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Chasing The Elexir

In News of the Day on November 28, 2008 at 11:56 am

Fri 08 Feb 2008 – Gabriel Hershman Propertywisebulgaria.com
Photography: Svetoslav Stoyanov

Working ‘smart’ is more important than slaving for long hours, says Atanas Garov, managing director of Colliers. And his record speaks for itself…

It’s 6pm on a bitterly cold December evening in Business Park Sofia. Staff at the Holiday Inn and surrounding cafes are fiddling with their collars. The area seems strangely quiet. Perhaps it’s just the post-work exodus or pre-Christmas lull because, by all accounts, the Business Park is a resounding success.

A lift takes me up to the offices of Bulgaria’s Best Employer. Cast aside your cynicism – no cheque will be coming my way for reporting this! If not a hard fact, this is at least the finding of two consecutive annual surveys. But more on this later.

Colliers’ cavernous open-plan office is still buzzing with activity. I’m offered tea and ushered into a side room. Atanas Garov, its 31-year-old managing director, greets me warmly. He speaks with a gentle transatlantic lilt, a legacy of eight years in the United States. He’s a quietly spoken, self-possessed individual without airs. But do not be deceived – he speaks softly but he wields a big portfolio.

Garov has headed Colliers Bulgaria for three years. It seems a meteoric rise but he downplays it. “You have to be mindful of the East European market where many young professionals occupy key positions. You wouldn’t expect to see someone like me in a leadership role in the UK or US, but here it’s not that unusual. This was a feature of the transition – there was a great need for innovative thinking, so many companies invested in new people.”

Nice try, Mr Garov, but methinks him unduly modest. His CV and achievements at Colliers tell a different story. In the US, Garov acquired a BA in economics from Colorado College and an MBA in International Business from Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. With an interest in architecture and design, as well as some family-run property investments, he seemed destined for real estate. He joined Jones Lang Lasalle’s capital markets group in New York, working as an analyst in their investment advisory department.

“I was pretty young (18) when I moved to America,” Garov says. “Those are important years for everybody. But America was a great place to learn, not only academically but also on a practical level. It was a marvellous time to absorb and be curious.” He returned to Bulgaria in 2002, arriving back during an exciting period of transformation. “The last few years were truly dynamic, not only for real estate but also for the economy. Now it sounds almost banal to say ‘Bulgaria’s part of the EU’ but then it seemed far from inevitable.”

Colliers Bulgaria has gone from award to award under Garov’s stewardship. The Bulgarian branch – an affiliate of Colliers International, an employer of 10 092 people in 57 countries – opened in 1991. Colliers Bulgaria has pioneered many ambitious developments. Its large-scale commercial projects, apart from Business Park Sofia itself, include the Mall of Sofia. It’s also behind the first shopping malls in Plovdiv, Stara Zagora and Rousse. “I’m proud to bring innovative services as well as new types of leisure and shopping experiences. A couple of years ago, you could talk about a potential or future for these malls, but right now they’ve really come of age,” says Garov.

Garov believes that Mladost has gained tremendously from the construction of the Business Park five years ago. Mladost certainly has evolved from concrete “socialist” ghetto to – well, not exactly prestigious – area but perhaps within a (long awaited) Metro line’s construction of becoming one. It’s a massive maze of diverse businesses – construction, media, pharmaceutical and high tech through to leisure and travel. Mladost residents, facing a gruelling rush hour (literally one hour!) journey to the central city (although it’s a mere seven km) now cast envious glances towards people working at the Business Park. And if the Park seems strangely pristine, it’s only because of the contrast with the dilapidated streets outside.

Like many newcomers to Bulgaria, I’m struck by the dichotomy between the capital’s dire infrastructure and prestigious real estate developments. Won’t Sofia’s market hit a glass ceiling unless someone addresses the potholes and putrefying rubbish? “We all understand that without improvements in infrastructure there’s a limit to how much the economy and the property sector will grow,” Garov says. So, someone has to clean up the city’s act! Are you listening, Mayor Borissov?

Everything at Colliers, on the other hand, seems superbly streamlined. If there’s one word that seems to underpin Colliers’ success, it’s professionalism. Meticulously researched in-house market reports cover the industrial, retail, office and residential sectors. Yet Colliers has also shown that it’s not preoccupied solely with profit. It also has impeccable green credentials, staging a recent international conference on sustainable real estate development, attended by more than 100 senior figures from domestic and international companies. And although Colliers has a small Varna office, the agency has so far avoided Black Sea developments, believing them unsuitable. (A recent news item on Varna said that prices were stalling because of overcrowding and poor infrastructure). “The Government has to take steps to preserve the natural beauty of the coastline but the market will make its own (self-correcting) contribution,” Garov says.

Garov rejects the widespread misconception that to be successful in real estate you have to be “ruthless”.

“Not everyone wanting to make it in Colliers has to be a sales person. There are many different career paths,” he says. Indeed, Colliers is involved in the whole gamut of property development: investment advisory services, successful concept development, securing finance, brokerage and representation as well as residential property management.

Garov says that he never forgets that his business, perhaps like all others, is ultimately about people. This may sound like a trite mantra from a smooth-tongued salesman, but Garov is anything but cynical. And here’s the proof of the property pudding…for the second consecutive year Colliers has been voted the best employer in Bulgaria. A human resources company did the survey, ranking more than 70 leading companies from the results of a detailed questionnaire filled in by employees and managers.

So how does one account for Colliers’ success? “What distinguishes us is our energy and our team spirit. One of our core values is making a difference, not just with new clients but also with our partners. I enjoy the team dynamic, the creativity and the will to keep pushing the limits of boundaries, innovation and planning,” Garov says. Yet the award is not just about self-congratulation. He sees it as a way of raising productivity by addressing weaknesses.

Does he encourage staff to put in long hours? “I encourage staff to work smart,” Garov tells me. “Nobody’s forced to stay after 6pm. You’re in control of your own time. You need to make sure you deliver everything on time but how you do this is up to you,” he says. Garov, who lives in Lozenets, is single and yet to experience the eternal wrestling match between private and professional demands that so many previous interviewees have lamented. In some cases, as they have conceded, work has won a knock-out victory to the detriment of family life. Garov seems better able to meet the challenge than most, affirming the need for “balance” between family and work. At the time of the interview, a recent survey had just cited Bulgaria as the country with the fastest rising property prices in the world. Rich pickings are still available in today’s market, enough to make dedicated professionals linger in the office and even miss an episode of Survivor. Garov confirms that the market is changing: Scandinavian, Russian and even Romanian buyers are now buying into Bulgarian property, gradually replacing the British and Irish buyers who used to monopolise the market – indeed forecasts of the demise of the Bulgarian market seem premature. But he advises amateurs who believe they can make a financial killing to steer clear. “If you’re not a property investor stick to your own business as the market is becoming more and more professional,” he says.

This brings us to the “loaded” question, the one that makes interviewers salivate but can make real estate agents’ lips quiver – the future of prices in the sector. Garov handles it like the pro he is, forecasting increasing segmentisation. “Property prices will show different trends for different sectors. In the short or medium term you can’t say all prices will increase the way they used to. As the market has expanded there’s a big filter between well-thought out projects and ill-conceived ones. Those that aren’t well conceived may suffer losses. That doesn’t mean, however, that the market lacks further potential,” he says.

Garov believes that some of the “ill-conceived” ventures may not last long. “Someone was asking me the other day if I thought that the socialist prefab housing estates will be replaced. I said that some of the new buildings may be replaced faster because they are actually worse than the socialist era buildings!” Garov notes the current loophole in the law that excludes regulation of condominiums. Hence if the front door of a prefab estate falls down nobody has to replace it. He believes in promoting commonly managed residential services. But by this he doesn’t necessarily mean gated communities. “I hate to describe new communities as ‘gated’ as if you’re protecting yourself from the outside world. The future will certainly bring more managed communities, common infrastructure, common management and services,” he believes.

Garov is a very busy man. At the time of our interview he was about to travel to Turkey for an international Colliers conference. He’s a man who appears to work smart himself. And perhaps there’s a lesson for us all there.

Source: Propertywisebulgaria.com

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