How did the arrival of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown of society affect your plans for 2020?
The unprecedented and sudden impact of COVID-19 undoubtedly caught everyone by surprise and the Walton Group of Companies, along with most global companies had to adapt quickly. The implementation of work from home policies across our regions here in the Middle East, in Asia and North America took place as COVID-19 spread and different markets were impacted differently as a result based on the lockdown protocols put in place by the governments in those regions. That being said, our Middle East & North Asia business volume is up, while Southeast Asia is down marginally. Our ability to engage in business travel and open new markets has been impacted severely, but again, we have had to adapt and utilize online tools and functions to deliver news, webinars, training, and sales presentations for our business partners and their clients.
The Walton Group’s business is focused on North American Land Investment, so our fortunes are tied to the US real estate market and its reaction to COVID-19. Despite an initial severe downturn in home sales activity and mortgage applications in March, both have rebounded very strongly. The historically low-interest-rate environment, demand for affordable, single-family detached homes has seen mortgage application rates not just recover but surpass 2019 levels to a staggering 19% up year on year. The prevalence of ‘telecommuting’ has increased the demand for work from home space and driven homebuyers towards new home purchases sooner, with a focus on space for themselves and their families in suburban, master-planned communities. This, in turn, has ensured that demand from publicly traded homebuilders for the land assets which we manage has remained strong, as they look to secure market share in growth markets.
Despite COVID-19, we have not only continued to transact land deals with some of the largest homebuilders in the US but we have also launched a new Land Acquisition & Development Financing (LADF) product in the past month, offering a fixed interest rate in US dollar for lenders, backed by the largest US homebuilder by volume.
When did the pandemic first become something eliciting action from your business and were you able to prepare for it in advance?
With a significant presence in Asia & North America, we adapted very quickly to ensure the safety of our employees and work from home policies were introduced immediately as each region was affected. I was based in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak in 2003 so the experiences from then, the wearing of facemasks, and taking necessary precautions allowed us to adapt quickly. Now, I am based here in the UAE, where the Government applied lockdown measures swiftly, aside from having to buy some home office equipment pretty quickly and dealing with my children’s home learning schedule, I was able to continue to operate relatively normally. Across the Walton Group, we utilized video conferencing already, but we fully embraced the technology available to ensure that all employees, clients, and business partners were kept informed and this continues as we look to improve ways in which we can communicate and share timely, relevant information more efficiently.
How quickly were you able to adapt your services to the coronavirus restrictions?
As with most product providers, we had to adapt and evolve quickly to embrace technology to ensure continuity of service. Face to face meetings had to be replaced by video meetings both internally and externally, but we quickly put processes in place to not only engage with our normal business activities but to enhance our communication with clients and business partners with the provision of life and recorded webinars from our Executive Management, Asset Managers and external industry experts.
Are there any changes resulting from adapting to COVID-19 restrictions that will now become a permanent feature of the way you operate?
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all operate, and I believe will continue to do so for the long term. Companies worldwide, including Walton will continue to evaluate the ability to be as productive while allowing some parts of our workforce to work from home, at least in part. Technology will play an increasingly important role in the delivery of information, client updates, and new product launches via video, live and recorded webinars, etc.
If this happened again soon, what would you do differently?
COVID-19 will continue to force us to remain vigilant and governments across the world will determine how we can operate as further waves/strains of the virus evolve. I don’t think it’s about what we’d do differently, but going forward I feel that we will have to continue to adapt, create and be flexible to ensure that all of our stakeholders have access and support at their fingertips whenever they need it, whether remotely or not. Globally, the wider acceptance of online tools and video meetings will force companies to continue to embrace digital content creation and improve their online presence and accessibility.