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FirstPort Business Update

Introduction from David Young, Chief Operating Officer of FirstPort

Reflections on the residential property management market

The first full lifting of Covid-era restrictions during the summer months gave us pause for thought about how we as a business have managed through the pandemic. The overwhelming feeling is one of immense pride in our team.

Our 3,000 employees have pulled together, adapted their routines, and overcome enormous challenges. This collective effort allowed us to continue caring for the places our customers call home in a time of acute uncertainty. With most of the country spending more time at home in the past 18 months than ever before, that mission has never been more important.

This was particularly clear in the case of our more vulnerable residents, living in over 1,400 retirement communities across the UK. The stellar work of our on-site retirement development managers helped protect and maintain their health and wellbeing.

At the same time, the surge in homebuying activity, fuelled by the Stamp Duty holiday, continued through the initial June 2021 deadline, right up to the end of September. We recognise this has caused challenges for some of our customers. Our team has been dealing with an unprecedented number of enquiries about property transfers, with demand rising beyond the expectations of anyone in the industry.

In response, we have continued to increase the size of our support team. Colleagues have worked additional hours to process requests as quickly as we can. I’m proud of the way our team has risen to the challenge. Nonetheless, we know that service levels and response times did suffer, and we are sorry for the impact this had on our customers.

Looking forward, we believe the pandemic has focused public understanding on the importance of a well-managed home environment and the benefits of communities. Even with the Stamp Duty holiday having passed, we expect the increased national appetite for house buying to stay strong. Changes in working habits and a reassessment of our home environments and our communities will place even greater expectations on the role of the property manager. Against this backdrop, we’ll be doubling down on our commitment to outstanding customer service.

Investing in transformation and growth

One area in which we are taking enormous steps forward is in the digitalisation of our business. We have continued to make significant investments in our technology platform as part of a comprehensive transformation programme. I’m very pleased that Phil Tyler, FirstPort’s Chief Digital Officer, has been able to share some thoughts further below on the long-term goals of our digital transformation programme in this inaugural seasonal business update.

The initial phase of rolling out these new digital services to our customers is continuing. While any major project like this inevitably faces a few technical hiccups and early teething problems, we firmly believe it will transform the way in which we work with customers, property-owners, and contractors. Our focus on resident experience has been the single most important driver of this investment. Over 38,000 of our customers have signed up for a new online account already and we will be working to grow this number.

Alongside this, we have continued to win new business, adding to our national portfolio by 15,000 homes across 60 developments already this year (up to end of September). One particularly exciting growth area for us has been Resident Management Companies (RMCs), and we are delighted to have been selected as the professional partner working with over 1,300 such schemes nationally. Leasehold reform is set to empower residents with greater responsibility, but complex residential buildings and developments will still need the professional management and well-trained, high-calibre staff that a professional property manager can provide.

We have also grown our business with two recent acquisitions, bringing both the residential property management company Freemont and Arcturus Corporation Limited, the parent company of Blenheims and Campions, into the FirstPort group. It remains business as usual for these companies’ customers, clients, and suppliers, with the same teams continuing to deliver the same services. However, we will be able to offer them the benefit of our investment in new digital systems and our in-house expertise.

Finally, we have continued to grow our team at all levels, and I would like to extend a warm welcome to all our new joiners. Recent hires include Christian Phipps in the new role of Sustainability Manager. We’re pleased to provide an update on the progress of our ESG commitments in this newsletter. We’ve also just welcomed our latest intake of graduate trainees, each of whom will be mentored by a member of FirstPort’s management team. Adil Aziz, a recent alumnus of last year’s graduate scheme – and mentee of our CEO, Nigel Howell – shares some reflections on his first year at the company further below.

FirstPort’s ESG commitments

Looking at our environmental commitments, the appointment of Christian Phipps to the newly created role of Sustainability Manager this August underlined our commitment to better managing the environmental impact of our work across the thousands of homes we manage. Christian is responsible for overseeing our sustainability strategy, with a view to identifying and implementing new ideas and policies to minimise our environment impact. He will also lead our efforts to collaborate with our residents and the wider communities in which they live to deliver positive change.

We’re making a significant investment in digital technology to help drive a reduction in our overall carbon footprint, and  through our partnership with The Carbon Trust, we were able to verify our carbon footprint in February 2021. We’ll now be working closely with The Carbon Trust on next steps for shrinking our footprint over time – across both our own offices, which we aim to make carbon-neutral by 2025, and more importantly across our portfolio of managed developments.

In addition, we’ve has also recently received the ISO14001 certification, which is focused on the activities within the business that have had an impact on the environment, with the objective of improving environmental performance.

Turning to our social commitments, we have a proud record of charitable partnerships.. We are an official partner to the UK’s leading youth homelessness charity, Centrepoint. Working with our clients, customers, residents, and contractors, we have raised over £100,000 to support this fantastic cause since late 2018. The 12-hour ‘stay up all night’ marathon undertaken by residents of the FirstPort-managed independent retirement living home Homefarris House in Shaftesbury this May to raise funds for Centrepoint exemplified the passion of our colleagues, residents, and partners to support an organisation that gives disadvantaged young people a chance to turn their lives around.

Phil Tyler, FirstPort’s Chief Digital Officer, discusses the ‘FirstPort Way’ digital transformation programme

What role do you play at FirstPort?

I am FirstPort’s Chief Digital Officer, responsible for leading digital change and IT across the company. In practice, I report directly into the CEO on all things digital. I’m responsible for helping deliver what we’re terming the ‘FirstPort Way,’ a transformative IT programme we’re currently rolling out across the business.

The FirstPort Way has two core objectives. The first is to drive efficiency in the business by implementing new technology and automating previously time-consuming processes. The second is to pinpoint and capitalise on new opportunities. 

What opportunities are you focused on for 2021?

We’re fortunate to have available to us a number of hugely important assets which we’re looking to maximise in order to support customers. The most obvious of these is the vast amounts of (non-personal) data we have, particularly around the running costs of buildings and also an unparalleled supplier network.

We’re aiming to use our new digital systems to bring our data assets together and deliver what we describe as a ‘behind the front door’ offering to our customers. Essentially this would involve us setting up an online marketplace and offering trade services that our customers want to access, from plumbing and utilities, to dog walking services, which we hope to be able to bring directly to our customers.

How will the ongoing market changes impact FirstPort customers?

One thing we can be certain about after the experience of the last 18 months is uncertainty. Organisations which thrive are those which can move fast to make the very best of the opportunities in front of them, and equally, to shut down areas that aren’t working. The ‘FirstPort Way’ will leave us exceptionally well placed to pivot quickly and go after fresh opportunities.

What’s your favourite part of working at FirstPort?

What I’ve been most impressed with since joining in June has been the ambition present throughout the company. Despite the business having gone from strength to strength in recent years, there is zero complacency. We’re fiercely focused on where we can go next and what new project or idea we can deliver. Management and the board have an appetite for trying new things. It’s quite unusual, and extremely rewarding, to work for a large organisation with such a deeply embedded culture of entrepreneurialism. On the digital side, it’s that exact attitude which has taken us from a company with a legacy estate to one whose technology ambitions is something that developers find quite exciting.

What are your interests outside of work? 

I’ve got relatively young kids and welcomed a dog into the family during lockdown, both of which keep me on my toes! I’m also a huge armchair sports fan, love watching England play cricket at Lords and enjoy travelling as much as possible. 

Adil Aziz, part of the FirstPort 2020 Graduate intake, reflects on a first year to remember

What was your favourite part of the graduate scheme?

I particularly enjoyed the operational weeks, which involved us visiting the various support roles vital to the business. Exposure to different departments, ranging from marketing to accounting, was an ideal way to build our understanding.

What was it like being mentored by the CEO?

This access to the senior team is so unique among grad schemes. We must be one of the only companies that provides entry level employees with such senior mentorship. FirstPort’s CEO, Nigel Howell, was a constant source of support and advice during my time on the scheme. We met every three weeks and he helped me plan my pathway, personally introducing me to our Director of Marketing when I expressed an interest in exploring that side of the business.

How did you adjust to beginning your career in the middle of a global pandemic?

As a graduate cohort, I felt that we adjusted well to the world of Teams and Zoom. Support from line managers was only a call away, while we also had the chance to go into the field regularly and get to know the wider team.

What do you like most about working at FirstPort?

The people. Everyone is so personable and approachable. There is always someone on hand to offer advice and lend support, which made the transition from student to graduate trainee much easier.

What are your aspirations going forward?

I’m moving into a new marketing role within the next few months, which I am very excited about. Looking further ahead, I’d love to lead a small team or company-wide initiative, and eventually move into a leadership position.

What advice would you give to the next wave of FirstPort graduates?  

Don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions. It’s the quickest way to build your understanding and get your head around a problem. I also always found the wider team very approachable and supportive.

Is there anything else you’d like to highlight about your experience in the graduate intake?

Just how versatile the scheme is. You have exposure to multiple teams across the business and are totally immersed in the company. It’s a fantastic way to develop an understanding of what is a dynamic and incredibly fast-moving industry.