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November 25, 2023 • Interview with Aaron Weiner at Authority Magazine


Revolutionizing Commercial Real Estate: Insights from Fortum Digital’s Founder

Article Summary

The founder of Fortum Digital Services, Antonio Castelan, shares his unique journey into the commercial real estate industry. His childhood in Houston, marked by resilience and creativity, laid the foundation for his innovative approach to real estate marketing. At Fortum Digital Services, he has pioneered AI-driven analytics and VR technology, transforming how properties are marketed and experienced. His story is a testament to the power of technology and strategy in revolutionizing an industry traditionally steeped in conventional methods.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would like to learn a bit about your origin story. Can you share with us a bit about your childhood and how you grew up?

Antonio’s early life in Houston, within a hardworking immigrant family, instilled values of resilience and creativity, influencing his approach to challenges and opportunities. His curiosity about technology and strategic thinking, nurtured in this environment, laid the groundwork for his future endeavors in real estate. These formative years fostered a risk-taking spirit and a pursuit of excellence, driving him to innovate in a field ripe for technological disruption.

My childhood was a mosaic of unique experiences that shaped my risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit. Born into a hardworking immigrant family in Houston, Texas, I was instilled with a blend of resilience, creativity, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. My parents, though not wealthy, provided a nurturing environment where resourcefulness and ingenuity were prized. This upbringing, combined with my inherent curiosity about how things work, led me to explore various interests, laying the groundwork for my eventual foray into the real estate industry. My early life was a crucible of challenges and opportunities, each teaching me valuable lessons about perseverance, adaptability, and the importance of carving out one’s unique path in life.

Can you share with us the ‘backstory’ of how you got into the real estate business?

My journey into real estate began with an unconventional start — a lemonade stand at age 7, humorously brought to a stop by the HOA. This early brush with ‘real estate regulations’ broke my heart but sparked my interest in the field’s complexities. As I grew older, my fascination with real estate deepened, leading me to study market trends and property values. I was intrigued by the potential of technology (and my love for it) to transform the industry, especially in terms of marketing and customer engagement. This interest culminated in the founding of Fortum Digital Services, where my goal was to merge my technological acumen with real estate marketing, aiming to innovate in an industry often set in its traditional ways.
Fortum Digital Services stands out in the commercial real estate sector for its commitment to integrating advanced technology with deep market insights. The company’s approach is characterized by creating meaningful connections between properties and potential buyers, utilizing AI for predictive market analysis and personalized marketing strategies. This has led to turning around underperforming listings and significantly enhancing property values, setting Fortum Digital Services apart as a leader in tech-driven real estate marketing.

Can you tell us about your company and what makes it stand out?

Fortum Digital Services stands out in the real estate industry due to our commitment to integrating state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology with a deep understanding of market dynamics. Our unique approach involves not just selling properties but creating meaningful connections between properties and potential buyers. We’ve pioneered the use of AI-driven analytics to predict market trends and buyer preferences, ensuring our clients’ properties reach the right audience. Our success stories include turning around underperforming listings into hot properties through targeted marketing strategies that resonate with today’s tech-savvy buyers.
Currently, Fortum Digital Services is leading several groundbreaking projects, including the development of an AI-powered platform for real-time market analysis. This platform is set to revolutionize how investors make decisions, offering nuanced insights and predictive capabilities. Additionally, the company is expanding its VR technology for property tours, enhancing the buying experience by providing immersive, remote viewings of properties, a significant step forward in today’s digital-centric real estate landscape.

Can you tell our readers about the most exciting new projects you are working on now?

Currently, Fortum Digital Services is embarking on several exciting projects that promise to further disrupt the real estate market. One notable initiative is the development of an AI-powered platform that provides real-time market analysis, helping investors make more informed decisions. Another project involves creating virtual reality tours for an extensive number of properties, offering an immersive experience to potential buyers consequently increasing engagement and eliminating the vacancy rate. These projects are not just about selling properties; they’re about enhancing the buyer’s journey, providing comprehensive data, and making real estate transactions more transparent and efficient.
Currently, Fortum Digital Services is leading several groundbreaking projects, including the development of an AI-powered platform for real-time market analysis. This platform is set to revolutionize how investors make decisions, offering nuanced insights and predictive capabilities. Additionally, the company is expanding its VR technology for property tours, enhancing the buying experience by providing immersive, remote viewings of properties, a significant step forward in today’s digital-centric real estate landscape.

Ok, let’s now move to the main part of our interview about commercial real estate. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the industry now? Why?

There are three aspects of the commercial real estate industry that particularly excite me today. Firstly, the integration of technology, especially AI and VR, is reshaping how we interact with properties and make investment decisions. We are pioneering this initiative by providing virtual tours to website visitors, visual floor plans, and other solutions to bridge these new technologies. Secondly, the shift towards sustainable and green buildings reflects a growing consciousness about environmental impact, offering new opportunities for innovation. Finally, the evolving landscape of urban development, with a focus on creating smart cities, excites me as it opens new avenues for real estate development that are in harmony with technological advancements and societal needs.
Antonio’s concerns in the commercial real estate sector include market volatility, slow technology adoption, and affordability challenges. To mitigate these, he suggests implementing robust risk assessment models, accelerating digital transformation across the industry, and developing policies to balance development with inclusivity. These measures can help stabilize the market, embrace innovation, and ensure real estate remains accessible to a broader demographic.

What are the 3 things that concern you about it? Why? What should be done to address and alleviate those concerns?

Three concerns loom over the commercial real estate industry for me. The first is the market volatility intensified by global economic uncertainties, which necessitates more robust risk assessment models. We have noticed this with the downturn of the Downtown residential market plummeting during the height of COVID-19. Secondly, the slow pace of adopting new technologies in certain segments of the industry hinders potential advancements. This is why we are in a hurry to advance legacy industry leaders to the “new way of renting”. Finally, the challenge of maintaining affordability and accessibility in prime real estate markets is a growing concern. Addressing these issues requires a concerted effort towards embracing technology for predictive analytics, accelerating digital transformation across the sector, and implementing policies that balance development with inclusivity.

If you had the power to put in place 3 changes to improve or reform the industry, what would you suggest? Please share stories or examples, if possible.

To reform the commercial real estate industry, my first suggestion would be to intensify the integration of AI and machine learning for market analysis and decision-making. This would impact and provide solutions to market demand and profit margins. Moreover, would provide more accurate predictions and trend analysis. Secondly, there should be an increased focus on developing sustainable and environmentally friendly properties. With tech giants like Apple and Google leading the charge of Carbon Neutrality, the real estate industrial sector could see benefits from adopting new methods of these efforts. Lastly, enhancing virtual and augmented reality experiences in property showcasing can significantly improve client engagement and sales processes as you will not need to personally need employees to help tour these properties. These changes, although challenging to implement, can propel the industry forward in terms of efficiency, sustainability, and customer satisfaction.

How has technology changed the commercial real estate industry, and how do you foresee it shaping the future of the sector?

The role of technology in commercial real estate has been transformative and will continue to shape the future of the sector. The integration of AI has begun to change how market analysis is conducted, offering more nuanced and predictive insights. Technologies like virtual and augmented reality are redefining property showcasing, providing immersive experiences to potential buyers and investors. Moving forward, I foresee technology playing a PIVOTAL role in creating more efficient, responsive, and customer-centric real estate services. From blockchain facilitating more secure and transparent transactions to IoT enhancing building management, technology will continue to be a key driver in evolving the commercial real estate landscape.

I am hearing the phrase “Stay alive until 2025” a lot. What is your plan to survive in the current market?

The phrase “Stay alive until 2025” encapsulates the need for resilience and adaptability in the current commercial real estate market. In my journey with Fortum Digital Services, a real estate marketing pioneer, I’ve learned that success in such a volatile market hinges on several strategic approaches:

I. Diversification and Adaptability: The key is mitigating risks. In this market, there are many things to consider, but the name of the game is mitigation of risk. Mitigation of risk is enduring market fluctuations: diversifying investments across various sectors and locations. This approach mitigates risks associated with market-specific downturns. For instance, while some markets may experience a slump, others might be thriving, ensuring a balanced portfolio.

II. Technology Integration and Innovation: The real estate industry is rapidly evolving with technological advancements. We’ve been early adopters of technologies like AI and data analytics, which have proved invaluable in predicting market trends and guiding investment decisions. For example, our AI-driven analytics have enabled us to identify emerging market hotspots, giving us an edge in investment decisions. These efforts will prove valuable to property management companies and REITS alike.

III. Emphasis on Sustainable Development: In response to the growing environmental concerns and regulatory changes, we focus on properties that align with sustainability standards. This not only caters to the increasing demand for eco-friendly living but also future-proofs our investments against potential regulatory changes.

IV. Building Strong Client Relationships: Nurturing strong relationships with clients has been a cornerstone of our strategy. Understanding their evolving needs and adapting our services accordingly has been critical. During the pandemic, we assisted a key client in restructuring their real estate portfolio, which not only helped them navigate the crisis but also cemented our relationship. Not to do the right things for the wrong reasons, but for doing the right things for the right reasons.

V. Financial Prudence and Resilience: A robust financial strategy, emphasizing liquidity and sensible leverage, is crucial. This approach was particularly beneficial during the pandemic when many faced liquidity crunches. By maintaining financial discipline, we were able to not only survive but also capitalize on unique opportunities that arose during the crisis.

VI. Innovative Marketing Strategies: At Fortum Digital Services, we’ve always believed in the power of innovative marketing. By harnessing the latest digital marketing strategies, we’ve been able to maintain a strong market presence and attract quality investments, even during challenging times. Our approach has been to combine traditional real estate wisdom with cutting-edge marketing techniques, ensuring that our properties and investments stand out in a crowded market.

These strategies have not only helped us navigate the tumultuous waters of the current market but also positioned us well for the future. As we look towards 2024–2025, our focus remains on staying adaptable, innovative, and client-focused, ensuring that we not only survive but also thrive in the ever-evolving landscape of commercial real estate.

For a young person who would like to eventually make a career in commercial real estate, which skills and subjects do they need to learn?

For young individuals aspiring to make a career in commercial real estate, certain skills and areas of knowledge are crucial. These include:

I. Understanding of Real Estate Market Dynamics: A profound understanding of how the real estate market operates is essential. This involves not just knowing the current trends but also being able to anticipate future shifts. For instance, recognizing the potential impact of an emerging tech hub on property values in a nearby area can be a game-changer.

II. Financial and Investment Acumen: Real estate is as much about finance as it is about property. Understanding real estate financing, investment strategies, and market economics is vital. For example, comprehending how changes in interest rates can affect property values and investment returns is key.

III. Legal Knowledge: Real estate is heavily regulated. Knowledge of real estate law, contracts, zoning regulations, and compliance is crucial. A simple misunderstanding of zoning laws can turn a profitable venture into a legal nightmare.

IV. Negotiation and Sales Skills: Real estate is a transactional business. Strong negotiation and sales skills are crucial for closing deals and achieving the best outcomes for your clients and yourself.

V. Technological Proficiency: In today’s digital age, being tech-savvy is non-negotiable. Whether it’s utilizing CRM software, understanding online marketing tools, or leveraging virtual reality for property showcases, technology is an integral part of modern real estate.

VI. Networking and Relationship Building: Real estate is a people business. Building a strong network of contacts — clients, investors, brokers, and other industry professionals — is crucial for success. For instance, a well-connected real estate professional can quickly find buyers for a property or learn about off-market deals.

In my journey with Fortum Digital Services, I’ve seen firsthand how these skills can make a significant difference. For instance, our team’s ability to leverage technology for market analysis and digital marketing has given us a competitive edge in attracting and retaining clients.

Do you have three things you would advise a new real estate professional to avoid?

New professionals entering the commercial real estate field often fall into common traps that can hinder their progress. Based on my experience, here are three things they should avoid:

I. Overreliance on Speculation: Real estate investments should be based on solid market analysis and not mere speculation. I’ve witnessed new professionals investing in ‘hot’ markets without proper due diligence, only to face significant losses when the market cools.

II. Neglecting Networking: Underestimating the power of networking is a common mistake. Building relationships with industry veterans, clients, and peers is crucial for long-term success. A strong network can provide valuable insights, leads, and support.

III. Ignoring the Importance of Continuous Learning: The real estate industry is constantly evolving. New regulations, market trends, and technological advancements make it imperative to stay informed and adaptable. For instance, a new zoning law can significantly impact the value of a property, and being unaware can be costly.

When evaluating deals or opportunities in real estate, what are the most important factors you look for and why?

When evaluating real estate deals, several factors are crucial in determining their potential for success:

I. Location and Market Trends: The adage ‘location, location, location’ still holds true. Understanding the specific market dynamics of the location, such as demographic trends, economic growth, and supply-demand factors, is vital. For example, investing in a property in a rapidly growing neighborhood can yield significant returns.

II. Financial Viability and Return on Investment (ROI): Assessing the financial aspects, including the cost of acquisition, potential rental income, and expenses, is essential. A property with a high ROI but requiring extensive renovations may not be as lucrative as it appears.

III. Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Ensuring the property complies with all legal and zoning requirements is non-negotiable. A lucrative deal can turn sour if it violates zoning laws or has unresolved legal issues.

IV. Property Condition and Potential for Value Addition: Evaluating the physical condition of the property and the potential for improvements or developments that can enhance its value is crucial. Sometimes, a property in need of minor renovations can be transformed into a high-value asset with the right modifications.

V. Long-term Growth Potential: Assessing the long-term growth prospects of a property is essential. Properties in areas with potential for future development or appreciation in value can be excellent long-term investments.

In my work with Fortum Digital Services, focusing on these factors has been instrumental in identifying lucrative investment opportunities. For instance, we once invested in a property in an emerging tech hub, which significantly appreciated in value due to the influx of tech companies.

Can you share a story with us about the hardest deal you made, that ended successfully for you?

One of our most challenging deals involved acquiring a distressed property in a prime location. The negotiation was complex due to multiple stakeholders with conflicting interests. It required intricate legal navigation and sensitive negotiations. Ultimately, we secured the deal, and post-renovation, the property’s value increased substantially, making it one of our most successful ventures.

Ok, here is the main question of our interview. Based on your personal experience and success, can you please share “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Commercial Real Estate Industry”?

I. Market Knowledge: Understanding the market dynamics, trends, and future potential is fundamental. For example, early in my career, recognizing the potential of an underdeveloped area led to a lucrative investment that multiplied in value as the area grew.

II. Networking and Relationship Building: Building a strong network within the industry is crucial. Relationships with clients, investors, and other real estate professionals can open doors to new opportunities and insights. A strong network once helped me secure a deal that was not yet public knowledge, giving me a competitive edge.

III. Adaptability and Continuous Learning: The real estate market is constantly evolving. Being adaptable and committed to continuous learning is essential. Keeping abreast of new technologies, market changes, and legal regulations is vital. For instance, understanding the impact of a new infrastructure project in a locality can influence investment decisions significantly.

IV. Risk Assessment and Management: Assessing and managing risks effectively is key. Every investment comes with its own set of risks, and understanding how to mitigate these risks is crucial. Early in my career, I learned the importance of due diligence to mitigate risks.

V. Vision and Innovation: Looking beyond the current market and anticipating future trends. We’re exploring mixed-use developments, foreseeing a shift in living and working patterns.

What advice would you give to another real estate professional about improving the work culture, building team morale, and helping each employee thrive?

I. Open Communication: Foster an environment where team members feel valued and heard. Regular team meetings and feedback sessions should be a part of the work culture to voice concerns, problems, and updates. You cannot have too much teamwork.

II. Professional Development: Encourage continuous learning and growth. Provide adequate access and resources to training programs and seminars is vital to the work environment. As well as access to training facilities to allow employees to blow off steam and provide mental health resources.

III. Recognition and Rewards: Acknowledging hard work and achievements boosts morale and motivation. Having a system of rewards and recognition for outstanding performance to create a sense of community.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If I could inspire a movement, it would be focused on “Empowering Sustainable Living.” This movement would advocate for sustainable practices in real estate, promoting eco-friendly buildings, and supporting green living initiatives. By influencing one of the largest industries globally, this movement could significantly impact environmental conservation and quality of life.

Final Thoughts

Antonio Castelan’s insights into commercial real estate reflect a deep understanding of the industry’s current dynamics and future potential. His leadership at Fortum Digital Services exemplifies how innovative technology, when applied with strategic foresight, can transform traditional business models. His vision for the industry, focusing on technological advancements, sustainability, and smart urban development, points to a future where commercial real estate is not just about properties but about creating value-driven, sustainable, and technologically advanced living and working spaces. For a comprehensive look at Antonio’s approach and the innovative work of Fortum Digital Services in commercial real estate, read the full article here –