Real estate, alternative real assets and other diversions

An interview with Benn Zemek

The Headhunter

Benn Zemek is the Chief Financial Officer of the Battersea Power Station project. Benn joined the project in early 2013, shortly after acquisition by the Malaysian consortium (SP Setia, Sime Darby Property and EPF). He has since played a key role in the successful transformation of the £9bn regeneration site, with a specific focus on leading the key funding and capital transactions and ongoing investment and financial management. 

Benn has over 15 years of experience as a real estate finance specialist working as a principle investor, developer and advisor across the spectrum of real estate sectors and in multiple global jurisdictions. After completing a dual degree in Civil Engineering and Finance, Benn began his career at a national property company in Australia (now Lendlease) focusing on commercial development. Benn subsequently shifted his focus to real estate investment management and advisory with a number of investment banking and real estate private equity firms within Australia and the UK, including Macquarie Bank. 

Benn’s specific experience has involved substantial exposure to the investment and financial management, transaction management and capital raising for development and investment assets across nearly all real estate sectors, including most recently, some of the largest and most complex capital transactions in the UK.

Q-What was your first job and what is the worst job you’ve ever done?

Those that know me well will chuckle at this! My parents instilled a strong work ethic at home so I was always working part time throughout school and university, resulting in me experiencing numerous less desirable part time jobs – starting out as a cleaner at decrepit local service station, then climbing the social ladder doing everything from a marshal / dog-poo patrol at a dog racing track, tying steel on site as a labourer, banging in for-sale signs for an estate agency, lifeguarding….and the list goes on! The positive side of doing a lot of tough part time work was it made me hugely appreciative of sitting in air-conditioned lecture theatres and as a result I didn’t take Uni (and everything thereafter) for granted.

Q-Was finance your first career choice and what were you doing before?

I have always been in the real estate finance sector but across an array of roles from principle investing in RE PE funds to corporate finance advisory. This background is certainly not your traditional finance career path and I am not a traditional CFO. But it marries well with my focus on strategic capital transactions and optimising project performance / ROE. 

Q-Why did you choose a career in the real estate sector?

I have always had a strong interest in finance and real estate, which is why I paired my engineering degree with a finance degree – but without being certain which direction it would take me. Whilst I was in my final years at Uni, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship/internship with what is now Lendlease, which was a fantastic programme enabling me to work in the holidays / non contact hours (my less desirable part-time jobs came to an end!) in various departments. It was during this programme I really came to appreciate my interest in the ‘deal-making / structuring / financing / capital transaction’ side of real estate.

Q-Why do you enjoy the sector?

Real estate as an asset class is unique from a financier perspective as it allows you to be part of a tangible process and product – which is hugely satisfying when you see the physical manifestation of a deal / transaction. This ‘romance’ that the sector can provide also allows you to be a bit more multi-dimensional as a finance professional. I.e. you don’t have to be just ‘the finance guy’ but someone who has a real interest / opinion / passion for the underlying asset class.

Q-What’s a typical day like?

Being a very large, dynamic, complex and fast moving project, days at BPS are rarely typical and always interesting. Whether myself and the team are focused on a funding or capital transaction, engaging with stakeholders or monitoring the financial management, I seek to synthesise the ‘noise’ into clear objectives / deliverables and always establish the balance of priorities to ensure we execute on what matters most – I prefer to do the really important / mission critical things really well rather than trying to do an average job of everything.

Q-What has had the biggest impact on your career?

Definitely my time on the Battersea Power Station project. I see it as a huge responsibility to take a London landmark to ‘highest and best use’ whilst delivering on the promises made to our many stakeholders – not least our very supportive Malaysian shareholders, without which this fantastic transformation would not be possible. I have also had the benefit of working with and learning from some amazing people, for which I am very grateful. So I have to say a big thank you to the CEO Simon Murphy for giving me the initial opportunity to join the team almost seven years ago and participate in the journey to – as Boris Johnson once said – climb the ‘Everest of real estate’! 

Q-What advice would you give to people at different levels on developing their careers?

My key advice is to always operate with a ‘growth mindset’ and focus on your ‘career velocity’. What I mean by this is to always seek to learn as much as possible in every situation with an open mind / growth mindset – allowing you to supercharge your experience in a shorter period of time. In my opinion, experience is not just a function of time; rather it’s a function of how much ‘distance’ (i.e. the depth, breadth and quality of experience) one has covered in that period of time – thus I refer to it as the career velocity.  For example, having a growth mindset means you are willing to learn and take responsibility well outside your job description. I see the opposite of this all the time when, for example, a finance person puts up barriers to their job and says ‘I don’t know I’m an accountant’…this is clearly a limiting attitude. What one trained for as a professional should not be a barrier or constrain the definition of themselves. Instead, use it as a platform to launch off and tackle any problem. Because the process of thinking and problem solving that your training provides (whether you’re a finance professional or engineer or surveyor etc) transcends job descriptions / roles / industries.

Q-Who inspires you and why?

Whilst this is more personal than professional, I would have to say my Dad. He suffered a very unfortunate accident and series of subsequent medical setbacks over the last couple of years rendering him a partial quadriplegic – which is a massive adjustment for a man who was extremely fit, active and hard working. However, in spite of his circumstances he displays a truly extraordinary attitude on a daily basis and continues to try as hard as he possible can with what he has left – he is literally a ‘rehab gym junky’ doing whatever exercises he can possible manipulate his body to do. His fortitude and determination provide me with an enormous amount of motivation, inspiration and perspective.

Q-What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Starting with the positives – I certainly perceive my strength to be problem solving and the ability to synthesise the complex into ‘edible’ material for decision making. I specifically enjoy being able to identify a problem or opportunity, determine the optimum strategy to solve the problem / capitalise on the opportunity and then lead a team to execute. 

My primary weakness (of course there are many others!) is probably my tendency to lack some awareness when managing my teams. I am guilty of perhaps forgetting that not everyone thinks the same / has the same personal drivers and motivations. So I require continuous personal reminders to ensure I take multiple perspectives in certain situations.






The Headhunter, zLead Article, zNewsletter

About Tim Green

Tim Green

Tim has been helping real estate businesses with their senior recruitment needs for over twenty years. He has worked with a wide variety of businesses both in the UK and overseas. Curious by nature, Tim has developed an exceptional network, and numerous people have benefitted from his positive contribution to their careers. Businesses have benefitted from his ability to source exceptional talent. He also runs a quarterly Real Estate CFO Breakfast Forum with BDO Real Estate.

Articles by Tim Green

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