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How a Problem at the Sydney Olympic Games Led to an Innovation in Commercial Real Estate Discussing international commercial real estate growth opportunities with David Rafter, the CEO of WebFM.

By Kent Elliott

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JOEL SAGET | Getty Images

Like many successful entrepreneurial firms, WebFM began with a unique and effective solution to a common problem. The Sydney, Australia–based company devised an online tool for streamlining the communication of crucial data during the construction of major commercial and government facilities. Since its inception in the early 2000s, the firm has expanded to the US, Canada, UK, and UAE.

RETS Associates, a Southern California–based national real estate executive search firm, worked with WebFM to aid in its expansion efforts. RETS Associates provides professional recruiting services to WebFM for a fee. RETS principal Jana Turner recently sat down with WebFM's CEO David Rafter to discuss the Australian firm's growth trajectory and his advice for non-US-based firms looking to expand internationally.

RETS Associates' Jana Turner: Can you tell us a little about WebFM? When was it founded and how was the concept or service offering developed?

David Rafter: The WebFM story is an interesting one that goes back to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Leading up to that event, our Founder, Stuart Smith, was working as a consultant, helping to construct many of the stadiums and infrastructure that would be used for the Games.

When the time came to hand over post-construction, Stuart was confronted with two shipping containers filled with poorly compiled, inaccurate, and unvalidated hard-copy drawings, asset registers, and operations and maintenance documents. This disarray could have derailed the project, however, Stuart worked to create a more streamlined system to hand over to facility management teams post-construction.

Struck by innovation, Stuart went on to invent a collaborative online tool that would deliver crucial "as-built" information to post-construction teams. This innovation served as the foundation for WebFM's future success.

Related: 8 Proven Ways to Make Money in Real Estate

RETS: As an Australian-based company that recently expanded into the US, what advice would you give to a non–US-based business owner planning a US expansion?

Rafter: The US market is 15 times the size of the Australian market, which can be daunting to a business owner who is unused to that scale. In such a vast market, there are numerous verticals to consider, and each geographic region has its own unique variables.

Based on these factors, rather than taking on the entire nation at once, it is imperative to be strategic and selective when determining target markets. It's very difficult (and ill-advised) to take on the whole nation or too many different market verticals in one swallow. Instead, non–US-based business owners must develop a strategy for addressing US markets individually and incrementally.

RETS: WebFM serves some of the world's leading construction firms, government and defense departments, and major education providers. How do you address their individual needs?

Rafter: We work with stakeholders with long-term interests in the built environment – i.e., asset owners and their managers. Each of these groups demands an exemplary handover experience for new construction or upgrade projects.

We work closely with owners and facility management teams to tailor the capture of asset information from the start of construction in order to meet their needs throughout the operations and maintenance phases.

Accurate "as-built" and data-rich asset-level information must be captured and validated across the construction phase to give facility management teams everything they need to effectively manage and run their facilities from the beginning of the process.

Related: Crowdfunding Is Lowering Barriers to Commercial Real Estate Opportunities

RETS: How are you bolstering your team to meet growing demand?

Rafter: We employ staff with strong networks and experience in the markets we serve, and we utilize their connections and expertise to augment our knowledge in these areas and grow from that.

Our continued growth has generated exciting senior roles and career-path opportunities for the existing team and has opened the door for more people entering the field to join our team.

RETS: How has your hiring strategy changed in the last five years, and what changes do you expect in the next five?

Rafter: We increasingly utilize recruitment firms to assist us as we continue to grow locally and globally. Firms like RETS, with deep and wide experience in commercial real estate, have the understanding and connections necessary to bring in candidates that can enhance our growth strategy.

Establishing a cultural fit in the selection phase is also imperative to our ongoing success, and we rely on software tools, interview techniques, and reference checks that effectively vet our candidates.

More than ever, communicating career-path and win/win wealth-creation potential for younger generations – especially millennials – is necessary to attract the best talent. We like to partner with recruiting firms that understand the mindset and motivation of millennial candidates as well as those of the four other generations currently in the workforce.

Related: Six Real Estate Startups Revolutionizing the Industry

RETS: What's next for WebFM? What are your plans for future growth and expansion?

Rafter: We see a bright future for WebFM in the US. Our early successes on the West Coast have helped us grow into a national footprint, and we have established a presence in Canada as well. We are growing rapidly in the UAE and have also recently set up a company in the UK, so we are well on our way to reaching our international growth objectives.

From a product-suite and service-offering point of view, we recently developed an FM module and now also offer turnkey asset information, project management, and consulting services. We are continually expanding our list of services and will continue to advance in each of the regions we serve. There seem to be no limits to our growth as a company, and we're excited about what the future holds.

Kent Elliott

Principal at RETS Associates

Kent Elliott is a Principal at RETS Associates, a leading real estate recruitment firm conducting searches for top executives and senior/mid-level professionals across all real estate asset classes in the U.S.

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