GRESB First-Year Participant Interview: Starlight Investments

Starlight Investments is a leading global real estate investment and asset management firm. A privately held owner, developer, and asset manager of over 76,000 residential suites and over 8 million square feet of commercial property space, Starlight offers various investment strategies.

Name: Marlee Kohn, Executive Director, ESG
Firm: Starlight Investments
GRESB Assessments or tool: Real Estate Assessment
AuM: CAD 28 billion
Region: North America
Entities: 3
Starting year with GRESB: 2022
Partner: Yes

What motivated you to start participating in the GRESB Assessments and what were you doing for ESG/sustainability prior to joining GRESB?

As we have learned and grown over the past 10 years, sustainability has also grown as a key priority for Starlight, through innovative ideas, the implementation of strong energy efficiency measures, and a will to enhance our spaces. In the wake of tremendous growth, we knew we needed to continue to expand our vision by moving our environmental and social efforts to a more consistent and scalable strategy. Our participation in GRESB was thus a natural progression so that we could evaluate and benchmark our progress and rally behind a cohesive criterion dedicated to making our buildings better.

How long had you considered doing GRESB before you started?

In 2020, we hired a third-party consultant to help jumpstart a formal ESG strategy. As part of this strategy, we outlined a five-year roadmap. Year One focused on gathering information, learning from leaders and advocates across our organization on what we stand for, and developing a vision for how we want to see our sustainability practices grow going forward. As part of this strategy, GRESB was kept top of mind, serving as a waypoint for us in developing the roadmap.

In Year Two, we completed a pre-assessment, including the creation of an ESG Steering Committee, developing a new policy program, and hiring an in-house lead on ESG to ensure buy-in from our people and partners. We submitted for the first time in 2022. 

Has your perspective on ESG reporting and benchmarks changed since starting GRESB? If so, how, and do you see things differently compared to when you started?

The depth of the process of collecting information was eye-opening for our team. Our asset management teams spend much of their time reporting and analyzing datasets but it quickly became apparent that tracking and monitoring ESG performance data adds an entirely new layer to the equation. However, we found that once we were able to capture it all and in a centralized way such as with GRESB, the value of our road mapping and strategic efforts became increasingly evident, and that was truly rewarding to experience. 

What did you find most helpful when preparing and completing your assessment submission? What did you find most challenging? 

When we started the assessment, I was two months into my role as Director of ESG here at Starlight. Fortunately, I came into this role with a long-standing history with GRESB, so I knew the assessment well. However, even with that background knowledge, I was still developing familiarity with Starlight’s portfolios and the 600+ assets! Bringing an external consultant on board was key in keeping us attuned to the nuances within the assessment, organizing our data collection process, and ensuring we involved the right team members. The mix of my extensive prior experience and external support, along with the willingness of our team members to provide as much information as possible made for a relaxed and cohesive process, especially when communicating the intent behind questions or how results might shake out for those new to the assessment. 

Did you take advantage of the Grace Period or the Review Period? 

Yes, we opted for the Grace Period. The Grace Period takes the pressure off outperforming, giving new participants such as us an opportunity to submit without external expectations (at least on paper). It also allows us to focus on the intent of the assessment and to understand our results internally first.  

What did you find most valuable in the resulting GRESB benchmarks and data and how have you been using them?

Our results after the first year exceeded our expectations across all three entity submissions. The summary of questions including peer performance was particularly helpful in our results analysis. The assessment accurately depicted our management and performance. The submission process was so detailed and comprehensive that there was very little surprise in terms of the areas in which we could improve. With that said, our positive results benchmarked against our peers, especially in our first year submitting, were a refreshing surprise.

The results gave us an opportunity to engage on key priorities and areas of improvement with our partners, including co-investors and third-party property management companies. GRESB gave us an opportunity to further integrate this engagement and these discussions into our review processes and we have now developed a tool to help facilitate ongoing feedback. 

Additionally, we saw a clear opportunity to embed ESG into our individual business plans and scorecards – something that GRESB highlighted for us early on in the process. Following our submission, Starlight engaged with each respective business line across our company to reset our materiality and develop a new set of targets and initiatives. Now, every leader across the company has specified ESG initiatives on their individual plans, holding us all accountable for driving performance and getting closer to the consistent and scalable programs we continue to strive for.

What sustainability-related changes have you made since starting GRESB and what are the most important insights or learnings you’ve uncovered with GRESB data? Especially in light of your strategy (multi-family)

We believe that quality, comprehensive data is the foundation of any functional ESG program. No matter how young a program may be, focusing on data is an essential, ongoing process. Capturing whole building data for 600+ properties is no easy feat, especially when working with multiple partners, regions, and utilities. It is important to invest in resources and tools that support such initiatives. This is why we have worked to get the right platform in place to support our data collection process as well as our quality assurance and controls in check for all ESG-related data. We are still in the beginning stages of using our new platform, but we know there is so much more to explore and take on once we feel confident our data is centralized.

How are you preparing for next year’s Assessments? Please share how you are leveraging your first-year results and learnings to prepare for your second-year submission.

It is always easier to edit and find gaps once you have a baseline. Since the second half of 2022, we have been working on key priorities for each portfolio, respectively. This has prepared us for the upcoming Assessment. By the same token, we do not want to get too focused on chasing points for GRESB.  We must continually educate our team members and partners on the value of GRESB and other such programs. It is important to understand the intent of the assessment and determine, based on our own roadmap and goals, as well as our partners’ goals, where benchmarking is beneficial and where comparison is going to bring incremental results. 

Now that you have done GRESB, what advice would you have given yourself prior to doing the assessment?

Submitting an Assessment for the first time is undoubtedly an exciting experience. Like any endeavor, there are many variables and unknowns but in light of this, I would tell myself to over-communicate internally and share scoring insights well in advance. It may sound obvious but putting a numbered score to our progress really highlighted where we stood. Without peer benchmarking, a numbered score can only mean so much, but it can still provide immense value in highlighting our successes and grounding our progress. We found that this resonated with team members and partners alike. We are ultimately working towards the development of a functional, achievable, and sustainable ESG framework and that continues to be our top priority. With this in mind, the context and benchmarking provided by GRESB have proven to be of immense support in the pursuit of this goal.

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