I was that kid always selling you something at school. So, I stupidly said to one of my uni mates, “Which grad scheme earns the most?”
“Goldman Sachs, but I wouldn’t bother applying”. So, I applied, got the job. It was a 5-year whirlwind.
Then I had a crisis of consciousness and became unhappy. A good friend said, “What are you doing? This isn’t you.” He gave me a book – Who Moved My Cheese? – it’s an allegory about change and it was a hammer to knock sense into me.
A month later I quit Goldman. My friends and family didn’t believe me. It was 2009 – there was blood on the streets.
Long story short: I got into property through total serendipity. I had a friend who was in it and working for someone about to go bust. I wanted to do anything but banking – so we set up a business together.
We bought a load of letterhead and rented a room in Hendon.
We were both available, both hungry, both needed to do something. I was analytical, financial, could do spreadsheets, could talk. He knew property.
An odd gap in the market
My business partner noticed this odd gap in the market: a lot of charities in the UK own property but there was no one to specially advise them. There were 167,000 registered charities then – basically the biggest freeholder of property in the UK.
We called them all: “It’s a tough time, we can help you save money” – restructuring leases, negotiations, rent reviews, years of rent free. Everyone put the phone down.
But we were persistent – we got odds and sods – then 9 months in we got Barnardo’s. The gentleman said, “I’m not going to pay you much, but I guarantee when you tell other charities you’re working with Barnardo’s it will mean something”.
He was right – the flood gates opened.
We became specialists in unpicking the old wise ways in which landlords used to hold their thumb down on tenants – the old property game.
One of the biggest things I learnt coming into the industry: so much is achieved through negotiation.
Today, we’re an investment and management business, but we won’t let go of our charity advisory – we still solve bigger problems for our charity clients. We like doing it and it’s the genesis of the business.
It’s why we’re called TSP: Third Sector Property.
“I want that badge”
By 2012, we’d grown a small team – or motley crew. We had Chartered Surveyors and were RICS accredited with a property management, agency, and professional desk.
We’d gone through phenomenal growth, but it was a difficult phase. We had no organisation.
Then one day I get an email and it says “Investors In People” – I thought “wow, I want that badge” – it looks so professional. Not thinking “this is a great framework to sort out our organisation”.
When the assessor came, we thought we were cool, showing off our free drinks, snacks, table football. A few weeks later JVW comes in with the report saying, “you’re not going to like this”. We didn’t even get the basic accreditation.
I remember thinking this is impossible: I’ve got a table football!
We learnt that none of our staff had job descriptions, knew who their managers were, no one had reviews, no one could locate a business plan. No one understood how a business plan was put together.
I’d been quoted saying “me and my business partner go to a hotel, have a couple of massages, bang something down inside the black and red book!”
All we cared about was making money – we were obsessed with growth.
So I said to JVW, “I want this Investors In People and I want you to get it for us”. It was my first act of proper delegation – and the best business decision I’d made at the time.
Within 2 years we had it, and still do today.
From it came proper business planning and we experienced “orderly growth” in the right direction. It was crucial because we wanted to be property investors – not just managers and advisors – but we never had any time for investing. It created time for us to focus.
4 Pear Tree Court
We found the first property we wanted to buy – 4 Pear Tree Court, 8000 sq ft, £250 per sq ft. Typical Clerkenwell stock, exposed brick, big windows, just as Clerkenwell was really getting going.
Every fibre in my body knew it was ludicrously cheap.
I could easily rent this building for £40 per sq ft – 40 over 250 – you do the maths, there’s a deal there.
We tried to raise money for it through property people we’d met along the way. Everyone turned us down. “The boys don’t know what they’re talking about”. We were deflated. So we went the friends and family route: it was an absolute conviction bet for us.
We bought it for £2.1m and sold it 9 months later for £4.7m.
We returned 85% IRR – smashed it out the park. And we did the whole thing cash, no leverage – the IRR would have gone ballistic if we’d put the smallest amount of leverage into it.
It was remarkable.
TSP in 2023
Our main business today is investing in real estate and adding value through the operation of it.
We provide a different flavour of property management, with boutique and entrepreneurial flair.
We take stuff that needs TLC, and we add value. With a landlord hat on.
You have to operate your property – it’s the difference between successful and unsuccessful real estate businesses today. You have to treat it like a hotel business.
We attract a lot of prop cos, entrepreneurial and non-entrepreneurial investors who become dissatisfied with the service from bigger companies. They want a more personal, entrepreneurial, transparent relationship with the people who manage their properties day-to-day.
In the larger houses there’s a lot more churn.
Our longest-standing client has been with us 12 years – we’re a 14-year-old business – and my longest-standing employee has been with us 12 years.
Investing in needles in haystacks
We look to buy things that are mispriced – there’s a lot of it – Pear Tree Court was a prime example. That’s the business: getting very good at looking for needles in haystacks.
I read this book by Sam Zell – one of the greatest property investors ever – his tagline: “When everybody’s looking left, I’m looking right”.
If you look at the investment Greats, they’re interested in assets that no one else wants because there’s greater opportunity to purchase. And if you’ve got an idea of how you can add value – you’re not mad.
With offices at the moment there’s a system-wide view that they’re finished. We feel we’re just getting started with them.
Where opportunities arise
We’re in this in-between moment in the market, everybody’s peering over the edge, glancing sideways at one another, waiting to see who’s going to jump first, then like always, everyone follows.
What’s happening now is what happens when confidence gets low, people pull back and start indexing. They treat industrial or office as one monolith investment – they use singular words – they generalise. That’s where opportunities arise.
If you don’t generalise – but you get very specific, delving into transaction data – you’ll develop a view. You might be right or wrong, but it gives you confidence.
Building a high-performing team
A lot of the wisdom around me when I started said, “it’s all about people”. I mostly batted that off: “it’s all about profit, deals, mate”.
There’s a complex biology to a workforce. How to create an environment where you pick each other up when you’re down – realising how reciprocal that relationship is. It’s constant learning and as much joyful as painful – but I’ve built a team around me, on their merits. They’re brilliant at what they do.
There’s a culture amongst us – we’re all long-term thinkers – real estate is a long game!
But it’s also your whole ecosystem: your suppliers, partners, customers, investors. You have all these stakeholders around you and if you can’t get them to all work with you – you’re growing your business with the handbrake on.
We’ve worked with some phenomenal, phenomenal people – and it’s even better because we’ve invested in the relationship with them.
Family > work
Family first – I’m getting better at creating boundaries. This hustle money-never-sleeps culture is bullshit.
Our first child was lucky number 9 – after 5 years of trying. It was the first time in my life where no money, no level of energy could fix the problem. It’s completely out of your hands, completely humbling. I realised before I had kids what was important, because I had to contemplate not having kids.
If you were given £500m equity, who are the people, what property, which place would you invest?
The team I’ve got now – they’re perfect. I’d go on a shopping spree of beautiful London landmarks. I’m into the old classics, the Ralph Lauren building on Bond Street, clean, elegant – oodles of curb appeal. I’d want an iconic skyscraper – an indelible mark on the skyline – the Gherkin. And there’s a beautiful building on Wigmore Street, absolute Goliath, neo-gothic. I’d buy that.
You’d be stretching your £500m!
I’m known for getting a good deal, I reckon I’d make it work!
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