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Propertyshe Podcast: Alistair Elliott former Senior Partner & Group Chairman of Knight Frank

Posted on 10 March 2022

Whether it’s national politics or local politics, real estate isn’t short-term yet our election pattern is and I think it’s a great challenge for the leaders, whether it’s the city leaders or the country leaders, to make sure that they are in a convincing way setting out a long-term plan to make our towns and cities, frankly across the UK as well as London, as attractive as possible and I’m not sure we’ve got it right in London at the moment.

Susan Freeman

Hi I am 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.  Today, I’m delighted to welcome Alistair Elliott, Senior Partner and Group Chairman of Knight Frank.  As Chair of the Knight Frank Group Executive Board, Alistair drives and implements the group’s global strategy.  Alistair joined Knight Frank on the graduate scheme in 1983.  After gaining extensive experience as an office leasing agent, he was elected as Head of Commercial in 2006 and then as Senior Partner and Group Chairman in 2013.  His focus is on driving and implementing the group’s global strategy across a network which now comprises over 16,000 people in 384 offices across 51 territories.  Beyond Knight Frank, Alistair is a prominent member of the wider property industry, he is a LandAid Trustee, a member of the British Property Federation Policy Committee, regular contributor to advisory committees and member of judging panels and frequently writes for key property media columns, as well as attending a range of broadcast interviews around the globe.  So now we are going to hear from Alistair Elliott as he prepares to step down from his role at Knight Frank after an amazing 38 years of service.

Alistair, good morning and welcome to the studio.  Let’s go straight in to what made you think of real estate as a career?  After 38 years at Knight Frank, what was the thinking at the outset?

Alistair Elliott

Almost certainly an accident, Susan.  I grew up on a farm, which I loved, and my father, long since passed sadly, was a farm manager and I think I had plans on farming or taking over from him but then learned that being a farm manager gave, didn’t give one an automatic right to farming so, I was going to go and become a farm manager and a friend of my father’s at the time, I remember the conversation distinctly but I would probably have only been sixteen or seventeen, he said if you are going to go into property, go and do an estate management degree, an urban estate management degree, you can become a farmer anytime.  And that led me to doing a degree in Estate Management at Birmingham Polytechnic which at the time I think was the only place that would have me given my rather embarrassing A Level results. 

Susan Freeman

So, I believe you joined the graduate training programme at Knight Frank, or I suppose it would have been Knight Frank and Rutley at that point in 1983.  What was the size of the firm then?

Alistair Elliott

Well it was then a much smaller business than it is today.  We were based in a rather grand Georgian building in Hanover Square, number 20 Hanover Square.  It was a predominantly UK residential business at the time and actually one that focussed most of its efforts upon country houses.  I think we only had two residential offices in London and we had a few overseas outposts, principally in western Europe and in Africa and we had an Australian business but not a great deal more back in ’83 so it would have been a much, much, much smaller business, I would be surprised if we had two hundred people in the UK. 

Susan Freeman

Incredible.  So, as Senior Partner and Group Chairman, how many people are you responsible for now?

Alistair Elliott

Well the UK business has approach three thousand people split pretty much 50:50 between commercial and residential disciplines.  In our owned businesses we’ve then got a further probably eight and a half, nine thousand people overseas and then about five thousand in our affiliation and associate businesses, all of whom have an incredibly important part to play in the firm and the majority of people outside of the UK focus upon commercial activities rather than residential but we have a strong private wealth network to build upon our residential sales.

Susan Freeman

I read somewhere that you’ve got approaching 384 offices across 51 jurisdictions, I mean that is quite a spread. 

Alistair Elliott

Yes, and that’s evolved over time.  We’ve done it organically, it sometimes surprises me that whilst I fully accept we are not of the scale of a few of our competitors, we are none the less a global business that I believe is well placed to deal with the majority of our clients’ needs but it still surprises me that we’ve got to where we’ve got to.  We’ve done it in a planned way but it’s been, it’s been steady, organic growth and I’m immensely grateful for the huge effort that many of our people have put in around the world to create what we’ve got today.  

Susan Freeman

And you’re still, you’re still expanding I think even in the last sort of year or so you have opened new outposts and I just wondered whether you are still looking, are there some areas that you haven’t got to yet and you’d still like to do business in?

Alistair Elliott

Yes, I mean my message is always that we’re open for business, noting two things.  That we’re looking for best in class local businesses or people and teams.  We’re probably not best placed to acquire significant enterprises.  Others have become much more accomplished at that and it probably doesn’t suit our capital base and model but if we can find best in class people and local businesses then our appetite is insatiable and yes, you are right, even over the last eighteen months, we’ve taken on new people and new businesses.  In the last twelve months we’ve expanded into Greece, into Bulgaria, into Serbia, we’ve got anew enterprise in regional France and we are currently looking at markets like the Nordics where we don’t have a formal operation at the moment but I hope we will have very soon and Vietnam, which we’ve literally just announced a new Knight Frank business in.  So, yes, very much keen to expand, noting that, perhaps surprising to some, we’ve been operating in London for 125 years, will we get bigger in London in the next ten years?  We definitely will and we’ve got plans to expand there as well.  So, I don’t think the job will ever be done, Susan. 

Susan Freeman

No, it’s ongoing.  And I know you work in alliances with other organisations and you recently ended a fifteen year alliance with Newmark, who are based in the US.  Does that mark a change of strategy or what was your thinking on that?

Alistair Elliott

No, I think North America for us is an important and very special case.  So, over the years we have developed strategic alliances to do two things, to give us access to North America and to give those businesses with whom we partner in North America, access to the rest of the world and for many years now, we’ve had a good relationship with Douglas Elliman on the residential side, and for fifteen years I’ve been working with Barry Gosin, the Chief Executive of Newmark, and his colleagues and it was a fruitful relationship but there was a moment in time where our global ambitions were going in different directions and it was a time to reflect and seek another partnership and I mean that in every sense of the word and we have now formed a partnership alongside the one we’ve already got with Douglas Elliman, with Cresa, who are the biggest tenant rep-only business that exist and their plans, culture and structure align with ours and that business is run by a North American veteran called Todd Lickerman and he and myself, and in the future my colleagues, have got big ambitions to help shape that.  So, I think one of the great attractions, and if I might suggest excitement, about our model is that we can do what we want so, when Vietnam pops up as an opportunity, we can shape that relationship to suit them and us, the same for central and Eastern Europe and the same with North America.  We’ve now got a gap in North America in capital markets and investments and we’ve got some exciting discussions developing which I hope one of which, I hope, will come to fruition and that will give us another strand to our bow as well in North America. 

Susan Freeman

And you are able to do what you want to do because you’re privately owned, which is now and I think, unusual for the large property consultancies, I think you’re the largest privately owned property consultancy, is that right?

Alistair Elliott

It is and you won’t be surprised to hear that on occasions, as I’ve developed my role within the firm, I’ve questioned it.  Is a partnership model fit for purpose in today’s world?  I remain convinced that particularly in professional services, there is an attractive virtue in being able to present to our clients that we are partnership-owned.  I don’t espouse that it is the only way, and clearly many of our competitors have demonstrated that it isn’t but I do believe there is an opportunity here and around the world for a partnership-owned business, I don’t think it is threatened.  It means we develop and grow in a different way.  It means we have a different culture.  I believe that’s an attractive proposition.  I don’t suggest it has to be the only proposition but I think it’s got attractive ingredients, which it is our job to sell to our clients and make good of it.  In order to retain that partnership model and grow globally, there are some things that we’ve got to be careful of and keep front of mind, one of which is to remain in control and that means trading profitably every year and avoiding structural long-term debt, which I am delighted to say, thanks to our colleagues around the world, we don’t, even through the global financial crisis, even through the pandemic, we have had front of mind managing our business, within our own resources and not succumbing to long-term structural debt, which isn’t an unattractive thing for many businesses but it means we are not in control 100% and we need to be if we are going to retain our independence and our structure, which I believe we’re more committed to now than ever. 

Susan Freeman

So, you mentioned a different culture at Knight Frank so, it would be really interesting to know how you differentiate yourself and how you are different as a brand from some of the other large property services companies.

Alistair Elliott

Well, I can only describe it as I see it and that is that it’s one of client service at our core, it is about being accountable for our actions to our clients and our partners, no one else.  It is not having to worry about our next month or our next quarter’s results.  Yes, we are committed to a highly driven, competitive partnership, profit-driven model.  I make no excuses or apologies for that but we are only accountable to our clients and ourselves and I believe that has developed a culture of strong connectivity and collaboration around the world, I mean I have made it my job to know our key clients here and around the world, I also believe it is my role to know each of our key operators well around the world, which I do, and our structure and scale makes that very doable. 

Susan Freeman

So, obviously customer service is a core part of what you do.  What do you think the real estate sector is going to have to do to change to meet changing customer demands because things are changing very fast in our sector?

Alistair Elliott

They are, quicker than ever.  We haven’t got to back long before we had plenty of time to respond to a letter or prepare a report or give a market update and now there is a, an urgency, an immediacy about just about everything we do, and not all of that is great, but I still maintain, and I don’t think there is one size that fits all in the provision of services and advice in real estate so, what I believe and say, I’m not expecting is a trend for all of real estate and different businesses, whether they be clients or competitors or other advisors, have got different models and I’m completely respectful of that and I think there’s plenty of room for different approaches.  However, I think without any doubt, our approach needs to be one that focusses upon customer services and making the personal approach stand out and count for something different.  Yes, technology is key.  Yes, data is a priority.  Yes, the evolving world of ESG is very high upon our agenda but remaining customer focussed in a personal way, is our absolute obsession. 

Susan Freeman

So, it must involve quite a lot of travel for you in your role and how did you, how did you cope with not being able to see people during the lockdown periods?

Alistair Elliott

That was really tough and going back almost precisely two years, the period between March and June of 2020, which now feels like a lifetime away in certain respects, was probably the most intensive management period I had ever experienced.  First of all, moving everybody to home working, which we had never done before, I had actually never worked from home for a full day in my career, I don’t think, and then working out how to manage a global organisation, which at various times was going through various stages of adaptation to the pandemic environment.  It was an extraordinary period.  First of all, to your point, with the absence of travel, actually we did discover that there was a viable alternative and that was the various opportunities that came to light as to Zooms and Teams and different types of online meetings, which actually for a period were incredibly effective and they have unquestionably informed us as to how we can organise ourselves better and more efficiently going forward responding to the, certainly the E of ESG, in less air travel but I also believe it has highlighted the absolute importance of knowing who your colleagues are around the world, knowing them personally.  I could not have done the job I did during that period if I had not have known the people who run our businesses around the world really well and vice versa.  So, starting from that base reminds me that when we develop into the post-pandemic world, yes we will use technology to communicate more regularly but it has also highlighted the need for the right amount of focussed, international, personal engagement with our people and our clients so, it will be different but it will certainly have its place.  Look, I’m now a bit embarrassed to say it, Susan, but you know I remember going to Sydney, you know for a leaving dinner and having a day of meetings and then coming home again.  We used to have quarterly Asia Pacific country heads meeting, meetings, probably in Singapore but they used to vary their location.  I don’t think we’ll do those things going forward.  We’ll do it differently and in a much more focussed way. 

Susan Freeman

It’s interesting because I think the Zoom and Team, the technology is going to get so much, so much better and it will make that easier.  So, at Knight Frank you have a really good mix of commercial and high net worth residential clients so, I believe you advise a high percentage of the ultra-high net worths, particularly in London and I just wondered what you were hearing from your clients on the commercial and on the residential side, about London’s attraction post-Brexit, I mean is it still a magnet for international investment and if so, why?

Alistair Elliott

Look, I think in good British style, we’re always very critical of ourselves and rather embarrassed of our own successes, aren’t we, as organisations possibly and certainly as a country.  There are always sensitivities when one talks about the world of wealth but the facts are and we’ve launched our latest wealth report today, the facts are the wealthy of the world have become wealthier over the last few years and I have no doubt that their response to Covid, their response to the crises around the world which are particularly evident today, will be to be more philanthropic, to be more conscious as to the privileges that wealth affords them but there is also no doubting that their engagement with real estate has a over the last fifteen years changed very, very dramatically so, they are not only buying homes for themselves and their families but they are also investing in every aspect of real estate and that is an area with which we are very engaged and will continue to be engaged, I hope, and are focussing a lot of time and effort in trying to get more right but what it has also reminded us, is to the huge privilege we have of operating within the UK and London because there is no question that after every crisis, people are drawn to quality, they are drawn to safer environments, they are drawn to environments where the infrastructure is strong, where the education facilities are full breadth and at the highest level and where the choices remain greatest and London is unquestionably in the top league in that department and I don’t see that being threatened in the short- term.  Of course tax and politics can over time erode the attractions of a location and I believe our Government has a great responsibility now, with a cosmopolitan city like London, to make it, will retain its competitive nature because we’ve gone there now, we are global and I don’t think it is practical nor attractive to turn our back on it.  Yes, we need to be balanced.  Yes, we need to be fair but I don’t, I don’t believe, as I see things at the moment, that London is anything other than a more attractive place for homeowners, for investors now than it was before the Covid pandemic. 

Susan Freeman

Yes, I think one worries with the focus on the levelling up agenda that you know London, that we can become a little bit complacent about London and I just wondered whether you thought there was anything more that the London Mayor should be doing to ensure that London remains competitive?

Alistair Elliott

I’m always wary of drifting into the detail of politics, which I’m not about to do, but I think there is, you know, I think London is work in progress, whether its national politics or local politics, real estate isn’t short-term, yet our election pattern is and I think it’s a great challenge for the leaders, whether it’s the city leaders or the country leaders, to make sure that they are in a convincing way, setting out a long-term plan to make our town and cities, frankly across the UK as well as London, as attractive as possible and I’m not sure we’ve got it right in London at the moment, I don’t think the balance of focus upon infrastructure is necessarily there at the moment.  Look, let’s be honest, we’re still waiting for Crossrail to open, you know, we’re talking about building or we are building a connection to the North of the UK for the purposes of helping our infrastructure and helping levelling up but we’re not setting a great example in London by not being able to complete a key project like Crossrail.  I think we’ve got to do a lot more to escalate the speed of change in London around infrastructure, we’ve got to make sure we continue to make it a safe and attractive and vibrant place and that means being fair to everybody, including those who are looking to invest in London and making them feel welcome. 

Susan Freeman

I think you are absolutely right.  And just focussing a little bit on offices, I know a recent, a recent Knight Frank report said that global investors were expecting to spend £60 billion on London offices over the next five years, I mean are you seeing that, I mean any sort of particular nationalities looking to invest and what areas are they looking at now?

Alistair Elliott

Look, I think there are, if I may answer that question in two ways.  The first is, the office market.  Probably, as an office agent for twenty five years plus of my career, I’ve got a very biased opinion but I never believed the doom merchants at the beginning of the pandemic saying this means the offices are dead and there were some people who were saying it and I think they really meant it.  I never for one moment felt that as a consequence of what we were going through, the office environment was going to die.  I remember people when I started work in the ‘80s, saying people were going to work from home and they are and they will and the percentage of people who are going to seek a flexible office environment has grown and is not for reversing but more than ever, to establish value in the culture of a company, to understand what your organisation is about, to meet people, to train people, to engage with clients, the office environment has never been more valuable but it cannot be taken for granted, it needs to have wellbeing in front of mind, it needs to have the whole ESG agenda front of mind.  Our developers, our consultants, people like Knight Frank need to work incredibly hard with occupiers to create places that make a difference for their organisations and in that regard I believe offices will thrive well into the future and the best ones will have a higher value attributed to them than ever before.  And that provokes the investment demand, which we’re going to see a renaissance of, you know, let’s not fool ourselves but as long as there is capital of scale to invest in real estate, as there is at the moment, then I have no doubt that a significant amount of that will be focussed towards the best assets in London and I don’t believe there is any one place from where that money is going to come but I believe London is… London and much of the UK is an attractive enough proposition that it will draw more than its fair share of the investment capital that is out there in.  Now I do believe there is a challenge.  As we have seen in the retail sector for shopping centres that those office buildings, as with those shopping centres that don’t hit the mark, those office buildings that are out of date and not able to easily respond to the ESG agenda, which is moving apace, will need some time and imagination in order to ensure they are properly adapted and repurposed for the next ten years. 

Susan Freeman

And that, that begs the question that there must be some assets that just aren’t going to be capable of being retrofitted to create the sort of space that people want now.  Are we going to have stranded assets?  What’s going to happen to them?

Alistair Elliott

It’s very topical at the moment, Susan, and I haven’t got all of the answers.  I’ve got a fear and that is that what government wants, i.e. the pace at which they wish to move, particularly the environmental aspect of ESG with buildings and the way buildings are able to be adapted, I believe there is a mismatch and there is no point creating a structured obsolescence in buildings, whichever buildings that we’re talking about, let’s make it general, because the embodied carbon, as everybody knows, in those structures is such that it would be a complete travesty and contrary the objectives if we were to create unintended obsolescence so, I believe that that discussion is still developing and that we need to find the right answer for those buildings which could become, as you suggested, obsolete, I think we’ve got to work very hard to make sure there is a solution that they can be properly adapted for the future, not casting them into a, the only route is demolition because demolition is incredibly expensive, generally quite long-term and certainly not environmentally friendly, it is much better to find a way of repurposing them for the future and that’s a big challenge which is very much front of mind for many at the moment. 

Susan Freeman

It seems that you know in some cases the funds and the lenders are sort of, I suppose causing early obsolescence because they are sort of putting pressure on property owners to make a building, well a building is actually coming to the end of its useful life earlier than it might otherwise do. 

Alistair Elliott

And that’s where the dilemma and dichotomy is.  There is no question that for some buildings, the only practical response is redevelopment but I’m just saying that I believe the discussion has got further to go to make sure those investors understand the environmental risks attributed to creating that unintended obsolescence and there isn’t a simple answer, it’s work in progress, it’s front of mind and the green capital, if I can put it that way, needs to be moderated and flexible to make sure that it isn’t a hard cut and that there is flexibility in managing and nurturing those assets that are able to respond but it’s just going to take a bit more time. 

Susan Freeman

So, just turning to technology, I know Knight Frank have recently invested in Fifth Wall’s €140 million European real estate tech fund.  What prompted you to invest and what do you hope to achieve from it?

Alistair Elliott

Well the first thing to point out is that it isn’t some rash decision to suddenly try and make some money out of proptech enterprises and keep our fingers crossed.  I would like to suggest it was a strategic move in parallel with our own investment in our bespoke technology.  We wanted to have a more considered approach to the broad proptech arena and when we engaged with the team at Fifth Wall, we were convinced that that was the right thing to do.  Not with an objective, as I say of making a fast buck but to have an eye on what was going on in the much broader world, which our infrastructure would never allow us to do to the scale that something like Fifth Wall is doing so, it’s a two-fold reason for making an investment.  One, to have a broader oversight as to the evolving proptech world in a way that we didn’t feel we would be able to do it ourselves, nor did we want to and then to be available as a testbed or prototype for some of the investment opportunities that the Fifth Wall team are exploring.  And when you look at what the venture capital arena has to go through in order to make its strategic investment decisions, it requires a lot of intellectual capital, it requires a lot of money and it has to be with the acceptance of a lot of failure.  So, these organisations look at hundreds of different opportunities, they look in detail at a few and then invest in even fewer and that’s what we’re all, we’re really interested in, is to work out which of the ones that are really going to move the dial and make a difference.  Fifth Wall gives us that opportunity in tandem with, and I’d like to emphasise this, us also developing and creating the best technology platform we feel able to for our own people internally in order to execute the job as best they possibly can.

Susan Freeman

I am a great fan of Fifth Wall because the… my first podcast was actually with Brendan Wallace, one of the founders, and so, in terms of the technology that you’re seeing on the ground, what’s having the most impact on real estate at the moment?

Alistair Elliott

I’ve got to be careful I’m not breaching any confidences so, I’ll be a little vague.  Look, I think data and efficiency in order to ensure our people are best placed to give the best advice they possibly can to our clients is where we’re driven and that’s where I’m convinced we are best placed to spend our money.  Look, our clients, the world is able to find a whole raft of different sources for data and how to create efficiencies and we want to do the very best we can to get that data, to capture it, to make it efficient, to make it attractive but with a single objective, to ensure that our people are best placed to then give our clients the best possible advice and I know I’m becoming slightly repetitive but that is at the core of everything we are doing and I believe our clients want to come to somebody like us, an independent advisor, to get an opinion, to get advice, not just to get the data re-presented in a different way than they can get themselves or from another of our competitors in the field and it is for that reason that we are investing in, whether it’s our own platform or the Fifth Wall environment, to capture as much intelligence as we can, to make us best placed to give the best advice to our clients. 

Susan Freeman

So, it’s interesting, the emerging technology really gives the opportunity for you to play a more strategic role in advising clients but it also is impacting the role of the estate agent so, you know with all the online platforms.  How do you see that working out?

Alistair Elliott

I think the online platforms have added a huge additional dimension to what buyers and sellers, renters and leasers or residential property have available to them, it’s just exploded.  So, the speed of getting access to photographs, to videos, to comparable evidence, to what the local amenities are, to what the local pricing has been, historical sales going back decades, that is a raft information.  I, you know, I don’t mind admitting that in the early days of online, you know, we thought it was going to be an enormous threat to the extent that our day maybe up.  So, we took that very seriously and considered what our clients needed when they were buying or selling homes and we’ve provided, I believe, our digital platform, we’ve made our digital platform, forgive me, respond to that so that it is very much more engaging and better.  The problem with digital and technology is that it is never done and when you turn over a page, you realise you are only getting to the end of the first chapter and you’ve got to get onto the second chapter quickly so, it evolves at a huge pace which we are trying to do all we can to keep on top of so that our clients and customers get the dual experience of the best technology, the best access to information but also a person to talk to about what’s happening in that particular residential area or market and a person to show them over the property and give them real insight. 

Susan Freeman

So, it’s really interesting the way technology is changing and continuing to change the way, the way we do business but one of the things that seems to be changing more slowly in real estate is diversity and I know this is you know something that we’ve talked about.  How are you approaching this at Knight Frank and how are you able to encourage people from different backgrounds and diversity of agenda to come into the business?

Alistair Elliott

Real estate has got a bad press in this arena I know, maybe professional services have.  If I go back to when I started, I came to Knight Frank from a very different background in all respects.  I always felt welcome and the real estate industry at large always made me feel welcome.  I know that hasn’t been the case for others and I know that the industry has to change but I also know that the industry knows it has to change and is doing a lot about it.  The results of that endeavour, having not yet become as clear to everybody as they should but I can only reaffirm that the commitment and intent is absolute and in our own way, we have proven to ourselves with engagement with external consultants over the last few years, we have made a transformational shift in the way we recruit our graduates, encourage interns, work with apprentices.  As a consequence of which, we have now got the diversity we aspire to have at the entry level coming into the business.  What we have now got to be obsessed about, is making sure that that diversity in every respect, gender, the LGBT+ community, ethnicity, to make sure that diversity continues to feel welcomed and nurtured in their careers all the way through.  By implication that means it’s going to take us another ten years to have that representation as broadly as we would like at every level of our firm.  Yes, we can make changes by lateral hires, by moving people from one agency to another, by trying to recruit people from our clients but we’ve got to be honest with ourselves, Susan, that all that is doing is moving the blocks around the scene rather than making the structural change and I believe endeavour and patience will prove that we can make a real difference.  There have been some areas where people have not felt welcome, where career paths haven’t been clear for those people who wanted to take a break and have a family.  I believe those barriers are being broken down, not eliminated but broken down so, I think whichever way you look at it, progress is being made and I am sorry to say that it is going to take several more years before we will see the real evidence that we need to show at every level of our business but that it will definitely happen. 

Susan Freeman

And if I looked at the names of the partners in the LLP, which I can’t because it’s initials rather than first names, are you saying that at the moment there isn’t quite the diversity that you would want to see?

Alistair Elliott

There’s nothing like and by the way, the initials is not done for that intention, I can promise you, it’s just been that way forever.  But look, at equity partner level, the percentage of females is embarrassingly low.  At salaried member level, the percentage isn’t good enough but it’s growing.  At associate level, it’s very respectable and that indicates the course we are going on.  What we need to replicate, as I’ve said, is that the early careers profile becomes the same at associate level, becomes the same at salaried level, becomes the same at proprietary partner level, and it will. 

Susan Freeman

And do you think part of the problem is the image of the real estate sector, which you know if one is honest, is not great, I mean could that be putting off people coming into the sector and I mean do you think we need to be more vocal about the positive messages that somehow don’t seem to get across?

Alistair Elliott

All of that.  We haven’t found the right way, as an industry, I’m not talking about Knight Frank now, I’d be very happy to but I think it’s more relevant to the industry at large, whether it’s advisors, developers, investors, the industry has not yet found the right way of portraying itself to people who are exploring their career options, whether that’s at school, whichever school, or whether it’s at further education, whichever type of further education.  You know, we failed, along with the other key advisors, we’ve been trying to turn that corner for a long time and we’ve made some inroads but to tackle the education sector at large, we require some heavyweight lobbyists, heavyweight voices and as far as I’m concerned, to name one, the RICS has got to stand to account as it evolves from its current crisis and be a flag waver for our industry at every level, to ensure that we make it clear.  At the moment, you are either an estate agent or a chartered surveyor.  Most people know what an estate agent does.  We’ve got to accept that by and large that doesn’t have a great profile, which we need to work on.  Most people haven’t got a clue what a chartered surveyor does and we’ve got to make that change.  It’s elitist by perception but I’ve got to say, I honestly believe this that when you look under the bonnet, I don’t think the industry is but it’s perceived as such so it doesn’t attract the broader group of people that we so desperately need to come into it.  So, we haven’t got the PR right and I very much hope that the reinvigorated, reformed, RICS will come out able to galvanise our resources, acting in the best public interest, engage with the BPF, engage with the many other industry organisations and make us an industry that has got a good profile and one we can all be proud to say we’re part of. 

Susan Freeman

I certainly hope so, I mean it’s extraordinary for an industry that is responsible for the environment within which people do everything that we can’t, you know, we can’t tell a better story because we certainly need people from just, you know, different backgrounds, you know, people who think differently, to come and join us.  And do you think real estate is still about relationships and about who you know in the way that it was in the past?

Alistair Elliott

I agree with you in part.  Yes, I believe it is about establishing relationships with your colleagues at every part of an organisation and with your clients.  Real estate is an instinctive business, I believe.  It’s a business which you drive with your heart and passion, whether it’s buying or selling a house or an office building or a logistics complex, it has to be right, it has to be understood, it has to be felt and therefore I believe ultimately, it is about relationships.  But I don’t think it’s about relationships like it was forty years ago when there were then developers and it was all about offices and shops and sheds with residential sort of in its own cocoon.  Real estate is very much more exciting as an industry now than it was when I started, to the extent that it is residential, that it is shopping centres which are having to change, it is about industrial which is having to change, it is about offices which we’ve already mentioned are adapting but it’s also about mainstream, it’s also about hotels, it’s about data centres, it’s about healthcare, it’s about student property, it’s about retirement living, it’s about the private renter sector.  The reason I mention that is not only does that offer much greater diversity of choice when you come into the industry of things to do but it has also created a whole raft of different people who operate in the industry, who have a different perspective and meaned the traditional, as I think you were alluding to, old boys network, is an irrelevance.  It may be used, it may be used as a point of reference but it’s, it’s historic but in a constructive, modern way, building a network of people who trust you, where there is mutual trust, is I believe a lynchpin for developing a career within the professional services arena.  Having someone’s trust, being understood for your integrity and honest opinions, that’s about building a network over time, building relationships over time and they will thrive into the future. 

Susan Freeman

I think that’s such a good way of putting it.  Thank you.  So, at the end of the month you’re stepping down as Senior Partner and Group Chairman and handing over to William Beardmore-Gray.  Why now and what are your thoughts as your time at Knight Frank comes to an end?

Alistair Elliott

Stepping down, I never thought I would step up.  I’m not quite sure how it’s happened, Susan but look, as I said earlier, I’ve been here forever, or forever in a career sense.  I loved being an office agent for twenty plus years.  I’m very grateful for Knight Frank for giving me a platform where I could become an office agent and in my own little way, I always felt I could push the boundaries without there being any barriers.  I developed an eagerness to get more involved in managing the business, I can’t explain why I did but I did.  That led to me running the commercial business from 2006/7 to 2013 and then having the good fortune, and I regard it as that and a great privilege to represent the partners and people of our organisation as being their Chairman and Senior Partner, as you say, I step down from that role after nine years at the end of March.  I always knew that would be the case.  The partners of the business agree to still retire at, in the March of their sixtieth birthday, my birthday was just last month, so I retire at the end of March.  I’ve always known that was going to be the case.  I believe, as things stand, it is a great release valve for the business that our partners do step away at that stage from Knight Frank, I’m sure in the future there may be differences but at the moment I’ve always been supportive of that.  I leave Knight Frank in good shape, not as a consequence of what I’ve done but it is as a consequence 100% of everyone pulling together and as I said earlier, I believe and hope it remains committed to partnership, providing that structure allows us to be progressive and responsive to our clients’ needs and if it does, I see no reason why that model needs to be or should be threatened.  And I look forward to the future with huge excitement, it’s going to be an incredibly emotional month for me.  I can’t say I’m looking forward to the last day and saying goodbye but I am looking forward to, after taking a short break, seems to be getting shorter, staying in the industry and keeping very busy and I’ve had the good fortune to have been offered two or three things to do, which I’m going to embrace a 100% and have a little bit more time to myself. 

Susan Freeman

And can you say anything about any of the roles that you’re heading into?

Alistair Elliott

The two that are public, I can.  One is that I’m chairing the Commercial Property and Development Committee for Duchy of Cornwall, taking over from John Stephen, who chaired JLL a number of years ago, who has guided me into that role, which I’ve already started and am enjoying enormously and I’m delighted to have signed up to be a non-exec advisor of the Grosvenor Great Britain and Ireland Board, chaired by Melanie Gee and the Chief Executive, James Raynor, an organisation I’ve worked with coincidentally I think over many years and have got a lot of respect and time for and I look forward to taking up that role.  And then there are two or three other things bubbling along which will become evident in the springtime, I hope. 

Susan Freeman

That’s great.  So you will be staying in the real estate sector?

Alistair Elliott

One hundred percent. 

Susan Freeman

Okay, that is great.  Well, Alistair, very best wishes for the next chapter and thank you so much for your time today. 

Alistair Elliott

It’s been a great pleasure, Susan, thank you for your time and interest and I’ve enjoyed the discussion.  Very best wishes to you too.  We’ll keep in touch. 

Susan Freeman

Thank you.  We will. 

Thank you, Alistair Elliott for some fascinating insights into our very rapidly changing real estate sector and very best wishes for the next chapter of your real estate career.    So, that’s it for now.  I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast 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.

Alistair Elliott is the former Senior Partner and Group Chairman of Knight Frank.

As Chair of the Knight Frank Group Executive Board, Alistair drives and implements the group’s global strategy.

Alistair joined Knight Frank on the graduate scheme in 1983. After gaining extensive experience as an office leasing agent, he was elected as Head of Commercial in 2006 and subsequently as senior partner and group chairman in 2013.

His focus is on driving and implementing the group’s global strategy, across a network which now comprises over 16,000 people in 384 offices across 51 territories.

Beyond Knight Frank, Alistair is a prominent member of the wider property industry. He is a LandAid Trustee; a member of the British Property Federation Policy Committee; regular contributor to advisory committees and member of judging panels; and frequently writes for key property media columns, as well as attending a range of broadcast interviews around the globe.

 

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