The master of the London residential development market, Dominic Grace, has almost three decades of property experience and a wealth of knowledge. Naming Victoria Mitchell as one of the major influences during the early stages of his career; referencing Dame Judith Hackitt’s golden thread of digital transformation; and crediting Redrow’s Steve Morgan and Berkeley’s Tony Pidgley for the profound impact they have had on his career so far amongst many other industry past, present, and future greats – Grace has seen it all.
He joined Andrew Deverell-Smith in the virtual devcast studio, where they delved into his career, his knowledge on the residential property market, the truly special culture at Savills, and his thoughts on other industry icons as well as who to watch in the sector: did you make it onto his hit list?
Grace joined Savills in 1984 and 2 years later he opened the Savills Dockland office. Since then, he has partnered with a myriad of developers and landowners providing specialised advice on every aspect of the development process.
When people ask Grace about his career, he asserts that “so much luck has been involved, but the luckiest break of all was Savills which came from knocking on the door. I joined the firm at the most fantastic time and it’s still on one hell of a ride now.”
I was 26. I was completely clueless. But I was very lucky.
DOMINIC GRACE, 2021
How do you describe the culture at Savills?
Grace: “It’s about the people and the continuity. Largely, it’s been really big personalities that have shaped the culture. Maybe you call it a family tie that just makes it a super special place and that has contributed massively to its success.”
Andrew Deverell-Smith added, “the people I have talked to, they say it’s the relationships, rather than the properties that they’ve sold.”
Deverell-Smith continued, “if I were a young whippersnapper and it was my first day at Savills HQ and they sat me next to you, what would be the piece of advice for me to reach the dizzying heights that you have?”
Grace: “It’s a slightly boring answer, but you just have to keep learning. When you’re interested in learning, it makes you better at your job, enabling you to be insightful and ultimately happy which is where we want to be, isn’t it?”
What’s the best land deal you ever saw happen, even if you weren’t brokering it?
Grace: “Well, I’ve seen a few over the years and there’s a hell of a lot of luck involved and timing is crucial. But looking back, a deal I was involved with was the sale of the Olympic Village that was openly marketed and we had other interests, but I always thought, you know what ‘that’s a good deal’. It just felt right: the average price per unit, the opportunity to add more to it, the revitalization of the East End and the connectivity of the site.”
Grace continues: “It was also awesome, of course, to witness what the Candy’s did: buying the site that is now One Hyde Park, what used to be Bowater House (an ugly 70’s or 60’s office block straddling a junction in Knightsbridge). And the vision that Nick and Christian Candy brought to that caught everyone completely by surprise.
Let’s say that site came on the market now, could one push that up to 10,000 pounds a square foot? I don’t know and perhaps we never will know. That was just one of those moments in time when there was an enormous weight of money, foreign money in particular hitting London, seeking ‘cool Britannia.’”
“But people are still talking about it. Right?” Deverell-Smith affirms.
Grace: “I think that’s right, because it just was so iconic, so high profile, the sort of extravagance of it all. That’s history.”
So, I guess I’ve got to ask you with all of this experience of market cycles and recessions, where are we with COVID?
Grace: “Lucien cook, Head of Residential Research at Savills said the recovery is unprecedented: the residential market is growing in value and activity, whilst the national level of the economy is shrinking at a greatest rate we’ve ever seen. It doesn’t add up. I do think it can’t fly forever. I think it’s going to bob along at a rate that is, compared to recent history, quite a modest growth.
But what’s certain is COVID will pose and will continue to pose questions for a long time around the way we live and the way we work. Sadly, when we can all come out to play at the end of June, I think we know it’s going to be a long time before knowing what the ‘new normal’ looks like and what the knock-on effects are. But it’s going to be interesting and provide lots of opportunities.”
What’s the best new idea you’ve seen in the last year and a half?
Grace: “For years, I’ve always had a genuine deep-rooted interest in innovation, technology, and modern methods, not just because it’s fashionable now. There are so many areas of our industry that are so clunky and inefficient. This is where COVID really will have accelerated things and fuelled a very rapid period of evolution where we just do things much more quickly. As a result, some great stars are aligning at a government level, a societal level, and indeed, the actual technology around to make this happen. It really excites me that even at my stage in life, I might see some of this stuff happen, which is great.”
Deverell-Smith responds, “I’m going to prod a bit harder here, what are the inefficient “bits” that need fixing via tech?”
Grace: “Spa Tech, and the sensible adoption of it is probably the biggest challenge for the industry and that’s because of the decision makers being a bit harsh, a lot of them still are, or still display rather dinosaur tendencies. It’s understandable: you’ve always done it that way. Why wouldn’t you? And in many ways, the market itself, the strength of the market, means that you haven’t had to adopt the innovation and you haven’t felt that pressure.”
If I had half a million pounds, and I wanted to deploy it into real estate, what would I buy and why?
Grace: “I probably wouldn’t buy in London, if I’m honest with you. I’d buy somewhere where London’s still accessible but perhaps slightly out of the conventional historical commute belt somewhere that can add a bit of value. You’ve got to get the basics right: I think a bit of character sounds an obvious thing to say. But you know, important to get that bit right. But heritage, I think you almost can’t go wrong with that.
I think there’s a very deep market for something with a bit of country and for half a million pounds you can get a reasonable amount of bang for your buck, which sadly, in most parts of London, you can’t.”
Deverell-Smith continues to quiz, “which brings me to my next question, if I had 2 million pounds which new scheme in London would you take me to and why?.….”
Listen to the full interview where Andrew Deverell-Smith questions the real estate legend that is Dominic Grace on technology, influencers, and ones to watch. Did you make his hitlist? Available on ds.deverellsmith.com, Spotify and Apple Podcast.