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The Rise of People Power

Commentary by James Turner, Group Managing Director of Balmain Asset Management.

Last March in this same column (ACROSS 1|2016 Commentary by James Turner), I pondered the changes that were occurring in the global political landscape.

We had a seemingly impossible set of outcomes relating to the then-distant and seemingly preposterous prospects of Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, and the continued rise in populist movements across Europe. We faced a protest as people sought to wake up politicians, institutionalism, and the mainstream media. None of it would happen of course! The rise of populism was just a reminder that the average person was still there, right?

Well, what was speculation is now fact and there is no sign of these trends reversing. The average person’s “reminder” is now real power. I raise this topic, not with any political bias or opinion on the outcomes, but to note that we are living in a genuinely different world now and, as always, we need to focus on what that means to us.

We as ACROSS readers are in a very people-oriented property class. In retail, we can affect the success of our investments and retail businesses by responding to the needs and wants of the people that pay for the goods and services that ultimately generate our returns. In our industry, we are evolving from “just” managers of real estate into behavioral scientists. So the “average person” has kicked the nest and she has found her voice. She isn’t so average anymore.

Fortunately, if that is the right word, we in the retail property business have already been forced to adjust to the early rise of people power. I am talking about the internet, of course, and the sustained but powerful impact that it has had on our physical retailing environments over the past 15 years or so.

We have become used to individuals wielding new powers and preferences and, generally speaking, we have adapted and responded. We now have more technology-enabled and consumer-focused properties. We have collectively introduced new entertainment facilities and have been working with retailers on their distribution strategies. We have chill-out lounges and selfie stations!

The revolution, however, continues apace and the issues are broadening. It’s not just how we deal with the trends of individuals anymore but also the combined populist pressures in elected governments.

For example, just one issue that affects us all: Sunday trading bans. It is well known that Hungary and Poland have either implemented or proposed such bans. In the case of Hungary, this was subsequently repealed, but in Poland, the proposals are still being advanced. This is where it is tricky, because the populist government has to balance out what is right for its people, especially employment versus deals done with pressure groups, to get in to govern in the first place. Populism is skewed, particularly in government.

So while we have been adjusting as an industry with some success and some failure, we need to find another charge of spirit within us and look at the broader movement of people power.

We need to be constantly aware of not just the technological impacts of the people’s voice but the broader social, legal, and economic impacts that are flowing on. With real estate being a permanent asset class, our subsector is very dynamic because it is so people-centric. We have an almost unique position in which we have to manage both the fluid and the static every single day of the year.

How we manage the demands from empowered individuals and the different styles of government that represent the majority of individuals will be an exciting challenge for us in our industry.



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