The ARL in conversation with… Tracey Hartley, COO, Cortland – Europe

In conversation with Cortland chief operating officer Tracey Hartley, co-chair of the ARL’s policy and research committee, whose passion for socio-economic diversity in real estate is reflected in her own, uplifting personal journey.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to Cortland

I kind of ended up in property completely by accident, which is true of a lot of people who work in resi because it’s seen as the poor relation. People who go to university and do a surveying degree, probably because their uncle was a surveyor, don’t usually aspire to go into resi!

For me though, resi is the most important area of all, but then I’m biased.

I had worked in admin-type roles throughout my early career but when I went on maternity leave with my second child my husband and I were really skint.

So, when I saw an advert in an estate agent’s window for ‘weekend staff’ – which I assumed was for a cleaner, which was fine – I went in, and it turned out to be for a weekend sales negotiator.

And, to be honest, it went from there into the best ride ever. This was the early 2000’s, so not that long ago, and in the 20 years or so since I’ve become a chartered surveyor and am now COO of Cortland. I think this shows the residential sector is a sector with great opportunities.

I joined Grainger up in Newcastle and spent a very happy 10 years there learning my craft. It was a great place to work; I learned so much, became a chartered surveyor, did an MBA with fantastic employer support and really learned the industry from the bottom up.

I moved into several other roles and then did a stint with Howard de Walden estate, which was fascinating, then JLL and finally found my way to Cortland as COO.

I still live near Newcastle – I’m a Londoner and moved up to the north-east 25 years ago because my then husband hated London – so my life is topsy turvy because I am now back in the south-east, my home is in the north, and I commute there every week because that’s where my family are.

How easy has it been to move up the ladder?

I’d have to say it’s been ok – I worked hard and studied and combining that with a family was a juggling act, but I know I’m not unique in that at all. One of the nice things about BTR as a relatively new sector is it’s not riven with the snobbery or hierarchy that we see in other sectors in real estate.

There’s still a dichotomy between resi and the commercial sector and I remember a back-handed compliment I was paid at Howard de Walden by a died-in-the-wool, old-style surveyor who pulled me aside and said: “May I ask you why you’re doing resi?”

It sort of sounded like: “You seem to have a brain and know what you’re doing, so why are you in residential?”

There’s still that kind of belief that all the smart people go into commercial, and I’ve had some graduates, not that long ago, who had been quietly taken aside and told ’resi’s not the place to be for a bright young thing’.

I think nothing could be further from the truth. We’ve seen the birth of a whole new sector of real estate: What could be more exciting, and interesting and challenging than that?

There was no such thing in the UK and now it’s established and growing, and I’ve been able to see it from the beginning.

So, I think in terms of career progression it’s far less rigid. Anybody who wants to do the sausage factory of the two-year training scheme in a big surveying firm is probably not going to be exposed to BTR at all, so it probably appeals to those of us who have taken a different route.

There’s a lot more diversity of thought, of background, of experience in the space because we have all tended to fall into it accidentally, by a quirk of fate and lots of sliding-doors moments.

Do you feel you’ve landed where you want to be?

I am operations through and through; I’ve jumped around in various organisations and that period at Grainger was fantastic for being able to do other positions, so I’ve done asset management, I’ve done fund management. I always gravitate back to operations because I feel that’s where I can add the most value and can bring something different.

I have to say, though, that every time I start a role, there’s always operational challenges and I had a much easier time when I was doing fund management. Operations reminds me of going into labour for the second time: first time it’s all new and different and you don’t know what to expect. Second time, you’ve forgotten the pain and then you’re in labour again thinking ‘oh crap, I remember this really hurts!’

You know that at some point you’ll have a lovely, cuddly baby and everything will be fine, but there’s a fair bit of pain to get through first.

So, what’s in your in-tray at the moment?

Customer experience is a key focus for 2024. We have a very strong background in customer experience, primarily because of our US operations where Cortland has built its reputation by excelling in that area.

The great thing about that is I am in an organisation which understands it and I don’t have to preach.

We still have a lot to do in the UK because we have to formalise it. In the US people know Cortland and what it stands for – it’s taken for granted you don’t have to be explicit – but even though we have hired some great people in the UK, we still have to be explicit about what working for Cortland really means.

We have to tell them, this is what Cortland is all about and this is why you have to do x, y and z differently. It’s not about smiling at the customer and carrying on with the old processes.

We have to start by demonstrating we put the customer at the centre of these processes. I am very ‘lean’ about process and that makes it simple – it’s all about putting the customer at the heart of our value proposition.

What’s a typical day?

Days tend to be a mix of catching up with my team.

We have a large block management section at Cortland so that takes up a lot of time. We are also undergoing a transformational change, which I know is a bit of a ‘thing’, but I’m not just moving a stapler from one side of my desk to the other.

On the block side we’re merging six companies together, co-ordinating the IT systems etc so it’s been a massive piece of work. We are taking some of the learnings from that process into BTR and reviewing all our operating procedures.

I also deal with customer feedback and complaint resolution – not many work their way up to me but if they do, they need to be dealt with promptly – and we’re in performance reviews and goal-setting season.

What do you think will be the challenges of the next five years?

There are all the economic headwinds. Capital is still costly; construction has suffered from inflation so is still costly and there are new consumer sensitivities around rent control which means having two different conversations.

Whilst there has been some negative recent media reporting on large scale investors, there’s actually a more customer-centric, market-facing conversation where we’re saying: “We want to offer you the possibility of a long-term home where you can put down roots and we’ll provide great service and community and de facto security of tenure.”

We’ve seen private landlords being hammered over rents, without necessarily a lot of evidence, just people’s perceptions.

We are in a strong position as a sector because we put the customer high up the pecking order and we want to see people in longer-term stays. It’s not seen as a transient form of tenure.

Political interventions brought in to help the bottom decile of the PRS but which are broad brushstrokes are not helpful; some of the legislation which has been mooted is really missing the target because there’s a lot out there already which is not being enforced primarily because local authorities don’t have the resources to track down every criminal landlord.

The political expedient is to announce a raft of “brand-new legislation” and we, as a sector, will always comply but it adds to our cost when we have yet another thing to do. All the while, the bottom decile of landlords are going under the radar and their consumers suffer for it.

We as a sector are more diverse than many people thought we would be in terms of the demographic we provide for, with a broad range of rent levels on offer. In fact, you find many key workers in BTR schemes, and a variety of homes offered at discounted market rent.

With the shrinking of the social housing sector the BTR sector often offers alternative rental opportunities in professionally managed homes that have strong consumer protection.

I get really frustrated with big government announcements which are not enforced, which are just words, meaningless statutes which, of course, we always follow. It doesn’t move the dial for people who are suffering and that drives me up the wall.

It’s interesting to see the gaps of knowledge and the blind spots – in all political parties – about my sector and I’ve started to wonder about government full stop. I think if this is their tenuous, rather patchy grasp of my world, is it the same in health, in education and the rest? It’s kind of terrifying.

The other challenge is around this elevation of home ownership as the Holy Grail despite lots of evidence it’s not for everyone. If we could just get past this Thatcherite belief that if people own their own homes they will vote Tory forever, people might get to understand that a good-quality, well-funded rental sector is good for everybody.

How can the ARL (formerly UKAA) help?

By having a voice, by providing a focal point for all of us in the sector to come together and cooperate.

It’s a feature of BTR that it’s a collaborative place, it has been from the start, and that’s a really nice, defining characteristic which helps the ARL.

That in turn is a virtuous circle – the more we can rally for ARL, the better it is for us all. So, we must respond to calls for evidence, feedback to government consultations, opportunities to get in front of politicians to explain our thinking and challenge some of theirs. I think the ARL is gaining traction and is the voice of the sector.

What’s your role within ARL?

I am co-chair of the policy and research committee with Nigel Emmerson of Womble Bond Dickinson.  I’ve known Nigel since I first joined Grainger all those years ago and I’m delighted we are still working together.

We are a small but industrious committee and make sure the ARL has a voice in government circles, that we take the time – which is a real challenge – and work really hard to increase our influence and visibility by engaging in local and national consultations, providing evidence, feedback and data.

We make sure the industry is reflected and views are captured and fed back. So, when there’s something on the table which might be damaging for us – like rent controls, or some of the provisions of the Renters (Reform) Bill – we are ready to respond.

BTR is still relatively new and we shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise. It’s a subset of the private rented sector but the potential is massive and it’s growing. We are trying to say that although we currently represent a small slice of the market, our views are still important.

We probably punch above our weight because many of the institutional investors are household names, but we need to inform local and national government why BTR is a great thing to have in your area, how it can benefit your local community and why it is good economically.

These are things we’re actively engaging in.

How’s the data collecting going?

There’s work to be done! Conceptually, we are all agreed sharing of data is a good thing which will move us forward, but when it comes to saying ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’, people are more reticent.

It’s a maturity thing and it will come.

How does the social value proposition influence your thinking?

My particular passion is socio-economic diversity.

I’m working class, I grew up in social housing and found myself to be very atypical when I got into the environment of chartered surveyors – for example, I never met anybody I’d gone to school with!

Gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background all play a part and when they intersect it’s particularly challenging.

I think we’ve come a long way, and the larger firms will report on those three areas separately, but what would be really interesting would be to see how those things interact within their business.

I am a real advocate for raising women’s equality but somewhat tempered by the fact that in the early days it seemed big firms thought they were making major strides by promoting Henrietta instead of Henry.

I just felt there was more to it than that. If you’ve got a fantastic network, if you’ve had a great start in life, if you’ve been to a great independent school and you have superb contacts and found great work experience – fantastic, fair play to you.

That’s a very different experience to a kid coming out of a state school with no network and nobody to give them a step up. Those are the inequalities I am especially passionate about addressing.

Has that passion come from your own background?

I dropped out of A Levels spectacularly without taking my exams so my parents weren’t impressed, but, in those days, you could get a decent job with good O levels so I went to work for a holiday company which was part of British Airways.

It was a really good introduction to customer service – these were five-star holidays with very discerning clients – and then, as I was basically doing admin jobs, I did a complete pivot to work for the local government ombudsman.

There I was dealing with complaints against local authorities, but the key for me was they were really invested in training and mentorship so that sparked an interest in management and leadership which has never left me.

Just looking at the difference between leaders who inspire and leaders who are the opposite is fascinating and eventually led me to my MBA. I’d love to go on to a DBA or PhD and explore these leadership terms.

I got a bit bored at the ombudsman eventually and didn’t have a degree so I couldn’t progress up what was a rigid structure. I then went to a law firm as a legal secretary and assistant because I realised I could study at night school and get on the vocational route to become a solicitor.

I was part way through that course when I moved up north so that put a dent in my learning, but I also went to a very different firm up there and really hated it. Absolutely hated it.

I then had a bit of a crisis because I had invested all that time and energy going down a single track and I didn’t want to continue with it. That was the time I swallowed my pride and decided I had to do a degree.

I’d spent all those years thinking: “Degrees are rubbish, I don’t want to do a degree,” but thank goodness for the Open University because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.

I embarked on one module with the OU, was absolutely terrified, and wasn’t sure I could do it but took to it like a duck to water.

I finished the degree, went on to do a surveying masters at Northumbria University and returned to the Open University for my MBA. I think the OU is an absolute godsend for people like me because I would never have managed to get a degree otherwise.

What a fantastic story. So, what’s your call to action?

That goes back to the point about collaboration.

We are all very busy, we’ve got economic headwinds to counter and whilst everyone is stretched incredibly thin dealing with the day-to-day I would urge you all please, lift your heads up, support each other, collaborate and get behind the ARL because we are stronger together.