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Property management interview
By Jennifer Holmes

Property management interview

Industry Sector Interview – Property Management

We spoke to Mike Brown, Director of Bellharbour, a Central London managing agent working with some of the UK’s elite developers, to see how property management differs for high-end sites, both inside and out.

Watch the highlights from the interview, or read the full script below.

 

Hello Mike, thanks for coming on the interview today to talk to us about high end property management and adapting to change. The brand in now three years old, tell me a bit about what you’re doing now.

So, we’ve recently completed an acquisition and taken on a lot of new high-end properties to supplement the brand and we’ve had three or four major projects completed in the last 18 months. One of our flagship buildings has really enhanced both the building and the area, is in conjunction with the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. We fit in with their redevelopment plans for the area and there’s a lot of pedestrianisation and new social places to meet that they’re generating, so we’ve dovetailed with that. It’s been a busy time.

Tell me just for those people who don’t know what Bellharbour does what sets you apart from other property management businesses?

I think for me, we specialise in the high-end brands and therefore the high-end service. It’s more attention to detail, a lot more interaction with clients and site staff and spending a lot more time in the property than a different level of service would struggle to do resource wise. Our clients expect a higher level of service for the fees that they’re paying, but it should reduce the workload too. The more time we spend on site dealing with clients and addressing problems before they arise, or as they arise, the less reactive you are and therefore the less labour intensive the job should be, which is the theory behind it.

You mentioned expectations from clients. How does that differ from say your average block in in central London?

I think pretty much every reputable agent is good in terms of – they produce your accounts on time and they look after your health and safety and they generally give a reasonable service but it’s very labour intensive, there’s limited resource and time. So, they stop there, and I think the difference in high-end service is all those things need to happen almost instantly and automatically and the job is really the next level – what can we do better, how can we improve.

We look at how we can pre-empt things, how we can future proof buildings and improve our service levels and the way that the world is going now with changes in fire legislation, health and safety requirements, legal, financial requirements of the job is becoming more and more complicated and requires more expertise. So, you need the time and resource to plan things and focus on those aspects and you can’t get tied up in the day-to-day reactive stuff that will remain there. You need to find a better way of dealing with that quickly to concentrate on other things.

I guess you’ll always be doing the day-to-day stuff which is the property maintenance and the grounds maintenance. How does it differ for each of these when you’re dealing with high end properties?

I think that’s a good example. In terms of landscape maintenance for example this is hard and soft landscaping, and if you can get involved at the early stage of property in terms of a new development, with the design, you can make sure it’s suitable. Without being unkind to the designers or contractors or quite often the salespeople working at that site, they want something that looks fabulous on the day that somebody is buying the property. And the problem with that is maintaining it through different seasons of the year, keeping standards up, providing instant colour when the logical design would be brown and green robust plants.

You want water features, and you want interest but within health and safety guidelines. Interesting landscapes, not just flat paving, but obviously that comes with a maintenance cost. So, the more we can get involved in design early on at a new development, the more we can future proof those sorts of things. We quite often find late changes in design don’t dovetail with the mechanical setup of the building, so they may put really colourful planting in the main entrance where there isn’t an irrigation system or there isn’t a tap to use. Or they might not be the right sort of plant for where the sun hits or not necessarily for the right climate where they are, for instance some won’t be suitable for a wind tunnel. Things like that would cause problems with certain plants. You can keep them looking really good for a short period of time but it’s not sustaining.

With high end sites it’s not massive landscaping, massive gardens necessarily, but it’s a more attentive service. It’s taking an individual view of the needs of that building the requirements of those residents and then giving them the service that they want.

You mentioned health and safety there, that’s quite important as well, isn’t it? One of the things that we focus on in this business is moss and algae and keeping hard surfaces clean and safe. Is that important for your type of sites?

Very important. I mean I think I always say finance is the most important because if you haven’t got any money, you can’t do health and safety and you can’t do maintenance, you can’t do anything. Secondly is staff because if you haven’t got people, you can’t do any of those things. Third is health and safety and as soon as you’ve got the resource in place, that’s your top priority. In terms of landscaping and gardening, again, it comes back to having a design, planning and maintenance regime. Having a checking and monitoring process in place, having documented records, and having the resource and ability to react to individual problems.

Who do you turn to?

We rely on good quality contractors who know what they’re doing and good quality advice from experts in the industry, supported by a health and safety team or the property manager’s training to know what to look for on their site visits to identify problems early.

I think somebody said to me very early in my career a statement that really stood with me; “know what you don’t know and ask for help when you don’t know.” And I think that’s vitally important as you can’t be an expert in all these things. Like I’m not an expert in certain things, but I’ve got access to people who are so. So my job is to identify the problem, then put the process together and then sense check it with somebody who really knows what they’re talking about and can back up what you’re saying or pull it to pieces, which is fine as well.

Just touching more on the sort of health and safety side, I guess some of your properties might be near water or fields and maybe some of them have wooded areas. There can be some quite harmful invasive species within these areas like Hemlock water dropwort for example, which is found on riverbanks. Do your staff know about these toxic species that can cause serious harm?

I think they do know that they need to look out for these things, but quite often they won’t have the specialist knowledge. Japanese knotweed is always the famous one. You know what it is and possibly how to identify it and then you know that you need to report it and you need to address it really quickly. You don’t necessarily know much more than that until it happens to you, until you work through it. I think it’s because it’s such a diverse subject – making people aware of what type of risk there can be is key.

Obviously in central London, we’re near a river and that comes with these inherent risks and particularly if you’ve got a building that is right on the river. You’ve got the river wall aspect, you’ve got health and safety aspects in terms of life safety, like people falling into the river, you might have planting on the riverfront that’s difficult to get to and maintain. You might have these sort of risks and dangerous plants as well.

We’ve had one site where there’s a conservation area with ponds which comes with a whole host of procedures and policies that you need to manage and look at. And again, you’ve got life safety equipment, you might have wildlife in there, you might have certain types of plant in there and all these things you need a general awareness of. And then when you’ve got something in front of you, you need to look at it in more detail and make sure you understand what those risks are specifically to that particular site.

There’s a movement towards integrated weed management, have you heard of IWM? Using different approaches and maybe using nature to sort out nature, is that something you’re aware of as property management?

Yes, I mean there are several different initiatives, and I have come across it in the past and it’s quite often for various reasons high up on new development agendas to promote. It’s a good thing to do, it helps with sustainability, it helps with the reputation of the site. You buy a piece of land, and you inherit what comes with that piece of land and you need to work with that. Not just plants, not just wildlife, there’s a history to that land and there’ll be particular nuances to that area, and you have to be aware of them and have to adapt to them. And there’s always people come up with new, wonderful ideas, and you just must gather your knowledge as best as you can. Talk to the people who know about these things, and see what you can do to improve the site.

How do you approach sites with ponds or rivers or nature areas?

I think although the theory is the same there’s a completely different approach between a new site and an inherited site or an existing site. For a new site you take a lot more advice, you get a lot more involved in the planning and the setup to make sure from day one you’ve got everything right and you’ve got your procedures in place.

With an inherited site the chances are it’s been managed reasonably well for a long period of time and the people who have done that know what they’re doing. So, the first thing is to review what’s in place. Don’t change things that work, don’t change things that are good, but review and improve. If you think it’s running OK, sit back for three or four months and just look at it and watch it and review it. And before you start trying to make too many changes look at it from there. And again, it really does depend on the type of risk and what the problem is and somebody in the team or in the wider group or in the wider company or in your network of friends and colleagues has dealt with it before. Whatever the problem is, it’s very rare that something comes up that nobody knows anything about. And so, it’s important to communicate and have that network to sort of bring in advice when you need it from somebody who knows and somebody’s experienced it before.

To wrap up, obviously you deal with high end clients sometimes they don’t even live in this country, but the world is going towards more sustainable options for whatever we’re doing, whether it’s something in infrastructure or on the ground. How important is it to your clients to get the environmental and sustainability aspects right?

I think it’s hugely important and it’s getting more and more important all the time as people become more aware of it. I think the challenge is going to be with an older building or a more ingrained building. It’s how much flexibility have you got in terms of leases that will require certain things done to the infrastructure.

We have a building now that we’re doing a full energy and sustainability study on to see what we can do in light of the increase in energy costs. I think they’ve had something like a 400% increase in their energy costs across the building. And there’s not a lot we can do about the unit cost of that. But what we can do is look at our sustainability options and reducing consumption. But we do have requirements within the management plan to maintain services. So, it’s keeping that balance.

Using that as an example, we sat down three years ago almost anticipating the energy crisis, and what we would do and how we would adapt to it? And we put together a shopping list of 2025 ideas. We involved a series of consultants and we’re gradually doing a feasibility study on each item on the list. I think we ruled 15 of them out immediately as there wasn’t the infrastructure in the area to do certain things and the planning and the leases wouldn’t allow certain things to be done. We were left with a core of eight or ten initiatives that we can probably push forward and now our focus is centralising on those and they come into three categories. There are ones that require very little capital expenditure, and we’ll get a good payback reasonably quickly, one that costs a little bit more money and it would take longer to get a payback but are probably worth doing and they’re the ones we’re really focusing on. And thirdly there’s a wish list of things that would be nice to have to make the building more sustainable. But there’s a lot of hurdles to overcome, so they’re sort of further down the list, but we’re planning 5-10 years in advance.

It’s things like whether we can have gas boilers in 10 years’ time. We need to find alternative solutions to those sorts of things. And in a newer building this is all part of the planning process and obviously that changes, the goal posts are moving on a daily basis there, but you need to adapt to that when you’re planning a site.

So, planning ahead is the key then?

Absolutely, and I think we all know where the environmental aspects going. So I guess it’s adapting to climate change and everything else. We’ll have to factor in maybe air conditioning, and maybe outside as well changing the plants such as the shrubs that are put in and planting more trees.

In my time in the industry tree management and maintenance was very low down the priority list or there wasn’t even an awareness of it. And that’s developed from tree surgery and safety injuries and developed into a strategy of how you can promote that. We now introduce better types of plants and trees for sustainability reasons. But it’s a big thing.

Keeping your plan relevant and current as well. You know, you can plan ahead, but you’ve got to adapt. I think adaptation is the keyword isn’t it really.

Thanks Mike, that’s been a good insight into the role of a high-end managing agent. And congratulations on the big win!

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