Bent Mühlena visits the Grand Central Saint-Lazare building site in Paris. While at the site office he likes to have a look at the architectural model. It offers an exciting preview of how the Union Investment business centre at the Saint-Lazare railway station will take shape by autumn 2019.
David Maupilé

Building projects managed globally

When construction pits open up and cranes reach to the heavens or entire buildings are revitalised from top 
to bottom, project management can become extremely demanding. That’s just how Bent Mühlena likes it.

Project development is the ultimate challenge for property investors. But many shy away from the role of principal – claiming too little expertise and too much risk. That doesn’t happen at Union Investment, whose core business includes challenging project acquisitions and developments of existing buildings They are handled independently by the Real Estate Project Management department all over the world. Bent Mühlena, for many years a project manager at Union Investment Real Estate GmbH in Hamburg, became head of the team in 2013. “With almost 40 employees, we are now one of the strongest departments in the organisation,” he says. “We have civil and electrical engineers, architects and business experts on board.”


The Real Estate Project Management department manages an enormous volume of construction in every use class. “Over the past five years, we have invested €4 billion in 51 new construction projects. That’s some 28 percent of the total investment volume during the period. And it doesn’t include seven large-volume developments of existing portfolio properties worth €243 million,” Mühlena reports. This has had a very positive influence on the portfolio: “New construction, conversion, expansion and the replacement of building services are important value drivers in the life cycle of a property.”


Responsible for eight subject areas

The Real Estate Project Management team performs a broad range of tasks. “In addition to managing new construction projects and developments of existing portfolio properties, we support our colleagues from all parts of Asset Management by handling technical asset management, and this applies to the entire property portfolio,” he emphasises. “This ranges from annual inspections of all 361 properties in the 22 national markets to planning and supervision of the budget for upkeep.”


Real Estate Project Management employees also conduct technical due diligence (TDD) as part of all acquisitions and sales by Investment Management. “We see TDD as process support during which we check compliance with building regulations, review structural and technical aspects, and highlight key property and portfolio characteristics.” Mühlena explains. “Systematic due diligence that includes document searches and site visits gives everyone concerned a very complete picture of the property.”


During busy periods, the Real Estate Project Management department conducts due diligence for as many as 70 acquisitions and sales. It is possible to cope with such large numbers, particularly in highly sought-after markets or countries with extremely short exclusivity periods – such as those currently seen in Germany or the United States – because the Real Estate Project Management department has created what are known as provider panels. “Working with our partners on due diligence for acquisitions and project management allows us to fulfil all quality requirements and meet every deadline,” says Mühlena, describing the advantages of this approach. The outside providers are subject to regular monitoring. “We line them up in a beauty contest, so to speak,” says Mühlena. The bottom line is that the panel saves a lot of time because there’s no need for a tendering procedure to obtain the services. Mühlena mentions an example: “In the US, we've been able to complete due diligence for properties in only ten days.” Panel partners offer additional certainty in other countries, he says, which means they are part of risk management during acquisitions.


Mühlena and his Project Management team are also responsible for project business management, strategic purchasing, sustainability of buildings and technical operations management for infrastructure systems.


In spite of all his team has to do, Mühlena insists that they follow the “all-rounder” approach. “I think it’s very important for all employees to have a broad-based skill set. Everyone is familiar with every phase of the lifecycle of properties. That also keeps the work interesting. I believe it is this mixture that gives us such a good working atmosphere.” The Real Estate Project Management department is divided into three groups: International, Germany & Shopping Centres and Commercial Project Management. Countries are assigned to the individual teams in each group. “This offers the advantage that employees can familiarise themselves with individual building cultures, building regulations and local customs,” says Mühlena. “And it ensures we are always on an equal footing when we meet our business partners. They like that, even if we sometimes delve uncomfortably deep into projects to make sure our high quality standards are met.”


But how is it possible to stay in touch with almost 40 employees – to keep track of countless projects and areas? Bent Mühlena relies on openness and transparency: “I don’t even know the extensions of many of my colleagues, because I simply go to where they are and talk to them directly. And my door is always open. My relationship with the three group managers is also very important to me. In my view, trust is the most important thing for close cooperation. I want to stay in the picture, and if necessary I will immerse myself in the minutest details.”


A graduate engineer, Mühlena began his career at Union Investment in the late 1990s. He was still in his early thirties when he joined Difa Deutsche Immobilien Fonds AG, as it was known at the time. He had already gained some experience working in architecture firms and with project developers, and he wanted to get more involved in the project business. At Difa he didn’t have long to wait before being put to the test, earning his chops when he took charge of the CityQuartier DomAquarée project in Berlin. From 1999 to 2004, Mühlena worked intensively on the complex building project in the city centre – which included offices, retail, a hotel, apartments and a large aquarium – and learned a great deal. That major project was followed by other building work and acquisitions, including in Chile, Mexico, Spain and the Netherlands, after which Mühlena became a group manager in the Real Estate Project Management division and then the department manager.


Career

Bent Mühlena studied architecture at the University of Applied Sciences of North-Eastern Lower Saxony in Buxtehude and worked in architecture firms, property management and project development. He joined the company now known as Union Investment Real Estate GmbH in Hamburg in 1999. He was the project manager for DomAquarée in Berlin until 2004 and a project manager for acquisitions and projects from 2004 to 2009, including in Chile, Mexico, Spain and the Netherlands. He was Group Leader Europe & Hotels and then Group Leader International from 2009 to 2012. He has headed the Real Estate Project Management department since 2013.

Global project management

Now 50, Mühlena and his department are known for reliable project management and the ability to consistently meet deadlines and stick to budgets. “We handle major developments of existing portfolio properties ourselves, both in Germany and abroad,” says Mühlena. “We play the role of principal and commission architects, project managers and construction companies ourselves. When acquiring project developments, we have only one partner – the project developer – whether we get involved very early, during the application for planning permission, or later, shortly before completion.” The competitive edge offered by project acquisitions can be seen all over the globe, as Mühlena emphasises: “When demand is heavy and prices are extremely high, Union Investment snaps up first-class properties as early as it can”. That way it enters the market cycle with ultra-modern buildings at precisely the right time. “And that’s what makes it so much fun for me and my people,” says Mühlena. “We can have an influence, double down on quality and shape properties as we wish.” The Real Estate Project Management department manages all building projects – with the exception of France – centrally from Hamburg. Two French Real Estate Project Management employees handle the project business in Paris.


Setting standards in France

One example of a project in the French capital is Grand Central Saint-Lazare, scheduled for completion in autumn 2019. The acquisition was made in January 2017 with the early involvement of Real Estate Project Management employees and is already considered to be a new reference property in the heart of Paris, reports Mühlena. The new build at the Saint-Lazare railway station, designed as a business centre and planned using building information modelling (BIM) technology, is to receive an HQE Excellent certification. It is “among the most sustainable and possibly the most profitable property in our portfolio,” says Mühlena. Two years prior to completion, Asset Management has already let 80 percent of the office space.


Revitalisation of the 57M office building on Boulevard Malesherbes, not far from the Grand Central, is nearly complete. The impetus for work on portfolio buildings usually comes from Asset Management, explains Mühlena. Expiring leases, the age of the property and the need for upkeep can indicate that it’s time to upgrade a building. Real Estate Project Management is then brought on board relatively quickly to get things moving. “At Boulevard Malesherbes it quickly became clear that a light refurbishment wouldn’t be sufficient for success in repositioning the property,” says Mühlena. 


An architectural competition, construction planning, the call for tenders and the awarding of various contracts were all completed within a short, narrowly-defined time frame so that asbestos remediation could start immediately after the tenant moved out, followed by the actual refurbishment work. “All of the trades were able to do their work with no time gaps,” reports Mühlena, adding that the fully renovated building, which dates to 1960, will fulfil the most modern standards when complete and be certified – and has already been fully relet.


It’s rare to see Bent Mühlena in work boots and a hard hat these days. He now spends his time working on strategic issues. He describes climate targets designed to drastically reduce energy consumption and CO₂ emissions in coming decades as an enormous challenge. “It will take a lot of work,” says Mühlena, “and energy consumption will have to be recorded digitally to be able to determine the individual need for action.” Digital infrastructure is already being tested in portfolio properties, he adds, after which the entire portfolio will be equipped with smart metering and control systems during a second phase. This will take until 2025.


Forward-thinking ideas are a common theme in Mühlena’s life outside the workplace. Born in Hamburg, he lives with his family in a house he designed on the outskirts of the city. “I never wondered what I would do when I grew up. My school friends were putting together model cars and ships, but I was interested only in houses and building sites,” he recalls. “The mix of creative, commercial, technical and societal issues still fascinates me today. Buildings are wonderfully tied to the earth and devoted to people. I really enjoy working with them, whether it’s a listed office building in Sydney, a new hotel in Berlin or a large shopping centre in Belgium.”


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