SG Warburg was a wonderful place to start my career. The leading City investment bank, soon to be acquired by UBS, was where I was taught how to practice corporate finance, having joined straight from Cambridge University. It was a very client-centric environment with lots of very smart people.
I got plonked into real estate pretty randomly, although I’ve ended up spending most of my career in the sector. When I was at UBS I spent a lot of time with what are now the UK REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts). In nine year there I became an Executive Director, helping Sainsbury’s with strategy and financing around real estate which gave them the financial platform for the ‘Making Sainsbury’s Great Again’ campaign.
I resigned from UBS at the top of the market to join a property fund management group Mountgrange as a partner. The market turned the 6-8 weeks I was on holiday, so fundraising- a key part of the role- became a lot harder. But I loved the experience because in two weeks learnt more about real estate than I ever would have done at an investment bank.
Liberty International split in two three months after I joined, my next move career move. I’d joined the property group, which had been one of my biggest clients at UBS, to run corporate finance and ended up becoming FD of Capital & Counties Properties (Capco)-the business running London retail hub Covent Garden (the rest of the group renamed Intu became a pure shopping centre operator).
It was a very big step up compared to what I’d previously done. I was 33, and not a not an accountant, so I thought long and hard about whether I’d be able to do the job. It’s never been in my nature to just do something for the hell of it. Over a glass of wine one of the company’s brokers, said ‘I’ve known you a very long time, you’ll be fine.’ It was fantastically good advice.
Nobody gave us much hope when we launched the demerger in March 2010. At Liberty International the focus had always been on the shopping centres, so nobody understood what assets we had so we repositioned the company when we put it out to market. We set out London property players Derwent, Great Portland and Shaftesbury as the aspirational competitors of what I described as a £1.2bn value start-up.
The share price sank weeks after we split, with the group dropping in value to around £600m. But the management team built a very strong unit together fighting for survival. Every transaction or leasing deal was determined by whether it would mean survival or not.
The secret to our success was playing to our strengths. It was about making sure we worked very well together and were clear about what we needed to so. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s as much about saying no as it is about saying yes- so focusing our activities into what are the things that are going to make us a better company.
We needed to demonstrate the game plan and deliver against it, very clearly articulating to the market, whether it was to equity analysts or investors. We did a ring round of analysts just after we did the demerger vote. One of them said he practically fell off his chair when I called, because it’s so unusual for management teams to go out and engage proactively.
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We turned a corner with the announcment of the first analyst buy note. I almost got run over by a tram in Amsterdam when I was staring into my blackberry, taking in the target price of 175p, when Capco’s share price was under 120p. The first set of annual results for the year end 2010 was strong enough to launch an equity issue of £100m on our first birthday. That said, it was the hardest £100m I’ve ever raised.
I had to change to become a proper finance director. I had to be able to take a big step away from the detail and really nurture a good team around me and over the next couple of years that’s what I did. When the call came to join Segro, Capco had grown in six years from a £600m business to a company worth £3.5bn.