Software that unites shopping nations

Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week February 2007

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Cribbs Causeway is a mini-UN. The giant shopping centre near Bristol counts 23 nationalities among its army of staff, which puts extra strain on the already enormous task of running such a vast enterprise.   Add the fact that management has been outsourced, multiply that across 13 other centres and it is a wonder that landlord PruPIM has the slightest idea how its investments are performing.

    But does head office need to know if the lights are working in the lower mall, or whether the card shop on level two opens on time every day? Surely all a property manager needs to know is whether rents are paid on time? Not any more. A series of new demands will bring huge pressure for information over the next few years which many are ill-equipped to handle. Tough RICS regulations on service charges arrive in April. Pressure to demonstrate efficient treatment of energy and waste will increase since the Stern Report. REITs will demand a higher level of detail on costs and returns.

  Technology has the potential to provide the answer by speeding collection and analysis of the tiniest details but the industry is plagued by narrow mindedness. There is excellent software to manage leases and rent reviews; there is excellent software to manage facilities like cleaning and maintenance. But they rarely talk to each other.

  As a subsidiary of the giant institutional investor Prudential, PruPIM will not face the burden of keeping REIT investors happy but it has come up with a potential solution. In a drive for greater efficiency, the two management strands have been merged and simplified as part of a project which outsourced 14 shopping centres to MacLellan. But handing over so much responsibility was risky. ‘We wanted the best of both worlds – keeping local management skills but maintaining overall control,’ says Cribbs commercial director Jon Edwards.  Investment managers need  access to information to compare centres to find weaknesses and underperformance.

    Mark Boor, PruPIM director of retail asset management said: ‘One of the key drivers for our convergence project with MacLellan was to have a standardised method of managing activity at the shopping centres which was capable of comparison and measurement across the whole portfolio.’

  Off-the-shelf management software packages were examined and discarded as too complex. ‘They tend to be created for a wide range of property and have too many bells and whistles,’ says Edwards.  PruPIM also wanted a specialist to create, install and run the system rather than tie up head office management time.   It turned to Intelligent Property Group [IPG] which had already created fmNET which automates and records thousands of routine maintenance tasks and produces analysis accessible via a web page for owners and managers.

  The suite has been developed into CentreMonitor by including a wider range of information, winning the 2006 Property & FM e-business Award.  A management system which covers all aspects of property has been promised for years, says IPG managing director Mark Purnell. ‘But people have lost faith because so little has been delivered,’ he said. ‘Managers are baffled by all the smoke and mirrors.’

   PruPIM is sufficiently convinced to roll out across its 14 centres after a rigorous testing at Cribbs Causeway which produced some surprising lessons.  For instance, the system is now much simpler.  Every instruction or report is accomplished within three clicks of a hand-held or desk computer. And when the problems of handling  23 languages emerged, IPG switched from writing to pictures    

   CentreMonitor is still not reaching its full potential for merging all property management, according to Mark Purnell.  Accounting still tends to stand alone, making financial analysis more complex.  But this massive gap could be filled by another joint venture with leading software supplier Trace.

  ‘Estates management and facilities management are often treated as two completely independent disciplines,’ says Trace sales director Graham Davies. ‘But with a changing market, many organisations can now see the benefit of a more integrated approach to improve day to day management and to provide an holistic approach to performance analysis and cost reporting.’

CentreMonitor Functions