Sam Nickless

9 May 2013 — Early this year GPT Group was lead investor* for almost $6 million into a San Francisco start up that provides an online platform for sourcing co-working spaces. It’s part of a promise to GPT shareholders to find new sources of income other than traditional commercial and retail rents and capital gains. So how’s this rather unusual challenge going?

In some views Sam Nickless has an interesting background and an even more interesting current job.

He was previously a consultant, and then partner, with McKinsey & Co before moving on to National Australia Bank, working in the strategy and credit areas.

Today he’s portfolio manager new revenue for GPT Group. This means he is tasked with fulfilling a promise GPT chief executive Michael Cameron made to investors that this listed property company would find new sources of revenue, other than traditional rent and capital gain.

So these days Nickless, who joined a year ago, spends his time in what many might think a dream job – following an interesting array of sources for potential new ideas that can help translate the promise into reality.

A favourite source of inspiration is Rachel Botsman, who made collaborative consumption an everyday term. Nickless also likes Twitter feeds from people such as Property Place and Shopping Centres Today, but some of Nickless’s favourites are “people on the ground” – in the group’s shopping centres, for instance.

One idea originated from a GPT personal assistant at the company’s headquarters in the MLC building at Martin Place in Sydney.

At the time, GPT had switched to the latest thinking in office accommodation – activity-based working, which the company describes as like a village or hotel, where workers can come in and sit anywhere, depending on the tasks at hand.

Nickless had just joined the company and was intrigued. “Why would a property company try to reduce space?” Nickless says. “But the truth is that it’s the way our clients are going. So one of the things happening was that by using space more efficiently you have more space available.”

Why not share that space with some other company?

“The suggestion came from one of the PA’s who could see what was happening – maybe let other people use our boardroom and offices when they’re not used,” Nickless says.

“But that raises all sorts of questions. How do people find out about it? Who will greet them? How do you make sure it doesn’t conflict with our booking. And then we thought it was more interesting to let other people put their rooms on there, not just ours. So you need to look for some kind of exchange mechanism.”

Nickless had conversations with a number of people managing co-working spaces, who were looking for ways to manage their meeting rooms.

“Managing co-working spaces can be a nightmare. [For the customer] it can take 10 phone calls to find out if something is available and to confirm the booking,” Nickless discovered.

An online platform was the answer.

A search found a few companies in America with some suitable software but among them the San Francisco-based LiquidSpace offering stood out and GPT invested close to $6 million in the start up.

GPT will launch its LiquidSpace offering later this month. First customers aboard will be the Melbourne-based office-sharing business The Hub, which is expanding to Sydney.

Collaborative consumption relies on trust

According to Nickless, fast-evolving technology has enabled a range of activities that might have existed in concept but which are now easier to bring to fruition because digital platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn contain ready-made verification of a person’s history.

“This potential for sharing has always been there. But Rachel Botsman talks about the building of trust through technology,” Nickless says. “In the past you could not so easily check out the credentials of a potential customer.

“In a broader sense environmental sustainability can apply to all sorts of things like car sharing or Airbandb. For a lot of applications you don’t need to own the thing.”

Parcel pick up

Next experiment for GPT using these digitised platforms will be automated parcel lock-up facilities, in partnership with Wizard Home Loans founder Mark Bouris.

Lockers will be automatically controlled so that when customers order a product online they will be sent a code to open a locker in a conveniently located building. The system will also know when lockers have been cleared and are available for the next delivery.

First rollout will be in the MLC building, with perhaps one set of lockers for the shopping centre in the building and another in the car park for commercial tenants.

Separately, GPT is also “exploring the concept of doing a bit of shared office space and co-working in our office, taking the concept of co-working and making space available to other tenants and other users.”

“It ties in with LiquidSpace. We might share some floors or meeting rooms.”

Nickless is also delving into the digital world of technology for shopping centres – ways to enhance the shopping experience for customers, create apps for centre navigation and to find out about special offers.

Melbourne Central and Highpoint Shopping Centre in Melbourne are already out for trial.

Where the experiment ends is anybody’s guess.

* Clarification: This article previously said GPT invested nearly $6 million in a San Francisco start up.