CEO: Darren Steinberg – The Ultimate Australian Portfolio – $42.5bn in Property… | Dexus

HOSTS Alec Renehan & Bryce Leske|23 September, 2021

Meet your hosts

  • Alec Renehan

    Alec developed an interest in investing after realising he was spending all that he was earning. Investing became his form of 'forced saving'. While his first investment, Slater and Gordon (SGH), was a resounding failure, he learnt a lot from that experience. He hopes to share those lessons amongst others through the podcast and help people realise that if he can make money investing, anyone can.
  • Bryce Leske

    Bryce has had an interest in the stock market since his parents encouraged him to save 50c a fortnight from the age of 5. Once he had saved $500 he bought his first stock - BKI - a Listed Investment Company (LIC), and since then hasn't stopped. He hopes that Equity Mates can help make investing understandable and accessible. He loves the Essendon Football Club, and lives in Sydney.

Darren Steinberg is the CEO of Dexus and an Executive Director of Dexus Funds Management Limited. Dexus is an Australian Real Estate Investment Trust managing an Australian property portfolio valued at $42.5 billion. Darren has over thirty years’ experience in the property and funds management industry with an extensive background in office, industrial and retail property investment and development.

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Bryce: [00:00:15] Welcome to another episode of Equity Mates, a podcast that follows our journey of investing, whether you're an absolute beginner or approaching Warren Buffett status. Our aim is to help break down your barriers from beginning to dividend. My name is Bryce and as always, I'm joined by my equity buddy Ren. How are you going? 

Alec: [00:00:30] I'm very good, Bryce. I'm pumped for this episode for a lot of Australians. For a lot of our listeners, investing in property is the dream. But with property prices feeling more and more out of reach, it feels like it's not something that is accessible. But the good news is that through the stock market, you can invest in property, you can invest in property these days with as little as a few dollars. And we've got one of the CEOs of one of Australia's biggest property investment trusts here to talk to us about it.

Bryce: [00:01:03] That's right, Ren. It is our absolute pleasure to welcome to Equity Mates. Darren Steinberg, CEO of Dexus. Welcome 

Darren Steinberg: [00:01:10] Thank you. Good morning, guys.

Bryce: [00:01:11] So Darren is the CEO of Dexus and executive director of Dexus Funds Management Ltd. Dexus is an Australian Real Estate Investment Trust, managing an Australian property portfolio valued at forty two and a half billion dollars over 30 years. Experience in the property and funds management industry with an extensive background in office, industrial and retail property investment and development. And we're going to be unpacking all of it today. The impact of Covid, the views of Dexus on sustainability and then closing out with people and culture as always. So Ren.

Alec: [00:01:43] Let's check in now. Darren, we've got a lot to cover today, but we always like to start by hearing a company leader describe their companies in their own words. So to kick us off today, what is Dexus? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:01:55] Dexus is a fully integrated real estate company. And that means that we're investing lease and develop Australian real estate. Yeah, we invest only in Australia. As I said before, we manage a portfolio of about forty two and a half billion, of which seven and a half of that predominately office industrial health care sits on our balance sheet and the rest the other twenty five billion of office retail industrial properties we manage for third party clients and third party clients can be anything from the large sovereign funds, Australian pension funds. And also now with our recent acquisition of the Open Property Group, we do a number of high net worth and individual retail investors.

Bryce: [00:02:38] So Dexus is one of many real estate investment trusts or rates that's listed on the ASX. For those retail investors listening who may think rates are all quite similar, how do you think about competitive advantage in this space and particularly what sort of separates Dexus from other listed REITs? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:02:57] I've been fortunate in my career to work for a number of listed REITS. So there's three things that sort of stand out for me when I look to how Dexus sort of differentiates itself from our peers. First one is the talented management, because you can put good management into any asset class and deliver excellent returns. So the quality and experience of our people is the first point that differentiates us. The second one is actually the high quality real estate portfolio that underpins our earnings that we are on our balance sheet. You know, undoubtedly through markets go up, markets go down, but good property always holds its value and delivers returns over the medium to long term, which is what real estate investing is all about. And the third point is the diversification of our income streams. I think one thing the Covid has surely shown is diversification is really important. And for us, we have several income streams as a as a shelter in Dexus, you get access to you get the income off the direct investments, you get our funds management fees, you get our trading business and you get our property management development phase as well. So that diversification really helps sit down. 

Bryce: [00:04:04] It sounds like just like stocks always goes up, property always goes up as well. Is that right? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:04:09] Oh, I wish I wish it was that easy for the property does work in cycles. But one thing that's become very evident to me and even with mentors that I've sort of worked with over the past 30 years are good quality property. Appropriately, it shows you good returns through cycles over a one year period. It might go up. It might go down. You might have a short blip in your income, but good quality property, property located is the source of wealth creation. 

Alec: [00:04:39] Now, Darren, we were particularly excited to speak to you today because Covid has impacted every industry, but the last 18 months have been particularly volatile for the property industry. On one hand, we've had lockdown's working from home office vacancies, some retailers not paying rent. On the other hand, we've had record low interest rates demand record demand for industrial property and a hot residential property market. It seems like there's so much going on in the space, so we'd love you to take us inside the room. What's it been like leading Dexus for the last 18 months through this? Period.

Darren Steinberg: [00:05:14] Yeah, look, I've been quite fortunate is that I've sort of run companies such as Dexus for a long time now, probably I've been at senior levels for around 20 years. And I suppose know we always talk about Black Swan event. And I was fortunate to have my teeth in the 2008 crisis when I was running the Colonial First State property business, which consisted of two of three listed trusts and a variety of unlisted trusts. And during that time, I had some very good directors that I was working with. And we always had this philosophy of, you know, keep your real estate lowly liquid and good quality. Real estate will see you through the cycles. And we and we got through that relatively unscathed compared to many of our peers. You know, we weren't chasing growth. We weren't running around offshore markets. We didn't like. And I suppose I took many of those learnings into Dexus. So you get to the Black Swan event. And and the most important thing, he and I actually found this less stressful in night because there was nothing here that you'd actually done wrong. So it's just another event that we had to manage through. And so look at Dexus. We've really worked on creating agile, flexible, resilient workforces and we've been working on that for about eight or nine years or ten thousand. So what you always strive to develop those kind of that ability and your management team, but you never get to stress tested. So over the last two years, we've really stress tested that and what's been probably the most pleasing element. Yes, we've had some good success. We've we've done some great transactions. We've produced some really good returns in a very volatile environment. But the most pleasing thing to me is just the way the management team has performed and moved on. And they are doing that. This last 12 months, we've undertaken six point four billion of transactions. Yeah, we sold. We sold, we moved very quickly and sold assets quickly at a very good process. And we're able to redeploy that capital into higher turning opportunities for investors while also maintaining a very strong balance sheet. We've leased over one hundred ninety five thousand square metres of space. And this time last year, there was a big question mark on the future of office with his office going to go. Our industrial portfolio is running at about 98 per cent occupied. So I think what is clearly become evident is a couple of things over the past 12 months. First of all, the doomsdayers of offices is dead. We don't need offices anymore. That's that's well and truly past both here and globally. The office is remaining a key part of people's workplaces. And it's easy if you've got a nice big house in a room by yourself, it's easy to operate flexibly. But I think the three key things of culture, collaboration and innovation, those three elements of people's workplaces are still at this point in time that are done in person in the office. What is evident both here and globally is that people are going to operate more flexibly. So there's all this talk about flexible working. And I'll use Dexus as an example. We've had a flexible working policy for five years and in that time, pre Covid, we probably had one or two people that were using it. We had a guy that we like headed to the south coast with his family and in zoomIn because he was the only one zooming in. He'd come up every couple of weeks and he did a great job, but it was just a bit strange. It wasn't right. So moving forward, we will be operating more flexibly with other people. But this whole I'm going to be flexible. That's not I. I'm playing golf today because that's discord. Chaos, right. What we went through that last year, I have a break from one thinks, well, I'm not going to be in that meeting, so that's not what it's about. So I think a lot of organisations are going through. And what does it mean for the workplace? Well, of of our one hundred ninety five thousand square metres of leasing, and that's across a variety of small, medium and large enterprises. A lot of them have taken the same space or even a touch larger. But have they are reworking this space internally is changing. So a lot more breakout spaces, lot more collaboration spaces. Yeah, I'm back in an office for the first time in twenty years because we've been doing more meetings like this with various lockdowns and etc. and not be able to go overseas to talk to some of our large investors. So that trend, I believe, will continue because what you can have is, let's say this Monday to Friday things seems to be when people work more flexibly in Gaza. It's a global thing. But if people want to come to the office on Wednesday and Thursday, you can't tell them they can do it for them. And that's why the space is about the same. I think the other trend we've noticed in leasing from a leasing perspective anyway, is still this move, which was a pre Covid trend of moving into the CBD because this war for talent is still going to be around and. The tenant wants to be in the CBD where they can go to the pubs of restaurants when they're open and looking into their mates and network. It's very hard to network if you're stuck in a stand alone building in Macquarie Park, for example, if you're based in Sydney. So a couple of other trends from covid. Look, retail retail was going through its own challenges pre and Covid anyway, those challenges about online. And there's other ways to get your product to consumers that that has evolved further. And obviously, a lot more people have been taking up the use of Internet, shopping, etc. But once again, that's not without its challenges. It's probably if you're a retailer, a lot of them aren't set up properly. It's costly returns, only other things. So that trend appears to be stabilising. Yeah. And of course, industrial has been one of the big, big winners out of this industrial the take up industrial space through online retailing or distribution. The leasing take up has been huge right across the country. 

Bryce: [00:11:09] Mhm. Yeah. I used to work for Woolworths down at the head office out at Bellavista in Sydney and the size of that office was just enormous. I can only imagine sort of what they're thinking at the moment with the entire workforce working from home, how they're going to recreate that space to make it still valuable for for their staff. 

Darren Steinberg: [00:11:29] It's really interesting. And most you can imagine, we talk to our customer base, to most of the chief executives in the country. Really, a lot of people are struggling with what this means, that there's a real disparity between the workers that are very happy working from home. The probably the the older workers like. It's very easy for me to operate remotely. I've been doing this for 30 years. I can talk to my investors around the globe. I can go for a walk. I can have a round of golf, which I took up again in I badly, of course. But that's that is it is really challenging because we've got Gradison had two years in the business that that haven't been getting the benefit of working with myself and some of the some of my colleagues. The culture of the business is something that's really important for driving returns. And it's very hard to get that culture on a on a resume or on a whatever sort of tool you're using to to bounce around with your staff and disloyal things like there days. And we've been very active with them. And I it's very, very challenging. If I want to talk to my head of strategy, he's on another call and I'm on a call. This is just popping out of office. I let's whiteboard this scenario. It's incredibly frustrating. And there is a real lack of productivity. I care what anyone says and don't differentiate between the software. Guys is trying to sell everyone software and reality. A lot of the software guys want people back in the offices because they know their productivity suffer. 

Bryce: [00:13:03] Mm hmm. Well, let's turn attention to interest rates. We know we're obviously in a very low interest rate environment at the moment, so we'd love to get your thoughts. Is this an opportunity to lever? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:13:14] We're obviously this low for longer. This catch phrase is well and truly with us. What's going on now with these continued lockdowns is going to see another hit to GDP and it's going to take a while to ramp up out of it the. So as a result of that, you're going to see lower interest rates effectively. It's going to make property and real assets a a push for real assets become even more attractive. And you've seen the bit the Sydney airports, and we're seeing a very strong being right across the board for any good quality officers we put on the market. The yeah, I think it's inevitably the REITs will hopefully get moving, but it's probably two to three years away. And I suppose the key point for everyone to remember is it's all very well, particularly for the mum and dad investors. You see a lot of syndicate saying, well, he's a ten year lease or a five year lease to a government tenant in a, let's say, secondary area. That's going to be very hard to release for that lease comes to an end or it's going to need a whole lot of CapEx thrown at it to to get at least again, which is going to really hit its return. Don't be tempted to to lever up into secondary real estate and in fact, and keep your real estate appropriately level and for good quality real estate. For me that is around. Yeah. Let's say I've always tried to run my vehicles around 30 per cent lived with a push to forty. If I say something really attractive on the understanding, going to bring that back again today. Dexus is running at about twenty six per cent eleven. But we have a 15 billion dollar development problem that's going to come up. But someone like Dix's has access to a very strong third party, capital partners that will come in the the big pension funds that I spoke about before. And we're very diversified so I can afford to take my leverage to thirty, thirty five percent. But if you've just got a single asset with a single tenant or a couple of tenants, I'd be very cautious. Mm. 

Alec: [00:15:10] So this year Dexus has been pretty active. In the M&A space, merging the wholesale property fund with AMP Capital Diversified Property Fund and then entering a proposal to acquire APNE Property Group, how should investors think about this M&A activity and the organic growth that comes from it? And I guess more generally is that benefits for rates as they get greater and greater scale? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:15:37] Yeah, look, real estate is a scale game and I think the main purpose of that is, first of all, you know, this whole wave of technology that is just going across all industries, it costs money to fully integrate your business and get the latest and greatest technology no matter who you are. If you're a small player, you just can't you just don't have the money to set up the infrastructure required and the cost Bryce to run it efficiently and effectively. And as you as you spend that money, you get more efficient, which means you can actually run things on lower, lower fees and provide better returns. Hopefully scale also gives you more data. So you get Dexus as one of the largest commercial real estate in the country, that we have more data than any of these small pies, any of the agents. And we are circa twenty to twenty five percent of each of the major CBD. So from a leasing perspective in office, for example, all the agents feel the data into us. But we're the only ones that get to see all that data. Plus, we've got our own leasing team of about 15 people that are dealing with leases. So, yeah, I'm a big believer that the data here as the data has a competitive advantage. So when we're buying assets or selling assets or taking a view on women should be we have more information than anyone else. And if we've got the right people, we should be able to get better outcomes with that. So that's really important when you look at growth. Look, I'm a big believer in organic and inorganic growth because when you bolthole companies is a cultural animal. So the big thing about it is that that was a very good cultural fit. I think the same was as good quality, I believe. And I think about their investors faced quite quite frankly, not many organisations that cultural not that they're more about growing function from cycle. Dexus is about returns to investors, whether you're in the listed stock or they're in any number of unlisted funds or the smaller rates, it's about the returns because if we don't deliver the returns, then we're not going to attract the capital to that. That's our mantra. We have no fun targets. Like many other fund managers, I say, well, we can agree to expand from my perspective and commentaries. We're going to deliver performance and then people are going to want to invest with us. So that's that's how we operate. So so what IPN gave us was more breadth. So prior to that, Bolton Dexus had a lot of sovereign funds, a large Australian pension fund and global pension funds. But we didn't have a lot of high net wealth retail investment. So by Bolton IPN, its access to greater diversity of funds for us as an industrial fund, their military to fund. Previously, we were doing a lot of the industrial on the balance sheet, which is more diversified. So this is an industrial only vehicle. And and what that will enable us to do is to use our expertise in acquisitions, leasing, development and all that data us like we have before, to exponentially grow those smaller funds to the benefit of all unitholders, of which Dexus is a very large holder investment. 

Bryce: [00:18:39] Now down before we turn the discussion around sustainability, which is very important for the Equity Mates community, we're just going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. So just for some context, for the Equity Mates community, Dexus has been recognised as a global sustainability leader, with your funds ranking highly against benchmarks in 2020, Texas was recognised as the most sustainable real estate company in the world for the second consecutive year. Dexus originally was aiming for net zero by 2030. But you've subsequently brought that forward to net zero by the end of five twenty two. What changes have enabled you to overshoot the original goal by what seems like a pretty significant margin? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:19:21] Yeah, first of all, guys, look, sustainability has been a catchcry in real estate since the 1980s. So while it's not new to the real estate industry and the real estate sector, it's something that sort of it blows me away a little bit when all of a sudden everyone's talking about it. But real estate's been there since the 80s. And why? Because if you brought your real estate in a more sustainable manner, you're going to run it more effectively. It's going to be cheaper for your customers, which means hopefully, if their outgoings are cheaper, you can charge more rent. You're going to get a better return. So it makes good business sense and it's been ingrained inside Texas that that's the way we want to run our buildings in a more sustainable and effective way. So achieving net zero for us was about increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency, which, as I said, we've been on that journey for close to 40 years and over the past few years we made really great progress. So in 2018, we drive innovation in renewable energy procurement through the industry's first renewable energy supply agreement with Ren energy for our New South Wales portfolio. And this year, we set up some new renewable energy agreements in Queensland and Victoria. So it's take us a while to to work and find the right varieties. But that now has given us the capability to procure renewables across the majority of our portfolio. I think the real challenge is also aligning with the consumer sentiment and to make the investment appetite for this. And what's been really happening for me and I've run a very large retail portfolios before is all of a sudden it's not just us as the owner wanting to do this the the the tenants, and they are looking at it for their leases. You've got the investors now. It's top of mind. And over the last two years, we used to meet at the Dexus headstock level with the portfolio managers in the lodging business. All of a sudden we've got the estate guys in there. So this is a big change and one that's big, long, sort of long awaited is that it's not just us as landlords pushing it now. It is the investment community and the customers. And so you're going to see a big push no matter what the government decides to do. The business community is going to push this because it's the right thing to do. And yeah, whether you're a believer or not a believer, I think the facts are. You seen so many climate related weather incidents happening globally that the more we can do the decarbonise, the better it's going to be? 

Alec: [00:21:50] Yeah, 100 percent agree with that sentiment. Darren, I used to work at Coles in their sustainability team, and I remember vendors would try and sell us different things. And Texas was often held up as an example of a company that was well ahead on a lot of these, you know, sustainability and climate metrics. So I think you should, first of all, be commended for those efforts. But I guess if you if you had another message for all the ASX leaders out there, what can they learn from your efforts and what should they be emulating in your in their businesses? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:22:25] Yeah, look, it's a very it's a big challenge. And I sit on a forum with a number of chief executives, particularly in mining and potash and the electricity. There are huge, huge challenges for this. And I do understand the reluctance of some to push into it. But I suppose I would recommend that I get a group of executives don't like it, someone's second job over and above the dijo and basically sit them in the corner and give them specific goals to achieve. And I think that's the only way you're going to get going here. You can't say how you and how you're not going to be the sustainability guy and you can't on the resources because it it is going to take some different thinking. It's going to take some some financial impact. And I suppose this is this is a never ending debate and challenge that chief executives have, no matter what the industry, the impact of providing earnings growth for investors in the Australian market is very focussed on earnings growth, probably more so than other listed markets across the globe and the capital spend that could impact that on becoming a more sustainable entity. 

Bryce: [00:23:30] Down of all the expert investors that we've interviewed, many of them often say that understanding management and the people of the business within the business is incredibly important to better inform our investing decisions. So let's turn our conversation to people and culture and how you think about that, do you? Have a leadership philosophy as CEO.

Darren Steinberg: [00:23:51] Look, I'm quite an adaptive leader, shall we say, or a situational leader, said that is, as I said, I've been doing this quite a while now. So I adopt a range of different styles depending on what's happening at the time in the business. And that can be transformational, it can be transactional or it can be coaching. And I think that's one of those things that you evolve over time. So I'm undoubtedly a better leader today than I was early on in my tenure as a chief executive. And I think early on you try and take safe bets, particularly with people. And I suppose one of the the biggest learnings that I can sort of share with people over the past decade is that if you take a bigger risk and you just want the best people. Right. And that is now probably more diverse than I was early on because, you know, early on I'd probably have a beer with Bryce sitting around the table playing around, and I knew that he'd be a safe pick today. If I'm looking for talent and it's all about the best talent, I have a far more diverse spread. And as a result of that, we've got two very, very good executives in Dexus that are really driving our organisation that wouldn't have been there 15 years ago if I was running it. So think of it. I've got a very strong sporting background. Coaching paid a lot of hockey when I was younger and coming from that was a big sport over there. And I know and sort of knows much about it. And what I did a lot of coaching opportunities, women's teams, men's teams and played it is great for 200 games. So what I like to do is develop my leadership team is is built like any team that's flexible, that can go into any situation, hopefully multibrand, multiple. If someone gets sick or has to go away, then I can move them across into another position. And that's really worked well for me. As I said, the 20 year period 

Alec: [00:25:51] on that point of building a team, Darren Bryce, and I've never worked in the property industry, but the perception that we get is that it's incredibly competitive and there's a number of big players and it feels like there would be a red hot competition for talent amongst in the industry. How do you think about, I guess, getting the best talent and building the best team? Is there anything that you try and do differently at Dexus or try and do better than your competitors? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:26:17] Yeah, look, I'll share with you guys, but not with everyone else. That's got to be in properly. I get that. Look what I think a lot of people in the old days, you had to come from a real estate Strathmerton real estate background. And I'm talking commercial, not residential. We don't we don't do much residential. So you had to sort of grow up in your property manager, a leasing guy, and he come through. And I still like that. Many of my senior people do that space because you have to know how it works to be good at running it and investing in it. But as far as what I look for today, is this really smart people, but it's a combination. You want the smart, smart people and then you can train them up in the real estate. But you also want people, people, I think, to many industries and organisations to have this go for the smartest guys. But the smartest guys are always going to be get your heart going to be people, people to have a successful company. You've got to have the people, people around as well. So what you see with Dexus is a combination of both. We got some ultra smart guys that might have come out of investment banking or finance and they are now running strategy or development. But once once we find them, we try to give them a really good range of experience. So our chief operating officer, Melanie, for example, she was in finance for thirteen years, tucked away, hidden away, and all the finance people had hidden a few years ago. We pulled her out and she did still work in the office of the chief executive of doing sort of various projects. She then went and did for a year and a half, running around the world, talking to investors, helping with the investigations. She then went and ran an office portfolio for two years. And today she's our chief operating officer. So you guys, how our business works from top to bottom, super smart. But, you know, with that diverse background now, she will one day be a chief executive of a property organisation. Hopefully, hopefully Dexus. 

Bryce: [00:28:20] Well, we always like to finish with the same questions. Final three questions, Darren. And so it's always about the future of of your company. So let's start at the top. What is the next 12 months look like for Dexus? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:28:33] Yeah. So, look, I would hope that we are out of these lockdown's over the next sort of two to three months. As people get vaccinated, they'll then be a ramp up period. And then with the amount of stimulus that I believe will be pumped into the system by. Here and globally, it should be relatively good times for groups like addicts who says we can be opening. We've got currently our recollections are about ninety seven per cent across our office business because a lot of offices are operating quite well and still profitable and they need those workplaces when we get back. But it's the small business guys that feed off the CBD that out of the office buildings have had two years of interrupted income and it will take a while for them to ramp up. So I'm hoping they'll be quite a good reopening bench for us over the next 12 months. And of course, with the low interest rates, if we can create a good investment product for our investors, that demand for that product of that is very strong today and we continue to see strong should continue as well.

Alec: [00:29:32] So, Darren, turning to some of the risks that Dexus faces, what would you say is the biggest risk to your business right now? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:29:41] That I look, I think there's always a variety of risk. But the the the current number one risk is that we continue to get these political fighting within our country and that there's continued lockdowns even once people have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. That is going to be detrimental to the Australian economy. And anything that's detrimental to the Australian economy is detrimental to real estate companies such as Texas.

Alec: [00:30:06] And then final question, Darren, and before we ask, we just really want to say thank you for taking the time today. I think it's been a great conversation and I'm sure our audience have taken a lot away from it here at Equity Mates. We like to be long term investors and think long term. So if you think about Dexus in 10 years time, what is success look like? 

Darren Steinberg: [00:30:29] I think success looks like Dexus will have a large amount of assets under management. We will be providing very good outcomes for our investors and using that scale in the data that we get of scale to continue to provide good returns for investors through old cycles. 

Bryce: [00:30:47] Well, Darren, it's been an absolute pleasure talking with you today. Rates property in our our community at the moment, pun intended. So it's been a pleasure to sort of hear directly from you about how you're thinking about Dexus and more broadly, the property landscape at the moment. So I know a lot of our audience would have taken some value from that very much. Appreciate your time and good luck for the future. 

Darren Steinberg: [00:31:11] Thanks, guys. Good to join you. 

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