By Phakama Mbonambi
‘I enjoy the unpredictability of my job’
Most professionals are content with the stability of their days at work; knowing when the day starts, attending meetings or working alone in their offices, going for lunch and even knowing the exact time of knocking off. This is not so with Jonathan Sinden, an Asset Management Executive at Liberty Two Degrees.
“This is a complex role where I deal with most stakeholders,” Sinden says. “The great thing about my role is that no two days are the same. I can arrive at the office with my day all mapped out but only to find that I end up doing something totally different. The unpredictability of my day has become the rule and not the exception. It’s part of the joys of working in a live built environment!”
Indeed, life in the building environment is turning out just as he had planned when he studied towards a Bachelor of Science degree in quantity surveying at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban). “When I was still in school, my friend’s father encouraged me to become a Quantity Surveyor. He said I should become the money man,” Sinden reminisces fondly.
After graduating, he spread his wings quite a bit in the corporate world by becoming Senior Surveyor for UK-based EC Harris, a Development Manager at Group Five and Absa Property Development as well as being an Asset Manager for Absa Capital “where I gained extensive experience in the property industry”. Along the way, he enrolled for the Property Development Programme from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. He has been a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors since 2002.
In 2014, he joined STANLIB from Liberty Properties where he was Senior Development Manager, a role that saw him primarily seeking development opportunities as well as managing development projects of retail and commercial property. With all the rich experience garnered over the years, joining Liberty Two Degrees is a dream-come true for Sinden. He is at the right place and is enjoying every minute of it. “I love property and we have one of the most iconic retail portfolios in the country,” he says. “I love my job because of the variety and the interesting individuals one gets to meet. I like bringing in new, fresh and innovative ideas and new international tenants.”
He’s particularly grateful for the leadership of Amelia Beattie, Chief Executive Officer of Liberty Two Degrees: “Amelia is a visionary and she is extremely determined. She is unwavering in her drive for excellence but, at the same time, she is kind and caring.”
While he enjoys his dynamic work environment, Sinden acknowledges that there can sometimes be a challenge of “managing large egos and personalities”. But that’s something he knows how to handle. In addition, “a day can go from mundane to crisis in a split second. This is an unpredictable environment.”
‘I enjoy seeing the impact of my decisions on the business and our clients’
Nikiwe Mkhabela, an Asset Management Executive at Liberty Two Degrees, has an unshakable belief in the property sector. Her passion for real estate is fuelled by her keen understanding of what property represents. She appreciates the intrinsic nature of property; that it’s a “tangible asset” and offers infinite investment value. “Real estate provides shelter for residential and commercial activities to take place. There will always be business in this industry,” Mkhabela says. “Every person should have a roof over their head; it’s a basic human need and right that ought to be achieved.”
After years of diligent work, the industry has recognised her star quality. She is the recipient of the STANLIB 2014 Achiever Award for consistently delivering above expectations. The following year she was nominated for the South African Women’s Property Network Young Achiever Award. While gratified by the recognition, Mkhabela feels she still has a lot to offer in the property industry. “I made the right decision by joining the Liberty Property Portfolio in 2008 and migrated to STANLIB Direct Property Investments in 2012 which later changed to Liberty Two Degrees,” she says. “Liberty Two Degrees has unique and prime assets; it’s a trendsetter and offers a lot of learning and growth opportunities.”
Mkhabela’s portfolio at Liberty Two Degrees comprises of shopping centres and industrial assets and her job entails monitoring the performance of this property portfolio and driving returns through income optimisation. “I have to ensure that the assets are performing as projected, manage risks and ensure that service providers deliver accordingly for the success and optimal performance of the assets,” she says.
It’s a job she does with admirable efficiency and it fulfils her “seeing the impact of my decisions on the business and our clients”. One of the challenging aspects of her job is dealing with the results of factors outside her control such as the performance of the greater economy. “When businesses are not doing well, vacancy rates increase in our assets, rentals go down and consumers spend less in our malls. This, consequently, leads to low return targets,” she says.
But for now she enjoys being at Liberty Two Degrees. “It is a homely but fast-paced environment which keeps me on my toes and sharpens my brain,” Mkhabela says. “Within Liberty Two Degrees we manage the listed Liberty Two Degrees portfolio and the unlisted Liberty Property Portfolio so we have two clients with different requirements. Liberty Two Degrees has visionary and experienced leaders; the whole team is vibrant and ambitious. I’m constantly challenged and learn new things every day.”
Her advice to aspirant asset managers is to believe in the lasting value of the property sector. “Property is the place to be and is one of the safest investment vehicles, and this includes our houses. There will always be a need for bricks and mortar,” she concludes.
‘No two days are ever the same’
Brian Unstead is passionate about being an Asset Management Executive at Liberty Two Degrees. When it comes to work around property deals, he likes getting things done and being in the thick of action. “I enjoy being involved in the retail sector, especially opening new stores or shopping centres, and working on feasibilities. No two days are ever the same and that’s what keeps me passionate about my role,” Unstead says.
Unstead boasts 23 years of experience in the property sector. In 2013, he joined STANLIB from Liberty Properties where he held the title of Senior Finance Manager in property development. He was primarily responsible for the financial management of the business and feasibilities of all new and refurbishment projects.
When Liberty Two Degrees, Liberty Group’s real estate investment trust (REIT), was listed on the JSE in December 2016, he jumped at the chance to join the team. “A dynamic team was being assembled and the opportunity to work on some of the most iconic retail assets in the country was very appealing,” he says.
He was well equipped for the move. Unstead holds a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Witwatersrand, an MBA, a post Graduate Diploma in Business Management both from Wits Business School and an Advanced Certificate in Shopping Centre Leadership from the University of Pretoria in conjunction with the South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA), with distinction.
So far, he enjoys the culture at Liberty Two Degrees and for a chance to daily rub shoulders with team members, all of them exceptional and capable property professionals. “We have an experienced team. It’s a diverse team with diverse views. This diversity tests the status quo and most times ensures that best decisions are made,” he enthuses.
His daily work routine involves attending to voluminous amounts of tasks. “First, it is the usual reviewing of and attending to e-mails. So it depends what the priorities are at the time. It could be reviewing reports, dealing with a crisis of some sort, planning, reviewing financials, reviewing budgets, working on leasing and marketing strategies, preparing reports for formal governance meetings or working on feasibilities. We are also very hands-on with developments we work on at any given time,” he says.
Overall, his focus area is helping the team deliver on capital projects in each financial year. “We are also continually assessing our assets’ performance against key matrixes such as vacancy levels, debtors’ collections and rent reversion rates,” he says. “Most importantly, we try to ensure that the majority of our time is spent achieving our net income per unit.”
Despite seeming to have always had a compass for his career, Unstead actually got into his job by default. “In all honesty, the property industry found me as opposed to me having a romanticised dream of being in the property industry. After my undergraduate studies at Wits University, I found myself working in the property industry. That’s when I started to really enjoy it, especially retail property,” he says. “In my early career, my role was a finance one, so I was behind the scenes. With time I itched to be closer to the action. Eventually, I moved across to asset management and developments.”
But no job is without challenges. For Unstead, one of the biggest headaches in this current gloomy economic environment is “chasing income as the retail sector has come under pressure of late”. Also, given the dynamic nature of his work environment, “prioritising can also be difficult as it often feels as though almost everything is urgent and important.”
Unstead is lucky to have had managers who have influenced his personal and professional growth. “I have never had a formal mentor. I have had some managers who have made a significant difference in my career, including Sharon Swain and Rael Abramowitz,” he says. “Sharon is an incredible people-person who cares for all of her staff in a very sincere manner. Rael, on the other hand, provided me with exposure to the industry way beyond my formal role and took me under his wing, accelerating my growth tremendously. He also instilled [in me] a culture of having along the way. ”
Throughout his career, Unstead learned two crucial lessons of his own – “being patient and listening to your intuition”. His advice to aspirant asset managers? “Learn to network and grab opportunities to learn with both hands in order to accelerate your career path.”
‘Everyone has chance to make huge impact in industry’
Lubabalo Vengeni is a Business Development and Valuations Executive at Liberty Two Degrees. He revels in the fast-paced nature of his job. “Each day is different in the acquisitions and disposals space. “You could be looking at a potential acquisition in Soweto and then Cape Town the following day,” Vengeni says. “The dynamics are different but the common denominator is valuations of different types of assets.”
Vengeni boasts 12 years as a property practitioner. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Property Studies from the University of Cape Town, he became a professional Property Valuer. He is registered with the South African Institute of Valuers, the South African Council for the Property Valuers Profession, and the Estate Agency Affairs Board.
During his career he has been involved in property valuations for most of the South African listed property sector on behalf of Marriott/Old Mutual Properties and was formerly an Asset Manager at Vunani Property Investment Fund (now Texton) and a Non-Executive Director at JHI in 2010.
Vengeni joined STANLIB in 2012 as an Asset Manager for the Liberty Property Portfolio (LPP). In that post, he was responsible for internal property valuations and third party mandates in Lesotho and Swaziland. He then took the responsibility for LPP transactions and valuations and has been involved in the disposal of Greenacres Shopping Centre, the acquisition of Botshabelo Mall, Melrose Arch Precinct and John Ross Eco Junction in Richards Bay.
His passion for property valuation dates back to when he was still a youngster at high school. “At the time, one could only qualify as a Property Valuer if one was a Quantity Surveyor. Fortunately, the University of Cape Town introduced a BSc degree in Property Studies in 2000 and I was one of the first students to be enrolled,” Vengeni says.
Fortunately for him, doors to acquiring knowledge about the property industry opened quite early. “I worked in the construction of Canal Walk on behalf of Murray and Roberts as part of vacation work and this was my first introduction to retail property,” he says.
Further exposure to the real world of property came at the end of 2004, after he had finished his studies, when Vengeni “joined a well-oiled machine, Marriott Properties, which had SA Corporate, Martprop, Ambit and Oryx under management. This offered me an opportunity to value retail, industrial and office properties. We were also able to conduct market valuations for external clients with the V&A Waterfront and Sandton City valuation was a highlight.”
Marriott Properties was subsequently bought by Old Mutual Properties and Vengeni joined their valuation team. In 2007, after relocating to Johannesburg, he joined Nedbank’s commercial property valuation division. The following year Vengeni spread his corporate wings again by joining Vunani Property Investment Fund as an Asset Manager and this automatically made him a Non-Executive Director at JHI. Between 2010 and early 2012 he ran his own property valuation business before joining STANLIB.
In July 2015, Vengeni assumed the role of Fund Manager for the Southern African Development Community, which entailed “setting up a property fund to assist our existing clients and grow assets under management in line with vision 2020”. The fund will be invested in Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique and is currently sourcing capital and possible partnerships. Furthermore, Vengeni sits on the Executive Committee for Bhunu Mall on behalf of Public Services Pension Fund (PSPF) in Swaziland.
At Liberty Two Degrees, Vengeni enjoys “analysing different markets and the different property sectors in order to form an opinion of the main drivers of property values”. It disturbs him, though, that some African markets are underdeveloped and, as result, lack accurate information “which makes property valuation advisory tricky”. In Zimbabwe I saw replacement value used as market value and although this means properties store their value it can be misleading when looking at underlying net income,” he says.
Vengeni salutes his colleagues at Liberty Two Degrees. “The team is young and dynamic and the opportunity to make a big impact in the industry is there for everyone,” he says.
When he looks back on the journey travelled, Vengeni is proud of his achievements. “My journey has given me exposure to a premium portfolio from an asset management point of view, fund management experience in the Southern African Development Community, Non-Executive Director at JHI Retail and now Business Development and Valuations Executive at Liberty Two Degrees,” he says.
For laying the foundation of his career advancement, Vengeni is grateful to his mentor Tim Moulder, whom he met in his very first job. “His impact has been more in the property valuation space where he taught me attention to detail and reignited the love of property valuation within me. There are grey areas in property and mentors help bridge that gap,” Vengeni says.
A key lesson in his current position is that “the current economic environment is uncertain and what makes sense today can be different after an economic shock such as an economic outlook downgrade”. Which is why he advises young asset managers to “acquire knowledge first before chasing money”.