How do they do it? The Crown Estate’s Alastair Smart

Written by: Adam Branson
Published On: 22 Apr 2014
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Alastair Smart

Alastair Smart is head of development and project management at the Crown Estate, the body responsible for managing the property and land assets of the British monarchy.

While the assets are owned by the Crown, they are not the property of the Queen. Rather, under an act of Parliament, all profits from the estate’s activities are returned to HM Treasury.

Smart leads the team responsible for the planning and construction phases of the Crown Estate’s major refurbishment and new build projects, largely centred around its substantial land and property holdings in London’s Regents Street and the neighbouring St James district.

As a result of its constitution, the Crown Estate cannot borrow money to invest in projects. Consequently, Smart and his team either work alone using revenues generated from the organisation’s existing portfolio, or engage in joint ventures with other developers. For instance, the Crown Estate is currently working with developer Land Securities on the redevelopment of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre.

Prior to joining The Crown Estate, Smart worked for Lend Lease as director of new business and development director within the developer and contractor’s retail division.

Q: What are your objectives in your current role and how are you measured against them?

We have an overarching revenue target in terms of our return to the Treasury that we have to hit and that gets enshrined in our investment strategy. That strategy then pours down into the portfolios and the portfolio managers then sit down with me and set out where they think they can bring forward development in a prudent manner to help them hit their targets in terms of return and revenue. It’s all about reinvesting capital back into those core portfolios. Obviously you’ve got to be careful. You can’t bring too much development forward because then you can be exposed to too much risk and lose revenue from buildings you’re redeveloping. But also you want to refresh stock and bring forward new developments that increase your revenue.

Q: What key lessons have you learned during your career that help you to fulfil these objectives?

Honing people skills is essential. Development is a people industry. It’s about taking people with you and being collegiate. I learned those skills more at Lend Lease than at any other time in my career because by that point I was fairly well-rounded in terms of core discipline, but I then had to really work on how I worked with external partners. For instance, here at the Crown Estate the City of Westminster is a fantastic partner, but you have to put time into the relationship. We have to make sure we understand their policies, what their objectives are. It’s about spending time both at officer level and member level, understanding what their ambitions and concerns are.

Delivery requires understanding the supply chain. Having worked for Lend Lease, which acts as both developer and contractor, I understand how contractors have to operate and the margins that they’re dealing with. I think that it’s always good for people to understand when I’m out on site talking to people that I do have an understanding of contractors and the pressures that they’re under. We have a huge supply chain and we’re only as good as that supply chain.

You always have to bear in mind the commercial drivers behind a scheme. I spent a number of years doing development consultancy, acting for companies like Westfield, Hammerson and Aviva. So, I’ve acted for some pretty big organisations on their development needs and it’s good to sit on that side of the table and understand what makes them tick. Again I have to spend time on those relationships at the Crown Estate. My development managers will be plugged in on the ground on projects and I will be plugged in at a higher level making sure that the relationships between the corporate entities are working and that there are no issues.