Sally is one of the five founding partners at Clearbell Capital LLP, a niche real estate fund manager and advisory business with three value-add/opportunistic funds and two separate advisory mandates.
Sally was born and grew up in the historic city of Durham and was one of the first girls from her school to be accepted by Oxford University, where she read Chemistry at Wadham (one of the very few mixed colleges at the time). She quickly realised that a career in Chemistry was not for her and following graduation joined Deloitte Haskins & Sells (now part of PWC), London where she qualified as a chartered accountant. After a promotion to manager and experience across a mix of retail, insurance and manufacturing clients, she left to join her first property company in 1987 – just as the UK property market was peaking.
Sally spent 14 years with Wates City of London Properties plc, a niche development and investment company listed on the London Stock Exchange and then five years with Grosvenor Group Limited, the Duke of Westminster’s international private property group before joining Manish Chande and her other partners, to form Clearbell.
Q: What was your first job and what is the worst job you’ve ever done?
A: My first job was a Saturday job at the university bookshop in Durham. This was a great job for a 16-year-old and the best part was being allowed to borrow any book, provided the spine was not broken when I returned it. A real perk of the job.
My worst job was a summer job at the local Co-op laundry; the hottest summer on record in 1976.
Q: Was finance your first career choice and what were you doing before?
A: I had no particular career in mind when I went up to Oxford. However, I realised I did not have a deep interest in chemistry necessary to pursue a career in the field. Instead I was swayed by the recruiters doing the milk-round and decided a professional qualification would stand me in good stead. With hindsight this proved to be a very good choice.
Q: Why did you choose a career in the commercial real estate sector?
A: I was lucky in that my introduction to the property sector was at a very interesting and exciting time, joining Wates City, a recently listed developer and investor with huge ambitions to develop trophy assets within the Square Mile. Wates City had complex sites, all within walking distance of the office and with a full range of issues. This was a perfect opportunity to learn quickly about the challenges of site assembly, planning, development, financing and property management and all on the public stage. I was hooked from the start.
Q: Why do you enjoy the sector?
A: There are many reasons why I enjoy the real estate sector, but a key reason for me has always been the people. Being able to work with talented individuals is a privilege; the complex and sizable nature of each property asset or project requires a multi-disciplined approach. Each project or investment is different, whether it is an industrial portfolio across the UK or the reconfiguration of a shopping centre or the conversion of offices to residential. The ownership structures vary considerably and are often tailored to suit investors, reflecting legislation and regulations. The investing landscape is always changing, so there are plenty of opportunities to keep learning and deploying new strategies.
Q: What’s a typical day like?
A: For October the whole Clearbell office was participating in the Landaid charity Steptober and so we were all making excuses to get out and about a lot more to keep the step-count up! It has become a bit of an office obsession.
That aside, no day could be regarded as typical. I try to empower the team to take responsibility for their areas and so I am mostly involved as a sounding board for them. I spend time monitoring and controlling the funds and the underlying investments. We take a real pride in the quality of our reporting and our communication style. I do also enjoy the design and implementation of new investor products and investment structures. I spend a fair bit of my time at my desk – either in informal meetings, on calls, reviewing documents and, of course, email traffic – but I also like to get out to see the assets, advisors, meet industry experts and fellow private equity real estate CFO’s possibly at a breakfast, lunch or seminar.
Q: Who or what has had the biggest impact on your career?
A: Looking back the biggest impact on my career was witnessing rents peak at £72psf on office suites within City Tower (City of London) in 1988 and then fall by half over the following months. With 100% exposure to the City of London (consistently the most volatile property market) and some large development sites, Wates City was in the eye of the storm; yet with nimble footwork and hard graft, we survived and continued to build out the business. For me, this was a dramatic introduction to the world of property and its cycles and it proved to be an exceptional learning experience and a time to forge valuable relationships with lenders and others in the industry. This experience and the more recent global financial crisis prove so valuable when navigating todays challenges.
Q: What advice would you give to people at different levels on developing their careers?
A: I think it is essential to enjoy your work and respect the people you work with. We all spend a lot of time at work and so it is important that we enjoy most of what we do and are open to learn from colleagues. Property firms are often small and so if your interest wanes and you stop learning, it is probably time for a change.
I would also suggest that you should not be fearful of change or of making honest mistakes. Both are excellent learning opportunities and inevitable in the fast-changing world of business.
A lot of people find it difficult to delegate and manage others. So I would recommend developing communication and management skills; team skills will help you progress in any working environment.
Q: Who inspires you and why?