I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for big-time property developers. I suppose it must stem from playing Monopoly as a child. I never knew which way to go — should I buy every square on which I land or play a waiting role, saving my cash and picking them off?
Whichever strategy I adopted, I invariably lost — either from buying rubbish and running out of cash or by not getting much at all as others piled in ahead of me. Waiting to meet Mike Hussey, I’m back, hunched over the familiar board, wondering what to do next.
Hussey, you see, plays Monopoly for real. He has done two deals this year that sound as though they could have come straight from Waddington’s favourite game. His Almacantar property investment and development vehicle has bought Centre Point and the Marble Arch Tower — the landmarks at either end of Oxford Street.
Having just sold and purchased a house recently, I’m also full of respect for someone who can spend huge amounts of other people’s money and still seem sane. Hussey is a Brit (he grew up in London and Kent), 45, who persuaded the investment arm of the mighty Agnelli family that owns Fiat, to put £88 million of their cash into Almacantar (the name is Arabic for sundial or, as the firm states on its website, “a tool for measuring the height of stars relative to the horizon, valued for its freedom from instrumental error”).
The Agnellis weren’t alone: other investors also stumped up the money, to give Hussey and his co-founder, Neil Jones, the former European head of Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster’s property company, a war chest running into hundreds of millions. That was in the spring of last year. Since then, they’ve topped and tailed Oxford Street, and they have a third string to their bow: to the surprise of many, Almacantar was chosen by the MCC as its development partner for the £400 million recasting of Lord’s cricket ground.
Indeed, on one end of the meeting table, covered up, is a scale model of Lord’s. Hussey wants to get across what Almacantar is — as opposed to what it’s not. “We set up a new, private, internally managed property company that focuses on London. It’s not a fund. That’s significant because most people in this business are running closed-end fund structures. Ours is like an investment club [investors join by invitation-only] we manage ourselves — it means we’re more transparent and better aligned with the industry.
Others pay fees for their money to be managed, our investors only pay for the overhead. And we don’t have to invest if we don’t want to — with funds, a lot of the time they’re investing in order to secure their fees.”
He’s quick to point out, too, that the overhead is not massive. Almacantar operates from an extremely trendy but nevertheless small and functional office, tucked away in a mews off Oxford Street. “Ours is an unusual model, we’re one of the new property companies on the scene,” says Hussey. Why London? “It’s where we know best.”
The plan for Centre Point (it is listed by English Heritage), for which they paid £120 million, is in three stages: to fill the building and get it all producing rental income; look at opportunities on the back of Crossrail, which will stop right outside; and examine possible changes of use from commercial to residential apartments. “It’s brilliantly located,” says Hussey of the familiar skyscraper. “When Crossrail comes, its footfall will be the same as Oxford Circus, at 220,000 a day. But at present Centre Point and the surrounding pavements cannot absorb that number. We have to improve the exterior realm and the interior to maximise capacity.”
Along Oxford Street, they’re going to talk to the planners about the future of the tower at Marble Arch. Westminster council would like to see its height reduced but, says Hussey, it “offers fabulous views for anyone working or living there”.
It is not realised what “a hub Marble Arch really is. From the Pret A Manger at Marble Arch to Hyde Park, there is the most phenomenal footfall. We want to exploit that — and the views to Hyde Park — and to make it an extension of the prime Oxford Street retail area.”
At Lord’s he emerged from a beauty parade to win the right to reshape the home of cricket.
Recalls Hussey: “They asked me if I knew much about cricket? I said: ‘No, but I am a good developer’.” Lord’s has hit controversy, as the MCC has ordered a rethink of the masterplan from architects Herzog & de Meuron, which included five blocks of flats and a new entrance through a 300,000 square foot undercroft containing cricket school, museum and shopping mall.
“It was ambitious, both in planning and in physical terms,” says Hussey. “Now we’re trying to come up with something that will find favour with the members.” They aim to make cricket more prominent. “They want a development that is built around delivering cricket, rather than a massive development that happens to find cricket.”
Hussey is well-versed in the revision of plans and the difficulties of executing large projects. He worked for Knight Frank, then Canary Wharf Group, which he helped to float, before joining Land Securities, where he ran the property giant’s London division.
“At Land, it was very much a case of me learning about what others can do for you, rather than what you can do for the business. You simply can’t run such a huge business yourself — you can inspire, motivate, steer and lead but you can’t do everything.”
Latterly at Land, he was said to be the reason the company embarked on a demerger proposal, that Hussey was champing at the bit to manage his own show, that he wanted the chief executive Francis Salway’s position, so he was to be fobbed off with his own newly devolved London section.
When this is put to him, he grimaces and shakes his head. “I didn’t want Salway’s job. He has a different job. I was running the London portfolio. I didn’t want to be chief executive of the whole group — it entails too many administrative duties, whereas I like doing deals.”
He adds: “It’s a myth that I did not get on with Francis Salway. The reality is that we were always very complementary of each other. I was on the board with him for five years and worked with him for seven years. We did get on in the business sense. We’re different individuals but it doesn’t mean we can’t work together.” As for the break-up idea, he says: “I knew nothing about it until Francis presented it. Actually, I was one of the most sceptical of all about it.”
He left when the demerger notion was scuppered. It was not because he was miffed, he insists. “I felt I’d done enough to bring forward a team capable of running the show and I’d always promised myself that I would work for a smaller number of people.”
He’s making it look easy, I say. Don’t be fooled, he replies. “This is a dangerous market.” He smiles: “But there are opportunities for well-focused people who understand the market.”