Every CRE project delivery team, no matter the structure, has a superpower that sets them apart from their peers. Whether that’s a development-led, accounting-led or financial/acquisition-led team, each approach has its own advantages. However, there are also corresponding limitations - some obvious, while others not as clear - holding teams back from achieving their full potential. 

By recognizing which type of real estate organization you are, you become one step closer to cracking the code on what makes a modern, successful and sustainable development firm. Hint: it involves becoming more proactive, innovative, and data-driven. Keep reading to learn what steps you can take today to solidify your standing as a forward-thinking industry leader. 

First, let’s identify the three key archetypes: 

  • An accounting-led project delivery firm is one where the accounting department plays a very central role in the development process and daily decision-making. Usually, the accounting team does not report to the development team, but sits at an equal level in the decision-making process.

  • A finance (or acquisitions)-led project delivery firm often has development leaders whose core competency and expertise are putting deals together - gaining site control, assembling property, building out financial proformas and discounted cash flow analyses, and pulling together relationships with financial partners. Even when more construction-oriented project leads are added during the project execution phase, they often have a reporting relationship with the finance and acquisitions leadership.

  • A development-led project delivery firm is often one where the core competency of a firm is executing on complex real estate projects - they have a deep understanding of managing the design and development process, including buyouts and construction oversight, while also excelling in cost and risk management. 

The Accounting-led Project Delivery Firm

Superpower 

If you are an accounting-led project delivery firm, you’re able to leverage strong project financial controls and maintain full awareness of spending down to the penny. Because of this strength, most development decisions must also go through the accounting team or, at the very least, query the accounting team for relevant information. Rarely anything gets overpaid in an accounting-focused real estate team. 

Limitations

  • Information silos. Accountants end up playing the middleman between the project team and their project data, slowing down information sharing and leading to bottleneck decision-making. 

  • Cost management is divorced from design and construction. Project leads need access to data to perform analysis or find answers to time-sensitive questions, which can lead to constant information requests and be disruptive for the accounting team. Not to mention, this often results in unaligned goals, a knowledge gap and difficulty forecasting and mitigating potential risks.

  • Reliance on multiple spreadsheets outside of accounting software.  Often, development team members keep a spreadsheet for tracking projects that they rely on, while the accounting team keeps a separate tracking setup (usually in an accounting-based software). The two information sources rarely align without substantial reconciliation efforts. 

  • Lack of domain expertise. Accountants are experts at performing accounting duties, but cannot be expected to also be project delivery experts. Trying to take on both workloads only bogs down accounting teams and impacts overall project delivery timelines.  

How to Improve

With this team structure, accounting teams end up spending far more time than expected doing administrative tasks for the development team - like data entry, compiling monthly funding requests and pulling numbers - since they are the middlemen between the developers and the project data. Ideally, the project accounting team should continue to utilize a robust accounting software for accounting data (which informs payables, the general ledger and P&L) and the development team should replace their error-prone, out of sync spreadsheet with a more real-time tool that “talks” directly to the accounting system of record. When developers own their project data, accounting teams no longer feel the burden of force-fitting project data into accounting software. Instead, accountants can finally concentrate on traditional accounting tasks like balancing the general ledger. 

The Finance-led Project Delivery Firm

Superpower

Finance-led project delivery teams are great at leveraging relationships. Whether they're assembling the deal, pulling in marquee tenants or plugging financing gaps, they can always turn average deals into home runs. 

Limitations

  • A lack of design and construction expertise. Finance and acquisition leaders often lack the industry experience of professionals on the development side, which can lead to issues relating to unforeseen or uncontrollable costs. 

  • Difficulty finding accurate benchmarks for assumptions. Finance and acquisition leaders often end up relying on anecdotal information when building out their models. This leads to a lot of backtracking over the course of the project to account for missed budget lines and budget overruns

  • Project management becomes a secondary priority. When the primary focus is on assembling great deals, there ends up being little time left to focus efforts on the management of these projects. Oftentimes, project management is delegated to someone with more experience in construction, leaving financial leaders unfamiliar with the details of the project once it’s in development.

How to Improve

These teams should centralize current and historical portfolio data and documentation in a searchable dashboard like other sophisticated, high-skilled industries (such as finance). This allows real estate organizations to become data-empowered enterprises that get smarter and more nimble over time instead of staying stagnant and relying on stale anecdotes to inform underwriting and budgeting assumptions. In 10 years, the real estate organizations that have married the power of data with the power of deep industry relationships will be untouchable compared to those who have relied on relationships alone - or those who are just beginning their transition to being a data-powered firm. 

Additionally, finance and acquisition-led teams could benefit from greater visibility and access to real-time insights on the execution aspect of the project - including visualizations, dashboards, and statuses - instead of waiting for weekly or monthly PDF and spreadsheet updates. It is critical to shorten the knowledge-to-action time gap on important project events like contingency remaining, hitting certain thresholds, incoming cost events like change orders, or opportunities that arise in the budget. This increased visibility into the progress of the project brings finance and acquisition leaders closer to the action and provides a critical frame of reference for when the time comes to start underwriting future projects. 

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The Development-led Project Delivery Firm

Superpower

Development-led project delivery teams have the industry experience and connections to find the right vendors at the right price and can lean on their deep domain expertise to deliver projects with relative confidence. 

Limitations

  • High-value talent spending their time on low-value tasks. High-value talent on development teams often end up doing everything from the highest-order, most strategic tasks, to the lowest order follow-ups and admin tasks. This bogs them down and makes it difficult to focus on the strategic direction of a project. 

  • Project data is managed in a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, most project data is managed in convoluted, error-prone spreadsheets. This can lead to discrepancies and version control issues that negatively impact budget lines, forecasting and analysis. Not to mention, spreadsheets offer limited real-time visibility into a project status, meaning teams are reliant on stale data when making forward-looking decisions. 

  • Project data lives as institutional knowledge within individual project managers. When development teams rely on a single person to pull data and evaluate insights at every critical turn, it very quickly leads to bottleneck decision-making. Not to mention, should that individual ever leave the firm, they will take all their proprietary knowledge of how to manage those projects with them. 

  • No way to track or reference historical data to inform new projects. Most teams do not have a sophisticated way to store, smartly index or analyze historical project data. This treasure trove of information provides modern teams a huge advantage when negotiating change orders, procuring vendors or managing the buyout process. Savvy, data-empowered real estate organizations understand this and leverage their historical data to achieve easier, more predictable outcomes on their projects. 

How to Improve

Real estate developers and project leads need to own their project data in a cloud-based solution - where there is little lag when uploading information due to the power of A.I. - so they have direct, easy and real-time access to critical information. This empowers them to make faster, more informed decisions and answer important, one-off questions from key stakeholders quickly. No more information silos or basing decisions off of gut instinct. 

Additionally, developers that take advantage of automation to eliminate data entry and other tedious administrative workflows are rewarded with more time in their day to focus on building credible, forward-looking forecasts. This enables teams to accurately predict where a project will be in 2, 6 or even 12 months down the road, and account for potential challenges or opportunities that may arise.  

Finally, savvy project leads should couple their domain expertise with critical project data to negotiate change orders, procure vendors, and work to optimize outcomes based on a proactive identification of risks - each and every day.  

Conclusion

While each team structure noted above has its own advantages and disadvantages, all of them have traditionally worked to deliver complex commercial real estate projects to some degree of success. However, it’s clear that real estate project delivery still has some evolving to do. 

Without the support of modern, purpose-built solutions, development firms continue to rely on inefficient structures and processes that ultimately leave money on the table, and in some cases can even put projects and entire firms at risk of disaster. In order to be successful, teams across archetypes need to:

  1. Have fast and easy access to smartly indexed and searchable real-time data

  2. Eliminate information silos between leadership, project managers, and accounting 

  3. Stop delaying project timelines due to bottleneck decision-making 

  4. Be better positioned to make more informed, data-driven decisions and answer difficult one-off questions quickly and confidently 

  5. Increase visibility into project status and be proactive to stay ahead of potential challenges or opportunities

  6. Preserve institutional knowledge that informs current and future projects, ultimately leading to easier, more predictable project outcomes

Unfortunately, the real estate industry hasn’t caught up to other knowledge-based industries, like finance and manufacturing, whose productivity has soared with the adoption of modern technology, automation, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. This status quo mentality only hinders the success of those running development projects - whether it be accounting, finance or development. Purpose-built software for real estate project delivery teams not only has the power to transform the way teams manage their projects, but it will empower accountants and financial leaders to shed much of their tangential workload while still helping to deliver projects on-time and on-budget.

It’s time to stop force-fitting real estate development data into inflexible legacy software, or spending hours every week manually building and updating complicated spreadsheets. Empower your team with purpose-built development technology, no matter the structure of your firm. Learn more about Northspyre today.

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