New Cushman & Wakefield head Marc-Antoine Buysschaert sets out his views

People on the move
Tim Harrup

The new head of Cushman & Wakefield, Marc-Antoine Buysschaert, has been with for more than 10 years and has led the Capital Markets Office team in Belgium for the last six. As country leader, he will now be responsible for the operational and financial performance of Cushman & Wakefield’s market-leading business in Belgium. The firm is active across all sectors of the real estate industry and provides a full range of services to investors and occupiers including Agency& Leasing Advisory, Asset Services, Design+Build, Capital Markets, Occupier Services, Project Management and Valuation & Advisory.

Along with this move, Cushman &Wakefield has announced that Antoine Brusselmans will assume a newly created role as Chairman of Cushman & Wakefield Belgium & Luxembourg.

Quite naturally, the first question to Marc-Antoine Buysschaert involved a traditional Cushman & Wakefield speciality – retail:

The first quarter of this year saw the strongest take-up in the retail sector in Belgium since 2016, despite the covid-19 situation. Why?

It’s no surprise to anyone that the retail sector has been suffering. But if we take a look at the wider European scene, when they re-opened the shops in England after the lockdown for example, they had record weekly takings – the highest sales week of all time, including Christmas periods! People need to get out and do something, and they went shopping. A major clothes retailer in Birmingham had queues outside the door at six o’ clock in the morning on opening day. Good stores in good locations still have a very bright future in front of them. On top of this, people have never saved so much money as they did in 2020. And coming back to Belgium, we were already very high performers in terms of saving money, and 2020 accentuated this. So people want to get out and spend money, and they have the money in their pockets to do it. The retail landscape will nevertheless change in the coming months, the Out-of-Town should continue to record strong performances while the High Street and Shopping Centres could face some issues, especially in secondary locations. People will also spend more on doing things rather than on buying things, so we will continue to see interest in sports, leisure and Food & Beverage brands in the coming months.

What about e-commerce then, will this suffer?

No, the two methods will continue to exist side by side, and physical shopping will become more of an experience. On-line retailing witnessed record levels in 2020 and retailers will invest in on-line platforms to develop an omnichannel strategy in order to maximise their turnover. People are not going to take a trip to the centre of Brussels to buy just a couple of things they need, but for a shopping experience which might (when possible) include a cultural event with the family, a meal in a restaurant. This also means that local shops will continue to prosper.

Let’s move on to new investment opportunities – your speciality.
There are new niche segments within the residential domain – student flats, senior homes etc.
What is your view of these?

Nursing homes are very attractive as investment destinations. This is because they offer secure cashflow over the long term. It is not necessarily an easy market for brokers because it is very mature already; the demand and supply sides know each other well and tend to deal directly. However, the nursing home market is not always as rosy as it seems. There are plenty of examples of rest homes with vacancy. One home in Brussels even had to close recently. So the business model for rest homes has to evolve as well. They have to realise that life in a senior home is not as pleasant as it is in someone’s own home, so potential occupants want to stay at home as long as possible. Before investing, it is therefore important to analyse the business model behind the buildings…

Student flats are something quite different. There is no long term cashflow security and an intensive asset management. But investors are still very enthusiastic because there is a very high level of demand. There are some institutional investors in this domain in Belgium, but it remains very much a private segment for now, with people buying a few units. The location of student flats is also in their favour – often in highly populated city centres.

One of the latest niche segments is life sciences…

Yes, this really is a hype at the moment and at Cushman& Wakefield we are working on certain dossiers. It is a booming and growing business, with centres tending to be near universities. Investors adore this. In Belgium, the major problem we have is that the majority of life sciences parks are extremely recent, and not yet accomplished or even fully developed. And they are often legally tied to a public body. This limits what is possible in terms of pure real estate investment. Despite this, the segment is growing and will be attractive.

Finally, offices! The Cushman & Wakefield first quarter report points to the highest take-up since 2015.
Is this the return of the physical office despite the pandemic?

First of all, you have to look between the lines – the 110,000 m² of take-up was largely due to a few large transactions by the public sector, especially Europe (which represents 35% of the take-up in two transactions, the Realex and Copernicus). In number of deals, this is one of the lowest starts to the year over the last ten years. But nevertheless, there is optimism in this sector, and companies are reinventing themselves. Working from home is part of the new mix, but not the single solution, it will be part of a complete ecosystem. People need to come to work in a physical office to stay in touch with the company’s culture, to foster innovation and to enhance collaboration. They need to interact with their colleagues and with their clients. The commercial side of a business cannot operate simply with video-conferences. The lack of physical offices during lockdown represents a major source of dissatisfaction for employees, so physical offices are here to stay. Nevertheless, take-up will decline, and we are not going to see the traditional 400,000 m² of annual take-up in Brussels. But the best buildings – new, high quality, environmentally-friendly, well located… – will continue to do very well. This type of asset is becoming essential for occupants and developers alike.

An interview by Tim Harrup