Don’t mention Sir John Betjeman. In 1937 the poet penned the immortal lines: ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now.’ But David Sleath, the chief executive of Segro – the industrial property group formerly known as Slough Estates – paints a very 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 at the Slough Tourist Board. ‘Yes, there is a bit of an image problem,’ he admits. ‘But I love Slough.’ Steady on, I think, but there’s more.
‘When I meet people I put up four photographs. David Brent [the boss in TV comedy The Office], a Mars bar, Thunderbird 2 and the Ford GT40. Then I ask what they have in common. They are all from Slough,’ he says.
‘Then the follow-up question. Which is the odd one out?’ The answer, he declares with a flourish, is The Office.
‘The other three were all made on the Slough Trading Estate. Whereas the fictional company Wernham Hogg was meant to be based on the estate, but 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 at the Slough Tourist Board
The Slough Trading Estate may not be the loveliest acreage in England, but Sleath extols it nonetheless.
‘It is the biggest trading estate in Europe. Seven thousand people work there.
‘Slough was once Europe’s biggest manufacturing hub’ he adds, warming to the theme. ‘There is a very rich industrial heritage. It went through a dip in the 80s and 90s as manufacturing was in decline.’
Now, with the popularity of online shopping, he says it is the ideal location for logistics warehouses, film and TV studios, and for data centres for the likes of Amazon.
‘There is a power station. And Slough sits on top of the main fibre communication cables that go across the Atlantic.
‘It is close to London and Heathrow airport,’ he says. ‘It’s very well positioned.’
Why then, given he is Slough’s number one fan, change the name of the company which was founded more than 100 years ago?
‘We found foreigners couldn’t pronounce Slough. They said Slow or Sluff instead.’
Perhaps to his chagrin, Sleath does not hail from Slough himself, but was born in genteel Leamington Spa and was brought up in South Wales.
He went to university in Warwick, where he still lives, as well as having a place 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 since the financial crisis and the company is in the elite FTSE 100 index, but Sleath argues that it is one of the country’s ‘most overlooked’ blue chip businesses.
Segro’s activities may not be exciting, but Sleath says they are essential. ‘Everything we take for granted in our lives – all the goods and services we consume – will involve something passing through our warehouses at some point.
‘That became very obvious during the pandemic with the rise of online shopping.’
In the past, Segro’s performance was so sluggish that it was nicknamed ‘Slowgrow’.
But, says Sleath, the great financial crisis of 2008 – soon after he joined as finance director – proved to be a real turning point.
‘Like a lot of property companies, Slough Estates was very much living in the dark ages and needed to modernise. Then we had the global financial crisis. We came out of that pretty well.’
Having raised capital in a rescue rights issue in 2009, the company bought its biggest competitor, Brixton. ‘We thought this was an opportunity too good to be true,’ he says. ‘We did one of the deals of the crisis. One we thought we would never be able to do.’ A year later the company bought some cargo warehouses at Heathrow.
‘We saw it as a really important gateway for goods as well as passengers. Forty per cent of the UK’s exports by value go through Heathrow.
‘We did a couple of really transformational deals, but the truth is the business had not done that well because it had been on the wrong side of the decline of Western European manufacturing.
‘It had a very difficult time in the 90s and noughties.’
When he took over as chief executive in 2011, Sleath identified ‘great potential’.
He says: ‘I didn’t want to be chief executive. I thought I was perfect at being a strong number two. But then I thought I could work out what needed to be done.
‘We had to get out of some areas. The market didn’t like it at first. They thought we were selling off high yielding properties and we would have to 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.
‘A lot of companies are struggling to get employees back in. Wonderful buildings would help,’ he says.
‘We don’t do offices, but we are very thoughtful with our developments. We have walkways, outdoor gyms, bug hotels and 250 beehives. There are lots of varieties of Segro honey.’
Now, he says, he is trying to replicate what he has achieved – in Slough and around London – in other European capitals.
‘We discovered the opportunity to build data centres,’ he says. ‘About a third of the Slough Trading Estate – 35 in total – is made up of them,’ he adds. ‘Our job is to provide the canvas for someone else’s business. We provide a shell – the four walls and a roof to modern sustainable standards.
‘Then we pass the building over and rent it to the occupant, whether it be Netflix, Amazon, Royal Mail or Ocado.’
Having the right industrial infrastructure is not thought about much by policymakers, Sleath says.
Planning, as in the residential property sector, is ‘a big barrier’.
‘London has lost half its industrial base in the last 25 years. If you push all your logistics and warehouses out to Northamptonshire you will create a lot more traffic on the roads.
‘The message is don’t turn every bit of brownfield land into new flats. We need to make sure the UK has a national logistics base that will support inward investment, innovation and tech investment.
‘The UK wants to be a tech superpower. But you need the industrial base to do it. We are trying very hard to get government to understand the importance our sector has for UK growth.
‘Our industry can help achieve many objectives – whether on productivity, being a tech superpower or levelling up.
‘There are 3.8 million jobs in the warehousing and logistics sector. Seventy per cent of those are in the Midlands and the North and most are earning more than the national average.’
It might 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 think so, because we create the space to enable extraordinary things to happen.’
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