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Man in Property Interview - Jason MillsBy: Richenda Oldham

Jason Mills, Sequoia Land and Property

Jason Mills is the Managing Director of Somerset based Sequoia Land & Property, which he founded in 2009 just as the UK was entering a recession. Originally, Jason qualified as a town planner, but decided that a career in property development was more exciting. He joined Hillier Parker (now CBRE) on their graduate recruitment programme and followed this up with positions at Drivers Jonas (now Deloitte), AMEC Developments and London & Regional Properties, where he was responsible for the $10 billion, 2,750 Panama Pacifico project in Central America. Before founding Sequoia, Jason spent three years as Managing Director of Abbey Manor Group's development business. Sequoia already has five West Country developments under its belt and specialises in heritage regeneration - developing under-utilised historic buildings, such as Tailor's Yard, the former Bonsoir nightwear factory in Crewkerne, Somerset, which is the company's latest project.

What inspired you to make a career in property?
As a young child I loved drawing townscapes and skyscrapers and building Lego towns, so I think the signs were there from an early age that I was destined to follow a career in property. Around the age of 16 I did work experience at a local architects practice. I attended a series of meetings with architects and property consultants and sat in on a food store planning inquiry. From that moment, I was hooked.
What prompted you to set up Sequoia at the start of a recession?
We launched Sequoia in 2009, so it’s very much a child of the recession. At first glance its appears totally counter-intuitive, but actually setting up at the bottom of the cycle makes perfect sense. It allowed us to buy developments at discounted prices in a buyers’ market. The flat lined market conditions meant most of our competition was dead, dying or focussed on just surviving and certainly not new acquisitions. This enabled us to acquire projects that in a boom we would not even get a look at. Tailor's Yard in Crewkerne is a perfect example.
What do you enjoy most about your work as a heritage property developer?
Bringing redundant and unloved old buildings back into economic use, especially projects that people think are impossible or unviable. . Property development is very creative and there is a real buzz on a busy construction site. I will never tire from taking a project through from a blank sheet of paper through to a start on-site. Seeing a builders merchant lorry arrive on site, get unloaded and then seeing those materials immediately being used to create something is great. I like those “before” and “after” pictures that show the scale of the transformation.
What is the best career advice you have ever been given?
To move from being an advisor to become a principal, which I did by moving from Drivers Jonas to AMEC Developments, a subsidiary of FT-100 AMEC plc.
Who or what has been the greatest influence on your life?
In property terms, Henry Davies (Centreland) and Andrew Pettit (Lehman Brothers) encouraged me to make the move from advisor to principal when we worked together on the 1Msq.ft Northgate office development in the City of London. But the biggest influence without any doubt, was and still remains, Ian Livingstone (co-founder, London & Regional Properties). He is the best boss I ever had. He and his brother Richard provided a master class in building the ultimate fast-moving entrepreneurial property company that went from a standing start to billion net asset value in 20 years flat. Ian also had the confidence to let me go out and pull off some great deals (Vauxhall Cross skyscraper and Panama Pacifico). The culture of Sequoia includes many attributes and values I learnt at L&R.
What has been your biggest challenge in property to date?
Leaving paid employment to launch my own property company from a standing start in the pit of the deepest recession and banking crisis in history.  The lack of bank support meant that we have had to work hard to demonstrate our expertise and secure funding by alternative means to deliver our rapidly growing business. Many people said what I wanted to do was impossible and we would fail. I think we are well on the way to proving the doubters and detractors wrong, but they have not seen anything yet. We are only just getting going. The greatest challenges are yet to come as our rate of growth gets steeper.
What else can the Government do to encourage more homes to be built?
Firstly, it should stop trying to over govern and meddling in the free market. Trying to subsidise the UK house building industry does not help. It just creates a false market, which favours the larger established house builders.
The key thing the Government needs to do is to somehow unlock lending (to both home buyers and developers). In the real estate sector it’s highly frustrating that the banks have gone from one extreme of lending to anyone for anything, to the other of not doing anything for almost everyone. Common sense tells you that any asset bought in the past few years has been bought at the bottom of the cycle. If it’s owned by a highly experienced management team, who have put in a pile of equity, it should be fundable.
What are the biggest changes you have seen in property since you first started?
When I graduated in 1995, I joined the graduate programme at Hillier Parker (now CBRE). The equity partners were all members of the RAC Club and did business over long lunches; there was a central typing pool; a strict hierarchy and it was very old fashioned. In the past 20 years, the property sector has been transformed. UK property has become part of a global industry and it is now a mature investment asset class. This modernisation has attracted people, including women, from a much wider range of backgrounds. This has made it a lot more open, inclusive, interesting, relevant and, frankly, brighter.
As a developer, what trends do you see emerging in house building?
A general drive towards quality, where customers are increasingly demanding characterful and original homes, with a general move away from identi-kit boxes. An increased emphasis on environmental performance and energy efficiency as energy prices continue to spiral upwards. I think there will be more downsizing in the young retired sector, in part to release equity to do other things, but also for a change in lifestyle. That’s a key sector for us, as those people are affluent and discerning. While they are downsizing to a smaller home, they still want a statement home, full of luxury and character. 
Nick Boles has said that "opening up the fast-track (planning) system will help get sustainable development underway and minimise delays. Do you agree? What other improvements could the government make to the British planning system?
I’m that very rare thing, a chartered town planner who is also a property developer, so this is something close to my heart. Mr Boles is rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. He needs to look at the big picture. You just need to consider how the UK planning system actually operates, to see the root of the problem. Frankly, you can come up with as many top-down tweaks and changes to the system as you like, but planning is largely driven from the grass roots. Locally, planning has failed to keep up with recent changes . As a result there is a policy vacuum and disconnect between the increasingly pro-development message coming out of central government, and the slow-moving and generally anti-development policies originating from local authorities. Local planning departments are massively under-resourced - decisions are slow, inconsistent and driven by personal agendas and vested interests. You only have to look at the explosion in the number of outstanding planning appeals lodged, to see how the system is creaking under its increased workload. The solution, and it’s not a quick win, is to increase funding to local planning departments to increase the calibre of the average local authority planner and councillor. Until we do that, the system will continue to suffer. No amount of central government tinkering is going to change that.

If you hadn't gone into property, what else would you have liked to do?
Splitting my time between being a modern day Capacity Brown (landscape architect) and a globe-trotting historic motor racing driver
What do you do to unwind after a hard week at work?
I have an avid interest in historic motorsport. I counter these petrol head activities by planting an arboretum, which I find very relaxing.
What do you like most about living and working in the West Country?
The scope to apply our London borne dynamism and drive to a rapidly growing development company based in the beautiful South West. In many ways this is our USP as there is much less competition than we would have doing the same thing based in London. I miss lots of things about London, but the lack of traffic congestion, the high quality of life and the relaxing landscape more than counter it.

Features July 2013

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