Brian Bickell - Chief Executive, Shaftesbury PLC

Posted on 10 September 2020

“We’ve got to make sure we present ourselves as an open industry because I think that’s not how people perceive us still, I think we’re a bit of a mystery to a lot of people and what they do know about us they probably don’t see the best of us really.  We’re not seen as the people who deliver the built environment that everybody lives in.”

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to our PropertyShe podcast series brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum where I get to interview some of the key influencers in the wonderful world of real estate and the built environment.  We are still recording the podcast digitally so the sound quality may not be up to our usual studio standard. 

Today I am really excited to welcome Brian Bickell, CEO of London property company, Shaftesbury PLC.  Brian qualified as a chartered accountant in 1976, he joined Shaftesbury when it was formed in 1986 and was Finance Director from its float on the London Stock Exchange in 1987 until he became Chief Executive in 2011. 

Starting with £10 million of private capital in 1986, Shaftesbury has assembled a portfolio of 15 acres of freehold property in the West End comprising around 600 buildings.  Its ownership includes 600 shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs across 1.1 million square foot in Carnaby and West Soho, China Town, Seven Dials and Fitzrovia.  Brian is a member of the board of Freehold, the London based LGBT real estate professionals’ group.  He is also Deputy Vice-Chair for Westminster Property Association and chairs its Transport and Infrastructure Sub-Committee.  He has recently become a trustee of Beyond Westminster Foundation. 

So, now we are going to hear from Brian Bickell and how he went from being an accountant to running Shaftesbury PLC, landlord of one of the most vibrant areas of London.  Brian, welcome to the digital studio. 

Brian Bickell

Thank you for inviting me. 

Susan Freeman

It’s a pleasure.  You’ve been with Shaftesbury for a few years now. 

Brian Bickell

That’s very kind of you not to say thirty four. 

Susan Freeman

As I said, a few years.  You qualified as an accountant, joined the company when it was launched in 1986 and I wonder why you chose to go to a property company which, at the time, I think just had one asset in China Town?

Brian Bickell

Well, my career in real estate actually pre-dated Shaftesbury.  I left the accountancy profession at the end of 1982 and I made one truly disastrous career move which was to go and work for… well, most people might remember the name, GEC Marconi out in Chelmsford, I left the West End to go and work in Chelmsford, believe it or not, and it was when I got there, it was a bit of a non-job, I knew it was a complete and utter mistake so within a week I had started looking for another job and I landed a job with a property company in the West End called Stock Conversion which was one of the old sort of post-war development companies, I think at the time it was the fourth largest listed company, it had a very illustrious history but perhaps not such a great future and so I was there for three years as the Group Accountant and then in 1986 we got taken over by P&O who had a big property arm in Town & City Properties and out of that came Shaftesbury so, Peter Levy of family set-up D&J Levy Estate Agents - they are one of the original founders of Stock Conversion, they walked away with some, I think, £40 million after the takeover - decided to put £10 million into starting up Shaftesbury as what was just going to be a family property investment vehicle and they asked me to go along and be the book keeper and the company secretary and I thought well this is going to be really boring, I shall be bored after six months and I’ll go and for another job.  Well, that was thirty four years ago and £10 million has grown and, you know, we have quite a substantial portfolio comfortably in excess of £3.5 billion now so, that’s been my journey. 

Susan Freeman

It certainly has grown and I believe you were Finance Director at the time of Shaftesbury’s float in 1987 which was a pretty eventful time because it coincided with Black Monday. 

Brian Bickell

Oh yes.  Yes. 

Susan Freeman

And the biggest, I think the biggest one day share fall in history.  So that, I mean that must have been a difficult time but…

Brian Bickell

Well it was a sort of whirlwind really, we floated, we were the last company to float on the Stock Exchange before October 1987 and we floated at £1.80 and I think within a month we saw the share price go down to £0.80, it wasn’t the best of starts really, I mean we only raised a tiny amount of money but you could get onto the Exchange easier in those days so, yes, it was a pretty traumatic time but life settled down after that until we got to the recession of the sort of, well, 1989 through to 1993 which was for real estate, pretty grim, there probably aren’t many of us around to remember how grim it was but it was a collapse in occupier markets but, you know, we were contending with interest rates in double digits, it’s hard to imagine now.  Interest rates of 12, 13, 14%, it was incredible how we ever survived. 

Susan Freeman

I think people forget that Carnaby Street, the hub of your empire, wasn’t always the fashion and rock and roll centre it is now, it took a lot of work.  So, you became Chief Executive of Shaftesbury in 2011, what was the Shaftesbury culture then and how have you changed it?

Brian Bickell

Well I suppose because we came of out of… a number of us had worked at Stock Conversion, our predecessor company, for some time and that was quite a… Stock Conversion was quite a paternalistic company and they were… sort of looked after their staff very well and people had been there a long time, I think we brought some of that culture with us which has been a good thing but we’ve got bigger, life’s got more complicated and I think when I took over as CEO, we had nineteen staff, we are now up to, I think, around thirty five, I almost lose track now, but it’s because the scale of the business has grown but I think the complexity of business has changed out of all recognition over that time, and I am not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just reality really and the skill sets you need to run a property company now are very different from when I started back in 1983 at Stock Conversion, was, you know, a few surveyors and a couple of accounts and the accountants were there generally under sufferance, I mean, the surveyors never wanted anything to do with the accountants so it was very much a surveyor dominated business game, if you like but actually now the skill sets we all need and the things we all have to embrace and understand which weren’t on the radar even in in 2011, things like sustainability, data, technology, all those things that are impacting real estate, are different skill sets and you need specialists for all of those fields to make even a company like Shaftesbury work and we are a relatively simple business. 

Susan Freeman

And it continues to change, doesn’t it with the pandemic and the issues that we are having to deal with.  So, you now have, I think, just upwards of 600 shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs across over a million square foot so that’s in Carnaby, West Soho, China Town, Seven Dials, Fitzrovia. 

Brian Bickell

The list goes on, yes. 

Susan Freeman

And the list goes on but it’s very, you know, it’s very focussed and, you know, there’s a clear, clear theme and, I mean, your areas seem to have been leading the way on the outside dining initiatives over the last few months to actually try and, you know, bring back that vibrancy that your areas depend on and you’ve obviously been working closely with Westminster and Camden Councils in order to, you know, try and create this sort of change in culture.  Has that gone well and is it something that’s going to continue after these temporary outdoor dining licences come to an end?

Brian Bickell

Well, I suppose we wait and see really, I mean, it’s been absolutely critical in this period of post the re-opening of shops and restaurants to give people the confidence to come out again and of course social distancing measures mean that space that people… we have provided to people at the moment, is quite a challenge because of keeping, you know, the sheer numbers of people who around and keeping them appropriately spaced out and socially distanced.  I shouldn’t say spaced out in Soho, people will get the wrong idea.  But it’s coping with all those sort of things and having that extra space outside premises has made a big difference and it actually has created a really nice sort of continental atmosphere really while the weather has been good but of course for these businesses, the shops and restaurants and bars, you know they are here because they, you know, it was pretty much guaranteed seven days a week footfall, that’s the West End, it’s busy all the time unlike perhaps a shopping centre that might see, you know, a lot of footfall at weekends and quieter otherwise, it’s that whole mix of workers and business and that make the economy work.  Though it’s giving them a chance to get up and running now but it’s, you know, now that summer’s sort of petering out, we need to think long and hard about, this is what everybody is thinking about, how we can get footfall back to the West End and give people the confidence to come here and so I think, you know, these measures do play an important part, they’ve been very important during the summer and I think even though the weather probably won’t be so good during the winter, it’s having that activity and buzz and sense of people around that makes people feel comfortable.  I was walking – I live up in Marylebone – walking round the West End in the sort of peak of lockdown when there was nobody around, it was positively scary and threatening, you were just alone on the street and you do forget that we do take, you know, normal times, we are actually, you are much more comfortable with more people around us, or activities, so we need to bring that sense that if it’s properly managed then it’s alright for people to come back and it’s okay for people to come to work and as well as having a, you know, nice day out in the West End. 

Susan Freeman

And footfall is back up to 50%?

Brian Bickell

Well, it’s getting there on some days.  You know, we are in the high forties now, I mean, we started at the sort of high twenties when measures began to be released so, more and more people are coming back and the office population is important to the West End, we have never underestimated its importance, and I think now we are going to see a gradual return to offices but, you know, whether people work five days a week, well they probably weren’t doing it before so much in offices, we were learning to be more flexible, I think what’s happened over the last five months is that we’ve realised with technology, you know, we can do a lot from home but it’s not the same as being in the office and I don’t think… and particularly for the West End which, has, you know is generally the sort of creative businesses, it’s not financial and professional services, it’s a very creative community.  You know, creativity needs people to be together all the time, there’s a glomeration and creativity that springs from it, it’s what the West End has been founded on so it’s sort of working together and socialising, all those sort of things, it’s an intangible benefit for being here but that’s why all those businesses are here. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, and I imagine that the creative businesses will be the first to really be working together more often because they need to in order to generate new ideas…

Brian Bickell

And it generally tends to be a younger working population who, from my observation, are the people who are back in the West End now, I think perhaps it’s us oldies, or oldies of the older generation who are slightly more reluctant to come in on public transport and don’t feel the need to come in, young people just get on with their lives which is quite understandable and, you know, they’re the driver of the footfall at the moment but we need to get more balanced footfall back across the West End. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah, and actually, I mean I often walk up and down Carnaby Street and I know the type of occupiers you have there are not the normal large retail chains, I mean, they are sort of more independent, interesting, colourful and what are you saying to them?  You know, at the moment, what are you doing in terms of rent?  What can you offer them to actually help get back on their feet again?

Brian Bickell

Well, essentially we’ve always… our mantra has always been that, for us, well for our area, is people come into the West End to find something a bit different, you know, if you wanted some formulaic retail offer or food offer, they are everywhere these days, it’s not a reason to get on the train or get on the tube to come to the West End so, we’ve carefully chosen tenants, you know occupiers, who meet that sort of criteria, doing something a little bit different, we’ve never been covenant obsessed like a lot of property companies are, or have to be really, for us it was always location was everything and is creating the buzz and excitement draws people, it feeds off itself in a time when people are looking for something a bit different, I think younger people have sort of got tired of more predictable and formulaic stuff, well F&B is probably a bigger part of our business, well it is a bigger part of our business than retail but that’s just looking at the way, you know, people want to use the West End and where they are spending their money but of course the sudden turn off of the tap of footfall has been very dramatic for those businesses so we genuinely want them all to survive, or as many as possible, to survive this so we’ve said from the outside we must give them the confidence to see this through and then get back on their feet again so we’ve, there’s been quite a task from the team, we are now 600 shops and another 200 odd smaller office tenants, it’s talking to them all individually to see what we can do to help them and there’s an element of sort of waiving rent, deferring rent, drawing on rent deposits, extending leases so if people aren’t going to come back well, you know, Shaftesbury are going to support me for some time yet and we do think that whilst, you know, footfall is starting to come back now, the period up to Christmas is going to be really important but also January, February, March of the New Year are always traditionally quite challenging months where all businesses are relying on the footfall because the weather can be bad, the mood’s never really good at the best of times so, there’s a period of sort of longer support here I think that we’ve always accepted and that our tenants need to know that we are here to do the right thing and we’re not just looking at this as a sort of three month issue and it will all be fine by Christmas sort of approach.  You know, and it’s got to be longer support. 

Susan Freeman

There is, you know, there’s question of business rates so the business rates holiday I think ends in April and the Government has said that it’s delaying the business rates review so I presume you are lobbying, you know, the Government to try to help your tenants?

Brian Bickell

Yes.  I think, yes, and we are not alone in that, it’s great to see the bids lobbying Westminster City Council, have written to the Chancellor to say that it’s a particular problem for the West End because the business rates have always been really quite high here compared to anywhere else which was fine when everybody was… well not fine but you know, it was manageable when the footfall was here, we are nowhere near the levels of footfall that could sustain that sort of level of business rates.  But this whole issue of business rates reform, I mean, crikey, it’s been going on for years and years and we don’t, you know, I am personally not very optimistic that they will come up with any radical reform, I don’t see any ideas being kicked around or encouraging any discussion and debate about what could replace the business rate but in the meantime, you know, it just needs another sticking plaster to get us through this particular period and if we are going to get back to the level of business rates before, it cannot happen overnight, it’s got to be a phased recovery to match the return of footfall to the West End. 

Susan Freeman

I did see somewhere a report that the Treasury was considering plans to eradicate business rates and replace them with a capital values tax which basically will pass it, pass the tax obligation to the landlord but I haven’t seen any more about that so…

Brian Bickell

No, it’s… they couldn’t come up with many examples of where it’s done in any other country, frankly.  Well, nothing that was comparable to the UK.  Well, I think we always have to be careful in real estate because, you know, there’s very little public sympathy for landlords and all.  The politicians come to that so the prospect of shifting it onto the unpopular landlords is always a risk for us, I think, but it’s not the answer to the problem by any means and the Government needs a prosperous real estate sector because they are looking to us to build the future for the country, you know, the Government are not going to provide housing and all the other sorts of things we need, it’s the private sector that does it so if you tax it too much, it’s just not going to happen. 

Susan Freeman

Yep, this is true.  Let’s talk about some good news because somehow we just, we get the endless bad retail news but we rarely hear about new openings and you’ve got the Rolling Stones Store opening in Carnaby Street…

Brian Bickell

We have, yes. 

Susan Freeman

…which is exciting.  How did that come about?

Brian Bickell

Well it started actually a couple of years ago and I think people know us for doing some quite unusual Christmas decorations every year so, I think one year, and I lose I track of when it was, it was the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Rolling Stones so, we collaborated with them on doing the Carnaby Christmas lights and they were quite something, I mean, there was the sort of Rolling Stones red lips and tongue – not very Christmassy at all but for some of us, it didn’t matter – but of course they used to rehearse nearby in Carnaby Street before they became famous.  People forget Carnaby’s history is as much about music as it has been about fashion and so the Stones had sort of started from here, obviously some of them ended up in the Magistrates Court on Great Marlborough Street for certain activities which were then particularly frowned upon, we don’t dwell on that, but anyway as part of doing the Christmas lights, we gave them a pop-up shop when the proceeds were going to a charity that they had set up and they did incredibly well out of the merchandising there then and I think they realised there is a market for this but they won’t have it, you know, it’s not going to be some sort of shop that’s going to rolled out everywhere, it’s specific to the location, it’s part of Carnaby’s heritage really.  You know, an awful lot of music started in the West End and started around Carnaby Street. 

Susan Freeman

Well, I look forward to that and you mentioned Christmas and I just wondered what your thoughts were on how you do strike the right tone this Christmas because we are all going to be in desperate need of as much glitz and glitter and brightness as possible.  What are you going to be doing?

Brian Bickell

It’s very difficult, I mean, we’ve just been discussing this, not just amongst ourselves but of course we work closely with the other estates and the bids about what is the right note to strike really for Christmas this year because you are absolutely right, people have always come into the West End as part of the Christmas season really.  There’s always a buzz about it, you want to feel you’ve arrived somewhere special, you know, there’s so much going on there.  It’s trying to recreate some of that but of course we still have social distancing measures in place, it’s still going to be quite challenging, you know we’re not sure whether, well we don’t know what the months ahead lie, what lies in front of us but you know there could be issues around lockdowns or rising casualty rate from the virus so, you don’t want to be seen to be too celebratory when lots of people not very far away are still suffering either economically or with health issues so, I think we’re going to probably err on the side a slightly more lower profile Christmas amongst all of us really because it would be seen to be inappropriate and of course Christmas decorations start, you know, a year ahead, so you have to plan well ahead to decide what you are doing so I think we’ll be there and we know it’s an important time of year to bring footfall back, as much as you have seen in the last couple of weeks of summer, people haven’t been able to travel abroad but, you know, the numbers of families back into the West End and just people coming for the day, you know, that’ll happen again over Christmas I am absolutely sure of it. 

Susan Freeman

Well, it will be good if we can have some Parisian style alfresco dining and maybe put up some canopies and heaters and, you know, then, you know, being outside will be, you know, will be easier for people. 

Brian Bickell

Heaters within the confines of our sustainability policy because we generally don’t encourage outdoor heating but I know what you mean, I know what it’ll mean, there are ways you can sit outside, you know, with a little bit of covering, you know, we are tough, people enjoy being outside, even if the weather isn’t perfect. 

Susan Freeman

No, this is true.  And you mentioned working with adjoining owners and you’ve recently had a change of shareholder so, Samuel Tak Lee or Hong Kong billionaire, the owner of the Langham Estate sold out after, I think, many years as a shareholder.  Does that affect the business?

Brian Bickell

Well, not really, I mean he hadn’t been on the register for that long, he started buying shares in, I think, 2014 and he was sort of trading in and out for a while but he really only started buying after the referendum in 2016 when Shaftesbury shares, like others, other listed property companies, came under a bit of pressure and were looking relatively cheap 21.47 sat longer term so, that’s really when he put his stake together and it was all within a space of eighteen months from, well whenever it was, June 2016.  It was slightly unusual situation really, I mean, Mr Lee owns… the Langham Estate is my neighbour just north of Oxford Street going up toward the Euston Road, so I think Mr Lee really understood the long-term value of freehold ownership in the West End because he’s made an awful lot of money from his purchase of the Langham which I think went bust in the early 1990’s so he picked it up for a song and so he’s done really well out of it.  But we never actually got to meet Mr Lee in all this time, he chose not to engage with us which was unfortunate because he had some issues around the equity raise we did in 2017 which I think if we’d met, we could have sorted out but he chose not to go down that route so it was bloody frustrating that he launched a legal action against the Board which we felt wasn’t necessary and could have been sorted out without it getting to that stage but it’s his decision but, yes, he sold out without any warning so can only speculate why that might have been but in all that time we carried on running the business, the Court case was taking up quite a lot of our time so often the Company Secretary and the Finance Director but it didn’t disturb the rest of the team but it was just, we felt it was unnecessary. 

Susan Freeman

It was interesting that you said he was a shareholder for, you know, a relatively short time, it seemed longer, it probably seemed longer to you as well. 

Brian Bickell

Some days it did, that’s all I can say.  But now we have another neighbour, you see, so, keep it in the West End family. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah, well, I think that’s a good way of thinking of it.  So, is there is anything more that you think the Government or the Local Authorities or the London Mayor could be doing to encourage visitors back to the West End?

Brian Bickell

Well, I think there’s the local footfall first of all and we always say that… so we’ve always sort of felt that the local footfall is the most important because in a way there are the repeat trade, you know, people working here, plus Londoners coming in for the day and people from the Home Counties have always been the sort of bedrock of the West End and, you know, it keeps the city feeling authentic as well, it’s not a sort of Disneyesque city well, you know, it’s all façade and no substance to what tourists come to see really, you know, you go to a country, you don’t need a sort of shopping centre experience when you come here, you want something that really makes you feel like you have been to merry old England and that’s what London and West End does.  So, it’s giving, I think, people confidence to return to their patterns of life that we all took for granted until five months ago, we forget, it has only been five months and, you know, sitting here, well even last Christmas, did we imagine that any of this was ahead of us or could have affected us in the way that it has?  It is unthinkable really.  So, we shouldn’t, people shouldn’t assume this is a default position for the rest of their lives, we will get through this, as much as we got through other issues in the past.  The messaging needs to be right, people and you know things have been put in place to make people feel safe and more comfortable, and it needs a campaign, we had had a very successful campaign to keep people indoors, not go out, people need to be encouraged to come back now, for lots of reasons.  The West End is like other city centres as well, it’s not just London that’s suffering, I think perhaps it’s more extreme here because we do require, rely on people coming in on public transport, it’s not really a driving destination, it’s that issue around getting on public transport, getting on the bus, reminding yourself it’s a good day out. 

Susan Freeman

The Westminster Property Association, you Chair the Transport and Infrastructure Subcommittee. 

Brian Bickell

Yes. 

Susan Freeman

Is there anything that you’re saying, you know, to the Mayor at the moment in relation to public transport, making it more attractive to, you know, to people so they’re not fearful of travelling on the tube and on the buses?

Brian Bickell

Well, I think we’ve been reminding the Mayor, along with other people, that, you know, it is the people’s perception more than the reality.  I think if you travel on public transport, it is much quieter at the moment, in fact some of it is extremely quiet, and people need to get used to coming back.  We’ve had some people in the office who haven’t been in for sort of three or four months, the regular commuters, they felt really nervous on that first out back getting on the train, it was almost created as a mental barrier and it was almost like starting a new job or, you know, something like that.  You are slightly wary because you don’t know what to expect but actually when you get on the train, it’s fine, measures are in place, I’ve been on the Tube and I’ve never seen Tube trains carriages look so clean in my whole life, I mean, some of them look as though they’ve just out of the factory, you know, they’ve got staff around as well, people generally seem to be sticking to the rule around wearing masks on public transport, I think that’s a bit like giving up smoking, we never thought people would give up smoking on the Tube but we do the right thing, I mean that will help but as I say, life is going on, we need to get our lives our back, I think everybody does and it’s getting people into that space where you think I need to do things now, I can’t shut away forever.  I mean, we do have an issue with international tourists and people coming but I think the UK people will come back as well, I am sure that hotels are starting to open and great deals, hotels will be very keen to see guests coming back so, I think that will be useful because the Brits are obviously not going to go abroad at the moment so we see more people coming back to London during August when we are normally all swanning around the Mediterranean having a jolly good time, risking skin cancer and liver damage and all the things we love doing but, as I say, I think the International city visitors, we’re probably not going to see much of them next year either and it will probably be into 2022 before we start to see that market coming back, assuming that, you know, there are no other problems.  But again, if we can get the domestic footfall back, I think we are two-thirds of the way there really, consistent footfall. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, it does seem that we could be doing more on messaging about staycations in London, I mean, if you look at what’s been going on in France, they’ve been promoting different cities and getting people to visit their cities and we could be doing the same thing. 

Brian Bickell

Yeah.  I think we’ve been slightly obsessed with going to the seaside but that’s going to peter out now judging by the drop in temperature this week, this weekend so, I think now is a good time to bring people back to the cities and actually one of the busiest times of the year has always been the autumn mid-term holiday for families, a very traditional time for families because they are not going to go away to the seaside or abroad, to do something with the family in town, come into town and wonder round, whatever. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah, well let’s hope for that.  Changing direction slightly, I wanted to talk a little bit about your role with Freehold so, you really have been leading the way on diversity as a member of the board of Freehold which is the London based LGBT real estate professionals’ body.  So, I just wondered why is it important and what have you been able to achieve since you started Freehold?

Brian Bickell

Well, I joined two co-founders, David Mann and Saleem Fazel and they asked me to join in the early days and it was about the time I became CEO so I thought well now time to put my head above the parapet and, you know, just be open about LGBT things and give other people the confidence to be themselves in the work environment.  I do remember property from the days when it was, it really was like a rugby club there, that sort of mentality and I got a sense, I mean I love this industry, I have spent a long time in it but it needs to move on a little bit with its thinking, I always found property was somewhat insular, it thinks about itself, it doesn’t think about the wider world and now we need to understand the wider world to make property work, that’s the change in my sort of working life.  Though I think having that diversity of background and thought and gender and all those sort of things is going to be really important for getting an industry from where it was, which was traditionally male dominated and very white, very straight, to something that has a much broader representation of the society that we work in and trying to serve, can only be for the good really and I would say the skill sets are way beyond, you know, way beyond us accountants and surveyors now, all the things we need to think about, I think that’s been, in a way that’s a good way because it brings people from different background into real estate but we’ve got to make sure we present ourselves as an open industry because I think that’s not how people perceive us still, I think we’re a bit of a mystery to a lot of people and what they do know about us, they probably don’t see the best of us really.  We’re not seen as the people who deliver the built environment that everybody lives in. 

Susan Freeman

No, it’s extraordinary that actually, there’s such a positive story and yet as the British Property Federation perception study showed, very few people really understand what the sector does, you mention real estate, they think estate agents. 

Brian Bickell

Yes. 

Susan Freeman

And, you know, it’s difficult and, I mean, you use the word ‘insular’ and I just always think of real estate as just being a little bit too introspective and actually do, you are right, you need people with different skill sets from completely different backgrounds to just shake things up and I think everything that’s going on at the moment must surely accelerate that shake-up. 

Brian Bickell

Yes.  So, I think it is good that now we are asking ourselves and I think from when we started, when Freehold started in 2011, nobody really wanted to know about us as a group of people.  You know, some of the big advisory firms, you know, of over a thousand, a couple of thousand staff, several, you know, we’ve got no gay people here and if we have got any gay people, they are all happy because they never complain about anything, well, that’s not quite the point really, it’s missing the point and of course the gender diversity issue has crept onto the agenda during the same time so working together, these are all strands of the same problem really and we are now realising that we don’t actually have a very multicultural industry though in terms of ethnicity, we need to be thinking about those things for the future really, nothing is going to change overnight, I have always been quite realistic about that, you’ve got to start somewhere in changing attitudes but the most important thing is, who are we bringing into this industry for the next generation?  They will make probably more difference than us because by their very fact of being there will make a difference. 

Susan Freeman

And are you seeing any signs of success? 

Brian Bickell

Yes I do think it’s changed, it’s changed over the period that we have been around and we’ve had some recognition for the things we’ve done, Real Estate Balance has a lot of traction along with the other gender groups, Women in Property, Real Estate Women and what have you, there’s much more discussion about it now and I know a lot of people are concerned in the current situation, we risk slipping backwards for a lot of property companies of the future is looking much more challenged at the moment and obviously the general economic environment isn’t great but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we must carry on this change, it’s got to be an important part of the future of this industry and, you know, we’re facing some very unusual problems now and I think than we have ever encountered before which has accelerated a lot of what was going on, then again more than ever we need that diversity of thought and, you know, coming at the problems real estate has from different angles and shaking it up a bit. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right and it’s strange, a couple of years ago, Brexit, terrorism, decline of retail were the big, you know, the big concerns and obviously we’ve had other concerns come along to pre-occupy us but are you still concerned about Brexit or has that sort of just been pushed further down the agenda?

Brian Bickell

Well, you know, I’ve never quite got over Brexit and I probably never will so I think the problems are still bubbling up there, I mean, again this is another problem we’ve got in the next couple of months, the uncertainty around Brexit which was a real problem this time last year, it’s going to come back again and it will be deal or no deal and what does no deal mean for us?  Are we particularly well prepared for it now sort of, we’ve got enough challenges with the Covid situation so I think that is going to be an issue again for the next couple of months, it is that uncertainty that we just don’t need more of that at the moment but no, so I have never quite come to terms with it and, you know, I wish we weren’t doing it but we seem to be steaming ahead so, let’s see what happens next.  We just need to remember for us in London, you know, this is a global city, the UK has always prospered by being open to the world and like our footfall in the West End, the locals are the most important, our European neighbours are absolutely critical to our future really and we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact and we don’t need to fall out with them at the moment.  We don’t need to fall out with anybody frankly, we’ve got a global challenge at the moment, we should all be working together on that. 

Susan Freeman

No.  I can see, one of the things that New West End Company are trying to promote with the Government, is the idea of tax free shopping for our European neighbours and, you know, that presumably would, anything like that would be helpful to make this more attractive as a destination than other cities. 

Brian Bickell

Well, exactly, we don’t want to feel unfriendly to anybody really, so being open has always suited us well, we shouldn’t forget we are the largest city in Western Europe and a lot of people would say we are probably still the capital city of Europe, we’ve got… sorry for any people from France listening in but, you know, we like to think it’s us, but it’s because we have had that very sort of internationalist outlook I think for a long time and what we have here now, which is changing, I was reading the other day, I can’t believe that, you know, London has become a world leading centre for the biosciences now, though we used to think well we were just the financial capital of Europe, you know, we do an awful of other things here, we take it all for granted but, you know, the future for this city that keeps inventing itself, is fantastic so let’s not put barriers in the way of people coming here and contributing to what the city has to offer the world.

Susan Freeman

Exactly.  Now, you’ve recently become a Trustee of the Young Westminster Foundation.  What does the Foundation, what does it do?

Brian Bickell

Well, we are here to support young people in Westminster and for those of us who are hanging around the West End, we forget there is more to the Borough of Westminster than the West End and there are some really quite challenged communities all around us on the edges of the Borough and, you know, for young people there born into very difficult circumstances.  The West End and it all has could be on another planet as far as they are concerned, it is not their world, they don’t have access to it and they feel it’s not for them but I think it’s important to help those kids and I think their future even before our current problems, was much more challenging for them than my generation.  So it’s actually, you know, I think we need to remember their outlook was tougher than ours to begin with.  We need to do something to help them so, Young Westminster Foundation was a number of young people’s foundations that were set up by the John Lyon’s Charity a few years ago so, it’s about, in a way we are an organisation that raises money and basically on behalf of corporates and Westminster City Council and it goes into the local community, assesses the need and effectively invests the money where it has the most return so I think a dialogue with young people about what they think they need to help their lives get better.  So, I am sort of quite passionate about it, I do think my generation had it easy really, we never had to worry about the things that people had and, you know, generally the whole economic background with people getting more and more affluent, things were getting better, I came from a council estate in Hackney, there was a route out of that, not everybody, you know, was lucky to have it or take benefit from it but it’s much harder these days, we didn’t have to pay for any University education or anything like that, it was open to everybody and I think all those pathways now, young people just see a clear way through to their future is, I say, much more challenging than it used to be so, why not help out, they are on our doorstep. 

Susan Freeman

No, and I think you are right, people forget that Westminster actually also houses some, you know, disadvantaged communities, it’s not all sort of about smart shops and restaurants.  And, while we are talking about, you know, the younger generation, if you could have given some advice to your younger self as you were embarking on your career in accountancy and then, you know, moving into property, what could have been the best advice that you could have given yourself?

Brian Bickell

Oh, now that’s a tough one really.  Looking back, I suppose I probably would have said to me personally, have a bit more confidence in yourself because I didn’t used to have a lot of confidence and my younger self would not imagine me sitting here today having this conversation, you know, standing in front of people and talking, all the things I have to do in my job so, yes, you should have a bit more confidence in yourself.  I think I was always quite observational, I worked with some very good people over the years and learned from them which is why I think it’s important to be in that office environment, to have more experienced people around you and learn from them.  It’s a bit of a trite comment but I do think you should learn something new every day, you know, you get something out of every day and every new experience gives you that confidence really in things.  Sadly, one of the few benefits of getting older is you meet, come across situations, you’ve got something to refer back to, I’ve seen this problem or a similar problem, we’ve worked it through by doing this and that and we learned not to do something else, all those things are incredibly useful so you shouldn’t ever wake up in the morning thinking you know it all, you will always learn something new and you just have to embrace that and also embracing the fact that, you know, life changes, you know, everything that was changing before all this may have accelerated a lot of change but there are ways through all these problems.  We’ll look back in a couple of years and think well that was a bit challenging but we’ve moved on and learned from it.  So be positive I think.  I mean, I have had a change of career, I look back to when I started early on and my disastrous move to GEC Marconi, I could have sat there for a couple of years, it was the sort of place you could get away with doing nothing and still, nobody would be too bothered about it but I knew it was wrong for me and I got up and did something about it so if you do make a mistake, the best thing, the hardest thing sometimes, is to fess up to yourself that you’ve made a mistake and if you do that and it becomes much easier, we always say to the people in the office, look we don’t mind if you make a mistake, the worst thing you do is not admit to it and try and cover it up, we’ll all help out if it’s something that’s gone wrong and please try and avoid make the same mistake again, that’s all we ask of people.  You do learn more from your mistakes in tough times without a doubt than you do the easier times really so I think young people will learn a lot from this, it’s unfortunately, you know, it’s going to be a hard learning experience for a lot of people, I think.

Susan Freeman

Yeah, I think you are right, I think there’s an awful lot of learning that’s going to take place over the next period. 

Brian Bickell

Perhaps not taking things for granted in the way we did as well, it’s when things are going well and I think the tendency in property when things are going well, we forget about the bad times but I remember lots of cyclical downturns here but we soon forget about that image, probably human nature, you don’t want to dwell on it, you just want to move on but when we’ve learned a lot in our thirty odd years at Shaftesbury, mistakes we won’t repeat. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, well I think as Mark Dixon of Regus said, this current pandemic, to him, is like every downturn and 41.35 that… all rolled into one so, yep, I think you are right, one has to be positive.  So…

Brian Bickell

Well, I think if my parents were around who did actually live in London though the Second World War, they may still have a view that this is nothing much to worry about.  All I can remember my… never talked about the War but I can remember my saying we used to wake up in the morning and go out in the morning, you didn’t know whether you’d ever come back in the evening, frankly, you know, you’d never see the day out but people got on with their lives, they found a way through it and London got rebuilt after the Second World War, I can remember looking at bomb sites everywhere but it gradually got rebuilt and things do get gradually put back together again. 

Susan Freeman

So, maybe the answer is we’ve had it too easy and this has come as a very useful learning experience so…

Brian Bickell

I shall never take my foreign holidays for granted again, believe me.  That Spanish beach, never take it for granted again.

Susan Freeman

You stick to Brighton.  It’s probably better.  So, I think it’s time to stop, that’s been fantastic Brian, thank you very, very much and I look forward to talking to you in a few months’ time where everything has taken a more positive turn. 

Brian Bickell

Well, we’ll find a nice restaurant to go to and we’ll have a nice lunch.  Reasonably socially distanced. 

Susan Freeman

Okay, we’ll do that.  Thank you very much.

Brian Bickell

Thank you, Susan for the invitation. 

Susan Freeman

A huge thank you to Brian Bickell for talking so candidly about Shaftesbury, the property sector and the current fight for survival of London’s West End. 

So, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very soon. 

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes. The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app, and on Spotify and whatever podcast app you use. Do continue to subscribe and let us have your feedback and comments and most importantly suggestions for future guests and of course you can continue to follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe and on LinkedIn for a regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Brian qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1976. He joined Shaftesbury when it was formed in 1986, and was Finance Director from its float on the London Stock Exchange in 1987 until he became Chief Executive in 2011.

Starting with £10 million of private capital in 1986, it has assembled a portfolio of 15 acres of freeholds in the West End, comprising c.600 buildings. Its ownership includes 600 shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs across 1.1 million sq. ft. in Carnaby and West Soho, Chinatown, Seven Dials and Fitzrovia.

Brian is a member of the board of Freehold, the London-based LGBT real estate professionals group. He is also deputy vice Chair of The Westminster Property Association and chairs its Transport and Infrastructure sub-committee. He has recently become a trustee of the Young Westminster Foundation.

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