Back to the future: Christopher Ahearn, Oakwood Worldwide

George Sell By George Sell
Uploaded 09 March 2017

Serviced Apartment News talks to Christopher Ahearn, who has recently been appointed CEO of Oakwood Worldwide by new owners Mapletree Investments.

• Can you give us some background in to your career and your involvement in the serviced apartment sector?

"I worked for Oakwood between 2005 and 2010 as their corporate head of sales and marketing, and was recruited away by TPG Capital, a large private equity firm. I spent the time away from Oakwood working on companies that TPG acquired, to help drive improvement. When I got the call to come back, I was attracted by the fact that Mapletree was acquiring Oakwood, and the possibilities that would bring to grow the brand globally. I tried to do as much research as I could to decide if I was going to come back, and it seemed like the industry was continuing on the path it was when I left - a lot of global growth. Oakwood was still clearly the largest industry player in the US, and our presence has been growing significantly in Asia since I left."

"Just before I left we really started trying to build out our capability in EMEA. So looking at how the industry is evolving, along with the growth in technology and Airbnb, there are a bunch of players in the corporate housing and furnished apartment space who are trying to do similar things with technology - so as I looked at it it was clear to me that there is a real opportunity for Oakwood, with Mapletree's leadership, to step up and fill some of the void that's there in terms of providing an integrated global solution for customers."

"Oakwood probably has the best of that today, but there is a real opportunity to bring the three hemispheres together, to offer customers a more consistent and easier-to-access offering. With Mapletree having interests in acquiring additional assets in the US, Europe and Asia, we have the opportunity to really put the brand out there and continue with a lot of our other offerings, with our franchise business and our partnerships around the world. It's really going to help us grow the brand and bring a solution set to our customers. I don't think anybody can offer a 100 per cent solution, but I believe that we've got the ability to offer the right pieces put together to give the strongest offering in the marketplace."

• In the years that you were away from the business, what have been the most significant changes that you've noticed in the company and in the overall serviced apartment sector?

"At the company, I was really pleased to see the significant growth in Europe and in Asia - Oakwood has grown faster than those markets in terms of its capability. Another interesting observation was how well the business had bounced back from the financial crisis in 2008/9, that was great to see. I was here when we were putting things in place to weather the storm, and we were trying to say 'surviving is not enough, we've got to come out of this able to continue our growth. We took some difficult choices about where to invest. One of the places we invested in that downturn was in our international capability, and that has clearly paid off. In terms of the market, it's been surprising to see how serviced apartments have taken off in the UK - I don't know if that's due to foreign investment or the economy, but I'm delighted by the growth there."

"Asia took off much quicker than EMEA, and we were scratching our heads wondering why we hadn't had the same sort of growth in EMEA. But all of a sudden it's like someone turned on a light switch over there on your side of the pond and the growth recently is terrific."

• Will Oakwood's growth in Asia accelerate even more now the company has owners based in Singapore, or will you try to even out the growth across all the different territories?

"Asia has a little bit of a head start, and we continue to have a very strong pipeline of opportunity in the region, and also in Australia. We will continue on our growth path there. I think we need to get more focused on North America and Europe, and we'll start to put the same amount of rigour toward those two markets that we already have in Asia. We're going to take some of the lessons learned in Asia and deploy them to our operations in the US and EMEA. Over the last couple of years Oakwood has probably been a little bit conservative in those ares because Mr Ruby was looking for the next step for the company. "

"Now, Mapletree's ownership is a really nice complement because just at the time that we want to step out and grow in those areas, we have Mapletree as an owner that shares that goal. It's a good combination - together we'll build a stronger pipeline of opportunities in the US and in Europe. It will be tough for the US and Europe to catch up with Asia quickly, but I think with the right focus and effort, we should be doing just as well over the next couple of years."

• Are they any geographical areas where you have identified gaps in the Oakwood portfolio?

"One of our primary areas to target is the US - I'm not sure yet which cities we will target first but we are going to be much more determined and thoughtful about where we go. Then in Europe, I'll be over there in the next couple of weeks, primarily to take a look. I think a good starting point for us there will be the UK, and we'll see what the opportunities are there. We need to do some homework to find the right metropolitan areas that are in the right stage of growth, which have the need and area good fit for our offering."

"We're not just going to throw pins at the map and say we want to be here and here, we're going to do our research to decide where we should be. Of course we have the moving target of Brexit to consider, which creates uncertainty around foreign investment - that will help us determine where we want to be in the UK and other European countries. "
 
• What do you think will be the main changes at Oakwood under Mapletree's  ownership?

"We're going to benefit significantly from Mapletree's expertise in investment and investment management - that's something Oakwood did 20 years ago - but it excites me to be able to lean on that element of Mapletree. It means we won't have to build expertise in that field here but will be able to rely on our parent company. The fact that Mapletree is an intentioned investor is great - they do want to invest in assets, and as they invest they are looking to Oakwood to be the operating company."

"I'm also excited that Mapletree is going to bring a lot of process, discipline and structure to how we run our business and set forth our strategy. Like the other Mapletree companies, we'll be developing a five-year plan - that's never really been done by Oakwood before. We will operate autonomously but I will be reaching out to them for as much resource and help as I can - because it's there. That's something Oakwood hasn't had before, this great pool of smart, talented folks in Singapore with a tremendous track record, people that we can rely on as and when we need to."

• There have been some interesting new brand launches in the sector recently - Ascott's Lyf, BridgeStreet's Mode, Frasers' collaboration with Mercedes-Benz and your own Studio brand, for example. Do you have plans to introduce any more brands at Oakwood?

"I haven't been here long enough to know what our next play will be in that direction. We want to make sure that we put our resources where there is a good return. We've looked at the WeLive stuff here in the US, and Ascott's Lyf and so on. You need to have a good niche for a new brand, and there is so much untapped opportunity out there, outside of those niches - I think we're going to take a look at all the new brands and figure out what our market strategy is and which segments are best for us in terms of how we can differentiate ourselves. We want to make sure we can offer a consistent experience across the globe. Our Studio brand is a good test, and we'll see how that works out, but it's exciting to see all these new brands aimed at looking after the millennial customer."

• What do you think is the best way for the serviced apartment sector, particularly large international brands like yourselves, to work with sharing economy?

"Airbnb has disrupted the entire industry. We have to figure out a way that we can share their market. There's room for the serviced apartment business, it's a matter of figuring out how that plays alongside the likes of Airbnb, HomeAway and the like. Whether you decide to partner with them and list inventory on their sites or not, Airbnb is a terrific company, and I think that it's better to work with them and try to figure out where we fit in that market, rather than trying to compete with them.

"There is a big market for the traditional furnished serviced apartment product. The established players such as Frasers and Ascott are going to have different customer mix than Airbnb, but I think that Airbnb can also be a good potential partner for us and other operators."

"We are listing on Airbnb and we can build our brand that way - people will know that hey are staying in an Oakwood, and we get introduced to potential customers that we wouldn't have otherwise. In doing that, people are going to see that we offer a consistent experience."

"From a corporate experience we take away a lot of the uncertainties about sending an employee to an unknown property - there are things that we do differently than some of the other providers on Airbnb, so there's a place for us there, and there's a place for us to work alongside them as well."

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