Top 3 Lessons From USAA RealCo’s Sustainability Leadership

When it comes to sustainability leadership, Brenna Walraven is one of the most influential women in the commercial real estate industry. A former Chairperson of BOMA, the Building Owners and Managers Association, and Head of Property Operations at USAA Real Estate Company, Brenna has seen and done it all, including helping USAA RealCo to the top spot on GRESB and an unprecedented 14 year streak as US EPA ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year.

Here's the top 3 things she took away from her time inside one of the most respected real estate asset managers in North America.

#1 Develop A Sustainability Strategy

In my experience at USAA RealCo, and even more so since starting CSS, I'm amazed at how important having a sustainability strategy, including an actual, documented strategic plan signed off by the C-suite, can be. Just because an organization tracks energy, water or waste data, or obtains a few LEED certifications, doesn't mean they have a sustainability strategy, it just means they have sustainability practices. It's a common problem to mistake tactics with strategy. To get sustained, long term value out of one's ESG efforts, strategy matters most.

How to do it? Start by writing down what you want to look like in 5 years then work backwards. I've seen plenty of groups say "I want to be a leader" or "I will reduce X by Y" then never actually allocate the resources to achieve that or cross reference those goals against the current financial and business plan. Fail to do that and your aspirations to be a leader are stillborn.

#2 Engage Stakeholders, don't just talk at them

With this first step done, lets look at some tactics. One important tactic I've seen add immediate value is using sustainability to more deeply engage with tenants. What does that mean? It means talking with tenants, investors, employees, service provider partners and executive leadership about:

·         Why sustainability is so important

·         Why they should care about it

·         And what you and your team are doing to make a difference

This means not merely looking at sustainability as a “cost saver”, but looking at ESG as a framework for enhanced operational, financial and environmental performance. For example, it makes intuitive sense that if we reduce waste in our buildings we become more efficient and that should result in operational savings from reduced waste hauling expense.

Good ESG management means we need to expand our thinking beyond the basic algebra of reduce X, save Y.

For example, when we get more energy efficient of course that saves money. But we're also better able to control temperature and thus occupant comfort, which has magnified benefits such as attraction and retention that can be hard to reduce to savings psf. When we use better HVAC filtration and green cleaning (components of LEED EBOM), we not only reduce toxins and improve indoor air quality, but also reduce negative impacts to occupant health and productivity. Think outside the box and figure out how to capture the less tangible or measurable (no pun intended) results!

#3 Communicate what matters

Too many professionals don't take the time to communicate their company's efforts and the benefits that accrue to tenants and other stakeholders. Real estate professionals miss a real opportunity to provide leadership and value to stakeholders if they don't get beyond sustainability only as a cost saver or certification but rather highlight other strategic benefits:

·         Better indoor air quality

·         Improved occupant comfort

·         Opportunities for recognition e.g. ENERGY STAR / LEED certification

·         Tenant and employee recruitment and retention, which drive higher NOI and net cash flow

·         Investor/Owner engagement

·         Supporting tenant, investor or community sustainability goals

·         Being ahead of costly regulation and associated penalties (like energy/water disclosure)

·         Reducing risk of equipment failure, down time and functional obsolesce

·         Brand benefit of being viewed as a good manager and industry leader

When a real estate professional thinks more strategically and engages with stakeholders, there's a compelling value proposition that moves well beyond cost savings and towards ancillary value everyone can enjoy.

Catch more from Brenna at Corporate Sustainability Strategies.

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