Childhood Lessons In Getting Development Right From One Of UK Real Estate’s Top Execs

Buildings don’t just appear out of thin air: They are conceived, designed, funded and built by people who bring with them their lives, experiences, backstories and influences, both in their careers and in the world outside real estate.

For this series, Bisnow undertook highly personal interviews with a range of developers, famous and less well-known, to dig into those experiences and influences to find out how they shaped the people that shaped our world. 

Follow the thread back, and you’ll find the guiding principles shaping the attitudes of one of Britain’s best-known developers originate from a family home in Cheshire in the 1960s.

Courtesy of Grainger

Grainger CEO Helen Gordon on-site at one of the company’s schemes.

Grainger Chief Executive Helen Gordon was 3 years old when her family bought a plot on the edge of a piece of communal land to build their own house. Being around the project before the days of site health and safety — swinging from the rafters, as she put it — made her want to be a developer.

“It was like having the world’s biggest Lego set, a glorified sand pit,” she said. “That enjoyment has never left me.”

Perhaps more important was the way her family went about the development. In the commercial real estate world, community engagement, or the idea of exchanging ideas with the people who live where a project is being built, is a fairly new and sometimes ignored part of the development process. But Gordon saw it in action at an age when children absorb everything.

“I think probably one of the really early influences was my parents bought a plot, which was a bit of sort of surplus land left over from a housebuilder’s site, and a lot of people had taken to walking their dogs on it, or kids would play on it,” she said. “So I remember feeling from a very early age that I had to be really nice to these people because we were effectively taking something from their community. We always made sure that people could come through our garden and still go through to the woodland behind the house and things like that. So that was my early community engagement.”

It was a lesson that never left Gordon throughout a career that has seen her develop one of the UK’s newest cities at the age of just 24, run one of the country’s largest life funds at L&G and head up state-owned bank RBS‘ bad loan book in the wake of the financial crisis.

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Now, at Grainger, she’s atop one of the UK’s largest residential landlords, a company she has streamlined to become a build-to-rent giant. She is one of the very few female chief executives at a listed UK real estate company and one of a small handful of women to have risen to the top of the development sector.

The desire to engage with communities is vital to the work that Grainger is doing, building thousands of rental homes across the country. It influenced her work in the commercial property world, too, she added. 

Courtesy of Grainger

A Grainger scheme in partnership with TfL

Central Saint Giles, a 675K SF office scheme split across three buildings in a previously run-down area of London’s West End just south of Tottenham Court Road, is a project Gordon cites several times as one she is most proud of being associated with.

The colourful buildings were Renzo Piano‘s first scheme in the UK, and are now leased to Google. Owners L&G (the insurer for whom Gordon worked when developing the scheme) and Mitsubishi Estate are likely to make a big profit when they sell the scheme for more than £700M in the near future.

But it is not this commercial success to which Gordon points; it is again that sense the scheme belongs to the public, too. Saint Giles was one of the first in London to have reception areas that broke the altar to the corporate dominance mould, featuring cafés that were open to the public, multiple restaurants at ground floor and a public square between the buildings.

“Occupiers like Google and Facebook would get that, but there would be other occupiers I can think of  — government departments, banking institutions — that wouldn’t want you across the threshold,” she said. “You have to trust people. And they repay you because they’re not going to come into your reception and make a mess or cause a fuss, they’re not going to go into your gym [in a housing development] and destroy the equipment. I have a real belief that if people go into a nice place and the grounds are made clear to them, they will look after it. I believe that and I’ve not been let down too often by that.”

It wasn’t all clear sailing with the Saint Giles development given the scheme is built on the site of a former medieval leper colony, which many writers in London insist is cursed. Toward the end of the development process, Gordon walked into a pane of glass because it was so new and clear she didn’t see it, breaking her nose. 

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The Central Saint Giles scheme

Gordon got her big break in development when she joined the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, the body set up to develop the new town of Milton Keynes, about an hour north of London. After a couple of years in property management, at the age of 24, she was given the responsibility of developing some of the commercial elements of the scheme. The scale of the development, the largest outside of London at the time, afforded young staff responsibility they would not have gained elsewhere. For Gordon, it was a lesson in management: Trust in people’s ability, not just their seniority.

“We had a really great commercial director, who basically recruited lots of people who might have gone to the traditional surveying firms and spent two years photocopying or whatever,” she said. “And he actually gave us projects to do, and if you could navigate your way through it, the more successful you were, he just gave you more and more responsibility.”

There’s another lesson Gordon took from her family’s early foray into development, a lesson that the real estate industry ignores at its peril, about thinking long-term. 

“If you think about the recent Amersham by-election, people voted in a certain way because there was concern about building on the greenbelt. I think developers are not trusted to engage with sincerity,” she said. 

For decades, the model in both commercial and residential development has been for companies to build, sell buildings or homes, and then move on. That has incentivised short-term thinking and created mistrust between developers and the communities in which they build, she said, advocating for a continuing relationship with those communities.

“If you look at Grainger, we are a 109-year-old company, we build schemes and retain the ownership, so will be there for a long time,” she said. “Actually, you go back to when I was a child in the house, I had to live there for the longer term. And my parents did as well. So they’re not going to do all those classic things lightly — leave muddy roads or cause a mess. I think it’s very much about how long is that stake in the community?” 

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