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Sue Brown

Propertyshe podcast: Sue Brown

Posted on 03 June 2024

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. Today, I am delighted to welcome Sue Brown.  Sue is Managing Director for Real Estate Balance, a campaigning organisation working to improve diversity and inclusion in the real estate industry.  Sue has four decades of business, property and economic development experience.  She joined Real Estate Balance in April 2020 from London First, where since 2016 she was Executive Director with responsibility for property, planning, the environment and development.  Sue started her career in local government, serving as a senior advisor in a variety of high profile roles before going on to establish her own real estate consultancy.  She was the driving force behind the launch of MIPIM, the world’s largest real estate investment conference that takes place each year in Cannes.  She was also the co-founder and co-chair of REWIRE, the network for women in property.  At the EG Awards in October 2023, Sue won the Outstanding Individual Award in recognition of her services to the property industry.  So now we’re going to hear from Sue Brown about her amazing real estate career to date and why she chose to take on the role at Real Estate Balance. 

Sue, good morning and welcome.  I’ve really been looking forward to talking to you because of course we’re going to talk about your role at Real Estate Balance but you’ve had such an interesting real estate career that I thought we’d try and start at the beginning and, you know, talk through some of it.  So, like a number of my guests, I think you were originally going to go into Law but decided not to so, any regrets about that?   

Sue Brown

No, actually Susan, without being rude, no I don’t have any regrets about it but it’s interesting that you say “like a lot of your guests”, yeah, I wanted, well actually, my mother wanted me to be a barrister and I was at a very, very, very good girls’ grammar school in Battersea, well in ‘Ba’ersea’ before it became ‘Ba Tarsea’ and I wanted to go into the Law and this was the sort of girls’ grammar school, I mean very traditional girls’ grammar school where there was 90 of us in the year and ten of us were called Susan, as it happens, so there you are, that’s an interesting sort of bit of information for you and I.  But, I mean, eight of us got 11 O-levels in one year, so it was that sort of school that, you know, really academically pushed you and we did well.  But my headmistress, when she did the sixth form scene with my parents, she said, “Well Susan wants to go into the Law but she’s never going to be able to be a lawyer because of the way she speaks.”  So, my father said, “Well, what do we have to do?” and my headmistress said, “Well, we should give her elocution lessons” which they did and to his dying day, said it was the worst £6.50 a term he’d ever spent because clearly, it had no impact whatsoever.  I can do ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’ by Moliere and that’s about it really so, yeah, that’s why I didn’t go into the Law because my headmistress thought that I didn’t speak properly.

Susan Freeman

That’s very funny and a lot of parallels, the ten Susans in the class and the mother that wanted you go in, I mean that does resonate with me as well.  So, I think you studied history at university in the end?

Sue Brown

At UCL, yeah, I mean I actually applied to UCL to do Law in my upper sixth and didn’t get in.  I did get a place to do Law at Warwick and then realised I was clearly a London girl and that was going to require me to be in the middle of a field for three years, which wasn’t really my idea of fun so, then when I didn’t get in to do Law at UCL, I then did history at UCL.  So, to my eternal shame, although I’ve travelled quite a lot, I’ve never lived anywhere else other than London.

Susan Freeman

So, when you came out, what was your thinking?  What sort of job were you looking for?

Sue Brown

At that stage, my politics were very, very, very left-wing and I mean I remain of the left, so I didn’t want to go into the private sector whatsoever so, I applied for a job as a grad trainee at the London Borough of Wandsworth and interestingly, because I did have a year out to see if I could get in to do Law and then got in to do history anyway so, I actually worked at the London Borough of Lambeth for a year so, you know, my kids went on gap years all round the world and I’d worked at the London Borough of Lambeth.  So it meant I was really well qualified to become a grad trainee at the London Borough of Wandsworth, which is the adjacent borough, but they literally told me that they weren’t going to give me the job because I was a woman and probably, on that basis, anything that you need to know about me is all said in that phrase, you know, the fact that the first job I wanted, I went for on leaving university, coming from a background where I was the first person in my family to ever go to university and all those things and as I say, had some experience in local government and they told me they weren’t going to give me the job because I was a woman, but I think that’s fairly frightening but it was as it was. 

Susan Freeman

But you did the get the job, didn’t you.

Sue Brown

I did get the job, yeah.  Because I think, you know, some of the younger people, I was in the Chief Exec’s department, and some of the younger people in the department said, “well you just can’t do that to a woman” and I worked at London Borough of Wandsworth for a year.  If I’m entirely honest, I mean, you know, I had friends there but it was, I was the only woman in the department that wasn’t a secretary, a telephonist or a typist, I mean, telephonists and typists, typists people had probably just forgotten that they even existed but they did.  So, all our typing, we used to put in a typing pool to get done.  But it was a difficult place to be where there was no other woman, professional if you want to use that phrase, in the department so, after a year I left and I went to work for the amazing, whatever word, other word you use about her, Shirley Porter at the City of Westminster, who you probably remember, who was I think the best description was “the Margarate Thatcher of local government” is probably the best description of her.

Susan Freeman

Well she’s, she’s legendary isn’t she.  So, that was an interesting role model at a time where women weren’t taken seriously as leaders.

Sue Brown

Well, it was, and certainly working for her was fascinating and she was no respecter of hierarchy whatsoever.  So I mean, I was so far down the local government scale, I was off the other end but you know that didn’t matter to her so, she used to take me, I mean I worked really hard for her but you know I became, I was like a whatever phrase, you know, lapdog or whatever but I used to, you know, follow her around.  She used to take me to ministerial delegations, all sorts of things so, there I was as a 23, 24 year old, certainly doing things that you know I had no right to expect to do and I mean in that sense I think, you know, years of reading management and education and things, when people say to you, “If you’re get a job early in your career working to a sort of senior person, it’s a very good thing to do” and certainly working for Shirley, that happened to me, it was you know, she just exposed me to things that I think I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to for probably another ten years.

Susan Freeman

What were the main things you learned from working with her?

Sue Brown

Most probably the main thing I learned was not to stand any nonsense actually.  I mean she could be, I mean you remember, you know she sold the cemeteries for 20p and all the rest of it, I mean that was after I’d left actually.  I mean she could be, if she liked you, you were fine.  If she didn’t like you, you weren’t fine and she wasn’t very nice to you but yeah, the biggest thing I learned from her is take no nonsense.

Susan Freeman

That’s a useful lesson.  And Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister at the time wasn’t she.  So, there were some really strong female role models, you know, to show that life could be very, very different.

Sue Brown

Yeah, I mean I, I went to Westminster in October 1979 which was clearly about six months after Thatcher became PM, yeah, so strong Tory women, as it happened, you know both in relation to Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Porter, you know strong Tory women. 

Susan Freeman

So, your next role was at the London Docklands Development Corporation, the LDDC, which I think was set up in 1981 by Michael Heseltine, who was Environment Secretary, with the aim of regenerating the Docklands area, which was like completely depressed so, basically taking the area out of the hands of local government and you know controlled by this government quango, I suppose.  So, this must have been an incredibly exciting place to be.

Sue Brown

You know, I mean the, it was both the London Docklands Development Corporation and the Merseyside Development Corporation were set up under I think Section 124 of the Local Government Planning and Land Act in 1980 – see, there’s a lawyer in me somewhere – and they actually both came into existence on the 1st July 1981.  I went to the LDDC on the 15th February ’82 so, I was there very, very, very you know early.  The LDDC, I mean I, I really went for that job, I really was keen to do it because I realised that the LDDC was going to be an incredibly exciting place to be.  It was another place where, I mean I was 25 I think when I went there, if you were young, that you were prepared to work hard, you know the world was literally your oyster and we had this incredible chief executive, a man called Reg Ward, who actually was also out of local government and also had a history degree and a fine arts degree, but come through local government, I mean, was totally, I mean, Michael Heseltine used to say about him that he had his feet planted firmly two foot in the air and that’s exactly what he was like and he sort of made lots of decisions about keeping the cranes and things like that, he wanted to keep the industrial heritage of Docklands but it was him that decided that, you know, he didn’t want Docklands just to be a sort of warehouse wasteland, I mean it’s quite interesting, if you look at logistics now and the role that logistics plays in the economy now, but you know for him it was all about job creation and of course the most incredible thing that he did was get Canary Wharf built, well not literally him personally but you know, it was him who was the man that started to talk to G Ware Travelstead about renovating Canary Wharf, well building Canary Wharf and then Travelstead was not quite ousted but was effectively ousted by the Reichmanns, who then built Canary Wharf and that was all down to Reg Ward and I think the most incredible thing is that Reg got no honour because in doing what he did, he upset a lot of the civil servants at the Department of the Environment and they never forgave him, and he is the man who is literally responsible for Docklands but, as I say, upset too many civil servants on the way to get an honour, which seems absolutely wicked.  He died late 2010 or early 2011 and if you go to the Museum of London in Docklands, you know, there’s quite a lot on Reg but amazing, amazing, amazing man and just made the LDDC a really interesting place to work.

Susan Freeman

So, “interesting” sounds like an understatement.  There was, I mean virtually sort of nothing there and now we have Canary Wharf and I think Margaret Thatcher got involved with that didn’t she, because she was very keen to persuade Olympia & York to come there and promised to fund the Jubilee Line extension.

Sue Brown

Well, I mean you’ve obviously got Canary Wharf and you’ve got all the other development on the Isle of Dogs, which is obviously a lot of resi as well, I mean resi all on the West Ferry Road but don’t forget the LDDC was also responsible for what was effectively Surrey Docks and in fact, you know, Tooley Street from London Bridge to Tower Bridge and then as I say with Surrey Docks where it is now and also had responsibility for the Royals.  The Royals of course was never, I mean, I know ExCeL is there and Building 1000 in the Royal Albert and work is still taking place on the south side of Royal Victoria Dock.  But so the L, you know, the LDDC was 8 square miles.  It wasn’t just the Isle of Dogs, which clearly is where it’s most apparent.  As I say, it was south of the river and it was, it was parts of London boroughs of Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Newham, that’s what the area actually covered. 

Susan Freeman

And what was your role there?

Sue Brown

I had a series of roles there.  Because my, of my background, I actually had at both Wandsworth and at Westminster, I was what they called a Committee Clerk, which was a sort of quasi political and policy job and that’s what I went to do at the LDDC, to actually work for yet another lawyer, to run all the committee team and everything and I did that I suppose for a year or a couple of years, I can’t remember exactly, and then I became effectively, I took on all the responsibilities for actually running the estate.  Again, I mean, I had no experience in doing that but the LDDC was the sort of place, and Reg was the sort of man that if you showed any aptitude at all and, as I say, you worked hard, he was prepared to put you in different jobs so, I started doing all the committee work, then I, as I say, became head of all of the premises and then the final job I had there was as Programme Manager for the High Tech Group, which is hilarious because I am probably the most technologically incompetent person you are ever likely to meet.  So I had, you know, I had three jobs there in about four years and then myself and the man who has become my second husband, he and I pulled ourselves out and set ourselves up as an events and communications company, working initially in Docklands, then obviously working for a lot of other people as well. 

Susan Freeman

So that was Tamesis.

Sue Brown

Yeah, that was what became Tamesis, yeah.

Susan Freeman

And so I think you set up business together in around 1986.  Did you hit the ground running acting for the big developers because I know you did act for some of the biggest developers at the time?

Sue Brown

Yeah, well, I mean I think, you know, we’d because the LDDC was very much based, the idea behind the LDDC was there should be a small staff and that otherwise work should be done by consultants.  So, when we left the LDDC, we took a lot of work with us, we took a lot of comms and marketing and events work with us and so, I mean that clearly set us up really well but then, yes, we did start working for other trader developers so we, I mean I think we did some work for Mountley, we did a bit of work for Heron at one stage but we did a lot of work for Rosehaugh and Rosehaugh Stanhope and I expect you’re gonna ask me how that, you know, in doing that, we then got involved in MIPIM because that’s I think probably the most significant thing that came out of that, yeah.

Susan Freeman

It’s true.  Interesting sort of hearing you list your developer clients.  I think we were probably acting for similar clients at the time.

Sue Brown

Well late ‘80s I think, you know, it was the same people wasn’t it and so, those of us that were service providers, I didn’t, I’m not sure I realised at the time what a service provider was but yeah, we would have worked for a lot of the same people I would have thought.

Susan Freeman

And then there was MIPIM.  How did you and Tony get involved with MIPIM and so which was the first one you went, well I suppose you went to the first one?

Sue Brown

Went to the first one, yeah.  Well, the story behind MIPIM is quite funny actually.  I mean, we were working for Rosehaugh and when the people who was the, it was TVS who owned Midem, who were the people that were running these big shows in Cannes and Tony always said that if we were asked to go to Watford at that stage, we would have found it quite exciting, you know because we were only really working in London, and Rosehaugh asked Tony and Bill Peach, who was then at Healey and Baker – this really sort of ages us, doesn’t it, all these firms were under different names, so obviously now Cushman & Wakefield – Kevin McGovern from Rosehaugh, Tony and Bill Peach from Healey and Baker went out to Paris to meet these people that were going to get this property show going and then went down to Cannes and then Tony came back and said to me that he wanted me to go down on one of the television shows that this organisation, Midem ran and this was in April 1989.  I’d given birth to our daughter in February ’89 but this was a time when, you know, you gave birth and you, I went back to work when Katy was three weeks old, that’s what everyone did then.  So, in April ’89 I went down to Cannes for a show called MIPTV, which is what it says on the tin and I mean, we were picked up at Nice airport by you know a chauffeur driven car, taken into Cannes, put in the Gray d’Albion.  The next day we’re shown all around and I was, you know sitting in the café area where somebody was selling Coronation Street to Zimbabwe on the next table and, you know, we were taken into the VIP lounge and told we could have whatever we wanted with champagne.  I honestly thought I’d died and gone to heaven and you know, I was out there to really write a report of whether or not Rosehaugh Stanhope then, because it was at this stage Rosehaugh Stanhope at that stage were going to be the developers of King’s Cross, whether or not they should be at this MIPIM and I came back and wrote a report and guess what, said yes they should be and yeah, so the first MIPIM was actually in March 1990.  On the back of doing all that work for Rosehaugh Stanhope initially, the organisers who’d appointed a comms person but appointed a sort of an older, more probably died in the war comms person, said would we actually get involved in all the comms on MIPIM so, Tony my husband has actually done the comms on MIPIM literally for 35 years and I’ve been to every MIPIM except for one, I missed one in 2022 when I had cancer and my oncologist, I was actually planning to go to MIPIM and my oncologist forbade from going but apart from that, I’ve gone to every MIPIM ever since, yeah.

Susan Freeman

And it’s been a huge success.  I think, I mean I have to admit, I do remember that first MIPIM and I do remember Rosehaugh and the King’s Cross model but the, I think there were only 2000 people at the first…

Sue Brown

There were 2000 people at the first MIPIM and I mean, mainly the agents didn’t go, you know the agents just didn’t go in the first, certainly the first couple of years and then I suppose big change, the agents started to go, 1994 Pipers went for the first time with the London Model, so that sort of was quite a big change, you know that London was then represented there but you know, you’ve seen, you’ve been there as much as I have, you’ve seen all the change that’s happened there over the last 30, 35 years, yeah, it was just, you know it had, had MIPIM not stopped for Covid, it would have been the 35th MIPIM this year but, you know, there was obviously, you know a couple of MIPIMs didn’t happen because of Covid. 

Susan Freeman

And of course the timing wasn’t brilliant was it because in 1991, Olympia & York went down, Rosehaugh followed in 1992 and so, you know MIPIM has, has ridden various property cycles and I think the numbers, registrations in 2008 went up to about 30,000.

Sue Brown

The biggest MIPIM ever was in 2008 and that was obviously after the global financial crisis but obviously because MIPIM, because you book in advance to go, you know, had its bookings, when it got to 30,000, I have to say it was singularly unpleasant.  How many people were actually in Cannes in March 2008 I don’t know but I would think it was quite a lot more than 30,000 but you know, it just meant it was almost impossible to get a taxi, you were struggling to get anything to eat anywhere because all the restaurants were full, it was just too big and that’s when it reached, as I say, the largest numbers it ever had in 2008.

Susan Freeman

I remember, it was actually even a struggle to walk on the pavement, I mean it was packed.  And I was, obviously we have just been at UKREiiF and you know, they have done amazingly well to get to the numbers they’ve got to just in year three and I just wondered, since you know MIPIM so well, how do MIPIM and UKREiiF compare and why, why didn’t, you know we tried with MIPIM UK over a number of years, it didn’t, somehow didn’t work, what’s, what’s the difference?

Sue Brown

Do you know, I think, I mean MIPIM UK in the first couple of years was actually really quite good and it was at Olympia and it worked very well.  I mean, clearly with UKREiiF and what they’ve managed to do is capture all the local authorities because clearly, it just became more and more and more difficult for local authorities to go to MIPIM.  I mean, Darren Rodwell still goes to MIPIM and you know, it’s a sort of integral part of what he does as Leader of Barking and Dagenham and now as co-chair of Opportunity London but I mean clearly, UKREiiF have picked up a lot of local authorities and I mean you were there last week I know, obviously it is quite public sector.  They’ve also picked up haven’t they, I mean the hotel that I was in, which was actually on a service station on the M1, I mean which I never thought I’d be staying in a hotel in a service station on the M1 but that’s another story, I mean, there’s quite a lot of construction people there aren’t there and construction, you know, not, not the big companies but a lot of quite small construction companies and that’s obviously how they’ve got the numbers up.  The issue is going to be how long they can sustain that I think because I mean I think, I think the infrastructure this year was much better, I mean though I think the food trucks and everything on site clearly, it wasn’t as difficult to get hold of something to eat for example but obviously then they had the washout on the Wednesday and you are reminded of course that you’re in Leeds and not Cannes.  It’s not that we never had rain in MIPIM, I mean I remember the first, funnily enough the first year we ever had rain in MIPIM was 1996 so we went from 1990 to 1996 without any rain, which is quite interesting and then in, in Cannes of course, it rains and then dries but yeah, well you were there last Wednesday, it was…

Susan Freeman

Yes, it was, but I think because the first day was so good and it was sunny, you know, people just sort of carried on and it was just one day.  Had it been the first day, I think it might have been more of a dampener and also, I think there were bigger pavilions this year and there were some awnings, so there were places for people to go. 

Sue Brown

Yeah, I feel really sorry for people.  I know one or two people, I known a series of people actually that came up just for the day on Wednesday and I think there was real problems in getting out of London that day anyway on the train and then obviously, they then had the rain for the day so that was, I sort of thought, you know the people that came just for the day on Wednesday I think, it was a fairly miserable experience.

Susan Freeman

Yeah, well there was, there was an awful lot going on in terms of the programme and the panels and everything so I suppose people spent more time in, inside.

Sue Brown

Well, certainly in the, you know, the Armouries Museum, I mean was absolutely packed solid, I mean you could hardly get round it, you know it was just getting into things was, became difficult just because there were just so many people sheltering from the rain.

Susan Freeman

Yeah, anyway, it’s been a success and obviously it’s very different from MIPIM which is sort of very international so, we’ll see.  So, just going back to Tamesis, I believe at one point you interviewed a, or you didn’t realise at the time, but you interviewed a future Prime Minister for, for a job.  How did that come about?

Sue Brown

Right, well this was in 2005, around that sort of time.  We had a Labour Government and we had a Labour Mayor of London and obviously, you know, we did a lot of planning comms work in Tamesis and obviously because we had pretty good links with the Labour Government, we had very good links with City Hall but we didn’t really have that good a links with, you know, Tories so, I’d worked with a woman called Liz Truss, she worked for an organisation called The Communications Group, who did all the corporate work for Development Securities and we did all the site work for Development Securities and Tony and I were talking about the fact that you know we just didn’t have the links into the Tory party that we had into the Labour party and I said well actually, I’m working with this woman, you know, at TCG who is working on Dev Sec stuff, I said who is really impressive and I mean she worked, I mean, I was working with her when she was nine months pregnant with her first child and there she was on the stump, I mean still literally working, I mean I worked till the day before my first child was born but, you know, literally working right until her first child was born and it was Liz and I’d organised to have lunch with her in Soho, in Piero in Poland Street and at this point we’d actually, we’d been bought out by then by Financial Dynamics who, then FTI, and I was still travelling everywhere by car can you believe, and we’d moved down to Holborn and so I’d had to drive back from Holborn to Poland Street, which seems slightly ridiculous, and I was an hour late for this lunch and I got there and I was really apologetic and we had a very nice lunch and at the end, I said, “Well, Liz, you know, no such thing as a free lunch, you know, what I really wanted to talk to you about is whether or not you’d be willing to come and work for us” and this isn’t the classic comment of all time, she went, “Well, thanks Sue for thinking of me but to be honest, I think I’m going to have a go at the politics” because at this stage, she was on Greenwich Council but she obviously hadn’t gone into parliament at that stage and so “I’m going to have a go at the politics” and she finished up as PM.  So, I think it just, it just amuses me no end, I think it’s very, very funny.  But I mean, you know whatever has happened to Liz Truss, I mean when she worked, I mean she used to work very, very, very hard and you know, that was her appeal really, was one that she you know, not that she’d be a tame Tory but that it would give us a link into the Tory party but she really did work very hard and I like people that work hard so, yeah, she was a fairly obvious candidate. 

Susan Freeman

So, Sue, if you’d been more persuasive, you know. 

Sue Brown

I know but when, when she became PM, all of my friends, you know everyone but everyone said, “Why didn’t you sort of offer her more money or do something, you know, to avoid her coming here”, you know the number of people who’ve said it to me but yeah, you know, it amuses me. 

Susan Freeman

It’s a great story.  So, as you said, you know the company was taken over so, after years of you know running your own business, you were absorbed into you know somebody else’s business, I mean how did that feel?

Sue Brown

It feels very strange, I mean anybody that has been bought out will tell you that, I think, that you know Tony and I had run Tamesis for nineteen years and then all of sudden you become part of something bigger and it is strange, you know, because clearly the company that takes you over has a particular way of doing this.  When you’re running your own business, you have a particular way of doing things so, yeah, it was, it was strange and difficult, I mean you know, hard and of course what happened with us is we got bought out by a company called Financial Dynamics, who were a fairly well established financial PR firm.  We got bought out by them in January 2005 and then Financial Dynamics got bought out by a big American consulting firm in October 2006, although that wasn’t public until really 2011, it sounds ridiculous but it wasn’t, it was, we were still, we ran as FD Tamesis for a good part of that time and then I think by autumn 2011, the whole thing had become FTI Consulting but yeah, a very, very, very different experience when you’ve gone from working for yourself to then working for somebody else, yeah, it’s a very, very different experience. 

Susan Freeman

So I think, I mean it was ten years that you were there.

Sue Brown

Well, between 2…, yeah so, yeah, the combined you know Financial Dynamic/FTI Consulting, we were there from 2005 and I finally left FTI Consulting in December 2015, so yeah it was actually nearly eleven years, yeah, a long time.

Susan Freeman

Okay, so then you went to London first but let’s focus on, on Real Estate Balance because you took on the role as Managing Director in 2020 and I mean that must have been your ideal role after starting your career when, you know, certain roles weren’t even open to women, to actually, you know, have the opportunity to run an amazing organisation like Real Estate Balance so, why don’t you just tell our listeners a little bit about Real Estate Balance and what it does and what, what the main priorities are for you. 

Sue Brown

Yeah, well Real Estate Balance was founded by seven senior women in the real estate industry in October 2015.  And funnily enough, they came into existence in October 2015, the month before in September 2015, I had set up with Sam McClary, who was at that stage the Deputy Editor of Estates Gazette but has obviously been the Editor of EG for the last six or seven years.  She and I had set up something called REWIRE, the Recognition and Empowerment of Women in Real Estate, a real mouthful but that’s because we couldn’t call it Women in Property because that already existed.  We wanted to called it WIRE because we thought that was really funky because Idris Elba’s thing was very popular at that stage but there already is a WIRE, you know Women in Real Estate is an American organisation so, we called it REWIRE and Sam and I, first thing we did on REWIRE was exclude all men and then we were going to build an organisation from the bottom up.  I think the women at Real Estate Balance were probably a bit more adult than us and sort of decided two things, that if they were going to run an organisation, first of all they had to have men in because you can’t have a gender parity organisation that excludes men and then they decided that if they were going to set this organisation up, that they had to get to CEOs, that if you don’t get to CEOs in the property industry, you’re not going to change the industry.  So you cannot become a member of Real Estate Balance unless your CEO signs up to our 10 CEO commitments.  Anyway, those original seven women really built Real Estate Balance between October 2015 and the beginning of 2020 and as you say, I always say I became Managing Director of Real Estate Balance on April Fools’ Day in the middle of a pandemic and that is genuinely true.  I mean, all the time we’d been running Tamesis, we had to consciously go out and employ men because we tended to run it with a lot of women and then when we’d been bought out by firstly, Financial Dynamics and then FTI Consulting, I was the chair of the women’s network at both those organisations so I’d obviously always kept, you know, I suppose because of my age, because of my personal experience in being turned down for a job because I was a woman, I’ve always been very, very, very strong on the role of women in business.  When I became Managing Director or REB, I did say to Liz Peace, who at that stage was my Chair, remained my Chair until the last few weeks, “Look, I’ve not come into this job to replace white, middleclass, middle-aged men by white, middleclass, middle-aged women and if I’m going to do this job, I also want to look at issues around race and ethnicity and issues around social mobility” and a lot of that was because when I was chair of the women’s network at both Financial Dynamics and FTI, and FTI specifically, we had at this stage, I mean as I say I left there in December 2015 and I’m sure it’s changed since, but at that stage we had 750 people in London, there was about 70 or 80 or 90 what they call SMD, senior management directors, very American concept, only 7 of us were women but as I looked around the organisation, there was a much bigger issue about black and brown people, so I knew that when I, you know, became MD at REB, I wanted to look at issues around race and ethnicity and issues around social mobility as well.  We’ve now got 129 members and I have to say that I’m not saying I talk to every CEO every day, I clearly don’t but when I’m talking to CEOs, I’m talking to our 129 members, the thing that they actually are more concerned about than they are anything else is social mobility, they just don’t think that people should be excluded from working in the real estate industry because they come from the wrong social background or whatever.  So, we now do a lot of work round social mobility, I mean I am a woman so I obviously know what it is, I’ve worked in the industry for 40 years, I know what it is to be a woman in the industry, I clearly wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth so I know what it is to come from a background what wouldn’t deemed to have been a normal property background but I’m not black you will have noticed, so I’ve actually tied up with, I do an awful lot of work with Black Professionals in Construction and I do quite a lot of work with Black Women in Real Estate so we do work with other organisations as well but yeah, I mean basically, Real Estate Balance is about getting more senior women, more people of colour and more people from working class backgrounds into the industry, that’s our primary function, or functions. 

Susan Freeman

And in trying to get people, younger people from different backgrounds into real estate, do you encounter an issue with the image of the real estate sector that people don’t necessarily know the whole array and roles that you can take on in real estate?

Sue Brown

I think one of the biggest issues that real estate has is that people just don’t understand enough about it and, you know, a lot of parents want their kids to become lawyers or doctors or accountants but obviously, my background has been in comms, your background is as a lawyer, I mean clearly, the primary profession in real estate is as a surveyor but you could equally become a planning consultant or an architect or any number of, of jobs but people just don’t understand enough about the industry and I think when you talk to people about the industry, people still see that property is about high street estate agents and clearly, it’s about a whole lot more and so, yes, works that we do but works that people like Pathways to Property do is all about just making people realise about the things that you can do and I mean, I’ve always, I mean obviously I was a comms person but I always worked on very big regeneration schemes so, you know, Spitalfields, Canary Wharf obviously, lots of work in Paddington and regeneration schemes around the country, I mean, when we were up in Leeds last week, Tony and I were talking, we’d worked for both the Leeds Development Corporation and the Leeds Development Agency because we obviously had a particular experience and expertise in development corporations but to me, what regeneration is about, it’s about the real estate industry just making a difference and, and that’s the bit of real estate that I really like and I, I mean I absolutely love working for Real Estate Balance.  I think the only thing I miss is when I was working on very, very, very complex schemes and working on the communications and the public consultation and, and, ands as the sort of thing that I did at Spitalfields where we affected huge change and in fact we’ve got a speed mentoring event tonight with Ashurst, who are in the old Fruit and Wool Exchange and I did all the comms work and all the public consultation work around that for the Corporation of London and that’s a really nice building now. 

Susan Freeman

Well that’s the wonderful thing about real estate isn’t it, that you can go around and say well…

Sue Brown

Oh that’s mine.

Susan Freeman

…you know, I was involved with this.  Exactly. 

Sue Brown

Make it sound like you built it or you, you know, you were the architect, no but yes, it’s, I love that actually, I love when you can go and say, “oh yeah, we were involved in that”, that’s the really interesting part of being in real estate, I think.

Susan Freeman

And what do you make of, you know, just going back to diversity.  Kemi Badenoch wrote a piece in The Times a while back describing diversity courses as “just snake oil” and apparently, there are a lot of studies out there saying that diversity training doesn’t work.  I mean, do you have any thoughts of that because there’s an awful lot of diversity training around?

Sue Brown

Well, I mean, diversity training, I can’t particularly comment on that.  All I know is that we haven’t got 129 members because people don’t care about diversity.  The big REITs, I mean Seagrove, Landsec, British Land are all huge supporters of REB, to the extent that Simon Carter who is obviously CEO of British Land, is on our Board.  We’ve got all the main agents in, we’ve got a lot of prop cos, we have about 25 investment houses, we have 20 lawyers.  People don’t belong to us unless they believe in what we’re doing and clearly, what people believe in is just giving access to people to join the real estate industry regardless of where they come from, be that in terms of gender or race or social background.  We don’t do diversity training per se but what we do do is, we look at, I mean you know we, we’re doing a big speed mentoring event tonight and we do a lot of speed mentoring and we also do reverse speed mentoring, I mean we actually, didn’t actually launch REB in Leeds last week but did take the opportunity of UKREiiF taking place to do a very big session on introducing REB if you like to Leeds and we’re doing that increasingly, we now do quite a lot of regional events so, we’ve done an event in Manchester, an event in Bristol and an event in Birmingham, event in Edinburgh and an event in Leeds and we’re now expanding our network so, we can do more and more work outside London because it’s fair to say until a year or so ago, we were fairly London centric but you know, this is important to people outside London as well so, we do the speed mentoring, we do regional events, our fifth survey will launch in September and what’s going to be interesting about that survey, is that’s going to lead to us trying to establish a benchmark for DNI in the real estate industry, which I have to say the prospect of it frightens me to death when it’s such a big job but, you know, somebody’s got to do it and that’s the thing we’re going to be working on but doing our survey in September, holding a whole series of CEO breakfasts in November and then reporting on all of that and on the benchmark at the beginning of next year.  So, people that talk about training, I mean we’re clearly doing a lot more and it’s all about cultural change, it’s all about changing people’s views.  We’ve done amounts of work on data, hence that we do the survey so, when the original seven women set up, they wanted it to be based on fact, empirical and so, they did their first survey in autumn 2016, reporting early 2017 and we’ve done biannual surveys ever since and the collection and collation of data is something else that’s very, very important to us.

Susan Freeman

And are there challenges in collecting data because obviously you need data to really measure how you’re doing and has GDPR sort of made it more difficult to collect data?

Sue Brown

There are issues obviously about collecting data but we don’t have the same issues as they have in a lot of European countries so, for example, you simply can’t ask people in France about ethnic background and things.  As I say, collection and collation of data is very, very important to us and we work with a lot of people who are very good at it so, I mean, PWC, we do a lot of work with PWC, I mean PWC I think have got their data collection information up to about, it’s 90+% of people actually giving their data of their own free will and that’s something that we work with all the time, I mean, a lot of our members I know use our survey as a measure of measuring themselves so that because our survey looks at how many senior women there are in, in place and things like that, what’s the background of people coming into the industry, a lot of people use our surveys to measure themselves against that and obviously now we’re formalising that a lot more with this benchmark, which is I say and we’re developing, which is going to be, you know made available to the world at the end of this year.

Susan Freeman

And do you think we’re collecting the right data yet, I mean for instance are we able to see, you know, where there are promotion gaps, where people aren’t necessarily getting the promotions they should get?

Sue Brown

Yeah, no, the data we’re collecting, I mean if you look at our survey, it’s absolutely excellent in giving information, I mean, for example, the survey shows that in some ways there’s not been much improvement in the number of senior women in the industry since 2016, which in itself is very frightening but we’ve got the data there to show it and I think everyone says you can’t change what you can’t measure and that’s why collection and collation of data are very important to us.

Susan Freeman

And do you think that, I mean one of the things that you know I hear a lot is that women lack confidence, that they don’t get, you know, to the senior roles they should get to because they don’t have confidence and Christine Lagarde made a, a comment recently that we’re not getting the most out of female talent because women don’t take risks.  Do you think that’s an issue?

Sue Brown

Do women take risks?  I think women are probably generally more risk averse than men but actually, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  I think there’s all sorts of conversations isn’t there about if the world was ruled by women, would it be different?  We’re arguably not as aggressive, I mean coming from me is actually quite funny, but people say to me “why do you do this?” and to me, it’s a moral imperative, you know, I don’t think that you can exclude anybody from anything based on gender or race or social background but it doesn’t make sense to exclude people you know, McKinsey have done lots and lots of work on this which show that more diverse organisations are more successful organisations, I mean sadly, that’s now been challenged and they’ve not really come out with anything which disputes it, questions the challenges.  But I think, you know, it is generally accepted now that actually more diverse organisations are better places to work and certainly, we wouldn’t have 129 active members would we with, as I say, all the senior people in real estate as our members, you know, if we weren’t doing something right, I mean that’s my take on it.  Is it happening fast enough?  Probably not but as far as I am concerned, we’ve got to keep going on it, we’ve got to keep shouting about it, we’ve got to keep looking at what we need to do to change it and that’s basically what we’re about doing. 

Susan Freeman

Sue, that’s brilliant and I think a good place to finish.  So, thank you so much.

Sue Brown

Thank you.  Thanks very much indeed.

Susan Freeman

Thank you so much Sue for taking us through your fascinating career in real estate and for talking to us about the opportunities and challenges for Real Estate Balance.  So, that’s it for now, I hope you enjoyed today’s conversation.  Please join us for the next PropertyShe podcast interview coming very soon. 

The Propertyshe podcast is brought to you by Mishcon de Reya in association with the London Real Estate Forum and can be found at Mishcon.com/PropertyShe along with all our interviews and programme notes.  The podcasts are also available to subscribe to on your Apple podcast app and on Spotify and whatever podcast platform 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 LinkedIn and on Twitter @Propertyshe for a very regular commentary on all things real estate, Prop Tech and the built environment. 

Sue Brown is managing director for Real Estate Balance, a campaigning organisation working to improve diversity and inclusion in the real estate industry. Sue has four decades of business, property and economic-development experience.

Sue joined Real Estate Balance in April 2020 from London First, where she was executive director with responsibility for property, planning, the environment and development since 2016. Sue started her career in government, serving as a senior advisor in a variety of high-profile roles, before going on to establish her own real estate consultancy.

Sue was a driving force behind the launch of MIPIM, the world’s largest real estate investment conference that takes place each year in Cannes. Sue was the co-founder and co-chair of REWIRE, the network for women in property. At the EG Awards in October 2023, Sue won the ‘Outstanding Individual Award’ in recognition for her services to the property industry.

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