Starting a new job always brings with it some surprises. Getting to know colleagues, adapting to changes in routine and shifting into the rhythm of a new organisation are all part of what make a new challenge so exciting.
Joining as FirstPort’s new chief operating officer during Covid-19 has certainly thrown up some challenges I could not have anticipated.
Like people, businesses show their true colours in times of crisis. Over recent weeks, I have been lucky to see the business at its very best – motivated by how we can each do our bit to help one another get through the current period as best we can. Whether it is the innovation and creativity our newly home-based support teams have applied to problem solving or the extra mile our on site property managers have gone to in local communities, it is clear to see that our colleagues are doing incredible things for each other and for customers up and down the country.
This gets to the heart of why property management appealed to me. It is in a sweet spot in that it is just as much about people as buildings. I like the idea that the things we do every day – whether big or small – have a tangible and real impact for both our clients and customers.
Good property managers deliver great outcomes for customers every day, while also taking a long-term approach to asset maintenance, which ensures the places we manage are safe, sustainable and able to thrive for decades to come.
Top-class customer service is a fundamental part of this work. Whether we are managing a build-to-rent block, a small retirement community or a large leasehold development, a human and approachable interface is crucial. Extending the lifespan and improving the quality of an asset relies on proper ongoing maintenance and management. This is an essential part of what FirstPort does – protecting and enhancing investments, both for those who build and those who live in the homes we manage.
Yet building and growing trust among our customers is a huge responsibility. As the adage goes, it takes years to build and seconds to break.
Coming into the property sector from outside – in my case from energy – you have to unpick common assumptions about the industry. In recent years, the personal finance pages of the papers have been heavy with stories covering challenges from ground rents to quality standards more generally. They show how problems in one corner of a sector can help foster general misperceptions across the board.
As a relative newcomer, it is clear to see how opaque costs and poor service have undermined trust in the system among the public. FirstPort has supported calls for greater regulation and higher standards in property management alongside significant reform to strengthen leaseholder rights. Bold and balanced reform in this area will benefit new and existing homeowners, while also strengthening confidence in the work we do.
Aside from addressing improper practices, what many consumers want to see is more involvement and control in decisions about their development, greater transparency, and greater rights to redress when things go wrong. This is reflected in the trend towards residents’ management companies in new developments and we now work with more than 300 RMCs across the country.
While the mechanism for ownership might change, prioritising competence and technical expertise remains absolutely essential. Changes to the building safety regime – and the industry’s duty to respond to the tragic events at Grenfell Tower – are among the biggest and most pressing challenges that we face and a reminder that long-term, professional guardianship of buildings is vital for residents and building owners alike.
However, it is not all about challenges and there are opportunities for our sector too. As the bridge between building owners and residents, property managers have access to an abundance of knowledge and data about homes and the way people live in them. I think there’s a chance to do more with this. How people live at home and use communal spaces should affect decisions about investment, planning, design and build – property management has a major role to play in the future of those processes.
Turning good intentions into reality relies on sharing expertise across the building lifecycle. This has been brought into sharp focus on critical issues of building safety in recent years, and in response to the current public health requirement for a better understanding of how we interact as people and communities. Creating places that work in practice, not just on paper, requires better partnership working with developers, planners, architects and others in the wider industry. This is what FirstPort’s consultancy offer brings to the table – helping our housebuilder partners to build places that work better.
How people live at home and use communal spaces should affect decisions about investment, planning, design and build – property management has a major role to play in the future of those processes
Technology is helping us understand the built environment at a more granular level than ever before – with lived experiences feeding valuable information back into the design and build phases. This is part of the reason FirstPort has made some of the most significant investment in the sector in its digital transformation. This investment is also paying dividends for customers, as we have brought in new ideas, resources and technology to help them manage their homes more easily, while also improving communication, speed of response and quality of service.
It is a broad programme that will make home life easier for customers through proptech, give our colleagues greater capacity to focus on the things that truly matter, and allow us to share more robust expertise and intelligence with the wider built environment sector so that we can tackle the housing crisis and build homes fit for the future.
We’re all in this together
The property industry can be inward-looking, cyclical and too often reverts to short-termism. In my view, this is an approach that has caused some of the big issues and challenges the sector faces today.
One thing I am really keen to bring from my experience outside the sector is the self-belief to take a longer-term and bolder approach that reflects wider social and political trends. It is about trying to be one step ahead, identifying what consumers are likely to be looking for in the future and how our corporate responsibilities will shift in the decades to come.
Covid-19 has reminded us how we are fundamentally dependent on each other. We must learn from this and apply it to the way we do business. It is good to see that ESG is at the top of the built environment agenda. This, combined with drastic changes to working life caused by the pandemic, and the 2050 net-zero target are all macro challenges that need a collective effort across society. We need to reflect that in our sector and work together to do our bit.
It would be foolish to make too many predictions about what that future looks like, but the current crisis has shown just how critical having a comfortable, safe and secure place to live is. I am proud to have joined FirstPort at a time when it is doing so much good for our customers when they need it. As we look to the years ahead, I know that the qualities and capability I have seen across the business so far will be more important than ever.
FirstPort’s scale and capacity combined with our ambitious leadership team and owners mean we can truly lead from the front. We are the biggest operator in our sector – but that does not mean there are not lots of opportunities to be flexible and nimble so that we can play our part in meeting the challenges of the future while keeping customers at the heart of what we do.
FirstPort has more than four decades of experience as a full-service residential property manager. It has been awarded a five-star rating from the British Safety Council for the fourth consecutive year and is one of only 84 organisations globally to receive the prestigious sword of honour. Its 3,200 employees support nearly 200,000 homes across the UK. Find out more at www.firstport.co.uk