This week, Simon Silver, co-founder of London property developer Derwent London, announced he will be stepping down from the board, so it seems a good moment to revisit some of the highlights of my interviews with Simon Silver and his co-founder John Burns.

Susan Freeman

In 2015, I was fortunate to conduct a double interview with Silver and Burns for our Mishcon real estate magazine. The interview appeared under the heading ‘Step-brothers in arms’ as, unusually for the real estate sector where there are any number of other family collaborations, Silver and Burns are in fact stepbrothers.

Burns and Silver had worked closely together since founding the company in 1984. In that time, they built a reputation for Derwent as one of London’s most innovative office specialist regenerators, admired for its design-led and creative approach. Silver is the design guru and Burns describes himself as “more corporate”. As I reflected at the time: “It’s a successful formula, judging by the awards and accolades that Derwent London continues to attract.”

I was struck by how much they enjoyed their business. As Burns said: “We never really switch off – we have such fun in the business.”

Indeed, the pair seem to view the Derwent team as an extended family and once people join, they tend to stay. And yet the company has always continued to adapt and is regarded by the ‘tech belt’ occupiers they attract as being at the cutting edge of London office development.

The company is known for creating cool, iconic buildings such as the Tea Building in Shoreditch which, Burns pointed out in the interview, ‘cabbies know without an address’.

Burns and Silver started their professional life as agents at Pilcher Hershman and told me that they had always tried to treat their advisers as they would like to be treated themselves. In their early agency days, they were helped and inspired by people such as Gabriel Harrison, one of the most influential property men of his generation, who died prematurely and suddenly in 1974. Silver maintained that the best way for budding young developers to learn about areas and location was still through agency. 

Reputation is important to them and they have been rated the top company in the real estate sector in the Management Today Awards for the last five years and are ninth overall in the list of ‘Britain’s Most Admired Companies’.

During the interview, I asked about the secret of their success. Burns said: “Buying is the art. You have to find value.” They looked at everything themselves, and as Burns puts it: “We have good instincts. We are brave”.

The pair were certainly pioneers, going to east London in the early 1990s when others weren’t interested. As Burns said, “we christened the ‘tech belt’”. They saw the creative industries were growing and that there was an opportunity to regenerate unloved buildings. They liked to convert industrial buildings so went east initially because the buildings were more interesting, and they have stayed north of the river.

Simon Silver, left, and John Burns of Derwent London

Simon Silver, left, and John Burns of Derwent London

They both proudly mentioned the Angel Building in Islington, inherited in the company’s historic London Merchant Securities merger in 2006. There they had the courage to create something different, which they were visionary in seeing as being “between a hotel and an office”. They “weren’t greedy” so made room for double height breakout areas, atriums and a large reception area that “has a real buzz”. Other developers, suggested Silver, would have knocked it down and built something bigger. They were always challenging themselves to come up with something new, working closely with the architects during the design stages.

Silver acknowledged that they had originally envisaged a more grandiose scheme with atriums for the iconic Tea Building. Subsequently, the market collapsed. They didn’t want it empty, so decided to create studios and offered a capped service charge. Burns picked up the story, saying they were lucky with their tenant, Shoreditch House. The duo were introduced by a tenant, creative agency Mother, before Nick Jones had emerged as “the new Conran”. He immediately recognised the building’s potential.

White Collar Factory, next to Silicon Roundabout, epitomises the Derwent London approach. As Silver described it, “we borrow from the past to enhance the future.” Their intention with White Collar Factory was to build a modern version of the factory, but reinvented as offices. Hence the name. The dedicated marketing suite, which I toured with Silver, showcased architects such as Jean Prouvé and Frank Lloyd Wright alongside model buildings, furniture and styles that influenced the building’s design.

Beautifully displayed images of the completed development showed the high floor to ceiling heights, exposed pipes, an innovative concrete core cooling system and “shock horror”, windows that opened! As Silver explained, they aimed to create an urban campus that is “not too corporate” and they welcomed multiple lettings.

Derwent London views its relationship with its occupiers as collaborative. For instance, the first thing the company did at White Collar Factory was to invite in the 600 tenants in their portfolio. As Burns said with glee, “we are the company that takes tenants to areas they didn’t want to go to.” Silver added that they don’t just collect rent, they want to know all about their tenants’ businesses. They think about and are influenced by what people want from their offices.

The interview took place shortly before Derwent started on the redevelopment of the Brunel Building, in Paddington, which they described then as being “dull and corporate”. Influenced by White Collar, it clearly wouldn’t stay that way for long. Silver said that it would be the only building there where the entrance is canal side and promises to be “very slightly Brunel inspired”.

It was interesting to see how this family collaboration had come full circle. Derwent London had agreed a number of lettings, including at White Collar Factory, to serviced offices provider, The Office Group, whose co-founder is none other than Olly Olsen, the grandson of their late mentor, Gabriel Harrison!

Skip forward to last year when I was able to interview John Burns for my podcast just before he stood down as Derwent CEO to take on the role of non-executive chairman.

Brunel Building which we had discussed in the earlier interview was nearing practical completion. Burns described it as “a pre-revolutionary building. It’s a diagrid building, which means it is totally column free inside and it has pre-let. It will be 100% pre-let before we complete and the thing I find very exciting about it is the type of tenants that we have attracted. Sony Films Division have gone there who have been in Soho for many, many years.

A lot of very interesting companies that are premier league have gone there, a so it’s a village, that building, and it endorses, again as I said before, the fact that if you’ve got a good product, they will come to you providing it’s got good communication too.”

Derwent has always made a play of giving better head room and height in their buildings than the majority of developers. “We are prepared to lose a floor, in some cases two floors, in order to make that space really great and it does result in attracting lettings. We are very proud of that building.”

I challenged Burns on how he managed to be simultaneously ‘old school’ and cutting edge. At the heart of Derwent’s success is the relationships it has built. “We believe in relationships and if you go into a Derwent building, we hope the next building you take will be ours and it has happened many times,” explained Burns. “Take the Saatchi building in Charlotte Street.

They were there and we moved them to two buildings, Turnmill Building and Chancery Lane. Now who would have thought a world class media company would go to Chancery Lane? It is full of people like lawyers!”

Derwent has also been ahead of the game on flex space. As Burns said: “Funnily enough, we’ve been doing flexible lettings for about 25 years. Nobody seems to have noticed that. We have always believed in flexibility. We don’t have our particular brand but we have let quite a lot of space on these flexible leases.”

His closing advice: “I think you’ve really got to enjoy what you do. I think with Derwent we have a lot of fun and we’ve got great projects on. We have a good culture. I think that’s essential with a business.”

Of course, these interviews were conducted well before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But as CEO Paul Williams said in delivering Derwent’s recent half year results: “Recent events have highlighted the importance of offices for enhancing collaboration, social interaction and wellbeing to build business culture and attract and develop talent. Derwent London’s design-led and adaptable space will support our occupiers returning to their offices, an essential part of getting London back to full strength.”

Derwent London are also leading the way on sustainability having committed to become Net Zero Carbon by 2030. So the building blocks laid down by the founders will continue to stand the company in good stead going forward.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya

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