When Anshuman Magazine, chairman and managing director of real estate management and consulting firm CB Richard Ellis South Asia Pvt. Ltd (CBRE), talks about his career trajectory, he often uses the term “in those days”. He uses it to refer to the changing mentality of young professionals, the younger profiles of new homeowners and to the increasingly aggressive and confident nature of Indian companies. But he doesn’t use it in the way grey-haired industry veterans do, i.e., in reference to the virtuous past when employees were loyal, attrition was low and salaries were conservative.
Magazine instead uses it to refer to the horrors of the licence raj era when entrepreneurship was difficult and a young man fresh with an MBA from a foreign university returned to India not even daring to be ambitious.
“I had no idea what to do when I came back. There were hardly any good jobs. And the few jobs that were there paid nothing. And when it came to starting a business, the universal piece of advice I got was: ‘Don’t.’”
Wait and watch: Magazine believes that realty prices will continue to drop, especially in non-metros and tier II locations. Jayachandran / Mint
This was in 1988, and Magazine had just returned to New Delhi, his hometown, after two years at a business school in London. He shrugs his shoulders when I ask him what plans he had when he landed: “Nothing was happening. There was nothing to do. I kept looking around. Many months and few opportunities.”
In the course of his frantic job hunting, Magazine briefly contemplated signing up for Nestlé’s management trainee programme. “But it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I just didn’t see myself selling Maggi noodles. You had to spend two years as a trainee, most of it in small rural markets and towns. There is nothing wrong with all this. It is a great initiation for new managers. But I didn’t want to do it!” he laughs, throwing up his hands. So he kept looking around.
Magazine laughs copiously as he speaks, deep laughter lines radiating from the corners of his eyes as we chat, lounging back in plush couches. Our meeting takes place at the CBRE office, a stone’s throw from Patel Chowk in Delhi. There is a steady thrum of activity in the office that is just barely audible in Magazine’s room. Earlier in the day, as I waited in CBRE’s reception area, executives paraded in and out of the office, animatedly negotiating real estate deals on mobile phones. There is no mistaking the lingo: sq. ft, built-up, developer, contracts, mixed use. Despite a well-publicized slowdown in the property markets—especially among commercial users—CBRE seems to be keeping its head above water.
“So far we are coping well. I haven’t had to let anyone go yet. In fact, I am still hiring people,” Magazine says when I ask him how badly CBRE is affected.
But then the managing director has had early lessons in coping with upheavals. Even before plunging into a listless Indian job market in the 1980s, Magazine had already dodged a few bullets as a child. Not metaphorical ones, but real bullets from the guns of soldiers belonging to the army of the Shah of Iran.
“My father was a very well-known doctor in Iran and I spent many years there as a child. And I was there when the revolution took place and the Shah was overthrown,” Magazine explains. He remembers running into the streets when hundreds of young Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities; many of them were mowed down by gunfire. “When the firing started, me and my friends would run back indoors and then look out of the window. Now it all seems tragic. Back then it was actually exciting.”
Magazine says that his Farsi still isn’t too bad, though he hasn’t spoken it for many years. Eventually his father sent him to boarding school in India, while Magazine Sr stayed back to treat patients, especially during the Iran-Iraq war. “Someday I want to go back to Iran with my father. I am sure there are people who still remember him. And I could relive some childhood memories as well,” Magazine says. Despite the carnage he witnessed, there is no mistaking the fondness he still has for Iran.
Back in India, Magazine eventually joined HEG Ltd, a manufacturer of graphite electrodes. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting exactly the sort of job profile I wanted,” Magazine remembers. Within months, he was flying across Asia marketing HEG products, “all for a dismal salary”. He remembers it as a huge opportunity, and that he was very lucky. “In those days you had to be 50 years old and work in a company for years and years before they let you step out of the country on work.”
By the time Magazine left HEG five-and-a-half years later, the company was exporting products to 30 countries, from Taiwan to South Africa. Which is when he met someone who worked for a real estate multinational firm and who asked him if he was interested in switching sectors. “I knew nothing about the sector but it seemed interesting. So I signed up to join Richard Ellis, as the company was known at the time,” Magazine explains.
The toughest part of that decision, Magazine says, was convincing his family and his boss at HEG: “They were flabbergasted. All of them wanted to know why I wanted to become a real estate broker. Not the most respected of professions then or now.”
The idea of an organized real estate management and consulting company was radical at the time. Till then, companies employed dedicated people just to keep track of real estate requirements, lease renewals and so on. “We wanted to take over that function from companies. And we slowly began to shake things up,” Magazine recalls. One of the first things that changed, he remembers, was when neighbourhood brokers suddenly began to dress in full-sleeve shirts and ties: “They were overwhelmed that a proper company had entered the business. These guys wanted to look professional, too.”
Today, according to Magazine, CBRE manages at least 60 million sq. ft of commercial space—the biggest portfolio in the country. The company has about 1,500 employees and now does more than just real estate management: It has service lines to handle valuations, project management, strategy consulting and realty investments.
Magazine admits that the current slowdown is among the most challenging periods in the company’s history. And while he says there is absolutely no point in trying to predict the future, his outlook is bleak: “In the last few months, experts said that India would not be affected because of many reasons: We are decoupled, we have strong local consumption, our banking system was not so badly exposed. I think the country, and the real estate business, will continue to suffer. More pain is yet to come.”
And I ask him if the big, heavily leveraged developers are finally getting their comeuppance. “Everyone is portraying them as the bad guys. The guys who kept building fantastic expensive properties which the middle classes couldn’t afford. And now they all want a bailout.” But, Magazine points out, they were essentially reacting to market requirements: “Why should they voluntarily do projects that make less money? Perhaps, after this downturn, you will see them shifting focus from high-end properties.”
Finally, I pop the question: Is this the right time to buy?
“Yes, if you intend to live in it. If you find a flat you really like, then do the research on the property and buy it. No point in waiting endlessly trying to time the market. But if you want to buy something purely as an investment, then wait. Prices will fall even more.”
Curriculum Vitae | Anshuman Magazine
Born: 8 August 1964
Education: BCom (Honours) Delhi University; MBA, Schiller International University, London
Current Designation: Chairman and managing director, CB Richard Ellis South Asia Pvt Ltd
Work Profile: Joined HEG Ltd in 1988 after his MBA, then moved out to set up Richard Ellis in India in 1994
Tempered Title: “I normally just refer to myself as the managing director. Chairman makes me sound very pompous.”
Business School Moment Of Fame: “On our convocation day, they give out a special award for the best all-rounder. When they called me up on stage there was utter astonishment in the audience. Even I was completely surprised. I guess they picked me because I mixed with everyone and spoke a lot in class.”
Pinned On His Wall: A line drawing of a frog, with its head inside a stork’s mouth, choking the bird to avoid being swallowed whole. “It reminds me to never give up.”