Living visions with grounding

Interview with Celestino Piazza, Managing Director of United Gmünd Housing Company Ltd

United Gmünd Multi-Family House
Multi-family house in the Käppelesäcker district

Affordable housing is as scarce as it has not been for a long time. The housing shortage in Germany is large; especially in metropolitan areas. Above all, the increased costs of new buildings are a problem. United Gmünd Housing Company Ltd knows these problems – and implements innovative ideas to do good for its tenants in difficult times.

Economic Forum: Mr. Piazza, you are the managing director of VGW. What exactly does the company do?

Celestino Piazza: We are a municipal housing company with three firms. For one, we serve the housing market with rental apartments, then we are a project developer and management company. Since 2017, there has also been VGW Facility Management with various craftsmen such as painters, carpenters, and installers. We take care of the maintenance of green spaces, have had our own fiber optic network since this year, and engage in heating and electricity contracting. With this bundle of services, we create, rent, sell, and manage living space, being faster, more flexible, and cheaper than others.

Economic Forum: Is the service mentality an important characteristic of VGW?

Celestino Piazza, Managing Director of United Gmuender Housing Company mbH
Celestino Piazza, Managing Director of United Gmuender Housing Company mbH

Celestino Piazza: Yes. For a long time, a lot was outsourced; I am doing the exact opposite with insourcing. After the long boom in the construction sector is now in a crisis; craftsmen are hard to come by. We work with external companies in new construction, but in existing buildings, our own craftsmen are deployed. This allows us to act very quickly. We have been pursuing this insourcing strategy since 2017 and we will continue it in the future and integrate even more services. Back then, we brought in-house services like thermal reading services and heating cost billing, recruited our own installers, and established a billing department. In the meantime, we have retrofitted 3,200 apartments. That was just the beginning. I said back then that there is still more we can do. Additionally, we have expanded our own managed operations by adding a building management sector. I also saw potential in fiber optics. We have laid 11 km of fiber optics, serving our properties with it. This means our tenants automatically receive about 300 TV channels, 10 MBit and a router – all included in the rent. If they book a premium package for just under 30 euros through our partner Fairfast, they additionally receive 1 gigabit as well as a flat rate for the German telephone network. This way, we can actually further reduce additional costs.

United Gmuender Affordable Housing
Creating affordable living space is the top priority for the VGW
United Gmünd Living at Sunny Hill
Living at Sunny Hill – because VGW wants to do good for its tenants
United Gmünd Housing
In times of housing shortage, VGW creates attractive living space with many additional services

Economic Forum: What motivation is behind these unusual services?

Celestino Piazza: In times when everything is getting more expensive, we want to do something good for our tenants. My vision is that everything we do for the people living in a property must add value. We also think about future challenges, such as those brought by demographic development. Thanks to our fiber optic network, we can also cover other topics such as emergency calls for elderly residents. A connection with household-related services is easily possible. Last but not least, insourcing makes us less dependent on the fluctuating construction economy because we are also property developers.

Economic Forum: Are there visions for the future?

Celestino Piazza: We are a medium-sized company that is closely connected to the region and wants to strengthen it. That's why we award contracts to local businesses and have start-ups as tenants in our commercial properties. In Schwäbisch Gmünd, there has been a customer center called the W-Punkt that is also open on Saturdays since 2017. I myself regularly offer office hours, take time for the concerns of tenants or buyers. It's important to have an open ear and to be close to the people. You have to go to the people's homes, for example, through a TV channel that serves as a digital bulletin board.

Economic Forum: As a managing director, you deliberately seek proximity to tenants, buyers, and employees. How do you view your work?

Celestino Piazza: I have always been close to people – as an independent architect, a member of the municipal council, a district mayor, and since mid-2016 managing director of VGW; in this role, I lead the company as if it were my own. I've learned that you need to know what you're talking about. As a municipal housing company, for example, we have to deal with a supervisory board and city councilors and need to reconcile different interests; sensitivity and empathy are very important here. I want to go to work every day with pleasure, and the same should apply to my employees. Joy and fun are necessary to do good work. For me, it's important to have visions while remaining down-to-earth. Only those who are innovative and creative will survive. At the same time, liquidity must be ensured. Because we have always financed long-term and acted with foresight, we have come through difficult times with black figures.

Economic Forum: You want to expand the service sector further, are building a new construction yard, plan to invest around 30 million EUR in real estate projects over the next two years despite challenging conditions, and thus demonstrate great social responsibility. What do you wish for from politics in return?

Celestino Piazza: Above all, reliability and thus better predictability. Deregulation is another important point as well as common sense.