Helen Gordon Chief Executive of Grainger plc

Posted on 25 August 2020

“Some people didn’t know what the property industry was and it made me realise that as an industry, we are essential to the growth and productivity more than ever, the investability in the UK, and most of the people don’t even realise we are doing what we are doing.”

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 world of real estate and the built environment.  We are currently recording the podcast digitally so please bear with us if the sound quality isn’t up to our usual studio standard. 

Today I am really delighted to welcome Helen Gordon.  Helen is Chief Executive of Grainger PLC, the UK’s largest listed residential landlord.  She took up the role in January 2016 from RBS where she had been Global Head of Real Estate Asset Management.  Prior to that Helen was Director of Legal and General Property, responsible for the Main Life Fund and eight smaller funds.  She was also Group Property Director of Railtrack and Managing Director of John Laing Developments.  Helen sits on the Board of developer Derwent London as a Non-Exec Director and is currently a Board Director of the European Public Real Estate Association and she is immediate Past President of the British Property Federation.  Helen has held a number of non-exec positions and Government appointments including the Board of Covent Garden Market Authority, the Board of British Waterways and she was also a Trustee for the College of Estate Management for nine years.  Helen is an Honorary Fellow of the University College of Estate Management. 

So, now we are going to hear from Helen Gordon on her amazing property career to date and the challenges and opportunities currently facing Grainger and the build-to-rent sector. 

Helen, welcome to our digital studio.  It’s the middle of August which is normally holiday time, here we are because nothing is normal right now.  You’ve had an amazingly varied career to date in real estate so you, I think you studied Estate Management at Oxford Polytechnic, you worked on the development of Milton Keynes in the early 80s building the town’s new railway station and then at John Laing you led the UK’s first PFI building project which was another station, I think Ashford International and then you helped sow the seeds of a business that evolved into John Laing Infrastructure Funds and you were also Property Director of Railtrack so there’s a definite railway theme in there somewhere.  After that you spent twelve years at Legal and General running a 4.2 billion portfolio and a £2 billion development programme and then moved to RBS working through their Distress Property Holdings and that was all before you became CEO of Grainger so, an awful lot of experience there of managing people and running teams and I just wondered if there were any particular learnings from working with all those people in different organisations that you have been able to call into play now?

Helen Gordon

I think the main thing is to think of the team as individuals and realise that teams are motivated in different ways and I always tell managers within businesses that you have to treat everybody and no matter how difficult they are being and we’ve seen some strange reactions over the recent four or five months through Covid but I always say try and find something really good in somebody that means that they will do something really exceptional for you as part of that team and get everybody in the team playing to their strengths, and I think quite often we all recruit teams that have certain characteristics but what I would say is that the best teams are mixed teams and throughout my career that’s mixes of gender, age, talents etcetera and those are really the high performing teams.  So, at the moment, I think that the main thing is the team has to be supportive of each other and at the moment that’s one of the things that I am investing a lot of time in, in trying to support people particularly because it’s middle of August and I think we are one of the few companies that have got the majority of our people back in the office which is quite unusual and one thing they were all missing was seeing each other and being part of that wider team so it’s an interesting time. 

Susan Freeman

Yeah.  Well, you’ve done well to get so many people back and I was hoping that you might mention your teabag analogy because I have read that somewhere and I just thought that is, you know, that’s so true. 

Helen Gordon

Yeah, so I was given the opportunity when I was under twenty five, to run one of the biggest development projects in the UK and I think this concept of you really stretching people is very good and so my teabag analogy is ‘you never know how strong people are until you put them in hot water’ and that’s exactly the same with a teabag and, you know, right at the moment and certainly in March when we all closed down, you know, I certainly saw the strengths of certain people who reacted incredibly well in being creative and finding a way that they were going to work through this… particularly, you know, part of Grainger’s business is selling property and all of our suppliers, all of the estate agents of course had to close down and we had to find new ways of doing that, new ways of leasing property, and we got some pretty hot tea out of people so they were good.

Susan Freeman

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of hot water around at the moment.  So, Grainger is the UK’s largest listed residential landlord and I think the portfolio is now over 9,000 homes, it’s worth over £2.9 billion and there are a further 9,000 units in the pipeline.  Now, you made waves when you joined Grainger in 2016 because I think barely a month after you joined, you announced radical plans to basically sell off parts of the business and focus on, you know, the growing build-to-rent sector and you were targeting to build an £850 million portfolio by 2020.  We are now in 2020, have you hit that target or has Covid slowed you down?

Helen Gordon

No, we’ve more than… we’ve more than doubled that in terms of our new acquisitions and new pipeline and so the team here have done a fantastic job.  We hit it in about two and a half years.  A couple of big things changed it, the first one was that we bought a portfolio from the Dutch investor, APG, and we had been managing that portfolio so it was quite an easy acquisition to do but it significantly grew the business and changed the basis of the business but then we’ve also been very successful in acquiring across all regions of the UK and particularly in London and then last year we also signed a deal with TfL so I am quite excited about the long-term pipelines as well. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, that’s very positive and we’ll come to the TfL joint venture but I just wondered how you were able to evaluate the business and, you know, change tack so quickly after joining because that was pretty speedy. 

Helen Gordon

It really came from the fact that I had been working with distressed portfolios for the previous four or five years at RBS and of course when you are looking at a business and it’s looking at facing either a rescue, a re-organisation or administration, you learn to do things very, very quickly and often the right solution is the most obvious solution in the business and people get distracted by lots of small nuances but this was a really clear opportunity for Grainger, there was a growing build-to-rent, there was a need to professionalise the sector, we were one of the countries in the world that had a mamma and pop industry and it could be professionalised so it really said to me that we shouldn’t be exploring all strange different projects but we should just focus on the thing that the business is really good at and we did that quite quickly but it came from this ability, when dealing with distressed portfolios, to set out a very clear and simple strategy and I often joke that it has to be simple because if it’s not simple, people will forget it or can’t get behind it or whatever so it’s really simple, straightforward strategy. 

Susan Freeman

And you know, it seems that, I mean, Grainger had an advantage of having invested in residential for more than a hundred years so if anybody really knows the residential market, you do but I mean one of the things I just wonder about is why in the UK it took us really so, so long to start establishing and institutional rented sector because we were working with Delancey and Get Living on the athletes’ village, sort of 2011/2012 and we’re acting for them on Lewisham and, I mean, it’s extraordinary when you think about it that we didn’t have an institutional rented sector and I just… I wondered why you thought it took so long?

Helen Gordon

Well I think we had an overhang legacy for many, many years on rent regulation which of course only really changed in the late ‘80s and I think then we had the growth of the buy-to-let landlord but the main reason behind it is that it has been a relatively low yielding sector, I would say very safe and during Covid we have seen that, you know, our rent collection figures have been at 97 and 98% which is very different from the commercial sector so it’s lower yielding and lower risk but it’s also, you know, at a moment when we are all probably less expectations of returns.  It’s also access to land, the house builders have had quite a lot of subsidy from Help to Buy etcetera and so getting the access to land has been quite tricky and as I say, I think it’s because its’s momma and pop industry so most people are renting for short periods of time from small private landlords but to me, you know, having worked in Germany, having worked in the US, it was a real gaping hole in the UK’s format for housing and I think that, you know, if you think of social housing and if you think of private home ownership, there’s a real place in between for a really decent rented sector and I do believe that we’ll support the economy of the UK in the longer term because we will have people who are more mobile and people who come to this country for periods of time or move for their education or whatever and they will not want to buy, they will want to rent. 

Susan Freeman

And, do you think, I mean, you are dealing with Local Authorities across the country, do you think the Local Authorities understand yet what the build-to-rent product is or are they still confusing it with buy-to-let?

Helen Gordon

They are.  You are absolutely right, Susan.  They are confusing it with buy-to-let but there are a few exceptions and those organisations and those Local Authorities who have identified the need for rental homes, have actually done quite well and I think probably one of the best examples and people talk about a lot of rented accommodation in Manchester but actually their graduate retention rate is fantastic and, you know, the lifestyle you can have as a graduate in Manchester, you can have great accommodation, good jobs etcetera and so I think the team in Manchester have probably seen it earlier than most, the need for good rental homes and how that builds to a good workforce and a good economy that’s supported by it. 

Susan Freeman

So, are you seeing rental as a lifestyle choice?  We sort of hear that the millennials don’t want to own, they want to rent but I just wondered whether it had become a choice yet that people want that flexibility and don’t necessarily want to own their own homes?

Helen Gordon

Yes, I mean, I think it’s across all age groups and we’ve seen it across all age groups and this morning I was dealing with something which was actually somebody from our industry that said, ‘I’m going to, following Covid, I am going to live out with my family in the country but I want somewhere to rent in the week’ and I was talking to them about what we had available on good commuter, you know, tube lines relatively central and we see people renting at the end of their life where they want to travel and we see people renting when they’re moving around in their career and of course we do see some renters who economically can’t afford to buy and so we see it across all age groups but I think high quality rental homes have a roll to play across all age groups.

Susan Freeman

You know, it seems that it would make sense for later living, you know, if one could persuade people that are rattling around in big houses that they don’t really need that there is, you know, a standard of accommodation with facilities that would suit them that would help, you know, bring a lot of housing back onto the market. 

Helen Gordon

Yeah, and one of the things that we always say is that we don’t build houses, we build homes and communities, and I absolutely love it in our buildings when we get some of the older people in and, you know, they almost become the grandmother of the block and one of the first buildings that Grainger developed, one of its first residents was an older woman who had sadly lost her husband and was living, just as you say, in a big house and she decided to sell the house, to travel for part of the year but what she was benefitting from was a really good rental apartment where everything was done for her so she didn’t have to worry about all the repairs and the handyman and the painting and all the rest of it, and also she had a concierge service for her post and she had someone to keep an eye on what was going on and that, to her, changed her life from the burden of living in a big property and having to worry about, you know, whether the garden was being maintained etcetera.

Susan Freeman

Yes, so it’s, I mean, it seems that that’s the way things should go and I think it sort of takes for people to see what’s available because a lot of people won’t have seen, you know, this new type of residential development and are you… obviously we’re going through the Covid crisis and people, a lot of people are saying they’re sort of rethinking what they want from their homes and they want more outdoor space, they want balconies, they want to be able to work from home, you know, as and when.  Are you having to sort of rethink the way you design your homes?

Helen Gordon

I always think that Covid is going to accelerate a lot of trends that were already there, whether that’s in retail or in residential etcetera and we have always had as a basic included in the rent, superfast broadband and that’s been one of the key things, I think we’ve all been frustrated with those Zoom calls that don’t freeze from time to time so, we’ve also had a real commitment to health and wellbeing and one of the things our investment committee does is look at the accessibility to green space and outdoor space and gyms and I think those two trends of, you know, ability to work from home and most of our buildings have co-working space, most of them have private meeting rooms that you can hire, all of them have a gym of some scale and also they have access to green space whether it’s roof terraces or, in our new development which is at Pontoon Dock, it literally overlooks Barrier Park which has got fantastic facilities in it so, it’s been a commitment, we’re not having to make radical changes although the one thing we have been looking at is that we have a suburban product and whether or not we will do, we’ve always thought of the suburban housing product as being quite a small part of our portfolio but we’re just looking at that at the moment and thinking will people be prepared to move out more if they feel they’re not required as often in the office so we have two schemes in Hampshire and we’re looking at whether we will extend those. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, it’s interesting because people are saying a lot of things at the moment and I think it remains to be seen how things work out.  So, at the moment, I mean, what would you say are the greatest challenges that build-to-rent developers are facing at the moment and is there anything that the Government could be doing to actually help you proceed, you know, faster and build more of the homes that we need?

Helen Gordon

So, we’ve talked briefly about one of them which is a lack of real understanding and I always feel I’ve failed the sector if I haven’t explained well what build-to-rent means.  We have a dialogue coming from Government which is that home ownership is about security whereas if you are a build-to-rent operator, what you really don’t want is empty units and so you’ve probably got a better security in the sense of than you would in a small buy-to-let property.  We do longer leases, three and five year leases but people still seem to think that’s an insecure tenure whereas our whole business model is based on the security.  Access to land, I think is going to be a challenge, we’re seeing the housebuilders have done relatively well through the crisis, we’ve got the extension for the next few years of Help to Buy so for me it’s really access to land and an understanding of the sector.  I think there is a weight of money willing to enter the sector and that hasn’t gone away because of Covid because of course sectors performed very well during this time. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, there does seem to be a real interest in build-to-rent, I mean, it seems you may not need an office to work in and you don’t need to go to a shop to buy things but you need a home to sleep in.  So, and are you at all concerned about, I mean just looking at London, Sadiq Khan making rent controls a central plan of his mayoral manifesto?

Helen Gordon

So, he’s talked about them, just before lockdown and it was probably missed by a lot of people, Robert Jenrick, the Housing and Communities Minister, Secretary of State, actually wrote to Sadiq Khan and said ‘you can’t do this without Government support and it doesn’t have Government support’ so, we would need primary legislation in this country to introduce rent control.  I think the problem is, is rent control sounds great if you are in rented accommodation, most professional landlords do cap their rents anyway, we look at inflation related rent increases, the danger I think from Sadiq saying that is that they will put off investors and the one thing London desperately needs is high quality professional landlords rather than the bad landlords actually working responsibly in the sector and I think that is the sad thing about the rhetoric which is only rhetoric because it can’t be delivered without central Government’s help. 

Susan Freeman

I think you are right because I have heard, you know, people running the larger funds said, you know, we were out of residential for years, we’re just coming back into investing in residential and if we get rent controls, we’re off again so, it doesn’t seem to make sense and also, I mean, in terms of the draft London Plan and the requirement for 35% affordable housing, I mean, is that something that you have to work into your development plans and is it different when you are working with Local Authorities outside of London?

Helen Gordon

Absolutely and we have to remember that national guidance is 20% affordable housing and that of affordability is a 20% discount to market rent so London is going above and beyond national policy which is sad because they are doing that at… in an area that needs the most housing, there is no doubt about it, it’s putting the brake on housing because the combination of, you know, either a London living rent or a social rent within a scheme is obviously making it less viable and build-to-rent schemes do not generate the same, we take our return over a much longer period than the house builders who will make the mark up and move on so, it is effecting the amount that’s being built unless it’s actually… unless the landowner themselves has another stake and our recent joint venture in Lewisham, Lewisham own the land, we partnered with them and got a planning consent, part of that will be affordable, part of it will be private rent and Lewisham participate in both sides of that, at the end of the day, they were also the landowner so they could flex to accommodate it. 

Susan Freeman

So, I suppose it gets back to the fact that you need Local Authorities that really get it and want to collaborate with you in providing new homes.  You mentioned TfL earlier and I would just like to talk a little bit about the joint venture with TfL because I interviewed Graeme Craig for the podcast quite recently and he was really positive about the partnership and he said “It’s gone amazingly well, I think I can’t praise Helen Gordon and Mike Keaveney and the team enough, they’ve been a superb partner for us” and he was talking about the way the teams had come together as one entity and I just wondered how that works?

Helen Gordon

Yeah.  I think we did know a little bit about Graeme’s team beforehand.  He runs and amazing team, he’s collected some really talented people around him and when we were selected to be their partners, the first meeting we had with them we handed out a Grainger pass to all of his team which is a complete access all areas if you like so when we were interviewed along with a number of other companies, we were really keen to say this is as you see us and this is how we will perform and we want you to be part of our team and as a result of that, just that sort of gesture day one was, you know, you are part of our team now and we felt very much part of the TfL family and it’s a really good working relationship.  I think that Mike Keaveney and Chris Fletcher and Rebecca who run it from the Grainger side, or have made… work on most of the projects, and then on the TfL side you’ve got Ben and Dan and Lester and people as well and obviously working to Graeme and Ken, you put them together and they’re all on a combined mission which is to provide London with some of the best housing that it will have at all tenures and I think the other thing that’s a real motivation is the fact that we know that that income subsequently is also supporting the Tube as well and TfL’s overall finances and we’ve shown that build-to-rent is really… social housing is really resilient income and I think it would be, you know, I think they’ve done a really sensible job with their land. 

Susan Freeman

Well, it seems to be an amazing opportunity to build good housing next to transport hubs, you know, that’s what’s needed and I think it’s going to help a lot of, you know, our town centres and high streets which sort of lost their way, you know, to actually recreate communities around the stations and I wondered if your experience working, you know, creating railway stations and Railtrack had actually, you know, been helpful in this new relationship?

Helen Gordon

I think the first time you work on a railway project and understand the complexity of, you know, transport, a lot of people get frustrated with Network Rail or Railtrack as it was and TfL and you can see people rolling their eyes when they are dealing with a project that has an interface with them.  I think it’s one of the toughest jobs to do when you are navigating the concerns about real estate and often the numbers are very small in value terms by comparison to the impact you can have on the railway and I will give you an example of that: I had a joint venture with British Land when I was at Railtrack which was developing over the throat of Liverpool Street Station which was the next limb of the Broadgate Scheme and I think we worked out is that if we closed Liverpool Street Station for an hour, so we had an hour overrun on a particular day, it wiped out such a significant amount of project profit because the losses to the railway and getting thousands of people in each day and that’s really what the rail operators are struggling with which is that their main job is to sort of move people around the country and the development is incidental even if it’s creating great amenities and, you know, it’s one of the best things that I did in, you know, 1983, right at the start of my career, was work in that environment and that challenge, that intellectual challenge of how can we do this safely and how can we do this and not disrupt the railways was a key theme and that’s gone right the way through, you know even today with working with TfL.

Susan Freeman

I imagine it’s the sort of thing that a lot of developers wouldn’t necessarily think about or know about so you didn’t realise at the beginning of your career that this was going to stand you in great stead when you came to deal with TfL.  And the sort of vision for the joint venture is to create, is it 3,000 homes or has it gone up since…?

Helen Gordon

You are absolutely right, the first seed sites are about 3,000 homes but the joint venture is evergreen, it can, you know, it can carry on and do more things together so I hope that it’s going to endure beyond the 3,000 homes because certainly that’s a small proportion of the stock that we need in London.

Susan Freeman

Turning to the British Property Federation, the BPF, with everything else going on with, you know, Covid, everything that you are doing at Grainger, you’ve just finished your year as President of the BPF and I think your focus when you started your year was enhancing the recognition of the property sector’s contribution to society.  Now, I don’t know whether your agenda was hijacked by Covid or whether it gave us an opportunity to show what we could do in difficult circumstances but obviously a year is a relatively short time. 

Helen Gordon

So the redefining real estate and the perception audit we did on the real estate sector was that actually came from the conversation I had with Rob Knowle who was the President before me and also with David Partridge and now with Guy Grainger and we realised that you don’t change an industry within a year but what you can do is put in place a long-term plan and that that long-term plan would enable some change to happen within the industry and I am quite pleased at, you know, we of course Covid got in the way and we were talking a lot about things, for example, about property industry’s relationship with its customers but the majority of it is still there and people are doing amazing things and you know in my own organisation the changes that we made as a result of that redefining real estate programme by our diversity and agenda or sustainability agenda are community engagement programmes have all gone the next level up as a result of us wanting to redefine the industry and talking to others, they are doing the same. 

Susan Freeman

And, did this come out of the perception survey which I think found that only 27% of the general public had a favourable view of the sector which, you know, seemed to surprise people at the time but, you know, it seemed to show that a lot of work needed to be done to just really shout about the positive things that the real estate sector does. 

Helen Gordon

It was absolutely fascinating to me to look at the results of the populace work, the perception audit and in fact every time I was in a room where they presented it, everybody started to challenge their methodology and the reality is probably the people that sit around the BPS table are the very best in the industry but the industry is much wider than that and most people’s perception of the property industry, if you think about most people interface with them, it’s with poor experience with an estate agent or a poor experience with a bad landlord etcetera and some people didn’t know what the property industry was and it made me realise that as an industry we are essential to the growth and productivity more than ever the investability in the UK and most of the people don’t even realise we are doing what we are doing so, it’s not really just about telling the story well about what… how we can enhance the reputation of the industry, it’s also by cleaning up the industry and making the industry more accessible and understood etcetera, it’s still very much a closed club for a lot of youngsters coming into it for example. 

Susan Freeman

I think it has to be said that you were only the second woman president of the BPF in its 46 odd years.  Lorraine Baldry, our very good friend, was President in 1996 which is a little while ago although the BPF has had a female CEO since 2002.  Why, I mean, why is that?  I mean, I was looking at an Evening Standard interview that you did shortly after you joined Grainger and the wonderful heading, ‘Turnaround queen who made it to the top of the property boys’ club’ and, you know, it’s very easy to, you know, to have a headline like that but is it still a boys’ club or are we actually making some strides there?

Helen Gordon

So, I think, I mean, Lorraine was somebody who I really had a high regard for and, you know, she knows this, I sort of watched her career and thought how she’s managed to cut through it and she managed to do it from a non-property background if you like, from a technology background.  The thing for me is the access originally into the real estate industry was mainly 33.18 boys if you like but then the industry is much wider than just surveying.  In terms of the presidency of the BPF, it selects from effectively its policy committee and its policy committee is usually made up of people who run real estate businesses so I think there’s something quite interesting for me when I look around at the people I joined the industry with and I would say at the time women, you know certainly in terms of my course, were 3 or 4% of the cohort that went in there.  If you have such a small entry level and by the time they have reached seniority, they have maybe had other distractions or they have changed career.  It’s not a surprise that we still don’t have a lot of people at the top of the list of real estate sector or at the top of institutions.  I am really fascinated in what makes very talented women not feel that they go that last limb to run a company and there’s sort of, I can think of a lot of people in my career that I could absolutely think would sit at that table but have decided that they don’t like the environment and that’s part of why I think it’s important that we have to change the way that the diverse nature of real estate.  It’s going to be quite interesting, isn’t it because you and I know, and you’ve been in the industry for a long time, you and I know that part of it is actually you have to be quite clubbable because until recently there wasn’t perfect data so a lot of your information, a lot of your contacts, a lot of deal structuring, was done through socialising.  How interesting that we’ve just gone through five or six months of not doing that and most of us I think are working off our legacy of our address book from the past if you like, it’s very hard in this Zoom environment to make and create new contacts so I think that’s… I remember going through the recession in the ‘90s and we came out with a lack of surveyors after that, or a lack of talent in certain areas of the profession and I wonder what’s going to happen during Covid because it, you know, this is the point where I suspect we will lose up to a year of all of the things where, you know, we meet new people, we create new networks etcetera and the BPF in part is also a networking as well as a policy forming organisation. 

Susan Freeman

Right but I think we are just going to have to find a way because you are determined if you do and actually it is quite interesting how you can meet people even virtually but I agree, I think we are missing, you know, being around the people that we are used to spending time with and I wanted to ask you, you know, obviously, you know, you’ve had senior roles in different organisations in real estate, do you feel that being a woman has been an advantage or a disadvantage and whether it has affected your style of leadership?  I saw Margaret Ford, your former Chairwoman, I think she described you as being like an iron fist in a velvet glove and I thought that was a lovely way of putting it.   

Helen Gordon

Well, I think the one thing I learned and I always joke about my height because I am not very tall so, being small and being a woman, I was quite often overlooked and that made me a better listener and I often think that actually listening to what people are talking about and remembering what people said makes it better to do those connections and even in negotiations when, you know, a hoard of people walk into the room, I am being mistaken for, you know, somebody’s bag carrier and then all of a sudden the table turns and says well it’s Helen’s decision and you can see the other side sort of thinking ‘Oh crikey, we had no idea that she was the Chief Executive’ or no idea that she was the person that would make the decision.  So, I think, actually, I would say on balance it’s been an advantage in tactical terms, I think structurally I would perhaps say that, you know, you have to fight harder and work harder but I love my work so I don’t see that as a drawback. 

Susan Freeman

Interesting and you mentioned earlier about, you know, real estate sometimes being a closed shop to younger people and there are a lot of like young talented people who are in real estate but they have difficulty in getting their voices heard, I mean, what would your advice be to a sort of younger person trying to make their mark and just wanting to be heard?

Helen Gordon

So I think one thing I would say is probably the most successful thing over the last couple of years in BPF has actually been the BPF Futures is enormous now, it’s got a great voice and has very strong networking and learning opportunities there and I’d encourage anyone to get involved in BPF Futures and I think the criteria is less than ten years in the industry and then the other thing that I always say to people is to a certain extent, you know, how I admired Lorraine when she was doing her BPF role, you know, look out for people who you think you can learn something from and it’s not always the chief exec and in fact often they don’t have the time and it isn’t always your line manager but it’s just someone that you admire things that they do and spend some time with them and I, you know, have sort of friends, contacts, and sort of mentors now who I have just… something has just clicked when you think this person is either really good at analytics, this person has a really unusual way of looking at things and so they still remain, people that I can pick up the phone to and say, “What would you do about this?” and the other thing I would say to people who a young person asks that, you have to absolutely be trusted so if they tell you something, and I’ve had people tell me about, you know, they thought they might leave and I had their colleagues at working saying we’re thinking about partnership or directorship and you think “Ooh, how do I square this circle?” you know, “Don’t leave, they’re thinking about you really”, you know, but you have to be really, really trusted if a young person confides in you. 

Susan Freeman

Yes and you have to, I mean, one of these I suppose casualties of this last period is that being with people, learning from people, the mentorship because, you know, that’s the way a lot of younger people learn, they are watching, you know, how other people in their team are dealing with negotiations and with the best will in the world it’s very difficult to replicate that on a Zoom call. 

Helen Gordon

Yeah and I was… it was one of the main reasons for trying to get people back in the office was that Grainger has developed very quickly and we have a lot of young people, very bright people, in the office and they’re doing things that really stretch them and to be doing that at home without anybody to turn to, to say, ‘what would you do about this?’, just casually, I think a number of them will put barriers in the way of making an appointment, a Zoom call, with a colleague to say ‘what would you do about?’ this whereas they wouldn’t hesitate to lean back in their chair and say ‘what would you do about this?’ or just to overhear how people talk on the phone, how someone handles something that’s quite difficult and when I was talking to the leadership team at Grainger, there were two things that I spoke about; one of them was about how it’s our responsibility to develop our successors and our next generation so that’s why we have to be with them and then the other one was that people were saying ‘well, I am really effective working from home’ and I have this phrase was ‘if you are a manager, you should really want interruptions because interruptions are actually what’s developing your team’ so that’s part of the rationale for trying to get people back together because of that casual conversation, collaboration and improvement of the young people in the team. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, I think it’s absolutely vital.  Well, I think, I think we’re at the end of our time, Helen, so thank you, thank you so much for that and I hope we’ll actually be seeing each other over dinner or a drink very soon. 

Helen Gordon

That would be great so, thank you, Susan.  Really interesting.  Quite nerve-racking. 

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much to Helen Gordon for some really great insights drawn from a multifaceted real estate career and it’s so fascinating to hear about the opportunities and the challenges for the UK’s growing build-to-rent sector. 

So, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please all stay safe and 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 very regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment.

Helen Gordon is Chief Executive of Grainger plc the UK’s largest listed residential landlord.  

Helen was appointed Chief Executive of Grainger in January 2016 from RBS where she had been Global Head of Real Estate Asset Management since October 2011. Prior to that Helen was Director of Legal and General Property, responsible for the Main Life Fund and c.8 smaller Funds, and Group Property Director of Railtrack and Managing Director of John Laing Developments.  

Helen sits on the Board of Derwent London as a non-executive Director and is currently a Board Director of the European Public Real Estate Association and is Immediate Past President of the British Property Federation.  Helen has held a number of non-exec positions and Government appointments including the Board of Covent Garden Market Authority, Board of British Waterways and was a Trustee for The College of Estate Management for nine years. Helen is an Honorary Fellow of University College of Estate Management.

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