Everything you have heard about digital transformation is true. And not just the part about it being critical for a futureproofed business that stands a chance of survival in a technological age.
“It is absolutely as difficult to make happen as everyone says it is,” says Darryll Colthrust, the man who has been brought on board to do just that at real estate investor Palmer Capital.
And he should know. The former director of business architecture of American Express has built up a career rerouting businesses to prepare them for change.
Now, just weeks in to his first foray in the property sector, he is gearing up to do the same for Palmer Capital in his new role of director of innovation – a position similar to that of a chief technology officer.
And no one is hoping to see Colthrust succeed more than the man who hired him. “I have no idea what success in this sphere looks like because we have never done anything like this before,” says Palmer Capital chief executive Alex Price, who concedes he specifically looked outside of the real estate world to hire Colthrust after advertising the role on social media.
“But what I do know is this. If we hadn’t made this hire to try and change our business we would stand no chance of success anyway.
Because where we have been in the past is not where we need to be in the future. We took the view that standing still would ultimately lead to business failure. I suspect that everyone in our industry will get to the same realisation at some point.”
So, with that in mind, what does it take for a traditional property company to make the all-important leap from considering a change to actually auctioning it?
What was the process Price and his team went through to ensure they hired the right person to lead a disruptive yet necessary digital transformation?
And what are Colthrust’s first impressions of the property industry’s appetite and capacity to adapt?
“A metaphorical speedboat”
Price is the first to admit that he had no idea what he needed to do or what exactly he was looking for when, around 18 months ago, he first realised that major change was going to be crucial for the survival of his business.
But the realisation itself was enough to spark action. “I realised that we probably weren’t equipped to deal with that change as a group of people and that the sensible next step would be to bring in external support to help us with a mind-set change.
“This is the part that takes the longest time; the culture. Technology moves at a rapid pace but if the business isn’t ready to operate around that, we will never be able to use that technology effectively as an enabler.
“If you haven’t actually organised yourself to get your company’s collective headspace in the right place, all the technology in the world isn’t going to solve your business issues. It is just going to create another department running technology solutions that don’t deliver what you need them to.”
This is a point echoed by Colthrust whose role for the first few months at least will only be 30% focussed on digital transformation outside of the business.
The majority of his efforts will be spent addressing and facilitating an internal culture shift. It makes sense. How can a business outwardly drive a new, digital strategy if it has not first been implemented within the company?
READ MORE: How to hire and make the most of a CTO
Price says he decided to hire outside of the real estate because he felt there was “no point” looking within the sector given he was actively looking for someone he didn’t think would already be on his radar.
After advertising on social media Palmer Capital embarked on a “really long but really invigorating” recruitment process and it is one that Price would advise anyone looking to hire a chief technology/digital information officer to take their time over.
“It would be so easy to make the wrong decision,” he says. “When you don’t know what you are looking for there is a lot of learning to be done along the way. This is the point where people could either give up or make mistakes.
“It is easy to start implementing change by looking to hire someone who will start structuring the business for transformation. It is much harder when that becomes a reality.”
Colthrust agrees, recalling the lengthy interview process he went through – one that was not without some debate. “We had some fairly robust conversations,” he says. “But that actually solidified for me that this was a company I really wanted to work for because there was a level of open dialogue I knew I could build on.”
“Darryll asked us questions in some of his interviews that made us realise just how far behind we were,” says Price.
“So there were some robust chats because we were being given detail around our business that was illuminating but made us realise just how quickly we had to get on with things.
“We are lucky in that we manage just under a billion pounds of assets so we are comparably small and well positioned for change. We are a metaphorical speedboat.”
Now Colthrust has his hand on the metaphorical throttle, the big question is what plans he has for Palmer Capital as he gets to grips with the new role.
As Price previously mentioned, two-thirds of the job will be focussed on “our people and processes and trying to get ourselves better organised to facilitate change”. The other third will be looking at technology over the horizon and things that are likely to disrupt the business in years to come.
“I have worked across a number of sectors so I know just how hard it can be for corporations to embrace change when change isn’t universally wanted,” says Colthrust.
“My role is about seeing how an organisation works and redesigning the strategy. For anyone who has worked in innovation, they will realise it takes a while for change to happen.
“But it is exciting to be at a company like Palmer Capital as it is a business that is small enough to allow for a lot of that change to happen quite rapidly. They know this disruption is happening and they actively want to try to figure out a way to deal with it.”
He adds that from a relative outsiders’ perspective, there is so much opportunity within the property sector.
And, despite the ongoing problem of slow adoption, much to celebrate. “My eyes have really been opened now and I look at buildings and development in a very different way,” he says.
“I have really started to appreciate what it takes to design buildings and the power and importance of what the real estate world does. What these guys do affects how people feel on a day to day basis in terms of where they live, work and spend their time.”
“I think we forget that,” says Price. “We sometimes think we are just building boxes and we forget we are delivering a service. But we are. And digital transformation is all part of making that happen.
“We are being disrupted and we can pretend it isn’t going to happen but all you need to do is look at pretty much every other industry to see that it is happening and it will happen. We can only pretend it isn’t happening for as long as we don’t link our customers to what we do for a living.
“The biggest point to make to any companies looking to embrace digital transformation is to start now. Just start. The earlier you start, the better chance you have of being out in front.
“If you haven’t even started you have very little ability to compete in a new working environment. So my advice to everyone is this; it takes a long time to make the right hires. So get on with it.”
The fixer – Darryll Cothrust’s CV
Colthrust graduated from Queen Mary, University of London with MEng, Internet Computing & BSc, Electronic Engineering in 2004.
He has held roles as Technology Enterprise Architect at Informa, Enterprise Architect at Tesco and, most recently, Director of Business Architecture at American Express.
He has more than 16 years’ digital experience in both the public and private sector, and also led the team that designed and built the first centralised content hub for Nature magazine.