Historically, much of the real estate sector has taken a "let and forget" attitude to business, meaning once a tenant has been found for a property the project is considered over. But Paul Williams, CEO of property investment and development business Derwent London, has never liked that approach. "It’s not something I believe in," he says. "Once you join our portfolio, it’s the start of a long-term relationship."
Something he makes abundantly clear when meeting a potential occupant for one of his buildings is that he sees their agreement as a mutually beneficial business relationship, rather than one that resembles the more traditional landlord-tenant dynamic.
"If I’m pitching to get a new occupier, I say: ‘Have a good look at me. If you don’t like the look of me don’t sign up, because you’re stuck with me’," Paul says. "It is all about growing together."
And Paul would know, having worked at Derwent London for his entire career after joining the business back in 1987. In that time, he has witnessed monumental changes in both the London real estate market and his own company.
"I’ve been lucky to be involved with practically everything in the business since its inception. I’ve only ever had one job, which is unusual in this day and age," he says. When Derwent London started, it had about €3.56 million in assets – a couple of buildings in central London. Today, the portfolio is worth €6.67 billion.
"We built that up from nothing," Paul adds. "We created a brand and a style of offices and the way we do things from nothing. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked my way through all of that and up the business. I was employee number four on the payroll when I started!"
I’ve been lucky to be involved with practically everything in the business since its inception.
Derwent London specialises in office space, with 99 per cent of its over 500,000 square metre portfolio located in central London. It has been behind a number of major development and regeneration projects in the British capital, including Burberry’s headquarters.
The company differentiates itself with a strong focus on design and spaces that are a joy to work in, which is one reason why its developments are often popular with the creative industries.
"What we’re concerned with is, is it a place where people want to go and enjoy themselves?" Paul explains. "So we’ve got cafes and bars on roofs, we’ve got a running track, we’ve got all sorts of things in our portfolio."
If you think about the pandemic, why would you want to go to the office, given that transport is difficult and expensive? You want to meet your mates, you want to be productive, you want to progress.
He adds: "If you think about the pandemic, why would you want to go to the office, given that transport is difficult and expensive? You want to meet your mates, you want to be productive, you want to progress – but also you want it to be in a place where you can have a cup of coffee on the roof. Or a glass of Pimm’s, or something like that.
"That’s what the pandemic has taught us – you want to create places that are cool and joyful, but staff might still be working from home on a Tuesday or a Friday afternoon. Agility can be good, but being together is even better."
As they help drive the change away from more sterile traditional offices, the team at Derwent London is also helping to create more green and sustainable buildings. In addition to that, one of the first things Paul did when he became CEO in 2019 was to commit the business to being net zero carbon by 2030.
Just as with every other aspect of their relationships with occupants, those efforts are about working together towards a shared goal. "We’re very interested in building what we call long-life, loose-fit, low carbon buildings," Paul says.
"We have to report our tenants’ emissions, so our plan is to try and work with them to reduce those and try to reduce consumption," he adds.
That involves simple things like turning down the heating or air conditioning to control the building climate more efficiently. "Additionally, we are rolling out our Intelligent Building platform," he says. But Derwent London is also thinking bigger and planning to build a solar park in Scotland, where one per cent of its portfolio is based. The company can then produce its own certified green energy for its occupiers.
The most exciting thing about working towards greener buildings has been the amount of enthusiasm it draws from everyone involved. "What’s really pleasing is the level of engagement from occupiers," Paul says. "Not just the quantity but the quality. Everyone has an aspiration to be net zero carbon by 2030. And we’re getting closer because people are thinking, well, actually, you’re not the enemy – you’re part of the solution."
Just as Paul keeps amicable relationships with Derwent London’s external partners, so too does he ensure that relationships between employees and the company are deep, mutually beneficial and long lasting.
"There’s a correlation between our staff retention and our tenant retention – both are extremely high," he says.
The main reason for those high percentages is that people at Derwent London are dedicated to making genuine human connections, Paul says. "We simply seem to get on with people. People seem to enjoy themselves here, have a bit of fun. They smile."