How to start your real estate career: Interview with Ben Hoban of Macdonald & Company

How to start your real estate career: Interview with Ben Hoban of Macdonald & Company

[English version – finde die deutsche Übersetzung hier] Some say that the first step is always the hardest. This is definitely true for launching your career, especially for those who only recently stepped outside of their graduation ceremony and into the world of employment. So how can you actually gain a foothold in the real estate industry? What does it take to climb the career ladder? I had the chance to talk to Ben Hoban about this, also bringing an international perspective into the discussion. Ben is a consultant at MacDonald & Company, which is one of the leading professional recruitment consultancies for the real estate and built environment sectors. Macdonald & Co. are a global brand covering all areas of the real estate life cycle and have been the preferred recruitment partner of Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors for over a decade. Headquartered in the UK, the business has offices in Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai & Johannesburg.

Fabian Göddert: Ben, you grew up in West London, which is one of the most expensive locations for real estate today. Was that something you noticed at the time and how do you see the current debates regarding the affordability of housing here in Germany?

Ben Hoban: Growing up in West London I went to school in Kensington in an area called Holland Park where the average two-bedroom house is worth over £2 million so I was able to see how expensive real estate in London can be but this was contrasted by blocks of social housing sitting on the same streets.

With the current debates in the German housing market focused on the rental price brake and expropriation from private landlords I see that gentrification of desirable areas will continue despite the first  signs in the decrease in rents simply due to supply and demand. The residential construction companies are already working at full capacity, which will maintain the high prices of new builds for years to come so I see housing becoming less affordable in the cities for the future. The key difference I see in housing between the UK and Germany is there is less home ownership in Germany, which is why expropriation seems to be the option to fight gentrification and will create a similar environment to the parts on London in which I grew up.

On a personal level I find housing to be more affordable in Frankfurt when it comes to apartments within walking distance to the city center. In London this is unachievable for me so I am enjoying a better work-life balance from not commuting almost 2 hours a day.

Grow with your peers and superiors

It’s interesting how having experience with a different real estate market changes the frame of reference regarding the affordability and desirability of spaces, especially when it comes to commute. Do you see any changes in the industry regarding the demand or opportunities for workplace flexibility (home office days, remote working, etc.) that could maybe counteract having to make a trade-off between longer commutes and higher rent prices?

Within real estate I have not seen a shift yet to more workplace flexibility that would counteract longer commutes and higher rents, I believe once mobility is increased through advances in automated cars that this will have an effect on the rental market once it is an affordable commuting option.

In general, home office and remote working are useful benefits when the occasional delivery or doctor’s appointment is needed but starting off in the industry it is important to have contact with your senior colleagues to be able to learn from them and advance in your career so these benefits are not common for junior level roles.

From an employers’ perspective these benefits help to boost employee engagement as it is based on a level of trust that is mostly earned over time. Additionally co-working spaces are adapting how large organisations think about their offices. In the current office market with low vacancy rates companies are reducing their overhead costs by renting smaller offices and supplementing with flexible office space. In order for this to work they need to offer these benefits to their employees to ensure there are not too many employees for the number of available desks on a given day.

Many people in the real estate sector and at our network events didn’t initially specialize in real estate, but come from a number of different backgrounds. How did you originally get into recruiting real estate professionals and how do you think do those different experiences everyone brings to the table shape the industry?

Before I got into recruitment I was a professional American football players in Germany, this is a big passion of mine so pursued it to this level but being realistic, it was not going to be a long term career choice.

On returning to London, I met with someone I knew from my university days who was the internal recruiter at a recruitment company and invited me to an assessment day that week, then I started the next Monday. This was my first taste of recruitment so with an engineering background and having just got back from Germany my managers decided I would best placed to work in the German Automotive industry working with procurement professionals. This was a valuable experience and a steep learning curve but after 6 months I was not enjoying this specialism.

I have grown up with exposure to real estate from a young age with a mother who used to be an interior designer and father who works in finance. So when the opportunity to join Macdonald & Company to work in the Real Estate Investment team in Germany came about, it tied together lots of personal experiences for me with an ever changing industry – so that’s how I came to be recruiting real estate professionals.

I believe our different personal experiences mean that we approach problems from different angles, which creates the unique nature of each asset. This uniqueness makes real estate always an interesting industry to be part of, no matter which part of the life cycle you focus on.

Your CV can get you in the room – your personality will get you the job

For those who haven’t had any experience so far regarding the recruitment process for your type of clients, among which are some global players, what does that process look like for most candidates? What do they have to expect?

A typical recruitment process with a Real Estate Investment firm will typically consist of a first meeting or telephone call where both sides will get to know each other. This is followed by a cash flow modelling test and further interviews with technical questions, which is also a chance to meet other team members. If you successfully pass the technical tests, you will then be invited to an interview with a member of the senior management – this is sometimes referred to as a ‘rubber stamp’ meeting – and candidates sometimes lose out when they assume they have the job, but it is just as important to go in prepared and leave a good impression. Following this and any other additional rounds to meet other stakeholders you will then receive an offer.

I understand that you personally recruit real estate professionals predominantly at the associate and analyst level, so for many of those candidates, I guess, it’s their first or second job after they graduated. What are you and your clients looking for in young applicants? Is there anything that most successful candidates of yours have in common?

The first things that I am looking for junior levels is personality, a passion for real estate then qualifications and internships. We all have a different story and things that are unique to us, it is these things that make us individual and stand out from the competition in an interview process but are often hidden from our CV’s. When it comes to your first or second job companies are not necessarily hiring you for your track record and expertise but your development potential so they will want to understand why you want to work in this industry and how well you will fit into the team.

What are some of the worst mistakes you can make as a candidate? Is there any kind of training you would recommend to students or recent graduates before they apply for their first jobs?

BH: The worst mistake I have to deal with is not turning up to an interview. Even if you have researched further into the company and are no longer interested in the job it is worth investing the time to gain interview experience, network with a more senior person in the industry and pick up knowledge to shape your job search towards the right position for you. Of course sometimes things happen in life and meetings don’t happen but simply not showing up is disrespectful to everyone involved and can build a bad reputation in a close industry.

Other mistake I see are not being prepared for an interview by knowing what is on your CV, some key facts about the company, the background of the people interviewing you and having some sensible questions prepared. This is completely preventable and just takes 10 minutes. With all interviews I arrange to speak with the candidate the day before to prepare for the meeting to put the candidate in a position to make the best first impression.

The other major mistake is to not show enough enthusiasm in the interview: if you like the job then don’t be afraid to tell them! It is definitely frustrating as a recruiter when you find out after an interview that a candidate who likes the opportunity has been rejected for not being forward with the hiring manager.

When it comes to trainings it depends on the type of job that you are looking for so it is hard to be specific but I can definitely recommend some cash flow modelling courses that will help graduates ace even the most difficult private equity modelling tests.

You highlight the role of, well, showing up in the first place, but also of preparation. Have you come across any common misconceptions or false expectations in the hiring process – on both sides – that could be prevented by preparation?

The main misconception as a candidate is that recounting your experience to the interviewer is not the same as demonstrating you have a certain skill.

The best advice I have is to give a situational based example starting by outlining the situation, describe the tasks that had to be completed, recount the actions that you took and the results that came from your actions. It is important to focus on your input rather than what was done as a team and framing your experiences in this way relates your actions to specific skills.

I would point out that as much as being prepared is a good thing, being over-prepared isn’t. Hiring managers need to get a true sense of you, which doesn’t come across in rehearsed answers. Stay aware that the conversation can take any path so actively listen and bring questions that demonstrate knowledge and your passion for real estate to keep the meeting flowing.

A misconception that I see from hiring managers is not selling their company in the interview. As much as companies are offering candidates a great opportunity, the skills shortage and competition for talent means companies also need to appeal to the candidate as much as the candidate needs to appeal to them.

Interview with Ben Hoban

The future is written in code

The real estate sector is slowly developing a more accepting approach to digital solutions. What do you think will be the most useful or in demand skills of the future of the industry that students or young professionals should invest in today?

Digitalisation is changing the way that real estate businesses are operating and everyone is focused on data. The data is all around and easily collected but companies need professionals to unlock its value through quantative analysis and knowledge of programming languages such as Python or R.  This is a topic I in which I am heavily involved as there is a talent shortage in this area. Traditional real estate courses do not go into depth on these skills and tech talent needs to have a feel for the data they are working with to unlock its full value so it is a challenge to find professionals with both of these skill sets.

Candidates proficient in data science and adjacent fields are already highly in demand, with the situation probably becoming more tense due to a changing demography. On the other hand, to pick up another megatrend, automation might render some tasks or jobs in the real estate sector obsolete. So, I know I’m trying to get you to take a look into the crystal ball here, but do you think there will be something like a shift in the power dynamic of employers and employees as the competition, that has been dubbed a “war for talents”, increases, and what role do you see recruiters like yourself playing in this?

I think this can be split into 2 questions – automation and war for talent.

Automation is able to increase efficiency in regular and routine activities so can be applied to a tasks like reporting and as the technology improves in the future potentially cash flow modelling. This means that the number of employees needed to do the same amount of work will decrease putting power back in the hands of the employer for these roles. However the overall demand for talent will stay the same as employers will require professionals who understand the automation tools and the underlying task it is completing. The challenge is that we need to upskill those in danger of losing out to automation in the very thing they are competing against.

One thing to point out is the creativity needed to innovate and improve existing processes cannot be automated so thinking ahead and understanding what solutions are coming to the market that affect your specialism then being an active part of developing the strategy to implement them in your company will help ensure your professional future.

The ‘war for talents’ is real and in full swing, if you have an in-demand skill set or are the best at what you do then the likelihood is you are well looked after at your company so not actively looking for roles. This means that potential employers need to attract you to their opportunities and where I come in as a recruiter since it’s my job to identify the best talent in the market on behalf of my clients.

Recruiters in the future will need to adapt the talent pools they have to adapt with the requirements of jobs and the skills needed, beyond this educating hiring managers on the talent that is available and speaking with universities so they understand what skills will ensure jobs for their students when they graduate.

Networking takes time – so start early

You moved from London to Frankfurt last year to work at Macdonald & Company in the German market. What role do private and professional networks play in your life as a recruiter as well as someone who relocated to a new city for a job?

When I first moved to Frankfurt my private network was one close friend – so having a strong professional network to meet up with has definitely helped me to settle in, show me around the city and offer plenty of recommendations of the best places Frankfurt has to offer. The other benefit of being well connected in the real estate industry is knowing people in the residential market who can recommend apartments as soon as they become available, especially since good apartments are hard to find with so much competition.

To grow your own real estate network, go check out our events page and join us next time! You can also subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed about our events!

From your experience, how important is a candidate’s network for your clients when it comes to hiring decisions?

A candidate’s network gets increasingly important as you move through your career as a specialized network that aligns with a job’s requirements increases efficiency, market presence and value for an employer.

This is especially true when it comes to investment roles as it is the strength of your relationships that allow you to source off-market deals and drive returns for your investors.

A professional network takes time to build and requires regular maintenance to keep relationships moving forward. I suggest to start early and regularly attend industry events, bring a friend if you are not confident to break the ice by yourself and be open with who you connect with as you never know when your paths might cross again or if they may end up opposite you at an interview in the future!

I think those are some fitting closing remarks, and I might add something you said to me when we first talked on the phone, which was that it is important to “know people for when the right opportunity comes around.” Those words stuck with me, and I think they are a great plea for reaching out to build a network and I also think, if you know the right people, opportunities will present themselves. Thank you so much for doing this interview! I am sure that readers will profit from your insights.