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Restlessly and relentlessly reinventing yourself

Gary Whitelaw is CEO of Bentall Kennedy, one of North America's leading commercial real estate advisers.

Our firm has a history dating back more than 100 years and, not surprisingly, we have been through our share of change. The most recent was our acquisition by Sun Life Financial in 2015, adding to its growing asset-management operation, Sun Life Investment Management.

I'm often asked how that change worked out, given that we had had a very successful ownership structure for the previous 15 years, with two large pension funds as majority owners and a minority stake owned by management.

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The short answer is that the change has been terrific for both sides, but not without a lot of hard work and planning. And that began even before our decision to seek a change.

Our previous ownership structure had served us well for many years. But the market was changing and moving much more global. It was becoming more important than ever to create long-term alignment with our clients. We had great depth and experience in commercial real estate and the right culture for success, but we needed a broader range of strategies to better serve our clients and move to the next level as an investment manager.

We went through a very select process and Sun Life Financial clearly emerged as our team's preferred partner. And two years later, our instincts have proven correct, with both of our organizations starting to reap the rewards we had hoped.

Sun Life has invested and committed more than $300-million to our new and existing client strategies, in both Canada and the United States. We've launched new products that wouldn't have been possible without the partnership – and we've promoted staff from both organizations to positions within the combined team. We've blended our leadership teams at different levels and we're actively working with Sun Life Investment Management's other affiliated companies. And more symbolically, our Toronto-based teams now sit across from one another, having moved into a shared space at our new Canadian headquarters at 1 York Street in downtown Toronto.

As business leaders know, not every merger or acquisition works, so why has this one? Looking back, I think there were a few things that were essential to our success in moving to this new ownership model.

Build change into your organization's DNA

Years before the Sun Life Financial deal, we began sharing a doctrine within our organization: to embrace change and not fear it, because, more and more, change – and one's ability to adapt to it – was becoming a driving force in the economy and a key factor for business success. At our employee forums, in our ongoing communications, we talked about the importance of continual change and, in particular, always looking forward; acknowledging our history, but not getting trapped by it; and embracing the concept of restlessly and relentlessly reinventing ourselves, because the business world is littered with the shells of organizations that didn't.

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We started as a construction company in Vancouver in 1911, so this may have been an easier "sell" to our organization, as we'd experienced changes that had enabled us to grow and thrive for more than 100 years. But it made the transition that much easier. When we announced the acquisition by Sun Life Financial, it wasn't seen as "the one" change, but simply as "the next" change. There was no crisis or failure – just our organization's continuous evolution, and I think we did a good job of laying that foundation.

Look for a culture fit

I can't stress this enough: culture trumps business strategy every time. If there isn't a strong cultural fit, the chances of achieving a successful acquisition/merger are remote.

We had a key advantage because we knew Sun Life Financial very well – they'd been one of our largest property-management clients for 11 years, and we understood their values and their way of working. Like us, they're exceptional fiduciaries and understand the importance of putting the interests of clients first. They also understand the importance of providing their employees with growth and career-advancement opportunities – a core business belief for us.

Sun Life Financial also embraces the concept that we had made central to our operations – sustainable investing. They've been an investor in real estate equity and debt for more than 100 years in Canada and 40 years in the United States, so they have deep experience in the asset class. And they understand the forces that affect our business – namely that as a long-term asset class, sustainability is essential. This goes far beyond environmental issues, which are critical, to issues of social engagement and sound governance. We don't ride short-term momentum swings – we're looking for investments that have lasting value. From our experience working with them, we knew that Sun Life Financial shared that vision absolutely.

Take the time to prepare thoroughly

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When we were considering the ownership structure change in 2015, we had no fixed timeline for a decision and had many possible alternatives. So, we took the time we needed to evaluate our options and prepare for change. As with most things in life, if you don't thoroughly prepare, you won't get the outcome you want.

We had the benefit of an excellent, respected and independent board at Bentall Kennedy, and they forced us to thoroughly think through our objectives, our evaluation criteria and what success would look like down the road. They were heavily involved through the whole process and gave us sound advice.

The time we took to assess the qualitative criteria that went beyond the price of the deal turned out to be a critical component of its success.

The road ahead

From the very start, we had interest, engagement and support from the top levels of Sun Life Financial, and that demonstrated to us that we weren't just a passing interest, but were a strategic investment that would have an enduring role within their business.

That commitment has never wavered. As a result of this commitment, strong cultural fit and expanded global resources, we are able to deliver increased alignment and a broader range of investment strategies to our clients. For our employees, this all translates into an exciting next stage in Bentall Kennedy's growth and continuing evolution.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

Video: Talking Management: How Sun Life executives encourage innovation (Special to Globe and Mail Update)
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