Don’t mention Sir John Betjeman. In 1937 the poet penned the immortal lines: ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It’s not fit for humans now.’ But David Sleath, the chief executive of Segro – the economic property group formerly referred to as Slough Estates – paints a really different picture of the much-maligned Berkshire town.
If Sleath ever decided to step down as chief executive, a job would surely beckon for him on the Slough Tourist Board. ‘Yes, there may be a little bit of a picture problem,’ he admits. ‘But I like Slough.’ Regular on, I feel, but there’s more.
‘After I meet people I put up 4 photographs. David Brent [the boss in TV comedy The Office], a Mars bar, Thunderbird 2 and the Ford GT40. Then I ask what they’ve in common. They’re all from Slough,’ he says.
‘Then the follow-up query. Which is the odd one out?’ The reply, he declares with a flourish, is The Office.
‘The opposite three were all made on the Slough Trading Estate. Whereas the fictional company Wernham Hogg was meant to be based on the estate, however the programme wasn’t actually made there.’
Big fan: If David Sleath ever decided to step down as chief executive of Segro, a job would surely beckon for him on the Slough Tourist Board
The Slough Trading Estate is probably not the loveliest acreage in England, but Sleath extols it nonetheless.
‘It’s the most important trading estate in Europe. Seven thousand people work there.
‘Slough was once Europe’s biggest manufacturing hub’ he adds, warming to the theme. ‘There’s a really wealthy industrial heritage. It went through a dip within the 80s and 90s as manufacturing was in decline.’
Now, with the recognition of online shopping, he says it’s the perfect location for logistics warehouses, film and TV studios, and for data centres for the likes of Amazon.
‘There’s an influence station. And Slough sits on top of the fundamental fibre communication cables that go across the Atlantic.
‘It’s near London and Heathrow airport,’ he says. ‘It is very well positioned.’
Why then, given he’s Slough’s primary fan, change the name of the corporate which was founded greater than 100 years ago?
‘We found foreigners couldn’t pronounce Slough. They said Slow or Sluff as a substitute.’
Perhaps to his chagrin, Sleath doesn’t hail from Slough himself, but was born in genteel Leamington Spa and was brought up in South Wales.
He went to college in Warwick, where he still lives, in addition to having a spot in London.
He ‘stumbled across’ Slough Estates in 2005 when he joined as finance director after having spent 18 years at accountancy firm Arthur Andersen.
‘I didn’t know anything about property,’ he admits. ‘I had only bought two houses in my life. They wanted a fresh perspective.’ Six years later he became CEO.
Shares in Segro have risen steadily because the financial crisis and the corporate is within the elite FTSE 100 index, but Sleath argues that it’s certainly one of the country’s ‘most neglected’ blue chip businesses.
Segro’s activities is probably not exciting, but Sleath says they’re essential. ‘Every part we take as a right in our lives – all the products and services we eat – will involve something passing through our warehouses in some unspecified time in the future.
‘That became very obvious through the pandemic with the rise of online shopping.’
Previously, Segro’s performance was so sluggish that it was nicknamed ‘Slowgrow’.
But, says Sleath, the nice financial crisis of 2008 – soon after he joined as finance director – proved to be an actual turning point.
‘Like a number of property corporations, Slough Estates was very much living at nighttime ages and needed to modernise. Then we had the worldwide financial crisis. We got here out of that pretty much.’
Having raised capital in a rescue rights issue in 2009, the corporate bought its biggest competitor, Brixton. ‘We thought this was a chance too good to be true,’ he says. ‘We did certainly one of the deals of the crisis. One we thought we’d never give you the chance to do.’ A 12 months later the corporate bought some cargo warehouses at Heathrow.
‘We saw it as a extremely vital gateway for goods in addition to passengers. Forty per cent of the UK’s exports by value undergo Heathrow.
‘We did a few really transformational deals, but the reality is the business had not done that well since it had been on the improper side of the decline of Western European manufacturing.
‘It had a really difficult time within the 90s and noughties.’
When he took over as chief executive in 2011, Sleath identified ‘great potential’.
He says: ‘I didn’t wish to be chief executive. I believed I used to be perfect at being a robust number two. But then I believed I could work out what needed to be done.
‘We needed to get out of some areas. The market didn’t prefer it at first. They thought we were selling off high yielding properties and we might should cut the dividend. We didn’t, actually.’
Segro has about 40 to 50 developments on the go, including logistics parks in Coventry and Northampton, data centre projects in Slough and refurbishments in London.
‘Quite a lot of corporations are struggling to get employees back in. Wonderful buildings would help,’ he says.
‘We do not do offices, but we’re very thoughtful with our developments. We now have walkways, outdoor gyms, bug hotels and 250 beehives. There are numerous varieties of Segro honey.’
Now, he says, he’s trying to copy what he has achieved – in Slough and around London – in other European capitals.
‘We discovered the chance to construct data centres,’ he says. ‘A couple of third of the Slough Trading Estate – 35 in total – is made up of them,’ he adds. ‘Our job is to offer the canvas for another person’s business. We offer a shell – the 4 partitions and a roof to modern sustainable standards.
‘Then we pass the constructing over and rent it to the occupant, whether or not it’s Netflix, Amazon, Royal Mail or Ocado.’
Having the appropriate industrial infrastructure isn’t thought of much by policymakers, Sleath says.
Planning, as within the residential property sector, is ‘an enormous barrier’.
‘London has lost half its industrial base within the last 25 years. For those who push all of your logistics and warehouses out to Northamptonshire you’ll create so much more traffic on the roads.
‘The message is don’t turn every little bit of brownfield land into recent flats. We’d like to be certain that the UK has a national logistics base that can support inward investment, innovation and tech investment.
‘The UK desires to be a tech superpower. But you wish the economic base to do it. We are attempting very hard to get government to grasp the importance our sector has for UK growth.
‘Our industry can assist achieve many objectives – whether on productivity, being a tech superpower or levelling up.
‘There are 3.8 million jobs within the warehousing and logistics sector. Seventy per cent of those are within the Midlands and the North and most are earning greater than the national average.’
It may be hard to make warehouses in Slough and logistics sound lofty, but Sleath gives it his best shot.
‘If Segro didn’t exist, would the world be poorer? I feel so, because we create the space to enable extraordinary things to occur.’
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