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In conversation with: Ciara Keeling, Bruntwood Works

We sat down with Ciara Keeling, CEO of Bruntwood Works, to find out more about how she ended up at the helm of the £1bn portfolio.

12/02/2020 6 min read
Blackfriars House

As lead sponsor and supporter of Mix Design Collective since its launch in 2018, Bruntwood Works is the workspace division of Bruntwood, one of the North’s most prominent and successful property firms. Bruntwood Works has over 5 million square feet of office and retail space across Manchester, Cheshire, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham.

We sat down with Ciara Keeling, CEO of Bruntwood Works, to find out more about how she ended up at the helm of their £1bn portfolio. Ciara’s role involves responsibility for driving the business forward by becoming even more customer focused and maintaining relationships with over 2,500 customers in 61 buildings across four regions.

Born in Enniskillen, a small town on the west coast of Ireland in beautiful County Fermanagh, Ciara’s passion for property began at a young age, inspired by her brother’s career in Property . “He had such a passion for the built environment, and it rubbed off and I thought – that’s for me. I am from a family of nine, so I had a lot of siblings to follow!”

How did you end up in England, and at Bruntwood?

I always loved Liverpool – my sister was at university in Liverpool and I used to visit her wishing I was there, but I actually started my education in Belfast. I did a year of university in Belfast, but I knew I needed to try somewhere like Liverpool, as it always excited me as a city. So, I moved across to Liverpool and straight into my second year.

I’ve been with Bruntwood for 15 years, starting as a graduate surveyor. I had the benefit, in hindsight, of working at the company through one of the roughest times throughout the recession. This taught me a lot about putting the needs of the customer first. That is still a strong sentiment across the business today, the customers are genuinely at the heart of everything we do. We want to bring businesses together and understand their needs, we’re passionate about it.

Have you seen a lot of change in the way you design spaces for your customers over the years? What are you seeing now?

The changes are just unprecedented. You used to see lots of segmented offices and fairly bland spaces, where a customer would take a lease, close the door and get on with their business. Now it’s changed and we have every type of space from shared co-working to bespoke individual offices, all with retail and amenity spaces. It’s all about ​individuality and flexibility – space that’s going to work for your work! We have a community of vibrant businesses so we need to create space where they can connect and innovate everyday.


One of the ways Bruntwood Works are leading this change is through your recent programme Pioneer – tell us a bit about that.

We launched our Pioneer Programme in 2018, which is a £50m transformation bringing the future of workspace design and innovation to our regional towns and cities – we like to say its the buildings of tomorrow, today. Each site’s forward thinking spaces offer individuality and flexibility along with unique events and retail offerings. They create the perfect spaces for Bruntwood Work’s community to connect and thrive. We spent a lot of time talking to our customers to see what they wanted, and you can really see it play out through the design. People are coming to work with that ‘always on’ approach. We’ve been really thoughtful around how we design spaces to meet the demands of a changing demographic within the workplace, but equally changing working patterns.

You’ll find bespoke designs at each location but they’ll all be based on the six key principles of Pioneer; amenity, art, biophilia, sustainability, wellness and technology. We are already onsite at 111 Piccadilly in Manchester which is an altogether sustainable space, from power to plants with the first external lighting scheme of it’s kind in Manchester. We also launched the designs for Lowry House, in Manchester, a few weeks ago. This is going to be our ‘urban oasis’ ​where we want to provide a truly uplifting workspace environment, one that enhances mental and physical wellbeing by bringing the outside in and offering a host of amenities to support a healthy work/life balance and boost creativity. The design concept itself is inspired by the city landscape of today and all of its inhabitants. It has been developed to celebrate the energy, colour and vibrancy of working and living in Manchester.

Give us some examples of what those facilities – what is the average customer looking for now?

42% of people are working flexibly, so we have designed spaces for different types of needs. Sometimes people need to get their head down, or equally sometimes they want to be part of a community and collaborate with like-minded businesses. We’re looking at sleep pods, podcast rooms, as well as wellness community initiatives such as on-site yoga facilities. We can ​do anything, but not everything – that’s why we work with partners who match our brand ethos. ​Keeping the above six key principles in mind we’ve been thoughtful in the way we have designed the spaces, recognising that each building and community is individual.


What kind of things have come from your customer that made you say – ‘why didn’t we think of that?’

This mainly comes from the type of events they wanted to see, we have a wide range of events across our buildings but it has been useful to understand if they are the events that customers really want? Launching the Bruntwood Collective app has been really useful to understand these needs, we even started running a language class because that’s what people wanted to access!

In terms of space design, we found that when gathering feedback a lot of it is quite functional, and a lot of the time it’s something we are waiting to implement when the time is right. One that sticks is when Jaguar Land Rover in Neo needed another meeting room – so now we have a repurposed Range Rover on the roof that provides this, definitely not something we had thought about!


While technology is a big driver for Bruntwood and Bruntwood Works, fundamentally is it still about people meeting each other, and having that conversation?

Absolutely, we will never replace human contact and our entire business model is built around working with our customers on every aspect of their journey. However, technology can enhance what we do. During the planning process for our pioneer buildings, we had to consider how operational efficiency and user experience can come together. At 111 Piccadilly [Manchester] we are putting in sensors that support air quality and we are on the journey to become net zero carbon because our environment is important to us, as it is to our customers.


Tell us about your other schemes – what have you got in the pipeline?

We’re just about to go live with our plans for the Plaza in Liverpool as our next Pioneer scheme, which is really exciting, not only because of the scale of our build but also the great designs the team have come back with. No insight yet but watch this space!

We recently acquired the retail space Stretford Mall – which had a lot of people questioning why. At the moment a hot topic is the uncertainty around the high street so we have a challenge on our hands, but the retail team in partnership with Trafford Council have some great ideas with plans already in motion.


So, a healthy future for commercial interiors! We’re going through a bit of a revolution and it’s not going to stop, is it?

Absolutely not! It’s a really exciting time for design and a focus on human centricity has never been more important. You can see from how busy Mix Design Collective was, people have an active interest now and they are recognising how important design is to commercial property. It’s not just architects and designers, it’s everyone from the built environment looking at space very differently.

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