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
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