Alex Notay, PfP Capital
With one week to go until 100 of our wonderful CREation members and committee attend MIPIM UK, the UK's largest and most insightful property event, who better to be this weeks Inspiring Individual than Alex Notay. Alex is an internationally recognised conference speaker, moderator and workshop facilitator who is speaking at MIPIM UK.
Alex is responsible for driving innovation and streamlining processes across the Places for People Group, one of the largest development, regeneration and management companies in the UK. She is also responsible for developing the Build to Rent strategy within Places for People and PfP Capital, the fund management business. Alex is also a published author and editor of over 30 books and reports on real estate and has led masterplanning, regeneration and PPP consultancy projects in London, Moscow, New York, Istanbul and Barcelona.
Great to speak to you today Alex, can you start by telling us a bit about your entrance into the property industry and journey to your current role.
I fell into the industry by complete chance. I’d started my career in the civil service on the Graduate FastStream programme after an International Relations degree with big ideals about saving the world through public policy ;-) I learnt a huge amount and had some amazing experiences but although I remain a policy wonk, I found it too slow-moving and hierarchical - I wanted to be somewhere I could get closer to tangible outcomes and have more of a direct personal impact. I was working in Urban and Economic Policy on things like the formation of the HCA (now Homes England) and State Aid Policy and to my surprise found that a lot of the stuff my IR degree had taught me about nation states and diplomacy applied to cities, planning and urban policy!
A lot of people left the civil service for public affairs jobs, which didn’t really appeal to me but the Urban Land Institute (ULI), the largest research and education body for the global real estate industry, were just expanding their European office in London and looking for a Research /Policy person. So I grabbed the opportunity to work somewhere where I could interact with the most senior leaders across the European real estate industry every day, ask lots of stupid questions in the name of research and then generate reports and host events on all sorts of interesting topics, from demographics and housing for older people to the impact of the internet on retail. My favourite report was called ‘Too Big to Fail’ and we examined the real estate industry straight after the Global Financial Crisis – that was quite intense! I loved the industry straight away – there are some lazy negative stereotypes about public and private sector but I’ve worked with amazing people in both and I particularly love the range of big personalities you get in property and pretty quickly I found I had absorbed a lot of technical information just from being around them!
ULI is an amazing non-profit organisation and I had some phenomenal opportunities, speaking at conferences all over the world, but particularly when I took on the responsibility for the Advisory Services Panels that support cities tackling difficult urban issues. I was part of a team creating a new affordable housing strategy in Boston, regenerating an old mining town in Belgium and led a team of experts to create a new masterplan for the Mayor of Moscow. However, although I could have stayed at ULI for my entire career, I was also realising that I was still a step away from the action in terms of delivery – so having done public sector and non-profit, I decided it was time to jump into the private sector and go from writing and talking about urban development to doing it.
The big challenge I faced then was a) that it was 2010 and the entire world, but especially the real estate industry, were still reeling from the GFC, but also that although I had a phenomenal network of board-level contacts and valuable experience, I had zero property qualifications. I had lots of dispiriting interviews where I was told that they really loved me and wanted to hire me but just didn’t know where to put me because I didn’t fit their HR boxes. So I decided to embrace the era of the generalist and set up my own consultancy business. I figured I’d do it for a year and then something else might come along but it would allow me to bridge the gap and also make sure I wasn’t just handing over my personal network to a big firm!
I was lucky that I had a strong personal brand and I really leveraged my network, so I got a lot of encouragement and advice but also a lot of challenge, which I really needed, to make sure that my value proposition was clear and I wasn’t just hoping people would give me work because they liked me! Within a year I’d had the GLA, Grosvenor, Cushman & Wakefield and IPD (now MSCI) as clients so I started to believe in myself! My consultancy was entirely built around me being a generalist in our very specialised industry – so I carried on with my mantra of not being afraid to ask the stupid questions and applying a strategic approach, even if it’s unpopular. It’s amazing how often very smart people can miss crucial things in a project because they can’t take that wider perspective.
ULI eventually became one of my clients (it’s one of those organisations you never really leave so I’m still an active member now!) and increasingly we saw the residential members getting more and more interested in how to get institutional investment into the UK resi sector. Again I was just in the right place at the right time, but Nick Jopling, then Executive Director at Grainger plc and the ULI Residential Council chair, asked me to put together a study tour for senior ULI members to look at multifamily housing in the States. That was a domino that led to me doing at least two tours a year but also being commissioned by the government to create the ULI UK Best Practice Guide to Build to Rent, which we first published in 2014. After ten years as a determined generalist spread across sustainability, fund management, retail etc. I had found a niche I really wanted to get into with Build to Rent – it’s something I’m genuinely passionate about as and suddenly found that I had a relatively rare expertise in the UK at that time. By 2016 about 85% of my consulting was around BTR and I’d worked for a number of the biggest fund managers and operators in the space. But again, I still didn’t have the levers myself and although my business was successful, I really missed being part of a team and a big organisation.
At that point I caught up with David Cowans, Group Chief Executive at Places for People, who asked me to do some initial strategy consulting for the Group that was going through a period of rapid expansion. That turned into a full-time internal role around innovation and strategy, and one of the innovations I had to explore was how to make BTR work within PfP. It became pretty clear that the most sensible strategy was to establish a fund within the new PfP Capital fund management business and I was quietly hoping that I’d get to work with whoever got appointed to do that. I was completely blown away to be asked to take on the challenge myself but absolutely thrilled to have the chance to actually put into practice what I’d been advising others on for so long. Ironically my first response was to panic that I wasn’t a qualified fund manager before my MD, Chris Jones, pointed out that I had literally written a book on the asset class and worked for so many of the key people that the fund raising would be the easy bit! I hope he’s right but I am loving the role so far and already feeling quite at home in the FM world.
As you can see, I’ve had a completely non-standard route into property but I feel like it’s the perfect sector for me. It’s about people and relationships, it’s about places and the environment that impact everyone and if you do it well, you can leave a phenomenal legacy. That’s rare in most sectors.
Wow it sounds like you have had such an interesting route into the industry, and it is comforting to hear that it takes time to find your niche in the sector. In your opinion, what is an important development or theme that will shape the future of the property industry?
I think the most important development in the industry right now is that it’s finally embracing diversity – it has been for so long the preserve of older, white men, many of whom are wonderful, but when you consider the importance of the urban realm for all people it’s bananas that only 14% of the industry is female, about 7% of it is BAME and there aren’t even any stats for professionals with disability. This affects every element of the industry – if you’re designing urban environments that young women don’t feel safe in at night, or shopping centres without enough room to turn a wheelchair, or tolerating misogynistic behaviour at a conference just because it’s always been a boys’ club, then you’re not catering to a very large proportion of your potential future customers.
My mantra is that we want diversity of thought – all the evidence shows that ‘groupthink’ is bad, for Boards all the way down through businesses, so let’s get some insight from people with a range of experiences, ages, genders, ethnicities, preferences.
Related to this is more of a cultural change of approach. This old-fashioned industry is finally registering the importance of the end user as a customer; and that space isn’t just a £ psf anymore – it’s actually a service. Antony Slumbers has pioneered the concept of ‘Space as A Service’ and I talk about that all the time. Look at the office market where the norm just a few years ago was to make a career selling very expensive 25-30 year leases for City of London offices. Yet last year, WeWork took 40% of the leases in London and are completely disrupting the market. Then you look at AirBnB for hotels, Amazon and online shopping for retail, and Build to Rent for the traditional housing sector. All the norms of the traditional real estate asset classes are disappearing. I think that will have an impact on the planning system – we all like to criticise it but fundamentally it’s not fit for purpose so how are we going to change it to cope with the blurring of uses we now have? I think that’s a fascinating challenge for all of us in the industry now.
What advice would you give to a young person starting their career in the industry?
My advice to a young person starting their career in the industry is to never be afraid to ask! Ask a question, even if it seems stupid, half the time no-one in the room will have thought of it and the other half, they’ll be glad that someone was willing to voice the question they were just thinking.
Also to ask for help. There’s nothing worse than staring at a screen or a page and desperately trying to conjure something out of thin air. Ask for help – and you’ll find you probably know more than you thought you did but just needed a bit of a nudge in the right direction.
Finally, to ask for guidance over the longer-term. Mentoring programmes can be really valuable but in my experience the best mentors are ones that you connect with organically. Very early in my career I was told that the best thing to do if you met someone with a career path you’d like to emulate was to ask them for a coffee to tell you about it. Most people love talking about themselves and it’s surprising how even very senior people often aren’t approached that much.
I’ve had some phenomenal mentors in my career so far and very often it’s just having mustered the courage to ask them for a 30 minute coffee that’s then turned into an actual pro-active mentoring relationship.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us Alex, we look forward to hearing more from you at MIPIM UK!
For those CREation members attending MIPIM UK, be sure to head to The Apex Room at 10am on Thursday 18th October for the Metro Mayors Think Tank on Generating Growth in Our Cities with key speakers including Alex Notay.