Property Australia

Real talk with Sam Cuccurullo

Karen Jamal Karen Jamal August 31, 2021

A new series of on-demand RealTalk courses, anchored by real estate stalwart Sam Cuccurullo, archives the property industry’s lived experience of COVID-19 and has lessons for the next generation of leaders.

Cuccurullo, the former head of property and asset management for Cushman & Wakefield across Asia Pacific, has been an eyewitness to many ups and downs during his 45-year career. “I’ve been through five recessions, but this one has been very different,” he says.

010921 - Story 2 - Sam CuccurulloWhen non-essential services closed on 21 March 2020, “it wasn’t like September 11 or the global financial crisis,” Cuccurullo observes. “All the crisis management planning in the world no longer mattered when we had to shut down our buildings all at once.”

How did Australia’s property leaders respond? And what lessons can they share to guide future leaders? These are foundation questions behind a new series launched by the Property Council Academy.

The series is part oral history exercise and part education. Cuccurullo started formulating his idea for a leadership series 18 months prior to COVID-19, pitching the concept to a receptive Property Council Academy director, Kelly Jones. “We thought it would be valuable to talk to today’s leaders about their careers to give future leaders an understanding of what they went through, and the lessons learnt.”

Following the pandemic, the project took on an extra urgency. The series, dubbed Real Talk, catalogues the property industry’s biggest challenges during the pandemic, from social distancing in lifts and lobbies to rapidly-shifting relationships between landlords and tenants.

A range of leaders have shared their time and thoughts: fund and asset managers, tenant advisors, operations and board directors. “Everyone I spoke to said they had a disaster management plan in place prior to COVID-19. Two companies even had pandemic plans, but they were thrown out the window.”

Instead, “leaders made very clever decisions when things were falling all around them,” he notes. “They remained calm, maintained a clear view during the crisis and focused on what mattered” – helping people to stay safe and businesses to stay open.

Cuccurullo notes a common characteristic in all the leaders interviewed. “They took a pragmatic approach,” he explains. He applauds the heroic efforts of frontline facilities managers who continue to ensure that assets function. “They really are the stars of the show.” Property managers also deserve recognition for their efforts “as their workload has grown exponentially with every rent rebate request”.

Cuccurullo, who lived in Hong Kong for five years, notes that the Chinese word for crisis is often translated as “opportunity” or “change point”. “Every crisis is a learning curve.” Learning from today’s leaders at the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis, and understanding the “action points”, can help future leaders navigate a new set of unknowns.

After more than four decades living and breathing real estate, Cuccurullo has not stepped back from the industry that “in my DNA”. Today he runs a consultancy practice, lectures at university, sits on the board of ASX-listed building services platform Urbanise and has established a proptech investment fund.

As real estate continues to ride the waves of the COVID-19 crisis, Cuccurullo dismisses doom and gloom predictions. “There has never been a period when the property industry hasn’t bounced back and got better – and we will again this time.”

Head over to the Property Council Academy to download RealTalk.