Time, place, space, technology and corporate real estate strategy
Gibler, Karen M
Few corporations take a strategic approach to managing real estate. This survey finds that corporate real estate managers and service providers in Australia, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and the United States continue to fulfill a traditional transactional role within their organizations. Real estate is not cooperating with other parts of the organization to provide their companies with flexibility that could increase competitiveness. While the use of technology is growing, real estate managers remain uncertain about its role in their future. Corporate real estate managers believe that to be effective in the future they will need strategic planning skills and business knowledge.
Although all corporations lease and own real property that they use to support their core business, very few use a strategic approach to acquiring, managing and disposing of real estate. Often corporate real estate officers and others in the organization make daily decisions about facility location, building design, space layout and lease obligations without a plan as to how those real property holdings could contribute to the company’s productivity and profitability. To be most effective, organizations should follow a corporate real estate strategy that is consistent with overall corporate strategy and coordinated with other functional areas. Yet, in the past, most real estate managers were not members of corporate strategy teams and many corporate real estate officers were not involved in decisions regarding the changing workplace.
The purpose of this study was to analyze the results of a 2000 survey of corporate real estate managers and service providers to determine whether the role of real estate in corporate strategic planning is changing and whether real estate managers are adjusting to changes in the business environment. Responses from Australia, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and the United States are compared to analyze differences between corporate real estate management in different parts of the world. This study also explored the role of corporate real estate in the future and the knowledge and skills corporate real estate managers will need to be successful in the changing business environment.
The traditional role of the corporate real estate officer was to find facilities based on specifications set by operations, negotiate the best price, manage the space, then dispose of it when operations did not want it any longer. Operations determined their goals, decided what real property they needed to support those goals, and only then contacted the real estate manager to locate the property and negotiate the lease or purchase. This exemplifies a transaction-based corporate real estate function, with the strategic decision-making handled by operations (Veale, 1989). Even among companies that employ a corporate real estate officer, few have placed the head of property issues at a major decision-making level in the organization (Avis, 1990). Therefore, in many organizations the corporate real estate manager is not involved in the company’s strategic planning process. Rather, real estate decisions are made on a property-by-property basis with no overall guiding plan for real estate assets. In addition, these real estate choices are often made without consultation and coordination with other important business units such as marketing, information systems and human resources.
An International Development Research Council (IDRC) study (Joroff, Louargand, Lambert and Becker, 1993) identified five evolutionary stages of corporate real estate unit development: (1) taskmaster; (2) controller; (3) dealmaker; (4) intrapreneur; and (5) business strategist. This sequence recognizes the need for real estate executives to move from order taking and care taking to tackling company-wide competitiveness issues. The question is whether corporate real estate officers have evolved into the business strategist stage.
Real Estate as Part of the Corporate Strategy
Handling corporate real estate operations as individual transactions reduces real estate’s ability to effectively contribute to the company’s profitability. Without involvement in corporate strategic planning, the corporate real estate manager must assume a reactive role (Avis, 1990), which is costly and time consuming (Veale, 1989).
For real property to fully contribute to the corporation, senior management must consider real estate issues when developing strategic plans (Manning and Roulac, 1999). Thus, the corporate strategic plan would logically lead to a real property strategic plan that would guide real estate decisions. This implies a proactive, comprehensive and portfolio-wide decision-making process with the commitment of upper management (Veale, 1989). Yet surveys, such as reported in Avis (1990), indicate most organizations in the late 1980s found it difficult to incorporate real estate into their strategic planning process. For example, most had planning periods of less than five years, making it difficult to optimize the company’s real estate holdings, which are often long-term investments.
The role of the corporate real estate officer in an organization that incorporates real estate into strategic planning is to establish and maintain a close match between the organization’s business and real estate strategies (Bon, 1994). To ensure this match, the real estate unit must shift: (1) from a real estate orientation to a business focus; (2) from a transactional orientation to a process orientation; (3) from control-oriented to service-oriented; (4) from reactive to proactive; (5) from automation to information systems; (6) from standardization to customization of workspace; and (7) from real estate skills to general management capability (Joroff, Louargand, Lambert and Becker, 1993).
Real estate managers surveyed by Arthur Anderson & Co. (1993) agreed that linking strategic real estate planning to overall business strategy is important for the success and profitability of the company and that property can contribute to the organization’s competitive advantage. However, real estate managers interviewed by IDRC in the 1980s reported their companies were not consulting the real estate department about real property’s role in corporate strategy nor keeping the real estate department fully informed of corporate business strategy (Pittman and Parker, 1989).
Corporate Executives’ Understanding of Real Estate
One impediment to real estate being included in corporate strategic planning is corporate executives’ lack of knowledge and understanding of real property. For example, New Zealand executives tend to believe real estate decision-making is not an integral part of their corporate strategic planning (Teoh, 1993). An Arthur Andersen & Co. (1993) survey indicates that senior managers in the U.S. perceive real estate activities not as strategic, but as meeting the ongoing needs of business units. They believe that real estate has little effect on how effectively a company competes in the marketplace. Similarly, only 16% of chief executive officers in the U.K. view property as an important strategic resource. While they think property is a moderately important resource for the company’s success, these CEOs believe it is less important than people, technology, information or finance (Gibson, 1995).
Only real estate professionals can educate general managers about real property and its role in contributing to corporate success. To accomplish this goal, corporate real estate managers need direct and ongoing communication with senior management as well as involvement in the strategic planning process. Yet onefourth of the real estate executives surveyed in the late 1980s said they were not regularly exposed to overall corporate strategy and planning (Veale, 1989). Similarly, almost half of those surveyed by IDRC during that time reported communicating with their CEOs no more often than every six months (Pittman and Parker, 1989).
A later IDRC survey found that although many corporate real estate officers can document that their new workplace strategies reduce occupancy costs, enhance employee productivity and improve employee satisfaction, recruitment or retention, many are evidently not reporting these results to senior management (Lambert, Poteete and Waltch, 1995). Yet, the Arthur Andersen & Co. (1993) study found that senior managers would use real estate information in business decisions when that information is effectively communicated. Bon (1994) suggests that corporate real estate officers need to develop a mechanism to gather data on property performance, use indicators or benchmarks to assess performance, and deliver the resulting information to management for use in analyzing the effect of real property on the overall performance of the organization.
The Changing Business and Workplace Environment
Among the biggest challenges facing business today are globalization, consolidation, downsizing, restructuring, streamlining, technological changes, changes in the workforce and the increased emphasis on flexibility. To meet these challenges businesses need efficient, innovative and productive work environments with flexibility for expansion and contraction in response to the market. Decisions about site selection, building design and contractual relationships are critical in matching a company’s physical resources with business realities.
Flexibility to enable a company to quickly react to changes in the marketplace is not a new problem. Even in Veale’s (1989) survey, three-fourths of real estate executives said flexibility was a critical issue. Since that time companies have flattened their hierarchies while trying to organize as networks, encouraging teams that bring workers together to perform a job then break apart and reform as new teams. New voice and image communication technologies can bridge geographic distances, allowing teams to work together from different locations.
“Although great attention is given to plant layout in the manufacturing setting and to store design in the retail context, very little attention has been given to how the design of physical work space for knowledge work complements the doing of knowledge work. . . Almost without exception, the selection of space in which businesses operate is made without explicit consideration of how that space prospectively might complement the work of the workers who will work in that space,” (Nourse and Roulac, 1993:483). Providing workers with an environment that promotes creativity, effectiveness, productivity and efficiency means producing goods and services faster, cheaper and more efficiently.
Workplace efficiency can be achieved through reducing space per employee through redesign, consolidating workspace, intensifying space use through nonterritorial offices (such as hotelling) and making capital improvements that reduce the time and cost of chum when new product teams are put in place (Lambert, Poteete and Waltch, 1995). Such redesign can create team environments and interaction areas. Similarly, technology such as virtual offices and teleconferencing can increase efficiency even further.
In addition to workplace design, site selection can support strategic human resources objectives. Location and quality of space, nearby amenities and complementary facilities can aid in attracting and retaining skilled workers. Yet, a U.K. study in the late 1980s found none of the participating organizations had addressed the issue of how buildings affect the company’s organizational performance (Avis, 1990). An IDRC survey of business unit real estate customers in the early 1990s revealed that only about half believe workplace location and design significantly contribute to access to qualified workers and employee satisfaction, 44% believe it contributes significantly to efficiency improvement, 43% to productivity improvement and 28% to cost reduction (Lambert, Poteete and Waltch, 1995).
Many real estate experts surveyed by Cam, Black and Rabianski (1999) believe that corporate real estate needs to provide greater flexibility for quicker responses to technical change and shorter product life cycles. By producing real estate strategic plans that address the business units’ objectives (efficiency, customer satisfaction, productivity, etc.), corporate real estate executives can best demonstrate their value and provide a platform for being involved in broader corporate planning processes (Lambert, Poteete and Waltch, 1995).
Yet, Gibson and Lizieri’s (2001) study of corporate real estate executives in the U.K. found that while a majority of the firms had undertaken some form of business process re-engineering, corporate restructuring, downsizing or outsourcing, the result was only a small proportion of workers with home working arrangements or some form of hot desking supported by email, voice mail and videoconferencing. They found instead that increased need for teamwork had led mainly to changes in internal office layouts and that corporate downsizing had permitted reduction in office space requirements. While corporate real estate executives in the U.K. believe the increasing use of information technology and new work practices to be the most important issues their organizations face in the future, at this point the lack of information and communication technology, the lack of flexible office leasing terms in the market and the resistance of middle management are constraining the use of alternative work practices.
Cooperation with Other Business Units
A coordinated strategic approach to real estate planning requires corporate real estate managers to work with related business units. Yet, according to the Arthur Andersen & Co. (1993) and IDRC (Lambert, Poteete and Waltch, 1995) studies, most real estate managers do not work closely with human resources, MIS or marketing departments. However, a majority do work closely with legal, operations and facilities departments.
The Skills Real Estate Managers Need to Be Effective
If real estate managers are to be included in the strategic planning process, they must become strategists and creative problem solvers who take a management view of real estate over a long-term planning horizon (Schaefers, 1999). Most importantly, the real estate manager must possess the skills and education to understand the changes taking place in the business environment and anticipate their impact on the company’s real property needs.
Real estate managers increasingly need to understand how site selection, facility design and space utilization decisions affect a company’s business operation and profitability. They must be involved in designing new space and re-engineering existing space to accommodate changing technology. Thus, to be effective, the real estate manager must be knowledgeable about how telecommunications and other technology integrated into workspace can improve worker productivity.
The Cam, Black and Rabianski (1999) survey indicates that real estate experts believe corporate real estate executives need business, engineering and technological abilities to be successful. Earlier, Arthur Andersen & Co. (1993) respondents said understanding the company’s business, negotiation and dealmaking and strategic planning skills are required for success. Thus, those involved in the industry appear to recognize the need for general management skills.
In addition, if corporate real estate managers are to evolve from taskmasters to business strategists, they must develop better means of communication with top executives to explain how real estate contributes to the company’s profitability and success. The real estate manager must explain how decisions regarding space can affect flexibility, productivity and other critical business issues. However, the key to this evolution of the real estate function within organizations is the inclusion of real estate planning as part of the strategic planning process. Therefore, this study examined how far corporate real estate has come as of 2000.
The Corporate Real Estate Management Research Unit at the University of Reading in conjunction with Johnson Controls Incorporated annually conducts a survey of corporate real estate executives and service providers who advise on the corporate real estate portfolios of other organizations. This survey is conducted with the endorsement of the IDRC and the International Association of Corporate Real Estate Executives (NACORE). Both the IDRC and NACORE distribute the questionnaire to their membership. A total of 190 chief real estate officers, real estate executives, real estate service providers and others in similar positions from around the world responded to the 2000 survey. This analysis focuses on the eighty U.S. respondents, thirty-four Australians, thirty-seven from the U.K. and fifteen from Hong Kong because of the large number of responses from each country and their geographic dispersion.
The first section of the questionnaire asked for professional and organizational background information (experience, main business, portfolio data, staffing and organization). The second section asked executives to indicate the five most important corporate real estate management objectives and initiatives they are currently pursuing from a list of nineteen possible objectives. Respondents were also asked to identify which of thirty-two policies, functions and activities were new initiatives, part of their business as usual or not undertaken by their companies.
The third section contained the opinion section of the questionnaire. Respondents were presented with a list of eleven possible characteristics and roles for corporate real estate and asked to indicate whether they believe each statement is characteristic of their own organization and characteristic of other organizations using a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing “strongly disagree” and 5 representing “strongly agree.” The next part of the questionnaire asked the respondents to rate the future importance of thirty-eight knowledge and skill areas to corporate real estate management, using a scale from I “least important” to 5 “most important.”
The final section of the questionnaire asked the respondents to indicate the impact the Internet is having on corporate real estate by indicating agreement on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing “strongly disagree” and 5 representing “strongly agree,” with a list of ten statements relating to the Internet.
The responses to the questionnaire were organized for analysis by country where the respondent is located. The answers were summarized for the entire sample, the Australian respondents, the U.S. respondents, the Hong Kong respondents and the U.K. respondents. The overall results provide information to determine the current role of real estate in strategic planning, the most important issues facing real estate executives today, their current initiatives, and what skills and knowledge they believe are needed to be successful in the future.
The Australian, U.S., Hong Kong and U.K. responses were compared to determine if the status of corporate real estate differs around the world and whether real estate executives in each location have the same vision for the future. Chi-square tests and Kruskal-Wallis tests, as appropriate, were applied to test for significant differences among the countries. A significance level of .05 was used.
The knowledge and skill items were also factor analyzed once a correlation analysis indicated significant correlation among several of the items. The Bartlett sphericity test on the data is significant (X(‘703) = 2479, P = .00), indicting the data are approximately multivariate normal and acceptable for factor analysis. An exploratory factor analysis was employed using principal component extraction and varimax rotation with a selection criterion of minimum eigenvalue > 1. Eleven factors were extracted. Five variables were removed that did not load well on any factor and the number of factors was reduced to eight. The resulting factor loadings were all greater than .500, and all of the coefficient alpha measures of internal consistency were greater than .600.
Exhibits 1 and 2 present a summary of the respondents. The majority of the respondents are corporate real estate executives, but not the most senior real estate officer in the organization. Most of the respondents from the U.S., Australia and Hong Kong are either the chief real estate officer or real estate executive in their companies while a large proportion of the U.K. respondents work as real estate service providers or investors. The majority has at least a college degree, with many holding an advanced degree. Most have less than five years experience in their current job, but more than five years experience in corporate real estate, perhaps indicating significant turnover in corporate real estate positions that would hamper development and implementation of long-term real estate strategies.
The respondents’ companies represent organizations of every size across a wide spectrum of the economy. More than one-third (38%) of the respondents work in finance, insurance or real estate companies, 12% for government or institutional organizations and 10% in the technology or telecommunications industries. The companies are satisfying their real estate needs with a variety of approaches, some leasing most of their space and others purchasing most of their properties. Organizational structures vary. Most of the companies treat their real estate unit as a cost center, but a substantial proportion, especially outside the U.S., treats their real estate unit as a profit center. The strategic planning horizon for most companies is five years or less, with many using only a two- or three-year planning horizon.
Real Estate as Part of the Corporate Strategy
Although the survey results indicate that companies are satisfying their real estate needs with a variety of approaches and organizational structures, there is little evidence that real estate decisions have yet been integrated into overall corporate strategic planning. The strategic planning horizon for most companies remains five years or less, with many using only a two- or three-year planning horizon, similar to what Avis (1990) reported. Such a short-term view limits the company’s ability to approach a long-term commitment such as real estate in a strategic manner.
The rank order of importance of objectives and initiatives that the respondents are currently pursuing, as shown in Exhibit 3, indicates the top three objectives are: meeting the workplace needs of business growth, meeting the individual needs of business operating divisions and minimizing the operating expense of the portfolio. Some of the objectives that few identified as important are: minimizing real estate staff through flexible outsourcing and minimizing property oriented operational constraints on the organization. These results demonstrate most corporate real estate officials are pursuing the traditional objectives of supplying needed space at the lowest cost rather than focusing on productivity and flexibility. Australian respondents are the only group to rank enhancing the organization’s image as a top objective.
Corporate Executives” Understanding of Real Estate
Real estate officers believe the most representative statements in this survey about their organizations are that the primary aim of real estate is to provide appropriate working environments for the least overall cost and real estate is only a part of the working environment their organization requires. They do not believe that their corporate executives recognize that every organization that occupies space is in the real estate business nor that real estate financial returns are the same or higher than overall returns (Exhibit 4). Thus, most real estate managers do not believe their senior management approaches real estate as a component of the company’s investment portfolio that can be managed strategically, but rather as a cost of production. Not much seems to have changed since the Arthur Andersen & Co. (1993) or Gibson (1995) surveys.
Most respondents think more highly of the role the real estate manager is playing in their own organization than in others (comparing results in Exhibits 4 and 5). The respondents believe they are in a better position than their colleagues at other organizations in terms of reporting to senior executives and exposure to corporate strategy. In addition to the shortcomings they recognize in their own companies, they believe that real estate executives in other companies do not generally take the lead in integrating all aspects of workplace delivery nor do they believe they have a responsibility for enhancing workforce productivity.
Once again, some geographic differences are apparent. Real estate officers in the U.S. and Hong Kong more strongly believe that real estate information is regularly reported to corporate executives in other organizations. Perhaps corporate real estate management relationships with senior executives in the U.S. and Hong Kong are in the lead. This would indicate an improvement in the U.S. from the IDRC surveys (Pittman and Parker, 1989; and Lambert, Poteete and Waltch, 1995).
The Changing Business and Workplace Environment
The most common business policies, functions and activities that real estate managers consider business as usual are e-mail, in-house purchasing, in-house facilities management, organization intranets/networks and in-house move planning/management, as is shown in Exhibit 6. Few companies are undertaking clear desk policy, desk sharing, hotelling or a property-related research fund, a similar finding to Gibson and Lizieri (2001). The most common new initiatives are e-business strategy, e-procurement and teleworking, all technology-related initiatives. Those in the corporate real estate field in the U.K. have undertaken more innovative workplace policies such as desk sharing. Companies in the U.K. are also more likely to have a clear desk policy that ensures that documents are easily retrieved after an explosion.
Only the Americans are emphasizing the organization’s need for physical and work practice flexibility, as is shown in Exhibit 3. Thus, few are responding to the need for flexibility identified by Veale (1989) and Carn, Black and Rabianski (1999).
American and Australian corporate real estate officials place more emphasis on technological advances despite Gibson and Lizieri’s (2001) findings that corporate real estate executives in the U.K. believe the increasing use of information technology and new work practices to be the most important issues their organizations face in the future. Those in the U.K. and Hong Kong are less likely to be involved in e-procurement. However, Hong Kong companies are working on establishing computer-based property inventory systems that many from the other countries already have in place.
The respondents appear unsure what impact the Internet is having on corporate real estate and the property industry, as is shown in Exhibit 7. The strongest positive opinion is that Internet-based information systems will make the management of global portfolios easier. Service providers in the U.K., however, are least likely to believe that (1) Internet-based information systems will enable better business decisions concerning real estate; and (2) Internet-based information systems will speed the management integration of all corporate infrastructure resources. Those in the U.K. and Australia are also less likely to think the Internet is causing revolutionary change to the structure and practices of the property industry.
Cooperation with Other Business Units
As is shown in Exhibit 3, most corporate real estate officers are not integrating their activities with other organizational functional areas. Thus, coordination has not improved much since the Arthur Andersen & Co. (1993) and IDRC (Lambert, Poteete and Waltch, 1995) studies.
The Skills Real Estate Managers Need to Be Effective
The respondents’ ratings (shown in Exhibit 8) indicate their opinion that strategic planning, real estate portfolio management, the organization’s business, and negotiation and deal making are the most crucial knowledge and skills for corporate real estate managers in the future. They believe foreign language, international finance/economics and tax management are least important. Thus, real estate managers believe the future success of corporate real estate depends on strategic and management skills rather than narrow technical or financial skills. These results are consistent with the Arthur Andersen & Co. (1993) study that indicated understanding the company’s business, negotiating and deal-making, and strategic planning skills are crucial to corporate real estate success. However, this is somewhat in conflict with Cam, Black and Rabianski’s (1999) findings that corporate real estate officers of the future need business, engineering and technical abilities.
Several differences exist among the countries examined. Service providers in the U.K. believe that knowledge and skills in several areas are less important, including real estate portfolio management, negotiation and deal making, process re-engineering, contract management and law, design management and construction management. This may reflect the service provider’s perspective that many of the tasks requiring these skills can be outsourced. American respondents believe alliance management to be more important than those in other countries. Meanwhile, those in Hong Kong and Australia place greater importance on the knowledge of government regulation and investment appraisal. Those in Hong Kong also place greater importance on facilities management and foreign languages.
The factor analysis of the skills and knowledge items produced the scales and corresponding items presented in Exhibit 9. The first factor consists of strategic management skills-scenario planning, alliance management, process reengineering, corporate infrastructure resource management, value management, strategic planning and performance measurement. The second factor is comprised of physical property skills-construction management, design management, facilities management, workplace design, project management, and security and safety management. Knowledge to protect against external threats appears to comprise the third factor-government regulation, environmental management, risk management and total quality management. The fourth factor represents globalization. The fifth factor consists of financial measurement skills. Technology-related skills make up the sixth factor. The traditional business function areas of accounting, finance and marketing make up factor seven. The last factor is comprised of the interpersonal skills of administration, personnel management and community relations. Respondents’ scores on these eight factors are used to explore differences in opinions among real estate professionals in Australia, Hong Kong, the U.K. and the U.S., as presented in Exhibit 10. While the results are similar to the individual item comparisons, general trends become apparent.
American corporate real estate professionals believe strategic management knowledge to be more important to success in corporate real estate than service providers in the U.K. do. This may reflect the difference in focus of an internal versus external service provider with those inside the corporation recognizing the importance of being involved in overall corporate strategy. Australian respondents place less importance on global business skills than those in the U.S. and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, those in Australia and Hong Kong place greater emphasis on financial performance measures. Technology skills are valued more by those in the U.K. and U.S. than Australia.
Many corporate real estate managers continue to follow a traditional transactional approach to their role within the organization. The results of this survey indicate that most real estate managers still perceive their main role to be procuring space at the lowest possible cost focusing on the short-run. Although most recognize the need for corporate real estate officers to develop strategic planning and management skills, few have made integrating their property decision making into the overall corporate strategy a major priority. Corporate real estate officers in Hong Kong and the U.S., however, appear to be leading the way in communicating with executives and integrating real property strategy into the general corporate strategy.
Most real estate managers appear uncertain about the role technology will play in their future despite the growing use of technology in all aspects of their business. Companies are pursuing new initiatives in e-procurement, e-business and teleworking, yet real estate professionals disagree as to the importance of technical knowledge and skills for future corporate real estate managers. Even if real estate managers do not want to become technical experts themselves, they must understand technology if they are to decide how best to use it to achieve strategic goals.
Most corporate real estate managers do not recognize the real estate potential of growing management interest in flexible workforce and workplace design. Service providers in the U.K. appear to be leading the way in such areas as hotelling and desk sharing while corporate real estate managers in other countries are not exploring how real estate decisions can support business needs for flexibility in an ever more competitive business environment.
Most real estate divisions continue to operate in isolation from other business functional areas despite the need for integration to provide companies with a competitive advantage. Real property’s potential role in improving productivity and worker satisfaction by working in concert with personnel and other functional areas remains largely unexplored.
While conditions vary by countries, corporate real estate managers do not appear to have evolved very far since the 1980s. Although they recognize the importance of strategic planning, few real estate managers are actively involved in long-range planning and coordination with other business units. Communication between corporate real estate managers and senior executives still needs improvement. As has often been reported, corporate real estate professionals need to develop general management knowledge and skills that will enable them to effectively contribute to the company’s productivity and profitability. Until then, it appears that corporate real estate managers will continue to be order takers rather than decision makers.
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The authors would like to thank Johnson Controls, Inc. for providing the data used in this study.
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Karen M. Gibler, Roy T. Black Kimberly P. Moon
Karen M. Gibler, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30302-4020 or email@example.com.
Roy T Black, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30302-4020 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Kimberly P Moon, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30302-4020 or email@example.com.
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