services and optimal delivery methods. This is where innovation is happening.

What challenges and opportunities do you see in terms of integrated lifecycle management of properties (leased, owned) in a corporate real estate portfolio, particularly in light of the COVID 19 pandemic?

This has more to do with how much of the building is occupied by a tenant. A tenant in a mixed-use building is not directly responsible for the common parts, or the building's exterior. The landlord pays for this and recovers cost through the service charge. The tenant has therefore limited influence and control on this. If a whole building is leased by one occupier, that party is responsible for everything, but not beyond its lease term. So I think that the Integrated Life Cycle Management of leased properties is more related to the nature of being a temporary owner of an asset, rather than to the strategy of the company.

To sum up: COVID-19 has not changed anything in terms of the types of contracts that Corporates have or how much of their portfolio is owned or leased. As noted above, this depends more on whether they are manufacturing or producing and whether or not they operate campuses.

Please that the above responses reflect a wide range of data from members of the Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network. These trends are seen across the food and beverage, insurance, life sciences, technology and many more industries. The responses should be seen as representative of the thinking of corporate occupiers in general, as well as the policy and practice of corporate facilities management.

(Chapter breaker)

Chapter #6

The Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network

Description of the Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network.

The Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network is a peer to peer network of internal real estate professionals from corporate occupiers based in Switzerland. Since 2018, the group has grown to 70 members from 38 multinational companies. These include half of the top 20 Swiss SMI firms with a combined market capitalization over CHF 1.5 trillion. This community was established to encourage exchange, knowledge sharing, learning and collaboration in the industry. By sharing best practices and innovation we can advance the quality and effectiveness of corporate real estate, thereby shaping the future and improving the working lives of employees.

Alex Wilkins

  • Head of the Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network
  • Member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (MRICS)
  • PGDip, Urban Planning from The University of Sheffield
  • PGDip, Estate Management from the London South Bank University

Alex Wilkins has worked in Corporate Real Estate for more than 20 years, having lived and worked in the UK, Italy, France, Singapore and Switzerland. He is a founder member and head of the Swiss Corporate Real Estate Network.

If you are an internal corporate real estate professional, based in Switzerland, and would like to join the Swiss CRE Network, please reach out to Alex.

Real Estate News 2023

The latest issue of the "Real Estate News 2023" provides an overview of current economic, technological, tax and legal topics from the real estate industry (only available in German).

Download now


Corporates are highly diverse in terms of function, quality and geography. The challenges for any high-performing corporate real estate portfolio are balancing supply and demand, making the corporate real estate function a productivity enabler and defining metrics that reflect the value contribution of real estate. There will be a shift from controlling assets and managing expenses to linking the corporate real estate function to corporate identity and employee management.


We thank Annabell Chantal Nachbaur for her valuable contribution to this article.

About this article

Karl Frank Meinzer

Partner, Head Real Estate Advisory | EY Switzerland

Experienced Senior Real Estate professional supporting global corporate clients both locally and globally regarding their most pressing transformational projects.

Daniel Zaugg

Partner, Advanced Manufacturing & Mobility Sector Leader | EY Switzerland

Focuses on auditing and advising international clients.