Michael Slade FRICS - Chairman of Helical plc

Posted on 11 January 2019 by Michael Slade

Susan Freeman

Hi, I’m Susan Freeman, welcome back to the first in our Propertyshe Podcast Series for 2019. I’m really excited to welcome Mike Slade OBE as they don’t come much larger than life than Mike. After more than three decades at the helm of UK listed property company Helical Plc, Mike is to step down from the Board this July.

He joined Helical as a Director in 1984, became Chief Exec in 1986 and Chairman in 2016. He’s earned a reputation for successfully calling the cycles in the real estate market and for leading Helical through several recessions and crashes and he’s helped to transform it into the major force in the commercial property industry that it is today. He’s also one of the sector’s most colourful figures. Throughout his career Mike has been an active campaigner for charities. He remains the President of the property industry charity LandAid which he single-handedly turned from a small charity run by amateur enthusiasts into a professionally run charity that works with partners to provide homes for young homeless people. It’s for his tireless work for LandAid and other charities that Mike was awarded an OBE in this year’s New Year’s Honours List.

Today we get a chance to draw on Mike’s huge property sector experience, hopefully we’ll get some advice and we’ll hear just some of the anecdotes from an incident packed career.

Mike we’ve actually known each other for a few years and you were one of my first clients when I qualified as a Property lawyer and as a result for a long time I thought the way to get through a difficult property transaction was to take the lawyers on the other side to Ascot for the day and ply them with champagne, though that seemed to work quite well in those days.

Mike Slade
Those are very different days sadly. That wouldn’t go down too well anymore would it?
Susan Freeman
No, it’s erm…
Mike Slade
Did it work I forget?
Susan Freeman
Yes, yes.
Mike Slade
Yes. It worked.
Susan Freeman
It worked like a charm actually I couldn’t believe it, we’d been locked in negotiations for months…
Mike Slade
…and they all fell in line.
Susan Freeman
…and suddenly everything, everything fell into place.
Mike Slade
There’s a moral there. There’s a lesson there.
Susan Freeman
There is, there is a moral.
Mike Slade
That’s funny.
Susan Freeman
So how did you choose real estate as a sector? How did you, how did you end up in the world of property?
Mike Slade
Oh gosh my father ran an interesting company making mining machinery and having done quite well he ended up misbehaving I think in the Bahamas and I was then about sixteen and he was buying tracks of land in the Bahamas and breaking it up into tiny bits along the tracks and I remember selling them at £3.10 down and £4 a month as a sort of you can have your bit in the Bahamas I thought this was great fun and when I finished at school, I had a year away so I went to the Bahamas and I acted as a Land Salesman in one of the major islands and I thoroughly enjoyed it and I had already decided I wanted to go down property but I didn’t know what the heck I was doing or what sort of property and when I started at the college of, we call it the College of Unknowledge because there was very little knowledge and when I started at the college, a property college in Kensington I remember meeting the you know the staff and I thought oh property was all about buying tracks of land with lots of sand and breaking them all up into small parts and flogging them off. No quite the reverse you know, so they had to sort of draw me sort of lines that I shouldn’t breach and behave myself but from the age of fifteen/sixteen I’ve always been intrigued by it.
Susan Freeman
Now not many people know this, but I remember actually pre-Helical and I know that your first property vehicle was Grand Vista that invested in properties in Europe and I think you demonstrated then a real ability to problem solve because things didn’t go quite according to plan, I think with a particular property in Amsterdam.
Mike Slade
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Why we all in the 1968 onwards, we all went to Holland for some reason. Holland was not a very good economy at the time but that didn’t seem to matter there were sort of deals to be done and we all sort of banged away doing deals in Amsterdam and around Utrecht and the Hague before sort of going Paris, Brussels, Germany at a later stage. So I’d done this amazing deal with Equity & Law Life who were very keen on developing in and owning real estate in Europe round the UK I did an extraordinary deal with them which we couldn’t possibly repeat it these days but I had about a 50% share with them of whatever we did and they were supplying the money so that seemed a good deal to me. So I was running around Europe making these various plays and I had a big scheme in Amsterdam, it was pre-let to the Amro Bank but the one problem was, I had all the planning but the one problem was there were a bunch of squatters on the site in a house on the site itself stopping a development and I went to the Mayor and he turned up in a pair of gym shoes, torn jeans and a rather vulgar t-shirt and I thought this is very odd, this is what goes on in Amsterdam at the time, in the most beautiful house on the single, I mean it was a lovely, lovely piece of real estate he was living in but he just didn’t quite match the surroundings. I turned up like a nice sort of English chap with a tie and a nice suit and he always referred to me as English and I said to him would he help me please get rid of the squatters and he said what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to go and find them an alternative accommodation so I did that round the corner, on the graft, on the little canal there was a lovely house. I had to buy it and I went back to the Mayor and I said look there it is, over to you will you now get rid of the squatters and he said no, no, no you’ve also got to have their agreement to this and you must show them the real estate so that they can then decide if they want to move there or not so I thought oh my gosh right so I opened the door to this rag bunch of guys and their wives and their babies and their bedding and their cookeries and they rushed into this nice little house I had bought them and declared another squat. So, I’d now got two squatted buildings in Amsterdam and when I went back to the Mayor and I said come on this is just unfair never mind anything else he very simply said English why don’t you go home, and you know that was the way it was. I mean we were not obviously very popular bouncing around all over these nice chaps in Holland and around the place, but you might remember that Belgium, we had an enormous British contingent of people building office buildings in advance of the EC and all that and that was very popular, and I ended up also doing a lot of development in Germany. So, I reckon I spoke German, but I didn’t really speak it that well just because you got an A level in German at school doesn’t mean to say you can speak the language. But we had lots of fun in Germany actually and you might have been involved in one or two of the bad bits of behaviour.
Susan Freeman
No, I think, I think I just heard, I just heard the story. But I think you then after, after those experiences you retrenched to the UK and things then you know began with Helical.
Mike Slade
Yeah.
Susan Freeman
We don’t want to dwell on the things that went wrong but Chiswell Street I know was, you know, was an early Helical development where you again, developed a reputation as a problem solver because things didn’t go according to plan.
Mike Slade
Oh, Chiswell Street was probably one of the best schemes I ever did. A neighbour in Edward Square in Kensington, Nigel McNeil-Scott had a brother who was a Chairman of an almost bankrupt company making rebar spiral rods, reinforcement rods in the Midlands and they were quoted at about £300,000 value. So they were on their uppers really and they asked me if I would come and form a JV with them and deal in real estate so I did that again on the sort of 50/50 basis and they were going to give me a modest amount of money to play with and I had come across this scheme in Chiswell Street and it was a 100,000 square foot scheme, the guys were in for planning but I managed to actually option that whole situation and I was able to find a buyer for the end result as an occupier and it had planning and all that was left was a deal with a contractor to give an end guarantee to the bank which meant that it was fully financed by an American bank which was unusual. So we had the whole thing optioned up, we had the whole thing ready to go and right at the last minute it was a question of turning to the contractor who had worked with us throughout and saying okay time for you guys to come in, we’ve got a week, we’re leaving it a bit late, we’ve got one week before you know I’m going to run out of time and they’re going to pull the plug on us and they, a lovely guy Jerry Cannelli was the Banker’s Rep and he turned to me and he said Michael you’ve got it all wrong. You’re going to go nowhere, our deal is 25% for the contractor and 75% for Helical and I’m afraid this document has turned that upside down, its now 75% for the contractor and 25% for you and I said okay Jerry you want to play that sort of game well I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, watch me and I picked up his whole file which was quite thick and I went to the window onto Bruton Street and threw the whole thing out of the window and he was just absolutely aghast. He said what have you done? I said, out, out, out. So he left and funnily enough I was impressed with him anyway so actually he became a Director of Helical about six months later and so I was about to ring up Sir Brian Hill who was a great man, Hill & Co whatever the contractors, he had this big contracting company and within five days they’d done the whole building contract with me and a share, 20% share of whatever it made which we then went ahead on. The deal we end up doing was selling to an owner occupier pre-sold anyway and we made £14,000,000 out of that scheme and it was the first thing that Helical did and the stock market suddenly saw something apparently capitalised at £300,000 has just made a £14,000,000 profit and the shares just went through the roof and that was a very exciting time. So that wasn’t one that was a problem one. That actually couldn’t have gone sweeter. We were very lucky but that was the start of it all. That gave me the cash to go and do three or four other things blah blah blah and we did a lot up in the north east industrials, all sorts of stuff and about four other big schemes in the city. I had always liked the City of London and the surrounds which is where we actually are today.
Susan Freeman
Its interesting you mentioned luck, you know that you were lucky, and I know one of the things we’ve talked about is you know how luck actually is important you can have all the fundamentals right but if luck isn’t with you things don’t necessarily work out as well as they should and I…
Mike Slade
That’s quite right. I think I’m a character that probably thinks I’m owed something because I’m not and you’re prepared to bang away and right now is a very interesting time because a lot of people are folding up and just sort of not doing anything because of Brexit but if something came on my desk that I liked we’d always go and say lets take it you know lets run with this because how bad could it be? I don’t want to get hooked into a discussion on Brexit but its an example of your attitude as, it’s a very entrepreneurial one you know you’ve got to buy when everybody is selling so that is a very hard thing to do but you’re only going to make money if that’s what you do do and you get right and I think it was about eighteen months ago there’s a good example we’re just half way through building over Crossrail 2 is going to go right under Smithfield and we’ve got this fantastic scheme in Charterhouse and we’re half way through building it now but we had to make a decision about a year ago are we going to build this? On our balance sheets, £100,000,000 that’s the cost, what is the market going to be like? And the answer is you’re right over the biggest tube intersection anyone’s ever seen or built in our country and you’re going to let it, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world at large you’ve got to have the courage to actually go and do it while everyone then thinks you’re slightly bonkers. But that’s the way it works.
Susan Freeman
Interesting because I know you have in the past bought assets when the institutions wouldn’t go anywhere near them so it’s a…
Mike Slade
Exactly, exactly. I was well advised by my Lawyers I might have to say.
Susan Freeman
Well. You have also navigated very successfully a number of real estate cycles and people always look to you for reading the market. I mean is there any secret to that because I think a lot of people would like to know how to do that?
Mike Slade
There’s a lot that goes on into making a decision at a time when a lot of people would be critical of you doing it and I’ve always liked multi-sectorial situations so you’re running a company that can move into industrial investments when it’s the right time to do it and to move into office schemes in Birmingham or Manchester or London when it’s the right time to do it and that given at the time of building things is made difficult because you’re going to be basically addressing what’s the market going to be like in three years’ time. Not today, tomorrow because building it, getting planning and all that just takes that amount of time and you’ve got to be hitting the market at the right time. So that does require an awful lot of luck but you’ve got to have the courage to actually you know its in your veins, you’ve got a feel for these things, right now we’ve not ignored the Brexit issue but if there’s a property that comes up with the right dynamics and we can take an option on it and we can find a tenant for it and we can mitigate our loss and we can see a margin we can play at that, we can do that. But if we were a pure investor, we probably wouldn’t do that. So as long as I can buy off something that’s rented at £45 a foot and turn it into something that’s rented at £60 a foot because we’re doing something to the building rather than the market just washing through that’s something that we do, and we do it very well. Now I’m about to retire and I can go away and say phoaw all the decisions we made in the last three years nothing to do with me, maybe, maybe that will be how it ends. I don’t think so though, I don’t think so I’ve just been all around today we’ve got an awful lot of property being, still being finished and mainly all let now of terrific rents, £83.50 at the Bower on the Old Street roundabout. I mean we bought that scheme of £40 a foot and we’re getting £83.50 a foot at the moment which is terrific and even if the market goes back 30%, I’m still going to show a profit on that deal. So yeah you move from sector to sector and you pick your timing, but you have to have some courage to actually go through and actually deal in that but you, you lay off as much as you can. You lay off to everybody involved as much as you can if it is in a dodgy or difficult time. So, you’ve got to be careful.
Susan Freeman
Yeah, it’s interesting so not necessarily something that can be taught at the College of Estate Management although…
Mike Slade
The College of Knowledge. Yeah. There was no knowledge there at all. Funnily enough I lived there, I live round the corner from the college I went to and had great, we had a great time at college that was in the middle of Kensington, I mean it was good fun, absolutely.
Susan Freeman
We’ll pass over that.
Mike Slade
Yeah, we’ll pass on that, yes.
Susan Freeman
One of the things that has been notable about your career is that relationships have been important, and I think that there are people that you have worked with throughout your career who you may have started working with sort of pretty early on in the Helical days. Do you think that relationships are still as important in this age of algorithms and internet where people are communicating in different ways?
Mike Slade
It’s a good question and I would regard it as just as important, probably because of all the algorithms and the analysis that comes your way. In a funny way probably, the relationship is even stronger. You can’t just you know carry on doing your business on some of the sort of advice that is around today and property is far more, you can’t just swipe the whole thing away you know there are always tittle bits, little bits that do give the opportunities even though the wave is actually quite strong, going to your left or going to your right whatever. There’s always something there to find. I mean we as a company now as I say, our finishing letting four or five buildings all around the Farringdon, Smithfield area, terrific area to be doing business in and the market is saying to me now well what next and the answer is well that doesn’t really work either because if I knew what next I’m not going to tell you. One doesn’t want to be committed to an investor that you’re going to go and do five schemes because right now with Brexit what we’re doing has been perfectly timed but now is the time actually just to be a little bit careful over the next three months I mean there’s no need to rush into a major deal but if something came through the door that came with the right discounts because somebody is terrified of what’s going to happen with Brexit I’m there to pick that up.
Susan Freeman
So, Mike you were awarded an OBE in the New Years Honours List for your charity work particular as President of LandAid and you just reminded me that although I have tweeted about this a lot with great enthusiasm, I had overlooked actually congratulating you personally so congratulations its really, it’s amazing.
Mike Slade
That’s sweet, thank you.
Susan Freeman
And I’ve seen at first hand the work that you put into LandAid from the really early days when it was quite a sort of amateur organisation and you’ve converted, you’ve made it into a major charity, the main charity for the property industry and provided homes for homeless young people. So, I just wondered how important you think it is for the sector to be involved with and to be seen to be giving back a little bit?
Mike Slade
Well obviously the more we can do more under that sort of title the better. It depends really where you put it, where does it go? Is homeless kids the right vehicle for the property industry and it probably is but you know you’re not, there’s nothing if the property is going to pick up Cancer Research or something like that, they’ve got no connection with real estate at all. To actually be involved in raising funds and being involved in building buildings that become hotels for kids off the street like the one that we’re doing now in Errol Street that’s just off Chiswell Street and that’s a building that will provide a hundred and seventy five beds for the kids and you’re sort of sponsored and helped by the Boroughs of Islington all round there, Hackney, where kids are on the streets living once they’ve been doing that for a couple of months its damned hard to get them back into reality and that seems to be something that the property industry makes sense for us to be doing i.e. building and providing them a place to live. I’m sure there might be others but that’s what I chose to do with this or it was when we both first came across it. I think Clive Lewis had been a sort of Chief Exec in a funny way of a funny little thing called LandAid which had about four cracking ladies doing out of the business the property business and it was, they did a run around Battersea and that was all it did and it raised £4,000 or £5,000 and it wasn’t you know, it wasn’t going anywhere and Clive said to me one day I’m out of this now Mike - he was a top Agent in his time - and you might want to look at this and I went to meet these girls and they sort of netted a pub in London every year to arrange this thing around Battersea and I thought I’ll try this for a month or two and see how you know how I get on with these girls and does this make sense and it obviously did make an awful lot of sense and there was a lot of goodwill there. So sadly I got involved and then one’s trying to sort of make it all grow up and we needed to have a proper CEO to run the thing and blah blah blah and the girls sort of drifted off whether they moved away or whatever and rather left me and a couple of others and help from you at the time all sorts of people, friends, to club together and sort of help get this thing off the ground which took a time to do. You might well recall it took us a long time to find Paul Morrish who is now the CEO who is absolutely crackerjack and we had four or five goes at various CEOs, none of which worked, none of which worked but we’ve now got Paul involved whose been there for a couple of years and my gosh he’s absolutely transformed the place and a lovely man to work with. So that’s really where it started and its just grown and these things do get to a stage when you can you know you don’t have to hustle anymore you know if people want to join, people can join and you know you’re raising £3,000,000 to £4,000,000 a year well one day it might make £10,000,000 it does take time. It’s very hard work but hugely rewarding.
Susan Freeman
So, when you step down as Chairman of Helical what do you think you’re going to miss most?
Mike Slade
I think the banter of professionals. All the events that the property industry do whether they are LandAid sponsored or otherwise. We’re all a very, we’re all a very bouncy lot and I enjoy that, I mean it’s fun, people make it fun. The property industry I think is probably well ahead of the game in terms of relationships. We mentioned relationships earlier, much better than algorithms and we are different like that. I mean I think it’s a terrific industry and the people in it are all outward going, friendly, there’s no great fuss. No one’s hurling telephones around the boardrooms any more although maybe one or two and you would miss, I will miss, I do miss now the involvement in the industry generally because I have stepped back, I mean you know as a Non-Exec Chair I’m not day-to-day at Helical anymore. I’m involved in the major decision making as any Chairman would be so that’s fine but after coming July, I won’t have that anymore and I’ve rather sort of taken responsibility on my own sort of wish to if I stop, I stop. Its rather like with my sailing I mean I’ve done huge amounts of sailing over the years and had about four very successful yachts one after the other and they’re all quite you know quite well known in that sphere but I’m selling the boat, so you know that’s that. That’s the end of that. So there’s a quarter of your life suddenly parked because if you have got a boat what are you going to do as a sailor and with Helical then gone and then the yacht gone you know there’s going to be plenty of time to see what’s around and take on other responsibilities but I’m not chasing it, I’m really not chasing it. I’ll keep a watchful eye on LandAid and be responsible there and as you probably know I have this major involvement with the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital that we are raising £50,000,000. We’ve done it, so we’re extended it to £70,000,000 which is quite a good result and that keeps me actually more busy than anything else at the moment so in retiring and handing over at Helical and moving out of that sport and things the answer is yeah charity is probably something that I will be continuing to be working quite hard for.
Susan Freeman
I mean its interesting in terms of succession at Helical that you have a team that has worked with you for so many years.
Mike Slade
Some people would say it’s not a good thing. No Gerald Kaye joined me in ‘94 and Matthew joined us in ‘95 and the rest of the team obviously over the ensuing years but I’m probably unusual that Gerald and I would be deemed to be completely different characters. I mean he works extremely hard almost too hard and…
Susan Freeman
I hope Gerald’s listening to this.
Mike Slade
…he is utterly, utterly straightforward and charming and you couldn’t wish for a nicer chap to be the CEO taking over from me and he’s been running that company for the last two or three years, you know one does back off and let them grow into it and I promised Gerald that when I hit seventy I would stand down so he could become CEO and that promise was made and okay when I hit seventy I handed it over to him as I said I would. So, they’ve stayed with me through thick and thin and Helical too might well be the story over the next five, six, seven, eight years. Gerald will I hope, stick with it and enjoy the rewards it will throw up if he continues to be as successful as he is, and I couldn’t be, I’m still major shareholder, I’m not selling my shares in any big way and the answer is I’ve got more than, huge confidence in what he’s doing and watching him over the last two years has been fascinating, he’s just grown into the job.
Susan Freeman
I think you can see why Mike is often described as one of the most colourful people in property. He’s going to be greatly missed by many of us when he steps down from Helical in the summer and sails over the horizon. So that’s it for now. Make sure you check out our Propertyshe website on mishcon.com/propertyshe for all our interviews and programme notes. The podcasts are also available to download on your Apple podcast app that’s the purple button on your iPhone or it’s available on Spotify. Do continue to let me have your feedback and reviews and most importantly your suggestions for future guests. Follow me on Twitter @Propertyshe for a regular commentary on real estate, prop tech and the world. Thanks for listening and goodbye.

Michael Slade FRICS, is Chairman of Helical plc, a UK-listed property development and investment company, one of the best performing quoted property stocks in the UK.

Mike is well known for his enthusiasm for yachting and launched his third “Leopard”, a 100-foot swing-keel ocean racer, in June 2007, in which he won the Rolex Fastnet Race, breaking the record by some nine hours. Since then Leopard has captured a number of records including the Transatlantic in seven days.

Mike was awarded an OBE in the 2019 New Years honours list for his charitable work for LandAid, the Property Industry’s charity which supports young homeless and vulnerable people. Mike co-founded LandAid in 1985 and remains President of the charity.

Mike is also Chairman of the Royal Marsden Hospital’s Oak Cancer Centre Appeal, a campaign to raise £70m to build a brand new, state-of-the-art cancer treatment and research centre. Mike and the team have already secured over £50m of this target in less than 2 years of the 5-year timeframe.

Mike is an enthusiastic partner in his wife Heather's thoroughbred horse breeding and racehorse ownership business. Mike and Heather have been married for 46 years and have three children and five grandchildren.

How can we help you?

How can we help you?

Subscribe: I'd like to keep in touch

If your enquiry is urgent please call +44 20 3321 7000

I'm a client

Please enter your first name
Please enter your last name
Please enter your enquiry
Please enter a value

I'm looking for advice

Please enter your first name
Please enter your last name
Please enter your enquiry
Please select a department
Please select a contact method

Something else

Please enter your first name
Please enter your last name
Please enter your enquiry
Please select your contact method of choice