South African Property Owners Association CEO Neil Gopal is the frontman for an organisation that affects the face, functionality and future of cities and its people
Neil Gopal is not a loud man, yet his impact on the South African Property Owners Association (Sapoa) has been just that. Vocal, with a voice that carries far. It has to; the messenger and figurehead of this influential sector of the South African economy is no small role, but it is one for which Gopal is well equipped. Sapoa members own and control about 90% of the country’s commercial property – shopping centres, office parks, industrial parks – and are the largest contributors to rates and taxes in metropolitan business districts. They are a force to be reckoned with, and are undoubtedly the brains trust of the local property world, major players in the crucial flow and flavour of our cities. From the outset, Gopal charted a path that would lead him to play a significant role in the broader property picture. After school, he translated his interest in architecture and planning into a Bachelor of Science in town and regional planning at the University of the Witwatersrand.
He graduated in 1994 and immediately took the high road: “I headed up the property division at Intersite Property Management Services.” He spent nearly 10 years there, also leading the marketing and new business department, where he and Intersite MD Jack Prentice played a key role in establishing the Joburg Property Company in 1998-99.
Gopal was invited to join Sapoa in 2004 as chief operating officer, and the following year took on the role of CEO. He brought a diverse range of skills to the position, but considers his town planning experience to be his strongest suit: “Issues of urbanisation, safety and security, environment and others, are crucial facets of everyday life which impact each one of us as South African citizens. As a town planner, I’ve built up a good sense of the complex challenges faced by both the public and private sector. This understanding has been vital.”
“We’ve partnered with the cities of Joburg and Cape Town to address the concept of inclusionary housing”
Sapoa is a section 21 nonprofit association established in 1966 by property investment organisations to unite all role players in the commercial property ﬁ eld. It is, in essence, the representative body and official voice of the commercial and industrial property industry in South Africa, and acts as a platform for property investors, a sector with a combined portfolio of more than R1-trillion.
As CEO, one of Gopal’s primary functions is consultative, principally with government structures. He says: “A large part of my role involves advocacy, meeting with government departments and oﬃ cials, and communicating the role of – and the impact of legislation and policy on – the commercial property industry. Sapoa is held in very high esteem by the relevant sectors and we’re consulted on all matters pertaining to the property industry. We have representation on key South African bodies such as Busa, Nedlac, the Services Seta, the Property Sector Charter
Council, National Treasury steering committees and the chambers of commerce.” Sapoa is also strongly represented on local and provincial planning structures, and maintaining eﬀ ective relationships with key local authorities is critical: “In order to have a healthy, functioning property sector, we need an eﬃ cient and eﬀ ective local municipality, and vice versa. We’re always involved in a number of initiatives with regards to addressing new pieces of planned legislation, bills, policies and other platforms.”
About Sapoa’s current focus, he says: “We’ve partnered with the cities of Joburg and Cape Town to address the concept of inclusionary housing. We’re studying international examples and this, together with consulting developers, will assist in formulating policy measures. “While Sapoa members may be building buildings, in eﬀ ect, we build the urban centres and are party to creating the urban landscape. Of course, we can’t do this alone as the policy decisions in this regard are established by government.” But that does not mean Sapoa simply toes the line. Much of its work is examining government or municipal processes and decisions, and debating them rigorously. Gopal says: “A partnership approach with the public sector is healthy, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.”
He is responsible for all day-to-day management decisions at Sapoa and for implementing the organisation’s business plan. Sapoa’s stated objectives revolve around relationships, education, advocacy and leadership, but the mandate probably closest to the CEO’s heart is the bursary fund: “We established this four years ago and, to date, we’ve placed close on 70 students at universities around the country, studying fouryear degrees related to the property industry. I’m convinced this will be a game-changer for the future of our industry.” As CEO, Gopal is fully cognisant of the responsibility to South Africans entrusted to Sapoa. Commercial and industrial property is not simply about big business in South Africa; it is a complex economic cornerstone that aﬀ ects everything, from residential property to inner-city regeneration to international investment. It aﬀ ects individuals. That includes you.
Words: Anne Schauffer