When we first arrived in Manchester with our Mix hats on, we couldn’t help but notice, when looking up at the city’s rapidly growing building stock, that a huge number carried the Bruntwood logo.
That red branding is now a familiar sight in Manchester and becoming more familiar in Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool too.
It feels like we’ve come a long, long way since those early pioneering days – a feeling that is only heightened as we arrive at York House to meet Ciara Keeling, Bruntwood’s Director of Asset Management.
Bruntwood is a leading property company in the North of England and Midlands and owns 117 properties across Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham, totalling more than 560,000 sq m of floorspace and worth more than £950m. In fact, Bruntwood owns one-third of the office space in Manchester city centre and, we should add, also donates 10% of all annual profits to arts, cultural and community charities through the Oglesby Charitable Trust.
Back in Bruntwood’s boardroom, Ciara confirms these impressive figures, before telling us about her own career with the business.
‘I’ve been here quite a while now – over 12 years – and I have to say that this is a great company to work for. I love the ethos of the company, the fact that it is family-run – and it really is family-run – and really does invest in its people.
‘That’s what keeps me here. I’ve had a number of roles over the years and I’ve really been able to grow with the company – which I don’t think is something that many businesses allow you to do.
‘Today, I predominantly look after our assets across Manchester. We’ve grown so much in the last 12 years, our boundaries are stretching further out of the city and we’ve been widening our focus in line with our strategic ambition, expanding into the science and tech sector. In 2012, we became the majority shareholder in Manchester Science Partnerships and in 2014 we purchased Alderley Park in Cheshire – which is a fabulous site. It is probably one of the best invested science parks in the UK and we’ve developed an amazing masterplan for the site. I share everyone’s excitement here about seeing its future development. It is really specialised and that means we need a lot of really talented, knowledgeable people to help us deliver the vision.’
We ask Ciara to tell us a bit more about the philosophy behind the business. ‘There is a really strong sense of purpose in how the Oglesby family want to help many of the UK’s city regions become greater. There is an unwavering commitment to investing not only in this city, but also Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham, with a great deal of focus on the local communities. There is a genuine belief that by investing in this way, by creating stronger communities, then businesses will thrive, the people within those businesses will thrive and the city will benefit. Manchester is proof of this – you get that right, then people will come to the city and stay.
‘Mike Oglesby (founder of Bruntwood) was light years ahead. We’ve been using the term ‘customer’ and not ‘tenant’ for more than 15 years here, because he identified that these are not temporary relationships, but long-term customer relationships. My previous role before this asset management position was firmly in customer retention. My job was to retain our customers, to help them grow and support them to stay in the portfolio, moving into work space that suits their needs.
‘If you try to lock somebody into a five-year contract and it doesn’t work for them, they’ll leave in the end. We don’t do that. We say ‘We’ll look after you and your staff’. We have an entire team dedicated to looking after customers, identifying their needs and helping them to move when they need to – and have been doing so for moe than a decade. As far as I’m aware, this was unique.
‘As you might expect, we continue to push ourselves. We want to do interesting things and grow with our customers – not just provide shiny corporate buildings. That’s not what young, fledgling companies are after. Many don’t want to take on long-term contracts because they’ve no idea where they’re going to be in a few months’ time – especially in the tech sector. They start with two people and come back to us saying that they suddenly need space for 15.
‘That’s one of the greatest challenges for us – for me – right now. We need to work out where those next spaces are coming from and how we can plan for that type of growth. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but we’re able to make it work because we have a great range of buildings.
“The expansion we have experienced in these four cities has been really, really fast. In Manchester, for example, the city centre’s growth has been incredible and shows no signs of stopping”
‘I’ve always had that type of role, it’s not always easy, but when you’re able to react to people’s changing needs, moves and evolution, it really does pay off. I have a customer who has grown and grown and grown – and we’ve been able to help him move four times. That’s where simple documentation also really helps. We cut out the jargon and make it as straightforward for our customers as possible. There are always challenges, but it’s how you approach those challenges.’
We already know about Bruntwood’s presence in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham, but what about cities beyond? ‘We are always on the lookout for new opportunities,’ Ciara says. ‘The expansion we have experienced in these four cities has been really, really fast. In Manchester, for example, the city centre’s growth has been incredible and shows no signs of stopping.
‘If you look at the old BBC site that we’re now developing – the new Circle Square neighbourhood – it’s a huge expansion right in the heart of the city. Again, it’s an exciting mixed-use site that will be a superb asset for Manchester and very much shows the evolution of Bruntwood as a business and where we’re heading.’
With our ears to the ground here in Manchester, one thing we have taken note of in the past few months is the massive rise in co-working spaces – a market that Ciara and Bruntwood know only too well. ‘As a business we’ve been in that serviced space/co-working market since it’s inception,’ Ciara continues. ‘And it’s becoming ever more popular. Occupiers are moving and want flexibility and simplicity – they want to choose what they want. They don’t want a long five- or 10-year lease.
‘We also have customers who want flexibility and they want us to provide the furniture even though they might only want that space for six months. This is really where the concept for our flagship Manchester Neo project came from. It was a lot of hard work because the process for what we were trying to achieve was so different from anything we’ve done before. There are a lot of things we offer there – and forget about the physical space for a moment – that are really different, right down to the sales approach we’ve taken. We undertook a lot of market research to understand what potential customers want for such a space. We put together a customer steering board and we asked them what they wanted us to spend the money on. This was a really different approach, very collaborative, involving a number of new and different initiatives.’
We were, of course, fortunate enough to be able to use Neo for our MixInspired event earlier this year. It really is a great space, with a different, fresh approach. If this is anything to go by, Manchester’s in very safe hands with Bruntwood.