Property Week: Trading places: Ellandi staff on the shop floor

Posted by Property Week on 11th Dec 2015
It’s lunchtime in Superdrug and a man is staring quizzically at a drinks cabinet. He’s trying to arrange the bottles of mineral water so that the coldest remain at the front of the fridge. It doesn’t look like he’s doing a brilliant job.

The man looks familiar, but the context is all wrong. This is someone who spends the bulk of his time in the rarefied environs of Jermyn Street, rather than a chemist in the London commuter belt. He is the proverbial fish out of water, or property professional out of Mayfair.

Meet Morgan Garfield, managing director of shopping centre investor Ellandi, and, for one morning only, retail assistant at Superdrug in the Priory centre in Dartford.

It transpires that Garfield is merely the advance guard. On this cold December day, members of his staff from disciplines as diverse as finance and asset management are fanning out across the country, performing similar tasks at outlets in 10 of Ellandi’s investments. Including staff from the company’s managing agent Workman, some 51 property professionals are taking part, with five working in the Priory alone.

The concept of going ‘back to the floor’ is well established among retailers - Sainsbury’s, for instance, has been running such a programme for many years - but it far rarer among developers and investors. So what is it that Ellandi hopes to achieve with the initiative?

Making connections

In part, the point of the exercise is just a bit of pre-Christmas fun, but there is also a serious purpose. “It’s about making sure we’re as connected as we can be to the towns and communities in which we’re investing,” says Garfield, half a dozen bottles still precariously wedged between his forearm and torso. “We work hard to build relationships with our retailers. This is a part of that.”

The Priory is a typical Ellandi asset. It is a community shopping centre with the catchment comprised largely of people within a 10-minute drive and with modest disposable incomes. However, what it lacks in glamour it makes up in utility. These are shops where you pick up a birthday card, a bottle of cough mixture or a pack of T-shirts for a pre-schooler.

In short, it’s a world away from the high-end boutiques of Mayfair that surround Ellandi’s office, and you can see immediately why Garfield might want his staff to spend some time there getting to know their customers. And this being lunch time, what better place to meet a sizeable number of punters than the local branch of McDonald’s?

Word is Ellandi’s accounts payable assistant Lesya Horchyn is to be found wiping ketchup from plastic tables just across the way from Superdrug, but she proves difficult to track down. “I'm a bit worried she hasn't turned up,” says the Priory’s administrative assistant, who has been appointed as chaperone for the visit.

Never fear. It turns out Horchyn is in the kitchen, flipping burgers and dressing buns. She’s focused on her work and, such is the artistry of her creations, you have to wonder how the double cheese burgers that typically get dished out restaurant-side end up quite as congealed and unappetising as they do.

Horchyn is, as snapper Pete observes, “a lively one”, and happily poses for the camera in the uniform, hairnet and baseball cap. Dan Saunders, business manager at the McDonald’s branch, confirms Horchyn has been a hit. “She’s doing really well,” he says. “She’s been making burgers, but later on she’s going to go out front to deal with the customers and get a better feel for the restaurant.”

Horchyn seems to be getting a lot out of it as well. “It’s a great experience and I’m really proud to be part of it,” she says. “It’s really hard work, but I’ve not burned my fingers yet.

At the beginning they gave me a tour and told me what I should do. They showed me how to do the ketchup and mustard and onions. It’s really great fun.”At the other end of the shopping centre, Mark Hurst, an asset management director at Ellandi, is also proving popular, at Wilko. “He’s very helpful,” says co-worker Karen Martin. “He’s had to get used to our systems, but he’s cottoned on pretty quickly.”

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. It turns out Hurst had a job at a DIY store when he was a teenager and the skills he picked up then are, like riding a bike, difficult to forget.

“I’ve not done anything like this since I was 16 and worked at a DIY company,” he says. “Some of it is coming back to me, like putting out reductions and making sure everything is in the right place.”

Hurst seems particularly excited when it comes to sorting out the Christmas lights department. “Ask me a question about Christmas lights - I can tell you anything,” he promises. Alright: what’s the best bargain to be found in Wilko right now?

“You can get 350 lights for £25, outdoor standard at that,” he says. “It’s brilliant value.”

Insights gained

Before the team went back to the shop floor, Garfield asked what we hoped to get out of the day. “Oh, you know, hopefully you’ll do something ridiculous and our readers will get a good laugh.” If only.

As it turns out, Garfield’s direct staffers and their hired hands acquitted themselves well. And what’s more, they all had something practical they had learned from their experiences that they felt could help Ellandi better understand its tenants, from concerns over lighting to the visibility of security personnel.

Sitting down after the rigours of Superdrug life are at an end, Garfield is confident the day will have proved productive for all involved. “Hopefully we’ve been helpful, although I suspect I got under people’s feet as much as I helped,” he says. “But it’s really about trying to overcome that adversarial landlord-tenant relationship.”

So the day has been about having a laugh, but there is also a solid business case for taking the time out. “Hopefully everyone had a bit of fun today,” says Garfield. “But the way we make money out of these assets is to understand the value drivers and the operational drivers within them, and to try and tweak each one of those to its optimal position. It’s very much about the aggregation of marginal gains.”

With that, the day is at an end. Superdrug has endured Garfield’s best efforts; Wilko has gained a fan; and McDonald’s staff will long remember their encounter with the live-wire from Ellandi.

And, who knows, maybe the investor’s bottom line will also benefit as a result of the day out of Mayfair.

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