The se­ri­ous job of safe­guard­ing £13bn es­tate for the Queen

Chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Crown Es­tate tells Rhiannon Bury how she bal­ances her stew­ard­ship role with mak­ing money for the Royal fam­ily

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page - Ali­son Nimmo

Ali­son Nimmo has the air of a woman who is ex­tremely re­laxed in her sur­round­ings. Sit­ting on a grey sofa in the li­brary of The Crown Es­tate’s new of­fice in cen­tral Lon­don, her poise be­lies the weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity the role holds.

As chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Crown Es­tate, Miss Nimmo ef­fec­tively works for the Trea­sury to make money for the Royal fam­ily from an an­cient and var­ied es­tate – a task many would baulk at.

But the Scot – a triath­lete in her spare time – seems to take it all in her stride. “There’s never a dull day in The Crown Es­tate,” she says, chirpily. “We don’t have share­hold­ers breath­ing down our neck, but Trea­sury are tough taskmas­ters and we take great pro­fes­sional pride in try­ing to out­per­form the mar­ket ev­ery year.”

With more than £13bn of as­sets un­der her man­age­ment and the Head of State ef­fec­tively her boss, does she ever feel the pres­sure?

“I feel that sense of stew­ard­ship, of pass­ing the busi­ness on to our suc­ces­sors, and their suc­ces­sors, in bet­ter shape than we in­her­ited it,” she says, ges­tur­ing to the his­toric Lon­don streets be­low.

Nimmo is cer­tainly not one to shy away from hard work. As one of just eight di­rec­tors re­spon­si­ble for the de­liv­ery of the Lon­don 2012 Olympic Games, she says she spent six months work­ing “15 or 16 hour days” to meet the im­mov­able dead­line of the open­ing cer­e­mony amid widespread pub­lic scep­ti­cism. She cut her teeth re­build­ing Manchester city cen­tre af­ter the IRA bomb in 1996, hav­ing been sec­onded from KPMG. It is these two ex­pe­ri­ences that she cred­its with hav­ing ig­nited her love for mak­ing long-last­ing change to peo­ple’s lives.

“It’s that sense of legacy, of leav­ing some­thing be­hind that’s re­ally spe­cial, that I’ve been in­ter­ested in,” she says, adding with a laugh “that makes it sound like I’m dy­ing!”

She adds: “In Manchester, I learned what it was to have real pur­pose – to get out of bed ev­ery morn­ing know­ing you were try­ing to get the city back on its feet. That was the first time I’d re­ally felt like you go to work for some­thing you ac­tu­ally be­lieved in.”

The build-up to the Olympics was sim­i­lar. “No one thought we could do it,” she smiles. “It wasn’t just about putting on the Games – it was start­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of East Lon­don.”

It’s now more than five years since she took the helm of The Crown Es­tate, and the value of its port­fo­lio has shot up from £8.1bn to £13.1bn.

“My first proper job was in the plan­ning depart­ment of West­min­ster City Coun­cil, so this was my old patch. I knew The Crown Es­tate back then and, of course, we all knew Re­gent Street, al­though it was very dif­fer­ent in those days – it was all cash­mere shops and tar­tan shops.”

When she saw a news­pa­per ad­vert for the job, she was just fin­ish­ing work on the plan­ning for the Olympics.

“I didn’t think for a minute I’d get it – I thought I was too young and too fe­male, but noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained,” she says. De­spite those mis­giv­ings, she was of­fered the job and took up the post in Jan­uary 2012, tak­ing over from Roger Bright.

“We’ve done a lot in those five and a half years,” she re­flects. “Re­ally we’ve been transforming the or­gan­i­sa­tion for a while, and my role was just to come in and ac­cel­er­ate that.”

The or­gan­i­sa­tion was keen to move away from its roots as a tra­di­tional, landed es­tate to a more mod­ern, pro­gres­sive busi­ness, with prof­it­mak­ing at its heart. The most re­cent change has been to move the team to a new of­fice in the St James’s Mar­ket de­vel­op­ment, which The Crown Es­tate built with Ox­ford Prop­er­ties and opened ear­lier this year.

St James’s Mar­ket is the sort of thing The Crown Es­tate is good at, Nimmo ex­plains. The £500m project be­gan the year she joined, and took in the com­plete re­de­vel­op­ment of a gi­ant block south of Pic­cadilly Cir­cus, which she says was “grotsville” be­fore the work be­gan to re­con­fig­ure the his­toric build­ings to in­clude a huge new of­fice, as well as new shops and restau­rants.

But it is The Crown Es­tate’s £2.4bn re­gional port­fo­lio that re­ally ex­cites her. The com­pany has just opened a £140m shop­ping cen­tre called Rush­den Lakes in Northamp­ton­shire, and has re­vamped the West­gate Shop­ping Cen­tre in Ox­ford. In to­tal, it has around one mil­lion sq ft (93,000 sq me­tres) of re­tail space un­der con­struc­tion in the UK’S re­gions.

It also owns a num­ber of wind farms, swathes of for­est, and farm­land span­ning 263,000 acres (1064 sq km) across the UK. All this adds up to a mam­moth chal­lenge in mak­ing sure each part of the busi­ness is pulling its weight. “We’re think­ing long-term stew­ard­ship, but that doesn’t mean we’re not com­mer­cial and en­tre­pre­neur­ial, and smart in the way we do things,” she says, warm­ing to the topic. “There is so much change hap­pen­ing in the way peo­ple shop and en­joy them­selves, and we’re right at the fore­front of that.”

How­ever, it is wind farms where the com­pany has made great steps for­ward in re­cent years. The UK gen­er­ates more elec­tric­ity from off­shore wind than any other coun­try. At the mo­ment, the in­dus­try meets around 5pc of an­nual de­mand, and this is ex­pected to grow to 10pc by 2020.

Nimmo wants The Crown Es­tate to be well-placed to take ad­van­tage. In the firm’s lat­est an­nual re­port, wind farms were iden­ti­fied as a key driver in its record re­turns, mak­ing £27.7m. This made the es­tate’s en­ergy hold­ings its best-per­form­ing sec­tor.

This is de­spite the fact that the Prince of Wales has called wind farms a “hor­ren­dous blot on the land­scape”.

“I think we agree about more than we dis­agree with the Prince of Wales,” she says, diplo­mat­i­cally. “He’s a big fan of re­new­able en­ergy and that idea of stew­ard­ship.”

Most of The Crown Es­tate’s wind farms are off­shore, mak­ing them less con­tro­ver­sial, she adds.

The job has not been with­out its chal­lenges. In 2015, The Crown Es­tate be­came em­broiled in a row with the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment about who should ad­min­is­ter pro­ceeds from the Queen’s hold­ings in Scot­land.

In April, con­trol was for­mally handed to the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment. And like all other prop­erty com­pa­nies, The Crown Es­tate is at the mercy of the eco­nomic cy­cle. “We have the ad­van­tage of be­ing able to take a long-term view,” Nimmo says sagely. Un­like many other chief ex­ec­u­tives, she does not have a sep­a­rate of­fice, pre­fer­ring to work at a large desk on the floor with ev­ery­one else. So does she ever man­age to take time off?

“I don’t think you ever switch off from this job,” she says. “I do love it, and there is the re­spon­si­bil­ity, but it’s the best job in prop­erty by a mile. You’re al­ways think­ing about what’s next. And it’s a very spe­cial job to be cus­to­dian of all these fab­u­lous as­sets.”

The Crown Es­tate can trace its roots back to the time of the Nor­man Con­quest, but it was Ge­orge III who agreed with the Gov­ern­ment in 1760 that the Crown’s hold­ings would be man­aged by a sep­a­rate en­tity and the sur­plus rev­enue would go to the Trea­sury.

In re­turn, the King would re­ceive a fixed an­nual pay­ment, which later be­came known as the Civil List.

In 2011, Ge­orge Osborne, chan­cel­lor at the time, in­tro­duced the Sov­er­eign Grant, which means the Queen cur­rently re­ceives 25pc of the yearly rev­enue, mak­ing The Crown Es­tate more im­por­tant than ever.

Does know­ing she is fund­ing the Royal house­hold add ex­tra pres­sure to Nimmo’s job? “It’s a job to be taken se­ri­ously – who­ever the as­sets be­long to, they’re very pre­cious as­sets. Re­gent Street is the back­bone of the West End; we own half the fore­shore across the UK – that’s es­sen­tially ev­ery­one’s favourite beach.”

Ef­fec­tively she aims to run The Crown Es­tate in a way that any other prop­erty busi­ness would be run on a day-to-day ba­sis, she says, within the firm’s mantra of “bril­liant places through con­scious com­mer­cial­ism”.

“That’s what we try to do, day in, day out,” she ex­plains. And the plan ap­pears to be work­ing: in 2012, the com­pany made £240m to give to the Trea­sury. This year it was al­most £330m.

Nimmo won’t be drawn on whether she gets feed­back from the Queen on the busi­ness’s per­for­mance, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that the Royal fam­ily are fairly hands-off when it comes to the man­age­ment of the as­sets.

That said, over­see­ing a di­verse port­fo­lio for the Queen is not a small task and it is clear Nimmo is aware of its enor­mity. She says: “We’ve built a rep­u­ta­tion over decades, maybe even cen­turies, and that can be lost overnight.”

‘I didn’t think I’d get it – I thought I was too young and too fe­male, but noth­ing ven­tured, noth­ing gained’

Ali­son Nimmo, above, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Crown Es­tate, and top, some of its as­sets across the UK

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