John Casmon is a former marketing exec, who created campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, like General Motors and Coors, before turning to multifamily investing. He’s now the founder of Casmon Capital, the host of Target Market Insights, and has partnered with investors on over 900 multifamily units worth over $90M.
John realized, after the company he was working for filed for bankruptcy, that the only one he could rely on to provide financial security was himself.
Be sure to check out the upcoming Midwest Real Estate Networking Summit, July 25-26th, co-created by John himself!
What You’ll Learn In Today’s Episode:
- John worked for one of the largest companies in the world and believed he had found financial security, until they filed for bankruptcy in 2008. John realized that the only one he could rely on to provide financial security was himself. Severing the ties with corporate America was scary, but John one of many who have proven that you can make it work.
- Scaling your investing and turn it into a business requires working with others. Whether it’s partnering, finding teammates, hiring employees, or using 3rd party vendors, your investment business requires the skill of collaborating with, and managing, others.
- When you invest in a multifamily property, you’re buying a business. You need to learn how to read a profit & loss statement, understand cash flow, and manage expenses. And it’s worth pointing out that, in my 20 years of investing I’ve learned broker setups usually are conveniently missing expense items. So don’t accept them as fact. Do your own financial due diligence.
- Always be looking for opportunities. Be diligent, patient, and picky, but keep your eyes open in any market, because opportunities are always out there. Because there are a number of ‘mom and pop’ sellers, this can lead to operational opportunities to increase the value.
Ideas Worth Sharing:
“ I went through and evaluated all 77 Chicago neighborhoods, and there was only one neighborhood, out of 77, that did not lose any value from 2008 to 2011. I saw that stat and said, ‘I don’t need to know anything else.’” – John Casmon
“If you really want to scale, really want to make this a business, you have to work with other people.” – John Casmon
“There’s different things you can do to drive value other than increasing rents.” – John Casmon
Resources In Today’s Episode:
Books Mentioned In Today’s Podcast
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
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Mark: Today’s guest is a former Marketing Exec who created campaigns for Fortune 500 companies like General Motors and Cores before turning to multifamily investing. He’s now the founder of Casmon Capital, the host of Target Market Insights and has partnered with investors on over 900 multifamily units worth nearly $90 million. I’d like to welcome John Casmon.
John: Thank you, Mark. Thank you for having me on the show today.
Mark: Thanks. Thanks for joining me. I’m excited to hear your story. So, you started out in marketing? Working for, I think you were saying General Motors.
John: Yes. So, I’d start off in marketing out of school. I worked at an agency and ended up getting a job at General Motors, which, it was a big job in a big company obviously to work at, especially in marketing huge budgets. So, I got a chance to do a lot of fun things. I was on a video shoot with 50 Cent and going to Maxim Hot 100 parties and NCAA championships and all sorts of things.
So, it was really a great time to be there and build my career and work on fun projects. And as I was building and developing the market started to shift. So, this was back in 2007, 2008. And I remember I got a phone call from an executive in finance, and I didn’t even know who this person was. And they just called and said, “Hey, where are you at with this particular contract?” And I’m like, “Hey, we haven’t signed it yet. We’re going to sign it towards the end of the week, but everything was good.” And he’s like, “No, it’s not, don’t sign it.” I said, “I’m sorry. Excuse me. We made decisions based off of this contract. And they’ve already started honoring things.” And he’s like, “Don’t care, don’t sign a contract click.” And that was in May of 2008. And I said to myself, that was weird.
Fast forward, maybe two months. It becomes clear that from an industry standpoint and a GM standpoint, we’re having some financial issues fast forward, a little bit further. And it starts to become clear that this is kind of a US economic issue that is taking place. And if you remember at that time, the three CEOs of the big three automotive companies, they all went to Washington in the private jets, and it was this whole ordeal.
Mark: Bail out.
John: And it just became a catastrophe. So, every day through the election, through the new year, until there was a decision made for General Motors to enter into an organized bankruptcy, it was a dreadful day in the office. You didn’t know what was going to happen. And I felt that it was just made so much worse because it was on a national stage. I was watching my bosses’ boss on CNN. Once we did enter into that structure, bankruptcy, we had some layoffs and some other things like that. It became clear to me that I could not depend solely on my corporate career, no matter how good the world thought I was or how well I was doing it. I really felt like I needed another source of income that I could have more control over as opposed to just working a W2 job. And there were way more reasons than that. It was just a whole lot of stuff. And I just felt like it was unnecessary stress every day, every day.
Mark: I can imagine.
John: So, I started to turn my attention to real estate after that.
Mark: And you, weren’t just working for a company, you were working for a giant in corporate America, and you must have discovered that you couldn’t depend on them to steer you through your financial life.
John: Absolutely. Listen, if I was working for a small firm, I could chop that up to, Hey, well, small companies go through this when you’re working for one of the largest, most recognized companies in the world, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Ultimately, I think the biggest thing is we have more control over our life and our future than we want to admit sometimes. And I’ll even say, even during that time, looking back, I wish I wasn’t so fearful because reality is that the stress, it was self-induced don’t get me wrong. It was the messages all around me.
I think all of my colleagues were going through the same thing, but the reality is that I couldn’t control any of that. I can only show up, do a great job, add value every day, make smart decisions, make my team look good. That’s all I could really control. I couldn’t control whether or not I was going to have a job or whether or not we went into bankruptcy or any of that stuff. I had no control over that. So, putting that pressure on myself just made my days miserable for no reason I couldn’t control those things.
Mark: So, it seems like insecurity pushed you into looking elsewhere and in a good way, starting to take accountability for your own financial future.
John: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Mark: And how did you transition from that into real estate and multifamily?
John: I took a half of a step back. So, I looked at my corporate career and I said, I need to do two things. One, I need to diversify my resume because up to that point, pretty much everything on my resume was automotive. The second thing is I knew I needed to start investing in passive income. So, I did two things. One I moved to Chicago, which I guess is the biggest thing.
Mark: Were you in Detroit?
John: I was in Detroit. I was in Detroit working at headquarters. Absolutely. I was in Detroit, working at headquarters. I was a part of the last Pontiac team. So, any of you who remember the Pontiac brand, I was doing advertising for the Pontiac team. The GA was the last vehicle we launched. Well, technically the G3, but I’m going to forget that vehicle ever existed. The GA was the last real vehicle we launched and I was a part of that team and I closed it and then I moved to Buick and then we got Buick to be one of the fastest growing brands in America and had a great resurgence, but that moved to Chicago.
I decided it was time to transition. I got married and I went to a smaller advertising agency that was more entrepreneurial. And at the same time, I started to really learn more about real estate. About a year later, I bought a duplex. I lived in one unit, rented out the other unit and then continued to build my real estate portfolio over the next four or five years.
Mark: Nice. How did that go? How did you find your first duplex?
John: That property was, this was back in 2011 or maybe early 2012. And it went great because what happened was at the end of 2011, we were still in a down economy. It was starting to slowly pick up, but it hadn’t really taken off yet. So, I made a list of like top 10 potential properties. And what happened was in Mid-February, a lot of the properties on that top 10 list started to disappear. Up to that point there was no traction. So, in a matter of like maybe two weeks, only three of those properties were still there.
Mark: Nice. And that was in Chicago?
John: In Chicago.
Mark: So, you stayed local and obviously you get the benefit of being able to go scout out each property and probably knowing something about the neighborhood as well.
John: Absolutely. And the thing that really made it unique for us, and this is a really great insight that I can share is I actually spent a lot of time educating myself before really diving into this from reading books and going to REIA meetings and talking to other investors. I really got a sense of what to look for. And the biggest thing was really focusing in on the market. So, I actually went through and evaluated all 77 Chicago neighborhoods. And there was only one neighbourhood out of 77 neighborhoods. There was only one that did not lose any value from 2008 to 2011. And that neighborhood was North Center.
I saw that stat and said, I don’t need to know anything else. We’re going to buy North Center. That’s my only criteria we’re going to buy North Center, because if this didn’t lose any value from this time we just went through, I’m pretty confident it’s going to be okay for the near future. And that’s what I did. So, I looked at properties in North Center. So, my list was all properties in North Center. And we’re looking for two to four units. We ended up buying this two-unit building and it worked out phenomenal for us. I’m selling it right now. Finally, I’m selling it right now. We’re going to make a nice profit, but we’re finally putting it on the market to sell after seven or eight years ownership.
Mark: Nice, nice. That’s really smart to break down all the sub markets and analyze all of them. I do that in my investing as well. As you want to drill down you want to be in the best pocket. Looking back why do you think that one neighborhood weathered the 2008 downturn so well, was its population growth or were there other factors contributing to that?
John: Yes. So, there are a few factors, but the biggest thing is desirability. And with Chicago, with the big city, you’re going to have your pockets, your neighborhoods that see speculation. The areas where people get highlight, you probably have heard of Lincoln Park?
John: They’re neighborhoods like that they’re very popular that people are going to speculate. You’re going to overpay for a condo today because you expect prices to go up tomorrow. I shouldn’t say overpaid, but you’re willing to pay a little bit more today because you expect it to go up tomorrow.
North Center had a few things going, but it was really under the radar. First and foremost, it had one of the top elementary schools in the entire city of Chicago, public elementary schools. What I mean is just by living in that area, your kid goes to that school. So that was one of the great things.
The second thing is these houses. So, it actually had like single family houses, but there really weren’t very many apartment buildings. So, the density was not as tight as some of these other areas where you had a lot of apartments, you had a lot of condos, you had a lot of different buildings. The third thing was transportation. So, the Brown Lines right there, right next to Trader Joe’s and you can get to the freeway fairly quickly, but it’s more of a suburb within a community, more than anything else.
Most people didn’t know it. What was really happening was folks who lived in Lincoln Park, who came to Chicago, in their twenties, lived there, started to have families. Well, when you have a family, what do you do? You want to start figuring out what school system you can send your kids to. And they didn’t want to move all the way out to the suburbs. They wanted to stay in the city. And North Center was really the best neighborhood to deliver the city aspect of it while still providing a great school district for your kids, but giving you access to get downtown and other things like that quickly.
So, it had all of those things and people just didn’t know about North Center. It just wasn’t a neighborhood that people talked about. It wasn’t anything that you ever heard anything about. It’s a quiet neighborhood. Some of the people who have been there have been there for decades, but it got hot really quick. As the Lincoln Park, people got a little older and were looking for places with good schools. They discover North Center shortly thereafter and that neighborhood just took off.
Mark: Those are great points, obviously. Number one off the radar, everybody knows about the great pocket. So, the great neighborhoods that are very hot, but like you mentioned, people are speculating there. You can’t find any deals, but the real art of finding a great market is to find that what is the great markets that are completely off everyone’s radar? And I think a fundamental that you pointed out schools, transportation, core location in a busy city where traffic is an issue. People don’t want to sit in their car for an hour.
John: Yes. The biggest thing you can do is find the path of progress. So, if you can identify a hot neighborhood or a hot location and look just outside of that, because that’s already been discovered. So, look outside of that hot location and look for those same characteristics like you said.
Mark: Exactly. You got to find the market that nobody’s talking about that just has those fundamentals. And like you said, it’s often on the periphery of other much more well-known great neighborhoods. And you’re just going to get the spill over. The people that are trying to move there are not going to want to pay those prices. And then they’re going to start filling up those neighboring pockets. So, how did you grow from there? That sounds like you got off on a good foot and started at a great time.
Coming out of a recession there’s no better time to start being a real estate investor. You probably have some perspective on this for the last two years, there’s a wave of new real estate investors jumping in. And part of me was cringing that, we were due for some kind of softening or economic downturn and much better to start and build your portfolio coming out of a recession than going into one.
John: Absolutely. When we were looking, you could not have messed up if you bought in 2012, as long as you held on to the asset and you made sure that there was enough income to pay the bills. And there weren’t some catastrophe of roofs that need to be replaced or some major expense that just sucks you dry. It was really hard to mess up. That list of 10 properties. If I would have bought any one of those 10, I would’ve been fine. I would’ve made money and I would’ve made good money.
So, it wasn’t that it took a prolific investor to be able to identify why that property was better than this property. Timing is a big piece of it. And I would say that most of us also don’t have a crystal ball to be able to project when the timing is going to shift. So, you can do one of two things. You can try to time the market and only invest when the market’s down or you feel like you’re getting great value, or you can invest with a consistent philosophy to say, Hey, whether it’s every six months, every year, every two years, whatever you’re going to just keep investing. You’re going to buy based on what you can get at that time. And you’ll sell when it’s advantageous for you to sell.
And I think that strategy is probably more important for people. It’s one of those things that just come over from the stock market world as well, because it’s just hard to time it. I would just say focus on a strategy that is always looking for opportunities versus trying to wait to come out of recession, hope to get things on sale. We don’t know when that’s going to happen. If you can afford to wait by all means wait. But if you’re like most people and you need to find ways to keep your money working for you, you may want to just keep your eyes open and keep looking for those investment opportunities.
Mark: Nobody has a crystal ball, but all the printing of money that has been happening as part of this stimulus is yeah. Your dollars that you already have are likely becoming less valuable and hard assets like real estate is a good place to preserve the value of those dollars.
John: You want something that’s going to rise. You want something that’s going to rise with inflation. And if it’s just sitting in the US dollar in your bank account, you’re not going to see that. So, you definitely want to have it in hard assets at that time.
Mark: Now, if you’re enjoying the show, please do us an easy favor and hit the subscribe button. And if you like the show, please give us a five-star review. As a listener I always wondered why podcast hosts are always begging me to subscribe and rate them. Well, now that I’m on the other side, I see why it allows other listeners to find you.
So here I go. If you like the show, please subscribe and give us a five-star review. I like doing it. And more importantly, in an era of unprecedented hype over real estate investing, my goal is to be a truth teller. Real estate is not as easy as it’s made out to be, but you can do it. If you can get past the hype and get to the truth. My aim is for this show to help with that. Anyway, let’s get back to the show.
Mark: How did you grow from there those first few properties? You were in Chicago it sounds like. What happened next? How did you expand?
John: So, I bought an eight unit building next and that property was very intentional. I wanted a commercial building and I wanted to hire a property management company mainly to build that experience. I knew I wanted to start working with investors. I had talked to a lot of other people and the thing that I heard loud and clear was if you really want to scale, if you really want to make this a business, you’re going to need to work with other people. So up to that point, I’d only use my own money, my own capital to invest in. I was working the day job, saving money on the side and investing kind of managing this portfolio on the side. Very similar to your story Mark.
I did that for five or six years or so. And as we got into that eight unit, that was the pivot point to say, okay, I have this commercial property now I’ve hired a property management company. So, I was learning what it took to manage a property manager versus me just being able to shoot over to the property and handle something or whatever. And that was the learning curve.
It just took a little bit of an adjustment to see how a commercial property works a little bit different than a two unit or three-unit property. And then from there, as we got comfortable with all of those things, I was ready to start scaling and working with investors and actually had a hard time finding a deal that made sense. But as I was networking and talking to other people, met a friend who they were kind of going through the same thing and you fast forward, about six months, six or seven months, they actually got a deal and a contract.
So, they called and said, “Hey, look, we could use a little bit of help from a marketing standpoint, we could use a little bit of help with investor relations. We could use a little bit of help with some of the asset management things. Would you be interested in coming on board?” So, we ended up looking at the deal. I analyzed it, reviewed their business plan, took a look at the market research they conducted. Did my own market research and ended up coming on board as a general partner.
And that’s something that we’ve done for a few deals. And then we still do our own deals as well. But we now have two verticals to our business. One is we partner with a handful of operators that we’ve had a chance to really get to know and learn more about where they underwrite and figure out what value we can add to them in the deal. And then we also do our own deals, which are primarily in the Cincinnati market, Cincinnati, Midwest, Kentucky, Indiana. We looked in more of this region of the country where we can really operate those deals ourselves.
Mark: Sure. That sounds great. So, you had been trying to get into a larger deal and you had networked and met with a syndicator. Were they inexperienced syndicator at that point?
John: They were more experienced than me. So, they were newer in a sense that they had been general partners on multiple deals, but this would be their first time leading a syndication. They had built their own portfolio. They’ve been general partners on larger deals, but this was their first time as the lead operator.
Mark: Cool. How did you meet them?
John: At a conference. I went to a conference out in Denver and my wife actually met them, met one of the guys and we went to dinner with them and hit it off and learned about what he was doing and where he was that with his portfolio up to that point. And we just had a good connection and I think that’s really important to make sure you have a good connection with people you’re doing business with.
And from there we just learned about loss fees, the way they underwrite deals, the way they think about opportunities, the way they protect investors capital and getting to know them over the course of three to six months. I made the decision to say, Hey, look, if they find something that makes sense, I would, I would definitely be interested in working together.
Mark: Are you still partnered with them?
John: Yes. We still partnered them. So, we’ve partnered with them on three properties and we have a couple of other partners on different properties. So, we’re open. We try not to spread ourselves too thin. We really want to partner. So, we’re going to partner with someone who want to partner. We want to be in on it. We want to understand the mechanics of the deals we want to understand all the decisions from an asset management perspective. So, we are very select on the kind of deals we do when it comes to that.
Mark: Nice aside from price, what does a good deal look like to you?
John: Good question. The first thing I’m looking at is risk mitigation. So, a little bit different from when we had our own portfolio. When I have investors involved, the main thing I want to do is protect their investment. So, I start by saying, how can an investor lose their money. And I look at a deal and try to identify the ways they could lose their money in that deal.
And then I have to say, okay, is this realistic? Is this something that is likely to happen, unlikely to happen, but possible, there’s a high chance, go through those things. So, if there’s something that I feel is likely to happen and they can lose all their money on it, I’m not going to do the deal. So, part of what that means is I do value-add deals, castling, multifamily, where day one the property itself is generating positive cash flow.
And we’re really treating this more like a venture capitalist where we’re going to come in and we’re going to help to put people in place that can really optimize revenue and decrease expenses if necessary or if plausible. But we’re ultimately trying to drive profit. We also want to be able to manage the time-frame of that because if we put in $50,000, we expect a certain return on that $50,000.
So, we’re not going to put in all the money at one time and then find out, Oh, it didn’t generate the return we were expecting. We’re going to do a few units. We’re going to see if we’re able to get the rents we are projecting. If we are, I do a handful more. We’ll do a handful more; we do a handful more. So, we’ll have a schedule where we can keep monitoring the effectiveness of our business plan. And if for whatever reason, the market tells us, Hey, you’ve hit a wall or it’s not going to work then we need to pivot
Mark: Using that venture capital analogy. It’s a good analogy. And there’s so much opportunity for that model in real estate, specifically multifamily real estate because you have mom and pop owners that their management is either a mess or they’re neglecting a lot of things or else they’re just sub-optimal. And if you’re a skilled operator, you could come in and there’s value to be gained.
John: Absolutely. You have to keep in mind that you are buying a business. And this is something that we work with clients to help them get into multifamily. And it’s one of the things we always preach is you are buying a business. I know that you think you’re buying a building, you’re not buying a building, you’re buying a business. So, you have to look at the numbers.
You have to understand where the opportunities are and you have to develop a business plan that you can implement that can really extract the value out of that property. Because commercial real estate, unlike residential, unlike one to four units, commercial multifamily is valued based off of the income it produces. So every dollar you make, every dollar you get in your cash flow, not only does it add to your bottom line today in the form of cash flow, but it also adds to the overall valuation of the property when you factor in the NOI and the Cap rate and what the property is going to be deemed out on the open market.
So, it’s really important to look at the property and figure out ways to increase income, lower expenses and find ways to truly add value and it doesn’t just have to be from interior renovations. I think people always go to, Oh, we’re going to fix up the kitchen and charge another 150 bucks. Certainly, that’s one way. And that’s a big way of doing it. But look at other things, are there amenities that you can add?
Are there other income producing elements that you could add? Can you rent washer and dryers, for instance, can you charge for pet fees? Can you charge back for utilities? Can you put in vending machines, can you put in cable contracts, internet contracts? So, there’s different things that you can do besides just increasing rent to get more value.
Mark: I agree. And the longer that I’ve done it, I’ve learned that although driving income is sexier, reducing expenses is really a great place to drill down because the truth is, is if you raise the income, that’s going to get taxed. And you’re only going to see a piece of that added value, but every dollar you save in expenses, you get a hundred percent of that. And the other thing I wanted to say is going back to that venture capital model.
In your comment that you’re buying a business. Multifamily properties are a business. And the huge opportunity in multifamily investing for both passive investors and syndicators is that if you’re in the business world, in the corporate world, and you’re a venture capitalist, you’re buying businesses run by business people. But in multifamily, you could be buying a business from a dentist or an old couple that doesn’t know what they’re doing so often there’s huge opportunities for optimizing properties in multifamily.
John: You’re spot on. And I’ll also flip that the other way too, because I know there are listeners who are really excited about getting into multifamily, but they are that dentist and they are that mom and pop themselves and they want it to get in. And I’ll say that is not to say that you shouldn’t be investing. What it is first of all, multifamily has a ton of value for investors.
What I would say is consider how you invest, make sure you have the time to educate yourself, to surround yourself with the right team, to really go in. If you’re going to be active, if you don’t have the time to put the right people around you, or you don’t know if you have the right team consider being a passive investor, consider joining someone else’s group and investing passively in the deal, because that will at least allow you to gain more experience, to ask more questions, to learn while you earn.
And that is really powerful. And people shouldn’t shy away from that. If you’re going to invest in multifamily, you want to be credible. You want to be confident. And that confidence can come from investing passively in deals, as opposed to feeling like you have to be the lead. If you have no experience, why are you trying to go out and buy your own property and be the lead? You may want to either gain some experience on smaller properties or get passive on a couple other deals. So, you can just gain some experiences, some knowledge. So, you really hit the ground running,
Mark: Right. And if you’re in a career that you like, it’s not always ideal for everybody to take on hands on ownership of multifamily properties. Because they are a lot of work. I like that pivot. And on that as a syndicator, what advice could you give to passive investors on how they should vet deal sponsors?
John: That’s a great question. I actually wrote an article about how to vet multifamily syndications. And the first section is all about vetting the sponsor. There are a couple of things. I think first and foremost, you have to get to know someone and understand who they are as a person. What I mean by that and the reason that’s important is everybody’s good when things are great, things are great. You’re getting your money. That’s fun.
What you really want to understand is how will someone operate during challenging times? Is this someone that’s going to be responsive? Are they going to disappear? Are they going to communicate with you so I would understand communication style, but then also try to dig deep and understand how they performed when things get rough. Do they blame other people? Do they take accountability? Understand that one question specifically that I like to ask is tell them about a deal that didn’t pan out or didn’t work the way they thought it was going to work and what happened and just listen.
And I don’t care what the deal was or what happened. That’s not relevant. What you’re listening for. Two things you want to know, does this person take accountability for their role? And did they learn from it or do they just blame someone else? That’s what I’m listening for is, hey, this happened. Here’s what we learned from it. Here’s the adjustment we made. That’s what you hope to hear. Now I would listen to see what they actually say and go from there, but that’s a powerful way I think to learn. And that to me is not just about the deal that gives you a sense of who this person is and how they think.
Mark: They’re a character.
John: Right. It’s a character thing.
Mark: That’s great. Obviously getting to know your sponsor is huge and a good sponsor can turn a bad deal into a winner and a bad sponsor can take a great deal and screw it up somehow. And there’s no degree, no license, no designation you need to be a syndicator. So, when you’re going out there, there is a wide range of skill and experience levels of people running these things. So, I think those are all great points to keep in mind. So, a little thing I call multifamily psychotherapy. What’s a trait you possess that has served you best both in real estate and in life?
John: Wow. That’s a great question. It’s interesting. I have a really good ability to work well with others, even difficult people. And that has served me well, both in my personal life and in business.
Mark: That’s a great answer. Is there a trait that holds you back that you feel like you need to work on?
John: Yes. I think a lot of times our strengths are our greatest weaknesses too. So, in that same realm, I like to get information before we make a decision. So, I think sometimes in the gathering of information, I don’t move as quickly as I should move. Or sometimes we miss opportunities because we’re not moving as quickly. So that’s something we’re trying to do a better job of.
Mark: Sure. Nice. How important is mindset to your success?
John: It’s critical. Going back to even that question about the syndicator, a lot of what we’re talking about there is mindset because someone with a growth mindset, they will figure out a way to solve any issues. And that’s ultimately what you’re trying to do. If you’ve got a problem, I want somebody who can solve it. You don’t have to know the answer today because if you knew the answer today, you probably wouldn’t have the problem because you would have solved it already.
So, you have to have a mindset to go out there and recognize that you can overcome any challenges that you face, otherwise you’d never move forward. You just stay where you’re at and you don’t make much progress. So, mindset is key, especially when it comes to multifamily and dealing with challenges that you can’t see around the corner.
Mark: Nice. Nice. And now our question round.
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