Earlier in the year, I went along to the first event of 2020 for British Council for Offices BCO’s Inspirational Leaders – Toby Courtauld of Great Portland Estates. It was full at the Kent House marketing suite which was full of models of new and potential London developments. I thought his story would be helpful now bearing in mind how his early career was nearly derailed by the recession but he managed to thrive despite the adversity.
Toby explained that his family left the UK in 1976 (when he was eight years old) and spent two years in Singapore before moving to Hong Kong. He attended school and college in the UK. When thinking about a career he recalled that in those days 20% of the Hong Kong stock market was property-based (compared to 2% in the UK) and that he felt drawn to the sector. The sector’s “work hard, play hard” ethos was also attractive.
Early career during the recession
In 1991 he joined MEPC – which was then the second largest listed property company in Europe – as a trainee surveyor. He explained how borrowing to fund the programme of shopping centres and City office development put the company in a weak position when the recession hit. MEPC went from being a FTSE 50 company to almost bankruptcy.
As the sole trainee, he worked in the investment group travelling around to buy assets and then place making and increasing the value of real estate assets.
The move to Great Portland Estates (GPE)
18 years ago, in 2002, Toby became the youngest Chief Executive of a PropCo at the age of 33. He admitted he had never sat on a plc or any other board before this appointment although he had been involved in the executive committee of MEPC.
He said that when he joined there were numerous team issues, finances to sort out and a lot of thinking about the purpose of the business. He said he learned a lot in those early years from a series of senior people and an awesome team ethos.
Developing a vision
From working with the team and various advisers they explored what they passionately believed that they were good at. They decided to “stick to the knitting” and commit to Central London, place making, improving communities and a strong team ethos.
Toby’s week starts on Sunday reading Board papers for meetings every Tuesday – and sometimes Thursdays as well. 50% of his time is spent in discussions with colleagues – there are just 120 people in the business and they all work together on the same floor.
The other 50% of his time he tries to get out to see real estate – often overseas and including talks with investment and corporate advisers. He estimates he does between 200 and 300 presentations to shareholders each year but finds it a valuable learning experience to keep in touch with their views.
He has three teenage children and lives in North West London so has an easy commute and can get to spend time with his family. At weekends he finds time to read, sail, cycle and run – often with his family.
GPE has a well-being movement and had early policies about flexible working which were revised again last year. There is a well-being programme with, for example, lectures on pension planning so it adopts a holistic approach.
They work hard to make the work environment a nice place where people are able to be creative and make suggestions.
Future real estate and office trends
When asked about future trends, Toby focused on Environmental Social Governance (ESG) – economic sustainability, social value and governance. He also thought that there was probably already a discount on stock that was not environmentally friendly.
He argued that the co-working sector was not the disruptor, but changing patterns of work. He urged people to change their frame of mind about how people will use office space in the future.
He talked about regulations and how the real estate sector could change the environment with zero carbon buildings. And said he had heard some commentators suggest that investment risk was now heavily influenced by climate risk.
When asked what advice he would give to young people he advised them to get off the telephone as face-to-face communication was not happening enough. He said people should identify what they are good at and stick to it in order to make a difference.
He indicated that he thought Oxford Street should have been fully pedestrianised but this was prevented by 2,000 residential voters. He thought that developments with TfL would mean that it would happen one day.
On regrets, he commented that in 2003 GPE nearly bought a serviced office business and should have done so. They are now growing their own.
The vital components of a good team are chemistry, communication and diversity (he noted that three of the eight members of the Board are female).