Property leadership – Ian Coull, Chief Executive of SEGRO

Posted on: April 13, 2010

This morning I went along to the lovely offices of Lovells to attend the Profile face-to-face interview where Peter Bill (former editor of Estates Gazette and writer of a marvellous foreword in my second book) interviewed Ian Coull of SEGRO. I thought I’d share some of the highlights as it provided interesting insights into what it takes to lead in the real estate world.

Peter started with questions relating to Ian’s childhood which was in Perth. As well as being capped for Scotland (sadly losing against Argentina), Ian’s career aspiration was to be a Chartered Accountant so that he could “own a nice car and house”. Persuaded that Chartered Surveyor was pretty much the same thing except outdoors he trained at Perth County Council before going into private practice. Declining a partnership he then moved to work with James Goldsmith at Cavenham Foods in 1975 where they accelerated from £30m to £3000m in just three years. After a spell at Texas Homecare in 1982 he became one of the 19 board members at Sainsbury where he remained for 15 years.

Peter’s questions then turned to why, in 2003, Ian was persuaded by Sir Nigel Mobbs to take the reigns at Slough Estates – “the stamp collector”. In answering this question he commented that whilst it took him two years to achieve the fundamental changes needed in the “fragile company”, he would advise other leaders to “just do it” within their first 100 days.

There was a lovely story about the name change following the sad demise of Sir Nigel (third generation owner of the business). Originally they were looking at SEIGRO (using Slough Estates International) and went through the various domain registrations and legal checks. But just in the nick of time, a colleague at UBS mentioned that it spelt ‘orgies’ backwards and so the name became SEGRO.

Ian talked a little about the two biggest developments in his time at SEGRO -The sale of the US assets in 2007 which completed just days before the recession hit and last year’s purchase for £110m of Brixton Estates (£1.2b enterprise value which had previously been at £5b).

The words of Sir John Harvey-Jones “To be the chief executive you need the constitution of an ox” were supported but with a firm endorsement to the value of a team sports spirit in the leadership mix. Ian also suggested that “you need to know what you don’t know” to be an effective leader, understand that the things that arrive for you to deal with are the really complex problems and that often, when everyone is saying you need to go right, you must follow your gut instincts and steer to the left.

Peter then picked up on the fact that, rare for a FTSE company and even more so for a property company, SEGRO had until recently had two female members of the Board. Ian valued the different perspective, insight and calm that women brought and explained why those Board members had moved on. But he stressed that it was most important that you had the right person for the job – regardless of gender.

As a keen Labour supporter, there was some discussion about the forthcoming election – and some sadness that there wasn’t the same enthusiasm around as there was when Labour came to power 12 years ago. Ian also commented on the two thirds UK and one third Continental European mix of the SEGRO portfolio but gave little away on the company’s future plans for investment in other industrial nations such as China and India but urged people to check out Jones Lang LaSalle’s Index of Responsibility.

There followed a number of questions where there were comments about boom-bust cycles, the short termism of the stock markets, the value in experienced coaches and the challenges of finding industry reshaping innovations. Overall, it was an interesting interview exploring the more personal side of a well known and much admired industry leader.

It was also great to catch up with Gerard Tomnay – now a senior associate at Lovells – who I had the pleasure of working with many moons ago at Nabarro.

Kim Tasso

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