Tim Green speaks to Richard James, Chief Financial Officer of Savills Investment Management
Richard James is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of Savills Investment Management (Savills IM), the wholly owned but independent investment management business of the Savills Group. He began his career at Ernst & Young (EY) in London, qualifying as a chartered accountant before moving to AREA (now Ares). In 2006, he became Portfolio CFO at Curzon Global Partners (now AEW Europe), and subsequently became CFO of the European property fund management business Internos.
Richard joined Savills IM in 2010 and has worked on deals in more than 25 countries worldwide. He is responsible for the financial and risk management of a firm with over 600 assets, comprising £16.4bn assets under management. He has helped successfully close and integrate a number of corporate deals in his time at the firm, including the 2015 acquisition of SEB Asset Management and the acquisition of a minority stake in the real estate debt firm DRC Capital LLP in 2018.
What was your first job and what is the worst job you’ve ever done?
My first job was at a local pub when I was 14. I had to re-stock the bar and clear all of the empties. The landlord was a chap called Rex, whose distinguishing feature was to have a dog also called Rex – unfortunately both regarded me as pretty useless.
My worst job was when I decided to leave EY soon after qualifying to set up in business with my then father-in-law. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and so we bought a small manufacturing business to supplement his family business. I spent two incredibly stressful years trying to make it work before returning to EY. Whilst I hated it, it did teach me a lot. I saw a side of business, and of life, I would not have otherwise seen, and it made me realise what I was, and was not, good at.
Was finance your first career choice and what were you doing before?
I went straight from university to EY, but I had originally wanted to join an advertising agency; I was attracted to the glamour of an industry that was very high profile in the late 1980s. But a part of me will always seek the sensible option and, as such, I chose accountancy because, like many thousands before and since, I viewed it as a good way to keep my career options open. I stayed in the industry because I loved working at EY. Training at a big firm was like a three-year extension to university, and it enabled me to live and work in Hong Kong as well as London.
Why did you choose a career in the commercial real estate sector?
It was pure luck. Mike Pashley (now CFO at Trilogy Real Estate LLP) had been my boss at EY, and he offered me my first job out of the profession at what is now Ares. I had banking and corporate finance experience, but no prior real estate experience. But Mike knew me and trusted me to pick it up quickly, so I owe him a lot. Please don’t tell him that though.
Why do you enjoy the sector?
Primarily the people. People who work in real estate often have a level of passion that’s hard to find in most other sectors. It can be hard work, but it can also be great fun too. However, it has undoubtedly – and necessarily – changed a lot in the last 20 years and is now much more formal. Investors are becoming more sophisticated and real estate is a financial investment first and foremost. That said, there are still characters around and I have made lots of friends over the years.
What’s a typical day like?
No two days are the same, and that’s why I like it. But a common theme is lots of meetings with colleagues, teams and with third parties. Communication and knowledge building is vital to managing the business and solving problems. I love the variety and generally enjoy change, finding it exciting and invigorating. Savills IM has constantly changed in the nine years I have been here and continues to do so. When I joined in 2010, Savills IM had around £3bn of assets under management, now we have over £16bn. As we move into many new and exciting areas, I look forward to seeing where we go next.
Who, or what, has had the biggest impact on your career?
I have been lucky to work with many interesting and inspirational people. I think you take different bits of advice and guidance from different people as you progress through your career. However, the biggest single influence on my career has actually been my parents – despite the fact they have no real idea what I do. It is only since becoming a parent myself that I have really appreciated the level of support, belief and patience they showed me.
What advice would you give to people at different levels on developing their careers?
There is lots of advice I would give, but one thing I always say to people joining Savills IM is to read everything. It is so important to understand the industry and what we are doing now, as well as what we are seeking to achieve in the future. Don’t limit yourself to your function or team, strive to understand all parts of the business. The most successful people are usually knowledgeable about all areas of their business.
Who inspires you and why?
Lots of people both professionally and personally. A public figure who has always inspired me is David Bowie. There have been many reasons for this, but more recently I admired how he managed to produce some of his best and most challenging work despite knowing he was terminally ill.