One Cup Of Coffee Can Change An Entrepreneur’s Life Forever. Just Ask Alessandro Bisagni
In 2010, Generation T honouree Alessandro Bisagni made a routine play straight out of the young entrepreneur’s handbook: he added a new contact on LinkedIn and arranged to meet them for coffee. Little did he know at the time, the project he pitched would change his life forever.
The contact was Grant Horsfield, co-founder of China-based resort brand Naked Retreats, and the pitch was to be sustainability consultant for the construction of Horsfield’s new resort, Naked Stables. The project was the first for what’s now known as BEE, Bisagni’s sustainability-focused engineering, consulting and tech company that specialises in green buildings.
“I had zero track record,” says Bisagni, whose strapping build, good looks and Italian moniker give him the aura of an AC Milan centre-half. It’s an impression belied only by his Americanised speech patterns—a product of the Italian-born entrepreneur’s international upbringing.
“I was still working for [British engineering company] Arup at the time. Arup was looking at the project and passed on it. I wanted to be involved, so I found Grant on LinkedIn and asked him for a coffee. I pitched him the idea, and halfway through the coffee he was like, ‘Wait a minute, I thought we were going to talk about green drinks or something—you’re pitching me your services? I love it!’ And he hired me. I owe a lot to them.”
That epic hustle marked Bisagni’s first step as an entrepreneur, but sustainability had been a long-held passion of his. “My dad worked for a bank so I lived all over the world growing up. In my senior year of high school, he was relocated to Hong Kong so I finished high school at HKIS. That was the beginning of it all for me. I took a course at HKIS in environmental philosophy, which opened my eyes to environmentalism—I realised it was what I wanted to do with my life.”
After studying environmental economics and urban planning at university, Bisagni did a stint at an Italian management consultancy before searching for a role more closely aligned with his values.
“I found Arup, which was specialising in sustainability and doing these phenomenal urban planning projects. They were literally creating the concept of eco-cities. I fell in love and harassed them until they gave me a job! I was hired out of Hong Kong but stationed in Shanghai.”
During his two-and-a-half-year tenure at Arup, Bisagni “realised there was a big gap in the market in China. They had these wonderful sustainability ideas but they weren’t being implemented in construction,” he says. “So I wanted to create a company that was the missing link between design, construction and implementation.”
Busy as a BEE
Today, that’s exactly what BEE does. The group has competed over 200 projects across 25 countries worldwide, working out of six regional offices, but most of its core business remains in Mainland China.
The company specialises in LEED certification—a global standard for designing, constructing and operating buildings to optimise sustainability—with a focus in the high-end retail and hospitality sectors. “That happened organically,” says Bisagni over coffee on Canton Road. “Because the first project was a hotel, the track record developed by itself. Then retail happened totally unexpectedly too. We worked on a building in Shanghai where Gucci had an office. They wanted to start doing LEED so they asked their landlord for a good LEED consultant, and they recommended us. After that project, it was a lot easier to pitch to other brands—so we developed this niche. Today, I think we are the consultancy with the most LEED experience in retail worldwide.”
"We were literally the first company to go to big-name designers like Peter Marino and tell them that they needed to rethink their materials. Having that discussion was not easy”
BEE is instrumental in making buildings more sustainable, and it achieves this without ever picking up a shovel or a protractor. Instead, it operates as a central hub for the design, construction and operations teams. This involves everything from improving the building’s energy efficiency during the design process, minimising waste during construction, and optimising factors such as thermal comfort once the building is operational.
To illustrate the point, Bisagni points down the road to the newly opened Salvatore Ferragamo store on Canton Road. “What we did at Ferragamo, for example, is tie all the pieces together. We have to be experts in everything and work with the teams to make sure [LEED] targets are met,” says Bisagni. “And that’s the beauty of LEED. With most design and construction processes, everyone works in their own silo: the engineers do their bit, the designers do their bit, and the engineers do their bit—and they don’t talk to each other. [With the LEED process], we are the glue that binds them all together.”
LEED consultancy is no easy task at the best of times, but working within the high-end retail and hospitality sectors poses its own set of challenges. “Influencing the design is always a very touchy subject, because the design is the brand and we can’t touch the brand identity,” says Bisagni. “For example, we need to reduce lighting consumption but that has an impact on product displays and the look of a store, so we need to achieve reductions without impacting design—or at least find a balance.”
“I can’t name the brand, but a few years ago we worked with a hotel company in Hong Kong. During the kick-off workshop, I was trying to sell them on a green roof, because it made a lot of sense for the project. After the workshop, someone comes up to me and asks, ‘So does anyone come and check whether we actually do these things?’ I said, ‘Well no, but we have to document everything and present to [LEED certifiers]’. He replied, ‘What if we use Astroturf? Is it the same?’ That really frames how a lot of companies look at sustainability—they try to cut corners.”
Today, the tide of opinion is gradually shifting. “In the beginning, when LEED was completely new in the retail world, it was really hard. We were literally the first company to go to big-name designers like Peter Marino, tell them what LEED was and tell them they needed to rethink their materials because they had to contain better chemical content. Having that discussion was not easy. I think they were frustrated at first, but now, from what I hear, Peter himself is incredibly proud of his accomplishments with LEED. I heard a rumour that he even has LEED plaques in his office. I would love to know if that’s actually true!”
For the most part, retail and hospitality groups are putting a newfound importance on sustainability because a new generation of consumer demands it. It’s no longer just brands like Naked Retreats, whose whole brand identity is built on being green, that need to be seen to be sustainable. “It’s changing really fast,” says Bisagni. “If you look at the latest Nielsen report, over 70 per cent of millennials are now choosing products that have sustainability attached to their brand. And retailers are very much realising that.”
“I think it’s only just starting. Kering, which owns Gucci and many more brands, made a public announcement saying all their stores need to achieve LEED. Other brands are still more apprehensive, but I think they know that eventually someone’s going to ask how their product is produced and how their store is constructed, and LEED is the perfect way for them to say, ‘Our references are good.’”
“It’s really easy to prove how a lightbulb saves energy but it’s very difficult to prove how a lightbulb colour saves you money in terms of productivity”
As retail plays catch-up, the sustainability industry is charging towards its next battlefronts: performance monitoring and wellness. Bisagni worked with a team in Shanghai to build a cloud-based platform called QLEAR—“one of the largest private clouds in China, tracking thousands of data points across the country”—to monitor the impact of BEE’s work, and the company is also working increasingly in the field of wellness.
“The Western concept of sustainability is about reducing consumption and saving energy, but the Chinese concept of sustainability comes from personal health,” says Bisagni.
“As consumers, we have the right to know what’s in the food we buy, but we don’t have the same knowledge about the places where we live and work. “We spend over 90 per cent of our time indoors; these buildings are having a massive impact on us. The concept of wellness in sustainability brings that to the forefront and asks how we can design and build [our homes and offices] better so we’re more productive and live longer.”
“For example, now there’s research being done on how lighting impacts sleep and productivity, and that’s super cool. There’s a whole new theory about lighting design where the lights’ colour temperature is regulated throughout the day to match your circadian rhythm, with the sole purpose of improving productivity in the office. That’s what I like to call the ‘holy grail of sustainability’, because it’s really easy to prove how a lightbulb saves energy but it’s very difficult to prove how a lightbulb colour saves you money in terms of productivity of your staff.”
“Over 90 per cent of an enterprise’s cost is staffing, so even a marginal improvement in productivity has a tremendous payback. We haven’t yet been able to prove the exact number, but it’s an industry valued in the trillions.”
With developments moving forward at breakneck pace, what are the sustainability trends of the future? “The industry is changing so much it’s almost impossible to say,” says Bisagni. “LEED itself is changing, wellness is now at the forefront and technology is a huge part of what we do, so we may turn into a technology company; we may turn into a wellness-focused company. I think no matter what services we offer, we will always be positively impacting the construction and design of buildings in one way or another.”
And no matter what the future holds, we’re sure Bisagni has plenty more life-changing coffees ahead.