Sal Companieh Talks C&W’s New AI+ Platform, CRE’s Digital Evolution
How the brokerage giant's chief information and data officer works to place technology at the center of its strategy
The commercial real estate industry hasn’t been the fastest to adopt artificial intelligence, and all things tech-forward. But, now more than ever, industry participants are leaning on artificial intelligence technology to help them navigate through volatility, harness and analyze data and make both decision-making and day-to-day business processes more efficient.
Cushman & Wakefield started its AI journey back in 2018, and this month the firm underscored its commitment by announcing it will now be embedding the technology across the board in its offerings through new platform AI+ — aimed at bettering both the employee and client experience.
AI+ will increase access to the firm’s expertise, data and insights, and the speed at which those vital tools are retrieved through real-time automation.
At the helm of this new charge is Salumeh (“Sal”) Companieh, C&W’s chief information and data officer. Companieh joined the firm 12 years ago, long before AI in CRE was a widely accepted — and necessary — advancement, but now she’s busy applying it to every product and service offering at the brokerage, with the help of the talent within the brokerage’s walls.
“My passion is in getting this to actually penetrate the organization, so that means talent is going to be at the very center of it — it just will happen to be led from a technology perspective,” she said during an interview in mid-October.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Commercial Observer: How did you get your start in CRE?
Sal Companieh: I was born in Iran, around six to nine months before the war broke out between Iran and Iraq — so you can pretty much gauge how old I am [laughs]. For my first eight years, we lived in Iran during the war, although that’s a blurry moment for me, to be honest. We were extremely lucky. My family came to the U.S. to visit my aunt for summer break, my dad went back to Iran early for work, and he called and he said: “You’re not coming back,” because it was getting too dangerous. Luckily, we all ended up getting visas to come to the U.S. and moved together as a family, which was a tremendous blessing at the time— because that wasn’t the case for a lot of people.
As most Iranians do, we started on the West Coast. We went to L.A. where my family was, and over time ended up in St. Louis. I went to high school in the Midwest and then — you’ll see a theme here that I’m extremely family- oriented — I followed my brother to university and I got my bachelor’s degree in a very niche program at the University of Illinois, which was the intersection of the business school and the engineering school. It was focused on industrial distribution management, so all things supply chain distribution management, and it was very hands-on — you got to do an internship every Friday. It was super fun. After that, I went into consulting.
Post-college, I joined Arthur Andersen’s supply chain team, then pivoted towards applying supply chain skills to technology and was trained on enterprise resource planning. At the time, it was an Oracle platform called JD Edwards that we were trained on, and we started with biotech — Mallinckrodt and Tyco Healthcare-type of families of companies. I then got married to someone who was based in Boston, and so I moved to Boston and ran technology for Lindt chocolate for a while, doing their distribution and manufacturing. I went back to biotech before joining C&W services 12 years ago as a senior business analyst. Fast forward to today, we are around 10 times the size, and the size of the company from an headcount perspective is about six times. I now run all of our digital and technology organizations along with data, globally.
Pressing question: Did you get free chocolate when you worked for Lindt?
I did. When I resigned, my family was like, “We did not authorize this career decision. Who do you think you are?!”
You joined C&W in 2011, and we as an industry have come a long way in terms of our adoption of AI since then. What was your primary focus when you joined, and what was the company’s approach to technology at that point?
My role — for the better part of my career here — was focused on our corporate infrastructure. What we were trying to do at the time was to uplift that infrastructure, but also set ourselves up for success for the future. So, we were thinking ahead to where we wanted to extend our energy firsthand, and where we wanted a partner to lean on to extend their energy.
We ideated on target technology operating models from an infrastructure perspective and then, more importantly, what the data model of the future was going to look like in order for us to protect ourselves and make sure that we were ready for the number of changes coming our way. When I joined, you couldn’t go from one office to another without completely having to restart every connection point. The employee experience was extremely bifurcated. You couldn’t share, you couldn’t message, there was no connectivity. It was a very localized experience, so we concentrated on making sure our infrastructure and footprint augmented the employee experience that we wanted, and that our connectivity and productivity was enhanced by technology.
That preparation must have come in pretty handy during the pandemic.
Yes. All of the strategies we had deployed pre-pandemic — not preparing for a pandemic, but just the right thing to do from a technology strategy perspective — put us in a position where we didn’t actually hit a bump. We had full connectivity around the world and were able to concentrate on the organizational behavior shift of being remote. Actually, the technology played a critical role of just modeling that because we were already heavily remote as early adopters of having pods of colleagues in different countries. So we were able to garner what worked for us — anything from the way we communicated, to the way that we shared information, to the way that we onboarded colleagues.
You were promoted in March 2022. How did your role change with that promotion?
Before, I had been predominantly responsible for internal application [of technology]. So from a human capital perspective — how do we onboard, educate and connect with our colleagues — and then also leading it from a financial, legal and marketing perspective. While I had proximity to the business side, the difference now is taking this language we speak in technology and the way that we deploy capacity and capital, and intersecting it with the demands and desires of our clients and our colleagues. So, how does technology best impact them? Part of it is understanding the problems they’re solving and being storytellers ourselves. Technologists are not the best storytellers [laughs], but explaining the impact of the work that you’re trying to do while you’re trying to do it is a critical part of the education.
The first year was all about an operating model shift. Because of [C&W’s] sprint to IPO, we were hyper-focused on individual outcomes and individual technologies. So, experientially, we had some bumps in the road. As an employee, you might not have a super smooth end-to-end experience, because everybody was just solving for their own technology needs. So we pivoted and went to more of a product-based organization versus project-based, which meant we had people who were waking up every day feeling accountable for the employee experience. That pivot alone changed the language, it changed the proximity to the business, and it changed our prioritization of work to make an impact. It helped us see the data from a different subset of data assets that we had, and see the enterprise value and the things we could do with that data. Now, we’re concentrating on how we draw value from the data sets that we do have.
The commercial real estate industry is not really known for its swift adoption of technology and AI. What’s your experience been in terms of CRE becoming more tech savvy?
I think it’s a fantastic time to be a technology leader in an organization and in an industry that’s historically been a little bit slower to change — and predominantly predicated on the way things have worked before. Now you’re seeing a demand shift, both from a client perspective and employee perspective, and overall we’re seeing everyday life getting easier and easier with the adoption of AI. I remember the first time I heard my son say, “Alexa, what’s 12 times 15?” I was like, “Oh, hold on a second!” But at the same time, that experience of “Hold on a second, maybe that experience can come into my workplace?” has been phenomenal. I do think AI in general has such tremendous opportunities — and not just AI, as it’s a piece of a bigger digital roadmap and strategy and data. These are all pieces of the pie that have to work together in concert.
I think we’re poised for great consumption. The biggest challenge for AI will be human ability to change. No matter what we say and do, the best technologies will only garner the impact we’re looking for them to garner if we can educate, upskill and be able to actually consume them in the manner they’re expected to be consumed.
Is there one recurring question that people have when it comes to being more receptive to AI?
I think most want to understand how realistic it is for them [to use] in commercial real estate, and will it actually come to life? To which I say: It already has, and will continue to do so. The second question — because a lot of our clients are in a unique position within their own ecosystem and want to harness their own data — is how do we partner with them to do that so that we are great stewards of their data? A lot of this is our own education, and all of us are on a learning journey as to exactly what the right turns are to make an impact here. Then, obviously, people want to hear examples of what we’re doing, how we’re using AI and how is it working. Also, what our lessons learned have been. We’ve been very open about sharing those, because I do think this is one of those things where we can all learn from each other.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’re seeing today in CRE’s digital evolution, so to speak?
I’ll categorize them into three components: talent, technology, and organizational behavior. From a talent perspective, we’ve got to bring all of our colleagues to the table and educate them on the art of what’s possible — and part of that is just educating them on where they’re already using AI because the language has already changed. From a technology perspective, one of the biggest challenges is that commercial real estate models are still very, very diverse. And so while AI has a huge applicability across the entire commercial real estate industry, the return on investment and ensuring that you’re doing it where there’s a positive ROI, and not just automating to automate, is key. The third is just organizational change management. I heard a quote the other day that resonated with me: “I don’t believe AI will completely replace people, but people who don’t opt in and augment themselves and their skills with AI will have a harder time in the new world.” So, organizational change management and earning the trust of colleagues and clients knowing that we’re going to do this responsibly, and in a manner that elevates our data stewardship and data health across the board on behalf of our clients, is going to be key for success.
If you think about the realms of possibility for AI and digital strategies within commercial real estate, what do you see five years from now?
Commercial real estate is an extremely diverse portfolio of activities, anywhere from the asset classes that you’re in to the type of service that you’re talking about. What I think AI will do is level-set access to great data for you to augment portfolios that historically were required to have either named individuals [as sponsors] or access to past transactions to make the best decisions. All of that is going to get unlocked, and the supply chain of data is going to go from a number of handoffs between humans to full accessibility at the realm of both our colleagues and our clients. A lot of time currently goes to gathering of data to then making a decision, but all of that will be at our fingertips: the accessibility of transaction patterns, from leases, that accessibility for the matching of capital to best-suited properties, the imagination of how to reuse different class offices and how to actually resize them for the new world. All of these things are going to become a lot more digitally enabled.
There has to be an investment, of course, and I don’t mean just financially but also capacity in uplifting and elevating data health across the commercial real estate sector. A lot of it has historically been bifurcated and siloed in nature. With the connectivity point, nothing is impossible. It’s super fun to witness and try to lead the charge on.
You mentioned your kids. Do you think they’ll follow in your footsteps and focus on the next iteration of AI ?
My eldest will probably use AI to form some sort of entry into government, which will be super fun. He’s tech-savvy and definitely government-forward. And then my little guy is already using it as a photographer to elevate some of his images in his social media posts, etc. You asked earlier what’s going to happen in five years. In five years, I think I will be learning more from them than they will ever learn from me [laughs]. It’s a really fun journey.
Cathy Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.