Nigel Howell of FirstPort
Nigel Howell of leading property management group FirstPort tells BQ why you should always be optimistic and reveals the secrets of his success...
Tell us a little about FirstPort, what does the company do?
With over 30 years’ experience, FirstPort is the largest residential property manager and the leading retirement property management company in the UK, managing a total of 172,000 homes across England, Wales and Scotland.
It manages around 113,000 general leasehold residential properties across 2,305 developments and around 59,000 specialist retirement properties across 1,442 developments.
The company also has a specialist team dedicated to looking after large and complex developments and manages some of the most prestigious residential sites in the UK, including management of Build to Rent developments in the Private Rented Sector (PRS).
What does your role involve?
As chief executive, I see my role as being to set the business strategy, to ensure the various stakeholders are involved and aligned, to lead and motivate the staff, and to ensure customers receive great service. It’s inevitably a broad role, but you also have to be willing to drop into detail if something isn’t working. I love the pace and variety of it.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I spent my early career in a series of senior finance, strategy, and business development roles for Hawker Siddeley, Shell, Cable & Wireless and Centrica/British Gas, both in the UK and overseas.
I joined FirstPort in January 2013 following six years as the chief financial officer of property maintenance business Morrison Facilities Services Ltd. During my time at Morrison, I helped the business through a period of significant transformation including the sale of Morrison Facilities Services to a trade buyer in 2012.
Although I’ve not moved company too often, I have been very fortunate to have plenty of different experiences, both in the functions I have worked in (mainly finance, but also technology, marketing, and strategy planning) and geographically (having worked in the UK, in Silicon Valley California, and in Paris/across Europe).
I’m a qualified accountant (FCMA), a Chartered Director (CDir), and a Member of the Institute of Residential Property Management (IRPM).
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Listening hard, thinking, integrity, decisiveness, and the ability to articulate ideas well.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Leading a business turnaround which consolidated a group of companies under the new FirstPort brand, marking an important milestone in the transformation of the company and our commitment to be a customer focused business which is about more than just bricks and mortar.
The turnaround has seen a company transform from being £150m in debt, to a company which is in steady financial health. Our growing customer satisfaction and retention rates highlight this transformation, as do our portfolio of business wins which have increased significantly over the last 18 months.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
One way is to stay optimistic – I always think that difficult situations and pace of work only become too stressful if you stop seeing the way forward. Another way is to value time with family and friends who help to keep you grounded.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I remember the moon landings in the late 1960s and being inspired by space exploration and being an astronaut. I now realise I was never really brave enough, so it’s a good job I became an accountant!
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
I confess that lack of commitment and lack of pace are pet hates of mine at work. There’s always so much exciting stuff to do, our customers are always demanding more, and our competitors always keep us on our toes. Committing to something and delivering it well are keys to success.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
I think what we do – looking after people’s homes – is such an important part of our customer’s lives and they truly care about this being done right. A high service standard in residential property management is key to supporting today’s changing lifestyles, and I think the whole sector can do much better.
I want FirstPort not only to be the largest property management company in the UK, but also the leading, as judged by others. I hope in five years’ time we will be at a place where we can say we have achieved this.
I also see the company and the property management industry as a whole playing a much more active role with developers in the planning process. Through on the ground experience, we understand what residents are looking for from their buildings and facilities and from the development in terms of community feel. This knowledge will become increasingly invaluable to developers with the rise of the build to rent market.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Commit to an ambitious goal, throw your whole effort into it, and love what you do.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Learn how to build great teams because it is essential to achieving success.