If I had a second life I would be a maestro. These are the words of Francisco Horta e Costa, who at the age of forty was already at the helm of CBRE Portugal. He currently leads an ever-increasing team: he tries to ensure that everyone, playing their various instruments, plays the same rhythm harmoniously. This is reflected in the results: in 2018, the year in which the company celebrates its 30th anniversary, it has a combined business portfolio of one billion Euros.
Where were you born and grew up?
I’m a Lisboner. I was born in Lisbon and I grew up in and around Lisbon, Algés, Restelo and Belém.
How would you describe your childhood?
I come from a large family and had a great childhood and always had the basics. I’m the second child out of four: I have two sisters and a brother. My father is the oldest of twelve, my mother the second of five and I myself have four children. My father was always obsessed with travel. He spent his life saving money so that we could travel, with a tent on our back to camp sites, which showed me something of the world and taught me the importance of speaking foreign languages. My mother is extremely organized and strict, and she passed this on to me. Not that I measure up to her!
What was it like to grow up in Lisbon with your brother and sisters?
It was great. We lived in a small house. At the time, my parents could not afford a bigger one. I only realised that it was small when I was over twenty.
What is for you a small house?
It was a three-bedroom house with an area of less than 100 sq m. There was a patio that belonged to the building and expanded the house when the weather began to improve. We played all sorts of games out there. We made up games of tennis and basketball. Sometimes the ball would break the neighbours’ windows. There is a famous story when a ball broke a window and landed in the janitor’s soup. My brother and I had to sieve all the soup to take out the glass!
Where did you go to school?
I spent my primary school years at “O Nosso Jardim”. It was a private school that my parents felt was different, where values and a certain way of being were taught, and therefore was worth the financial effort. It left a great impression on me. I still have good friends from that time. The school did (and still does!) great work in terms of self-confidence and creativity – which is why my kids went there – along with the teaching of values, which is very strong, and the building of friendships between classmates.
How did you get on with your parents and brother and sisters?
With my brother, who is five years younger than me and slept in the same room, I always got on great. It is impressive how in such a small space we played guitar, invented tunes, listened to the radio and played football with tennis balls in the bedroom. My parents did not find it very funny because now and again we would break something. We also played pranks on my sisters: we would set the alarm to wake up before them and we would be the first to get to the bathroom. I had an excellent relationship with my parents. They clearly left their mark on me. One of the main lessons they taught me is to value the things you have, maybe because we did not have money to spare. This means that when we manage a business we end up treating the firm’s money carefully, as if it was our own. Another thing they taught me, especially my mother, was that whatever we do we should do it well, so that at the end of the day we know we have done our best.
Were you a good student?
I was never a very good student. After primary school, I went to the Salesianos School from the fifth to the eighth year. After that I told my parents I wanted to go to a public school because I wanted a more open school. I went to Rainha Amélia High School and in the first term I failed four subjects! My parents panicked. I don’t know how, I amazed myself, but I managed to recover my grades and I completed my secondary education as an average student. The facilities were not as good as those at Salesianos but it was a more open environment with a real mix of classes.
Was that experience important as part of growing up?
It was important as it taught me to deal with all sorts of people. I like to think that everyone is valuable. At CBRE, for example, everyone is important, from the receptionist to the department heads. If they all do their job well, as a group we all come out on top. Life has taught me never to underestimate or belittle anyone, be it a hotel doorman or a company chairman. I really enjoyed being at Rainha Amélia High School and I still have friends from back then. I made myself study just enough because at the time I loved playing rugby. I made the national team. Wearing the Portugal shirt abroad was a fantastic experience.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I did not think about it much. Later on, I remember wanting to be a maestro. Even now, if I had a second life I would like to be a maestro. I love music (classical music has fascinated me since I was very young), and I feel it would be emotional to lead an orchestra and also because maestro need to know how to play each instrument to a certain extent.
But deep down you are a maestro…
Now I am the maestro of an ever larger orchestra and I try to ensure that everyone plays the same tune, at the same time and harmoniously, combining all their personalities and idiosyncrasies, which isn’t always easy.
You began doing odd jobs at an early age?
Yes, from the 10th grade I did a number of jobs to earn some money. I worked at Estoril Open, a number of concerts held at the old Alvalade Stadium, the Lisbon Cultural Capital events at the Tivoli theatre, and at cultural events run by the Casas de Fronteira e Alorna Foundation. After high school, I also worked at my uncle’s gym at Avenida do Brasil in Lisbon, where I worked in the bar, waited tables and sometimes organised parties. I remember at the time I felt I did a good job and began to think I had a knack for business.
When you finished school you chose to study Economics?
I chose Economics by a process of elimination and because I felt it would be more interesting to study how things work. I really enjoyed the course, but I think if I had studied management it would have been more useful. I had some great teachers, the Rebelo de Sousa brothers, Pedro and António, and Esmeralda Dourado, for example. I completed my degree in July 1998. A few days before I got a call with a job offer, but I would have to start on 1 August, exactly when I was going on holiday. I felt I could not turn down a job. I went to work for the Treasury Department of a Spanish construction company, Agroman, that was building the foundations for the Colombo Shopping Centre. The office was on site, in a prefab. Nonetheless it was a tremendous experience. After that I thought I should at least try something that was not just working with numbers, sitting in front of a computer, shut in a room. I got the chance to work with the publishing company Editorial Verbo in the marketing department. I was put in charge of the Verbo Youth Club, which had 40,000 members, and I often had to accompany writers to Club events. Amongst these was the author Teresa Gonzalez, who I had the chance to talk to and learn a great deal from. But I was looking for a more challenging project.
How did your passion for real estate arise?
An acquaintance who worked at CB Richard Ellis was going to London on a course and needed someone to stand in for him. With a degree in Economics and my background they thought it was someone like me they were looking for.
That was 20 years ago…
When I came for the interview I really liked what I saw: I was 26 and the Managing Director at that time was Pedro Seabra who was 36. It was a company of young people, with a great deal of energy and very openminded. Joining a multinational was a great challenge. At that time, I came to work with Pedro Seabra and Ana Gentil Martins to manage two property investment funds management companies. Later I also began to support Pedro Seabra in real estate investment and I really enjoyed it because it had two components that are very important to me: the personal/commercial relation with Portuguese and foreign clients and the numbers, which fascinated me. I had finally found my “spiritual home”. Pedro Seabra was a great mentor over that period.
After that stage of your career how did you come to lead CBRE?
After 10 years at CBRE, in September 2008, I left the company and went to work for Norfin because I was in need of a new stimulus. I ended up returning to CBRE at the end of 2009, possibly because this business is in my blood. In 2012, at a time when Portugal was in the middle of a crisis I was asked to take up a new job in Mozambique and I went to speak to Pedro Seabra. He closed his office door and said: you are not going anywhere! It was then that he told me he was probably leaving CBRE and he thought I should be his successor. As I had worked for him at CBRE, in the investment field, people thought I was his righthand man and it ended up being a natural succession.
You have been with CBRE for 20 years. What has changed the most since you began working for the company?
First and foremost, the world’s perception of Portugal has changed. Our country has become highly quoted not just
as an investment destination but also as a place to live and work. It is clear that this investment wave and the dynamism of the property market have not been caused just by investment, but also by the companies that are opening offices here, building up centres of excellence and outsourcing services, which has also led to growth in the retail, logistics, hotel and residential sectors. All our services have grown in recent years, thanks to this dynamism. What has changed most is the way we work, increasingly professional and much more involved with the clients. The digital transformation (or revolution) that we have witnessed plus the consequent change in social habits has
also had a great impact on our business.
What kind of a leader are you?
At times subtle, at other times more direct. I speak to people a lot. Sometimes when there is no meeting room available, I pick up my things and go to the open space. I greatly enjoy being in the middle of people. I work with them and they deal with our clients on a day-to-day basis, identifying opportunities and solving problems. I don’t like being closed in an office. My door is always open. Everyone knows they can pop into my office and talk to me at any time. Obviously, I am a demanding person. I am demanding with myself and I try to lead by example.
One of the major challenges that you faced at CBRE was to take on the leadership of the company in 2012, at a time when the company had just asked for an economic bale out and the market was very depressed. What were the essential tools you used to overcome the difficulties?
At the beginning, I was concerned about how to turn things around. The market was showing no signs of improving
and we were a very unmotivated company. We had to downsize. I put in my best effort to bring new energy, to always smile and hold my head high. To get across a message of hope of things would change, that we could do it. Each small victory was celebrated. I introduced the practice of every time we did a job that brought us in over 50,000 Euros we would have a drink on the company at the end of the day. In this way moral was gradually lifted.
What other measures were necessary besides the downsizing?
Salaries were cut and department heads set the example by taking a higher percentage cut that the average for the company. We also had a layoff period when we did not work Friday afternoons. We reduced the size of the office and tried to save as much as possible: on cars, on printers, on everything imaginable.
2013 was already a good year…
It was still a tough year. 2014 is when things became considerably better. In 2014 turnover was twice that of 2013 and we did a deal that was a benchmark in the market: the sale of the four EDP buildings in Marquês de Pombal, Lisbon. From 2014 onwards, things began to change and CBRE started to grow and work increased continuously. We had to start hiring and last year our turnover was almost five times that of 2013. Therefore, this has all been very good for us, but at the same time it has been a major challenge for the people who work here because it seems like there are not enough hands to do all the work, and with everyone’s extensive ambition and professionalism, nobody rests on their success. This team has great pride and ambition and are totally admirable.
In 2017 CBRE Portugal grew 22% compared to the previous year, another record. The company was involved in transactions totalling 500,000 sq m. What is the secret behind these results?
The fact that we have the CBRE brand is a great help, but I believe the secret is, once again, that we have people who make a difference, who want CBRE to be the market leader, who give their all, very often sacrificing their personal life. But there are other secrets: in 2016, we built an open space office so there could be greater collaboration between people and that made an enormous difference. On the other hand, there is still a strong connection with CBRE, on a global level. CBRE has many advantages in other countries that we can benefit from, as well as the synergies with Spain.
In 2018 CBRE started the year with a business portfolio that totalled one billion. Is it going to be another great year?
Yes, we are looking forward to another great year. We had some major deals in the pipeline, some of which have already gone through, others which are close to completion. Expectations for 2018 are high, although there is still a long way to go until the end of the year. We need to keep pedalling!
And what does the future hold for the next few decades?
My comfort zone is discomfort and so I am here to leave a mark. I am not here to be a passive leader. I am here to
take risks. Therefore, I think the challenge in the next 30 years is to know how CBRE in Portugal is actually going to grow, how it is going to diversify and how it is always going to stay in the front line.