Anita Mitchell – building a business case for sustainability

Think of it like this: 3000 commercial buildings throughout Australia – a total of 11 million square metres of space.

Get these using less water, less energy and making less waste, and that’s not a bad set of environmental outcomes you can credit to your job.

Add the ability to influence 1500 property professionals and associated staff and this particular job offer starts to look irresistible.

At least for Anita Mitchell, it did. Even though it meant leaving Bovis Lend Lease where she was working under the tutelage of Graham Carter, a man she describes as one of great quiet achievers in the engineering design heros of sustainable buildings.

Today, as Jones Lang LaSalle’s Head of Energy and Sustainability Services, Australasia and Strategy, Asia Pacific, Mitchell is well into her mandate to influence not only the risk profile of client portfolios but the “DNA” as she puts it of how business is done in one of the “big four” commercial real estate agencies in Australia.

And property agency is recognised as traditionally the hardest sector to draw away from the raw nerve of the deal into understanding of longer term issues.

Except at JLL, where Mitchell says, there was already a 10 year track record of environmental services, in house.

Only 12 months into the role, Mitchell works at a massive pace but is more than happy with the way the job description is unfolding.

“There is a real thirst for knowledge,” she says.

“I have a diary but I spend most of the time having corridor conversations about mandatory disclosure and things like the green building fund. Even things like carbon trading, electricity prices, NABERS versus Green Star.

“We do some training along those lines but then it’s the bump in the corridor as someone says, can I grab you for a moment; I want to ask you something on behalf of my clients.”

Partly it’s about “ensuring our staff are not caught flat footed in front of clients.”

Mitchell is concerned that some clients will not be prepared for new rules on the horizon such as mandatory disclosure which come into force in the second half of 2010.

“A new wave of sustainability being brought by regulation and tenant demand”

“Energy performance takes 12 months so if you need to disclose at this time next year, you need to start now.

“It’s no good waking up on July 1 next year and you need to lease or sell the building’ [which is when the disclosure rules kick in].”

At JLL, Mitchell heads a 22 person in-house team, advising across the range of leasing executives, tenant representatives, capital markets and project management people, all daily influencing market perceptions through clients.

“My exact role didn’t exist prior to this but there was an energy and sustainability team headed up by Chris Wallbank – very much a technical consulting team and very much the technical building side of it.

“So what I brought was to co-ordinate and drive the centralised sustainability functions so that instead of looking at it from a buildings management point of view we look at sustainability as part of the DNA of the total business.

“Sustainability is an often used and mis-used term and it means a lot of different things to different people.

“For some it means new buildings, for some good engineering and design and for others that it attracts a cost premium.

“I try to beak this down and build a business case for sustainability in people’s portfolios.

Mitchell says, “Jones Lang LaSalle is very sophisticated (in this field) we have been active in sustainability and energy space for 10 years – we were one of the early adopters, especially in water, energy and waste.

“But there is a new wave of sustainability being brought by regulation and tenant demand, and investors wanting to de-risk their portfolios. And safer assets is something that the market’s seeking.”

For the last several years, Mitchell says, the way to make money in property was to ride the market boom, with virtually no differentiation allotted between prime and second grade buildings.

Now through yields people are “shifting the market.”

Those buildings that can’t keep with the demand of tenants will decline in value, and in an era of high vacancies, a two tier market will emerge, Mitchell says.

But she warns that it is important to match the product and tenant demand for each particular sub-market and to work out what level of investment is warranted for each building.

“My profile is to proactively assist to future proof asset portfolios – if you are an occupier you don’t want to lock yourself into a poor performing building and if you are an investor you don’t want to own or buy assets that won’t meet the needs of the future.

One of “tricks” in the market is to work out what Mitchell refers to as the “upgradability” of the asset – how much to spend on a building in order to bring it from a, say, 2.5 star market, to a 4.5 star.

“You can spend several hundred thousand dollars to put in better metering and monitoring and management and can take it to 4.5 stars or do you own a building that that is fundamentally going to keep under performing because of poor plant and equipment and will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade because the chiller and the boiler need replacing.

“We talk about dogs versus diamonds, or rough diamonds.”

Mitchell has been in the environment business for 15 years. And it involves an impressive spread of exposure to the industry.

First was Prospect Electricity which became Integral Energy, then Sydney Water as principal adviser on sustainability then Waste Services for the NSW Government.

Next came Bovis Lend Lease in a role that she relished, learning under the guidance of Graham Carter.

But before all this came an unlikely start – a family background at the opposite end of the sustainability spectrum, involved in the controversial logging and fishing industries at Eden on the NSW South Coast. There were even whalers among her forebears.

Privately Mitchell has described herself as the black sheep of the family, pulling against the tide of extraction industries and wondering if there wasn’t a better way to satisfy both points of view, sustainably.

“I was always in the middle of the debate: there had to be a better way, one that allowed nature to continue but also allowed for jobs.

“It’s a bit hard to come from Eden and not follow the debate. It was at the heart of the family.

“But family attitudes change – a lot of people have changed.”

Anita Mitchell with fellow green networkers, Michelle Malanca, centre and Green Building Council’s Romilly Madew at right.

When Mitchell left school at 17 to work full time, she took her passion into part time study, completing a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Biology at Macquarie University and a Masters Degree in Environmental Management at UTS over nine arduous years.

Today she “gives back” to her industry through active membership of the Environmental Institute of Australia and New Zealand (NSW) where she is Immediate Past President and as a member of the Finance and Audit Committee of the Board of Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

Mitchell has also scored a gong in The Australian Financial Review Boss Magazine as one of six Young Executives of the Year for 2008.

Along with Graham Carter, Mitchell credits Maria Atkinson, global head of sustainability for Lend Lease, as a great mentor in her career as well as Christine Bartlett former chief executive officer of Jones Lang LaSalle who hired her.

“Maria poached me from WSN to Bovis. I did a study for her into the decision making of people buying into Newington [one of Sydney’s first sustainable residential projects].”

Mitchell keeps in touch with Atkinson and the broader network through Atkinson’s “eco-chicks” networking group.

Bartlett, she says, was a “fantastic visionary” that believed sustainability was “part of the playing curve going forward – a view that has been thoroughly endorsed by Bartlett’s successor Stephen Conry, she says.

Looking at the bigger picture today Mitchell would like to see Australia take more of a lead from the Obama Administration in the US.

And, of course, is positive about outcomes.

“I’d like to maintain a positive outlook and hope that Copenhagen result in real and positive resolution in terms of climate change response.

“You have to always be an optimist.”

tperinotto@thefifthestate.com.au