At the age of eight, Tessa Morrison was determined to either work as an architect or become a professional golfer. And while she admits her golfing skills aren’t anywhere near world-title level, her long-held passion for buildings and people has driven her to excel in property operations. Tessa joined Cromwell Property Group as Head of Property Operations in April this year, and, as she explains in this installment of In Conversation, the role is certainly varied – just the way she likes it.

“Our people are the most important part of our job"

1. Tell us about your role  

I lead a team of just over 40 people, as Head of Property Operations for Cromwell Property Group. The team is made up of property managers, asset managers, leasing, facility managers, sustainability, and projects and, under that umbrella, there’s three key areas that I look at. Firstly, in terms of the property performance, it’s ensuring that the team drives the assets to get maximum returns for investors;
the second part is operational performance or looking at how we run the business, our systems and processes; and the last component is around profitability, so making sure that our function is profitable in its own right.

2. How did your career in the property industry begin?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in properties and buildings. I initially enrolled in engineering at university because it involved the built form – I did one week of that and decided it wasn’t for me. I ended up studying Law and Commerce and was then given an opportunity to attend a different university on a hockey scholarship, where they had a degree in Valuation and Property Management. The degree covered everything I was interested in.

My first job in the industry was working for a private company in Wellington, New Zealand as an assistant property manager/body corporate manager. My experiences there shaped how I apply myself to my role today. One of the owners of the business took me under her wing like a mentor. She had a legal background, was a stickler for detail and taught me the importance of having diligence when you’re sending correspondence, which has always stuck with me.

3. What are the benefits of an integrated property services model such as Cromwells?

I’m a firm believer that, while we look after physical assets, our people are the most important part of our job – and when you work in an integrated model, it allows you to attract, develop and retain people more easily. You can develop a culture that’s conducive to driving positive outcomes, which also aligns with what the funds’ outcomes are too.

I also think our model helps the strategy of the funds, and in turn helps get maximum value for those funds, because it’s a ‘one team, one dream’ scenario. There’s a lot of value driven by the way we manage properties – in an outsourced model, people often get overloaded, whereas when it’s insourced, you have greater management of that; we’ve got a lot more control when we encounter uncertain times (like we’ve experienced recently). In terms of leasing, we can model scenarios quickly and see how they might impact the funds, plus we’ve got the right people in the room when making those decisions, so there’s enormous advantages to that.

4. What steps or actions would you deem necessary in the pursuit to retain tenants, now and into the future?

With hybrid work being embraced by a lot of office workers and businesses, tenants are reviewing how they use their space and fitout. Like others in the industry, Cromwell have begun integrating features like third spaces and bookable meeting rooms into our offices to allow for more flexibility. Tenants are also focused on ESG targets: they want to be in a building that aligns with their policies, so we need to make sure our strategies cater for that. And the other key thing is building strong relationships with tenants, such as having curated tenant activities, encouraging open communication with their decision makers, and understanding what their teams need to make things easier for them.

I also think getting the basics right goes a long way, such as making sure the cleaning is done to a high standard, access cards are working, air-conditioning functions well and invoicing is correct. If you do the basics right, it gives tenants reassurance and provides them with comfort.

5. How do you get the most value out of a building?

It’s different for every building so it’s important to understand the strength of a building and capitalise on those strengths. It’s also knowing what a building’s weaknesses are and having strategies to improve those weaknesses. In terms of the physical operations of a building and considering what you can control, it’s things like maintaining plant and equipment – having life cycle reports and understanding what the upcoming costs are and managing those accordingly to drive efficiency. The other side of the physical operations is strong tenant relationships. Retaining a tenant is generally more cost effective than getting new tenants, so it’s vital to keep tenant relationships at the forefront of our focus.

6. With the operational efficiency of buildings becoming increasingly important to tenants, investors and the broader community, what measures do you take to help ensure an asset features sustainability?

There’s historically been a focus on reducing water, electricity, gas and waste in buildings to comply with industry and company ESG standards. Work that’s been done to support this includes upgrading different components of air-conditioning and associated controls to make sure it’s efficient, solar panel installation, efficient lighting, and using water restriction devices and we have one building that now measures how much water you’re using during a shower in the end-of-trip facilities to encourage reduction of water usage. Recently, waste management has been under the microscope – a building might have the regular recycling streams, but organic waste is becoming more important, as is e-waste, so we’re making sure we can offer those waste streams in our buildings. We’re also looking at how fitouts are managed and going beyond that, looking at the whole supply chain of where materials are sourced and how they travel to site. We often review other elements that may be coming into the building including the ingredients in our cleaning products.

The other key thing is the move toward becoming carbon neutral, or beyond that getting to zero carbon and what we need to do in our buildings and our business to get to that level.

Sustainable buildings also need to support social aspects - we’re currently reviewing bathroom options with the view of having an all-gender option in our buildings. In conjunction with our Diversity & Inclusion Committee, we’re also looking at how we can acknowledge the traditional owners of the land in our buildings.

“I think technology is an evolving landscape in the property operations sector"

7. How did/has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way you operate a building?

To begin with, there was the physical management of the building to consider, such as ensuring hand sanitiser was readily available and installing signage showing the correct spacing and number of people in lifts or rooms. The other step the pandemic forced us to consider was looking at whether buildings should remain open due to offices being empty of people, and the security measures needed during
that time.

But the bigger changes are coming through now, with tenants looking at how they use their fitouts or spaces and what will encourage workers back into the office. Changes to carparks was an interesting one that came up – there’s not a huge number of people driving into the office every single day, and when people weren’t coming into the office at all, the carparks took a massive hit, so that’s a changing landscape. Indoor air quality has also become a major consideration for tenants – going forward I think the NABERS indoor air quality rating will become a more significant consideration for people looking to lease office space.

8. What are some changes or shifting trends that you currently see playing out in the property operations

Other than the ones I’ve previously mentioned, such as the focus on carbon footprint and changes to fitouts, I think technology is an evolving landscape in the property operations sector. There’s a lot happening in technology that our team need to be across so we can understand how we can capitalise on those advances. For example, there’s technology that looks at how tenants use the space and
almost heat-maps the areas of a building that people use the most. COVID-19 has also driven a lot of change, such as the importance of touchless systems – those systems aren’t necessarily new, but they’ve become more desirable to tenants purely from a sanitation perspective.

9. What do you enjoy most about your role?

I enjoy dealing with all the different stakeholders and different people I get to interact with, and I also enjoy the diversity of my role. For me, I’m the typical ‘jack-of-alltrades, master of none’ – I like to do lots of bits and pieces of everything, but I’m not the expert in those areas. I like to build teams of experts around me and let them flourish in their roles. I also enjoy seeing people in my team evolve, learn and change and seeing them take on challenges and thrive in their roles makes me extremely happy.

10. What do you do to relax? / How do you spend your time outside work?

I have three daughters (a two, eight, and ten-year-old) so there’s not a huge amount of downtime, especially as the older two do a lot of activities so we’re usually quite busy. And while it might not sound relaxing, I really enjoy doing sport and running in my downtime. Exercise is my outlet and my happy place. I do also like to travel, and I think my kids have got the travel bug too – we save so we can travel to see the world and I love that.