Managing projects that take at least three years to bring to fruition is a challenge that Paul Smith undertakes every day with his land promotion business, The Strategic Land Group. He talks to BQ about being a hands-on leader.
What is it the company does?
The Strategic Land Group is a specialist land promoter – we work with landowners to secure planning permission for development on their sites, at our cost and risk, before managing their sale on the open market, taking a share of the value of the site once it is sold.
Our current portfolio has the potential to deliver around 2,500 new homes with a gross development value of circa £400m.
Describe your role in no more than 100 words
I’m very hands on – that’s one of the key differences between SLG and our competitors. That means I’m involved in everything from identifying potential development sites and negotiating with landowners, through to managing the planning process and the eventual sale of the site. I also spend a lot of time making sure our landowners are kept up-to-date with progress – our projects are potentially life-changing for them, and we need to make sure we respect and understand that.
Away from the actual projects, I have to keep on top of changes to planning policy and market conditions too.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I joined Wimpey Homes (now Taylor Wimpey) as a graduate trainee in 2001 and spent 11 years in various roles in the land team. In my last five years there I was land and planning director for the Manchester office. That gave me a fantastic grounding in house building and how developers think about sites. After that, I spent almost three years as director of a planning consultancy, before joining The Strategic Land Group four years ago.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
Being clear, consistent, straightforward and respectful.
That’s just as true for talking to landowners about their site’s development potential, or team members about what you need and expect from them. It's just important to do that whether you’re providing good news or bad news – too many people try to avoid delivering bad news and forget to pay compliments.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
The length of time it can take to deliver a project.
The nature of the planning system means that, even for a really quick turn-around, it’s about three years from start to finish – some of our projects will take much longer than that. That means we’re constantly challenged by changes to planning policy which can have a fundamental impact on strategy for both the business as a whole, and for individual projects. For example, the government recently revised national planning policy which has, in turn, prompted many councils to look at changing their own planning policies – even though, in some cases, they’re only a few years old.
Long timescales also bring with them the threat of changing market conditions – it is almost impossible to predict what a development site will be worth in 12 months’ time, let alone in four or five years.
But I have to keep reminding myself that if it was easy, we wouldn’t have a business!
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Spending time with my family is really important – it helps me keep everything in perspective.
I also try to exercise as much as I can – mainly running, cycling and swimming – and I read a lot.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Probably a footballer - working in the property industry certainly wasn’t something that I’d considered!
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
It frustrates me when people just say “it can’t be done” rather than considering what can be done. Typically, “it can’t be done” really means “it can’t be done in the way we would normally do it.” With a bit of thought and discussion, the route through any challenge usually becomes clear – whether that’s changing your approach and trying something different or slightly adjusting your objectives.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
It’s important to me that we retain the quality of the service we offer and that means I don’t want us to get too big. The work we do can be genuinely life-changing for our landowner partners, and we need to make sure we respect that.
The ideal size would be something around 25 to 30 projects – we’re currently approaching 20 sites – so the focus for the next five years will be growing to that level.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Be clear on what it is you’re good at and stick to that. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be open to new ways of doing things, rather don’t try to grow the scope of your business into something that you don’t understand all that well just because it is fashionable.
Focus on consistently executing your core skills really well.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
It’s OK not to be working sometimes. It’s easy to get drawn into staying late at the office and checking emails all evening and weekend. Before you know it, you can find yourself working around the clock. Yet by stepping away – putting your phone in a drawer when you get home, leaving early to go to the gym – you freshen your mind and make yourself more effective when you are working. You get more done and enjoy yourself more too!
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