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Leading with Resilience | Helen Gordon

Leading with Resilience | Helen Gordon

Helen Gordon

CEO

Helen Gordon is Chief Executive of Grainger plc the UK’s largest listed residential landlord. 

Helen was appointed Chief Executive of Grainger in January 2016 from RBS where she had been Global Head of Real Estate Asset Management since October 2011. Prior to that Helen was Director of Legal and General Property, responsible for the Main Life Fund and c.8 smaller Funds, and Group Property Director of Railtrack and Managing Director of John Laing Developments. 

Helen sits on the Board of Derwent London as a non-executive Director and is currently a Board Director of the European Public Real Estate Association and is Immediate Past President of the British Property Federation.  Helen has held a number of non-exec positions and Government appointments including the Board of Covent Garden Market Authority, Board of British Waterways and was a Trustee for The College of Estate Management for nine years. Helen is an Honorary Fellow of University College of Estate Management.

Women leaders matter because successful businesses should reflect the people they do business with. Grainger is the UK’s largest listed residential landlord and is responsible for thousands of homes. “I value a diverse team, not just gender diversity but also age and ethnicity. It is essential for us to create an environment where we can share experiences and insights to understand our customer base and to make our business more resilient.”

As corporate structures become less hierarchical and project work more common, there are opportunities for mixed teams to develop and for talent to be recognised and nurtured.

As a business with women in senior positions and 50% representation at board level Helen works to encourage all talent to realise its potential and guide those who follow our lead to consider the barriers we must address around flexible working or style of operating. The barriers within organisations or individuals need to be challenged and this involves challenging structures and perceptions which prevent talented women from rising to the top.

It is the role of all those focussed on creating a great business to identify and develop talent for the benefit of the business, and at Grainger also about creating great places to live.

With house prices unaffordable and social housing unavailable, seven million households are expected to be renting their homes privately by the middle of the next decade. That’s both a housing crisis and a business opportunity.

Right now the vast majority of private landlords are small scale, ‘buy to let’ operators. But there’s a new game in town: ‘build to rent’, which sees corporations construct housing to let out rather than sell, attracted by the rent they can charge tenants.

Leading the way is Grainger, one of the UK’s biggest private landlords. Right now it rents out over 8,000 homes but plans to at least double that number. Just this week Grainger was chosen by Transport for London to build 3,000 homes around eight tube stations in a lucrative joint venture.

As Grainger grows, its developments have provoked resistance from housing groups fighting gentrification. Local residents and traders in the London borough of Haringey, for example, are currently trying to stop its controversial scheme to demolish the Latin American market in Seven Sisters, to make way for private flats and a new “redeveloped” market.

So far such campaigns have focused on the councils allowing Grainger’s schemes to go ahead.

Grainger hails strong start to year with rising rental income

Grainger is run by Helen, a key player in one of the biggest banking scandals since the financial crash. From 2011, Helen was head of the ‘West Register’ division of RBS, accused of buying up properties on the cheap from businesses the bank itself had run down.

Grainger’s biggest shareholders are hugely wealthy financial institutions, with Blackrock – the world’s biggest investment firm – the top shareholder.

Record profits have helped Grainger pay out huge sums to its bosses and owners. Helen made £1.5 million last year, while the company has paid shareholders £55 million in dividends in the last three years.

Grainger has received substantial state backing for its new strategy. The government has changed planning regulations and spent £4.5 billion to support the build to rent sector. Local authorities have given Grainger grants, loans and legal support, while bodies such as Transport for London and Lewisham council have set up joint ventures with the company.

Resilience of build-to-rent

Sitting in the firm’s boardroom overlooking the River Thames, Helen asserts that BTR has been particularly resilient during the pandemic. Grainger’s rent collection levels have been around 97-99 percent – while other asset classes have struggled. “There has been a moratorium on both commercial and residential tenants, but the outcomes were very different,” she says. “People continued to really value their homes and pay their rents during the pandemic. Our rent collection was between 97-99 percent.”

And as the country has reopened, demand has swelled for the high-quality, professionally managed rental product that Grainger offers. “We launched schemes in Southampton and Manchester at the end of March,” Helen notes. “Our Southampton scheme has beaten all records – it’s now fully let. We had allowed a year to lease it up, and it happened in under four months. And in Manchester, 140 units have already been let.”

Demand has been strong elsewhere in the country, too. “The regions have been particularly resilient,” Helen says. “Parts of London have struggled, but the pick-up now is strong. There are almost two and half times the enquiries than we were seeing at the beginning of the year, and twice as many lettings.”

Helen thinks the emphasis Grainger places on technology and service is an important reason why. “We have superfast broadband going into each apartment, not being split at the building,” she points out. “We doubled the speed for our customers during the pandemic. We offered co-working spaces, gyms, extensive cleaning regimes and even parcel collection. We were doing shopping for people. That really differentiates us from the buy-to-let landlord who may have been absent.”

Grainger has enjoyed successful partnerships with public sector bodies such as TfL, the GLA, Network Rail and a number of London boroughs. “We’re listed, we have the right governance, and we have a strong social agenda – but we’re very choosy about partnerships,” Helen says, explaining Grainger’s strategy.

Local councils struggling to meet housing targets should also consider partnering with BTR developers, according to Helen. “Local authorities know that if they build council housing for rent, Right to Buy still exists,” she remarks. “There’s a loop of buying and selling, and the housing stock never really grows. What they don’t realise is that through joint ventures, they can retain the property and retain a revenue stream.”

Grainger has enjoyed remarkable success since Helen took the helm and implemented an assertive growth strategy. “We launched the strategy at the beginning of 2016, we’ve doubled in size already, and we’re on track to double again,” she explains. “We have 9,000 operational units, with another 9,000 in the pipeline. This is a business that has been designed to scale up.”

But the company’s values extend beyond pure growth. On the topic of ESG, Helen says: “Everyone likes to talk about the E. The G is taken for granted when you’re in a FTSE 250. Our ‘S’ is much stronger than many other property companies. Anyone renting with a buy-to-let landlord is worried they’ll be served notice at any time. In a Grainger block, people are working all the time to make sure you stay with us.”

Nevertheless, Helen Gordon admits that real estate has reputational issues. “There are some very philanthropic organisations that make up the majority – by value – of the real estate industry. But what sells newspapers is stories about bad landlords and people being treated wrongly. That’s a view that’s been around for decades that we’re trying to swim against reputationally.”

Looking to the future, Helen says: “There’s a lot to do at Grainger but I find it interesting to do other things. I have a non-exec role for Derwent. I’ve been working with the BPF and with government. I’m interested in solving the housing crisis with Homes England. But at Grainger, we’re accelerating through our strategy – the business is even more exciting than when I joined it.”

Landlords leave tenants ‘in fear of eviction’

The CEO of the UK’s largest listed residential landlord has taken aim at private landlords whom she accuses of leaving tenants in constant fear of eviction.

Helen, boss at Build to Rent expert Grainger, told Property Week that it had a stronger social conscience than many of its competitors.

“On the topic of Environmental, Social and Governance, our ‘S’ is much stronger than many other property companies. Anyone renting with a buy-to-let landlord is worried they’ll be served notice at any time. In a Grainger block, people are working all the time to make sure you stay with us.”

She adds that as the country has reopened, demand has swelled for its high-quality, professionally managed rental product. “We launched schemes in Southampton and Manchester at the end of March,” Helen says.

“Our Southampton scheme has beaten all records – it’s now fully let. We had allowed a year to lease it up, and it happened in under four months. And in Manchester, 140 units have already been let.”

Helen Gordon believes the emphasis Grainger places on technology and service is a key reason for continued demand for its properties.

“We have superfast broadband going into each apartment, not being split at the building,” she points out. “We doubled the speed for our customers during the pandemic.

“Grainger offered co-working spaces, gyms, extensive cleaning regimes and even parcel collection. We were doing shopping for people. That really differentiates us from the buy-to-let landlord who may have been absent.”

The firm, which has 9,000 operational units, with another 9,000 in the pipeline, boasts that it has been particularly resilient during the pandemic, with rent collection levels at about 97-99%, while others have struggled. Helen Gordon suggests that local councils struggling to meet housing targets should also consider partnering with Build to Rent developers.

Helen Gordon Award

“It is the role of all those focussed on creating a great business to identify and develop talent for the benefit of the business, and at Grainger also about creating great places to live.”

Helen Gordon

CEO of Grainger PLC

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