Posted 30 November 2020
The ability to see what others don’t see has certainly been a defining factor in my career to date, and something I bring to Bellharbour.
I’m Mike Brown, Director of Bellharbour and my aim is to make a real difference to the property industry, but first a look back at what has shaped my individual approach to property management.
At age 18, I was already working in the commercial team for the Department of Health & Social Security looking after three benefits offices and following that all of their headquarters; approximately 15 in total. This commercial background has, I believe, given me an appreciation that it’s people’s money I am ultimately looking after, and in order to do that effectively it’s the buyers and Lessees who matter the most. My next move took me to London to work for Cluttons – a building surveyors and property management agent, where at age 26 my interest in property management began to take hold. I started with County Hall (a refurbishment into flats) and the Butlers Wharf estate - Tower Bridge. The switch to residential provided a more personal way of working, one that is less governed by a 9-5 ethos and where more time could be dedicated to investing in the residents – something that remains the focus of my day now.
My next role with Cluttons took me to church - to manage the church residential properties. Church commissioners had staff living onsite which naturally meant this role was a lot more about customer service and reputation and less about the financial perspective, which provided a more rounded experience of customer service – and a deeper understanding that no one method fits all, it really depends on the individual customer’s needs. It became prevalent that adaptability was (and still is) key to good people management.
I then joined Ballymore – an independent Irish company producing huge mixed-use developments in Canary Wharf. Here the managing agent was in-house, so I was Head of Property Management but client-side. I continued working with other developments, advising on the construction aspect of the building in terms of how it affects residents’ use of its services and facilities. We were one of first sites to have a private residential cinema. My in-depth understanding of a building’s structure enriched how I managed properties, ensuring the residents could live in a good and safe environment. As we were Managing Agents for the client, we could create long term relationships on both sides - with residents and construction firms alike, leading to better financial management for everyone.
I then went fully client-side for St George, managing high-end mixed-use sites such as No1 Black Friars. As I had a Managing Agent working for me, I had to become more strategic in all aspects of customer service. With every new building we took on, the team were learning vital lessons to use in the next, such as implementing a larger and more sophisticated cinema which became the social hub of the building. We evolved further, with subsequent buildings implementing tech solutions such as satellite TV, gaming facilities, on-demand films, and sports. Leisure centre facilities is another example of growth with innovation. Starting small, my first sites had just a few items of gym equipment (in 1989 we had just 4 machines and a few mats), evolving over the years to a recent site boasting a complete leisure centre including a full gym, cinema, wine tasting room (where people could store their wine securely and run tasting sessions), a golf simulator room, outdoor yoga garden, 25m swimming pool and in the wet area a private spa environment including sauna, steam, massage and snow rooms. All of which brought new issues and a steeper learning curve into the realms of Health & Safety:
All whilst balancing the books! Working closely with Health & Safety professionals suddenly became a vital aspect of the job.
Every time something new was implemented there were takeaways to improve on next time, for example, the snow room worked well, but the wine tasting room was difficult to manage with insurance issues to cover the expensive wines.
Bringing all this knowledge, experience and key skills to Bellharbour means my team can promise a truly bespoke service to clients and residents alike. Listening to what they want is a vital part of the day to day running and longer-term strategic planning of any existing site or new development.
Looking into a changing world:
So now you know a little about my background, we’ll fast-track to today, and demonstrate how seeing things differently really does make a difference and how implementing change from learnings brings value to the property industry. As I see it, three things dominate the focus of successful property management:
From the 80s the rate of changing legislation hasn’t slowed – and in order to keep compliant the maintenance, upkeep and day to day running of buildings are the main things to get right. This means using the best contractors and following the latest H&S guidelines and policies. H&S and legislation is seen by many as a force to tackle, but I’ve learnt that if you get the right expertise behind you, managing buildings compliantly and safely is achievable. You can do that comfortably with a realistic budget but it really is all about having the appropriate and proportionate resources to deal with big issues (ie cladding) – which means adapting to issues as soon as they arise isn’t a shock to the system.
The key factor here is to remember that they may now be as knowledgeable as us. Again, going back as far as the 80s leaseholders were not aware of the details of their lease or what it might mean to them in the future, but now they know a lot more and ask a lot more questions that are not about the basics – their knowledge means they can ask complex questions that we need to have the answers to. We also need to impart knowledge to Directors which is why our correspondence hits their inbox before anyone else’s, so that they can provide informed answers to any resident’s queries.
Over the last 10 years or so, the drive towards development in tech solutions and the push to become carbon neutral has meant the property industry has had to be transparent about the costs involved in the construction and on-going management of the building people are investing in. With new build this is easier but with older buildings far more difficult as certain improvements are very costly to retrofit. With suppliers this is a less regulated and more complex market which makes it more difficult to demonstrate transparency and value for money. Our approach is to take more time to inform the residents of any potential issues and involve them in procurement wherever possible.
Example 1 - it's all in the detail:
Adapting finances to improve the wellbeing of a customer - an elderly housebound lady living in a top floor apartment whose life was geared around her small roof-top garden. Unfortunately, keeping her plants hydrated caused water to leak into the flat below. Normally the advice would be to not have plant pots on a roof terrace, but as we explained to the RMC, this small oasis made for a better quality of life for this lady. The lease did not cover major renovations to make the roof more watertight, but by adjusting the spec of the works whilst undergoing general maintenance of the roof, improvements were made. This meant that she could still have her plants, the flat below was dry, and as the costs came under the service charge ‘general maintenance’ fee – it was all done at no additional cost to the residents. Inviting the team to join her on her rooftop after the works had been carried out, she burst into tears as she explained how much it meant to her. We could have just said it wasn’t possible to restore the roof within the terms of the lease but with a little creative thinking, a solution was found that worked for everyone.
Example 2 - it's about the maths:
Finding affordable and cost-effective contractors can be daunting and a time drain. Having access to the best advice and H&S experts and ensuring intelligent procurement processes delivers good quality tradesman and third-party suppliers. Our advice is to set up good procedures in advance of any eventuality – which means that should a problem occur the infrastructure is already in place to ensure that the best solution can be implemented, and it gives more time to act. Of course, I’m talking about cladding here, and our robust procedure was set up way ahead of time, enabling the team to move forward with timely and strategic advice, surveys, and remedial works.
Example 3 - it's always about the costs:
Buildings are expensive. It costs to keep them standing up and complaint, so when it comes to planning for future costs, you’ll need a workable service change budget and a fair and reasonable Cap & Expenditure Plan (CAPEX). If you don’t maintain the building property it won’t attract buyers and in the longest-term potential purchasers don’t want a long list of required works to factor into the purchase price. To keep tight control on costs and ensure they don’t run away - delay non-essential works if it appears not to be needed. For example – redecoration. In one of our buildings, the lease stated that the communal hallways were required to be decorated every five years but on inspection and after talking it through with the residents they were happy with the way it looked. We were flexible and parked that project until it would later be required. Of course, this can only happen if you have the right relationship with the RMC, its Directors, and the residents. So, if you don’t visit the building regularly for a visual health check, or discuss options with the residents, you may make the wrong and costly decisions.
I’ve tried to avoid mentioning Covid19 however it has become clear in writing this piece that all of the strategies and procedures that I have put as standard in my approach to property management has enabled the team to deal with major challenges such as these, and has proven that we are not only well prepared but can adapt quickly.
In the future how we manage properties may never be the same again, and only agents who are willing to adapt and overcome obstacles with a clear focus on what’s been learned in the past will survive. Will the focus on sanitisation drop or remain? Will we be looking for more automated or contactless services/door access/bin or storeroom locks, or maybe we’ll see the birth of the robot concierge! Who knows?
Overall being complacent is now not acceptable – all the most successful developers and agents continue to innovate and evolve – something that has stayed with me since age 18.
If you have a question about how your property is being managed, please do give me a call on 020 7078 7978 or email email@example.com