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NLA Interview with Katherine McCullough, Merchant Land

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This month, Katherine McCullough from Merchant Land was interviewed by David Taylor, Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly.
You can read the article below or visit the article on the NLA website here.

 

David Taylor  
Hello. How are you doing?

 

Katherine McCullough  
Brilliant, thank you!

 

David Taylor  
Good! I wanted to ask you about Merchant Land – just to give a potted history of the company, and then perhaps talk about how it has been operating in the environment that you’re in over the last eight or nine years since you set up. So, could you just talk from first principles about how you set up, and why you set up?

 

Katherine McCullough  
Yeah, of course. Before Merchant Land, I’d been at SME startups for about five years with lots of different JV partners. And then I came across an opportunity in 2012 to join and head up what was originally the investment portfolio for a commodity trading and shipping company based in Aldgate. They had been operating out of Aldgate since the late ‘70s, and had an investment portfolio that was quite passive, and wanted someone to take it on and turn it into something. And for me, it was a brilliant opportunity to get something where we didn’t need to work with lots of different JV partners. We had proper seed funding, proper assets, and cash to get going with. And really kind of create a brand, a company and a structure that could be something – and something that I could build and be proud of. So that was eight years ago. And so, we rebranded and restructured; the portfolio hired a team, moved into, rather than just passive investments, projects too. And over the last nine years now, we’ve increased the size of the portfolio significantly, taken on projects that have grown in size and complexity. And built a team of people, which has been great.

 

David Taylor  
And those projects, just listing a few of them, I noticed you’ve got that scheme in Charlotte Street, which is essentially resi, with a bit of commercial and your own offices, is that right?

 

Katherine McCullough  
Yeah, so it’s actually, in square footage terms, predominantly commercial. So, office and retail. There are eight residential units too, but in square footage terms, the bulk of the scheme’s actually commercial.

 

David Taylor  
Yeah. And then there’s 33 Creechurch Lane, a 20-storey office tower in the City of London?

 

Katherine McCullough  
So that one is in planning at the moment. But yes, we own that site. And we have that scheme – we’re hopefully kind of coming towards the end of a long planning process, with the City of London on that one.

 

David Taylor  
Yeah. So, tell me about diversity and inclusion and how important that is for you and for the business. And also, as a subsidiary question, I suppose. why it is you think that property in general, doesn’t seem to be very good at this?

 

Katherine McCullough  
I probably have a slightly different take on that. Because I started off my career in banking, after university, and left to become a startup property developer/ investor in my late 20s. I actually made that decision because at the time, the SME property industry that I was lending into as a bank manager was a lot more diverse, and a lot more inclusive than working at a bank. So, the kind of clients I used to have, who were other SME developer and investor clients in and around the city of London Aldgate, and the fringes – this would have been 2002, to 2008. There was a huge range of people from different cultural, ethnic, and class backgrounds, which you just didn’t get in things like banking and law. And that made me feel very comfortable coming from a bit of a non-traditional background myself, to think I’d found a sector where the background was… it could be anything, and it was about the talent and persistence that you brought. So, I always saw SMEs, property development investments, as anyone that really wants to do it, can. My clients, when I was in banking, largely came from non-traditional backgrounds anyway. if you went into the bank at the time, most of the staff were white, male and middle class. But with most of the clients I had in my SME portfolio there were lots of people from different cultural backgrounds at an SME level

 

David Taylor  
So how do you find operating within the sector now? Do you see it less as a comparison with banking?

 

Katherine McCullough  
Well, when you’re running a business, and you’re building a business, and you are the client, our team has always been really, really mixed. We all have different backgrounds.  All of us on our team – it’s a small team of six people, but 100% of us are all either first- or second-generation immigrants into England. So, there’s a huge range. We’re all Londoners, we’re all British, but there’s a massive different range of backgrounds at the moment. We’ve got someone from Kenya, someone from a Serbia background, myself, Irish, we’ve got Bangladeshi culture, so we have different histories and different family stories. And we’re just a team where there is a huge mixture. But I would say, if you actually look at a lot of SMEs, like us, there are lots of people from a lot of different backgrounds. I think it’s just not a part of the sector that is covered maybe as much as larger corporates.

 

David Taylor  
And what does that lend the business? Presumably, that variety adds as a kind of richness to the business, does it?

 

Katherine McCullough  
I think so. Because we hire people and promote people and value people because of a work ethic, a smartness and creativity and for lots of different reasons. But it’s not whether or not your face fits. Because no one’s face fits, if you like. Because we’re all different anyway. We’re commercial landlords and we are residential developers, we are a property company, a small property company, but a property company that does a whole range of different things. And if you take our commercial SME tenant base, we have office tenants, retail tenants, light industrial tenants, and actually, a lot of them are also from a really massive different range of entrepreneurial businesses. Some are startups, some are second-, third-generation startups that have been going 30, 40 years. But the founders and the owners behind these businesses are also from a huge range of different types of Londoners. And that reflects our make-up too.

 

David Taylor  
So lastly, because we’re coming up to time, what would your one tip be to SME businesses setting up, as you have, in this area?

 

Katherine McCullough  
I mean, I look back and its 13 years that I’ve been building SMEs. And I think you shouldn’t be disheartened if you don’t necessarily get results and instant success over one, two or three years. I think what happens is you end up looking back sort of 10 years down the line and realizing that you have grown and developed what you’re doing. But it needs a bit of resilience and understanding. It’s not all going to happen quite the way you plan or intend. But not to be disheartened by that.

 

David Taylor  
Yeah. So, staying optimistic, in a sense.

 

Katherine McCullough  
Yes, staying optimistic, and just focus on the fact you look back, maybe a bit further down the line, and you’ll see how much has evolved. And not everything happens in one or two years.

 

David Taylor  
Yeah. Fantastic. Well, congratulations on getting this far. And good luck on the next chapter – the next 20, 30 years in business!

 

Katherine McCullough  
Thank you very much (laughs) Okay, thank you.

 

David Taylor  
Thanks a lot. Bye!