5 minutes with Tamra Booth, Managing Director, Sorbon Estates

It's no secret that 2020 has been unforgiving for landlords, especially if they're exposed to retail. Retail Gazette chats with Tamra Booth to find out how Sorbon Estates - which has a portfolio dominated by retail destinations in the south east - has handled the challenges of Covid-19, and how the business is giving back to the community.

5 minutes with Tamra Booth, Managing Director, Sorbon Estates
Tamra Booth.

Tell me a bit about the Sorbon Estates story.

Sorbon Estates was founded by my dad, Michael Shanly, in 1974 – the year I was born. Our vision is to create communities and improve the environment of the towns in which we work.

Dad started his property development business Shanly Homes in 1969, and in 1974 the UK was in the middle of a financial crisis. He was building an apartment scheme on the river in Maidenhead and the site had an existing house on it that Dad had converted and let out as flats.

The rental income from this got him through that difficult period and it was a “eureka” moment that an income-producing property portfolio could help him through tougher times in the housing market, so Sorbon Estates was born. Fast forward 46 years and we have an estate of over 1500 tenants across a variety of uses, primarily retail, and a team of 35 managing the portfolio.

How is Sorbon Estates different to other retail estates?

Our main retail estates are in attractive, characterful high streets and towns in the south east, such as: Marlow, Windsor, Maidenhead, Dorking, and Weybridge. We also own local shopping parades and retail warehouses and parks.

“Sorbon Estates takes a real interest in our tenants’ businesses and what they can add to the high street or town.”

Sorbon Estates takes a real interest in our tenants’ businesses and what they can add to the high street or town, and our estate managers communicate with our tenants regularly. We do not buy and sell properties and look for a quick return, we buy and hold indefinitely. Everything we do is about the long term. Over half of our retail estate is made up of independent tenants and we are proud of what they bring to the economy. We even offer our independent tenants paid-for membership to the British Independent Retailer Association to support them.

What makes us truly different is our objective to give back to the communities in which we work. The Shanly Foundation was established in 1997 and I am lucky enough to be a trustee. The Shanly Foundation is funded entirely by profits from the Shanly Group, and over the years the foundation has donated in excess of £13 million direct to, mainly small, local charities doing incredible work.

How did Sorbon handle lockdown and how is it coping with the pandemic?

Our Sorbon Estates team really stepped up and engaged with the tenants during lockdown. Some of our retail tenants were in a desperate situation but we worked with them and negotiated deals to help them stay afloat and get their doors back open in June. Each situation was different, every property, business and lease is different, so each discussion was individual. Of course it is not over, but we have built stronger relationships with our tenants and they know we are at the end of the phone if they have concerns.

To help the community and give back, in April this year the Shanly Foundation set up its Coronavirus Emergency Response Fund and donated over £200,000 to organisations doing amazing work to fight Covid-19 and support those who needed it most. Our largest single donation was £25,000 to the Meals From Marlow initiative which delivered over 75,000 meals to frontline heroes and the vulnerable in the community. Meals From Marlow has been so successful that it now aims to continue beyond Covid as a charity, and I am honoured that they have recently asked me to be one of their trustees.

What’s in store for Sorbon in 2021?

I wish I had a crystal ball in terms of the market, but luckily we are a strong company that has saved for a rainy day and that day is now. We want to focus even more on our tenants in the coming months, and on presenting our properties as best we can. In my time as managing director I have built a strong and capable team and I look forward to seeing them grow in 2021. We will also be looking to acquire more properties in all use classes, and we have a pipeline of retail development schemes as we look to repurpose our properties to ensure they are fit for purpose in this changing world.

“It is an incredibly worrying time and asset values could drop.”

How is Sorbon addressing some of the challenges facing retail as a whole?

It is an incredibly worrying time and asset values could drop. As we do not sell anything, this means we have to look forward at what we can do with our property and land to maintain income. Even if it is less income, nothing sits empty for too long at Sorbon. We have operated our Pop-Up Shop scheme since 2012 and this is a great way to introduce start-up retail businesses to the high street and add vitality. We have always tended to buy unusual, quirky properties with an angle, so we are also experienced at being creative. It is important not to dwell on the negatives, but to look for the opportunity, as much for the community as for us.

What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector, given the current climate?

The fall of the debt-laden chain stores and shopping centres who have been bought out successively to line the pockets of dealers who don’t care about the industry, has resulted in many casualties and there will be more.

Shopping centres are in dire straits and will have to diversify into more leisure and offices to fill the vacant space caused by the fall of such chains. High streets will have many vacant properties, but the inevitable surge of start-ups that follow an economic downturn could soon fill these with interesting and resilient independent retailers. Rents may fall or sit still, which is no bad thing, and rates must be reduced permanently which will lessen risk and help create thriving high streets. The high street is by no means dead because people still love to shop but the government has to put its foot forward on rates to maintain its recovery.

The other opportunity now is for retailers to excel at customer service, to really draw customers into the high street and to keep them coming. The experience is all important to combat the convenience of online. Omnichannel business models work extremely well. Small retailers have spent lockdown finally getting around to creating their website and online presence and this is a fantastic step forward as they will be able to compete better but with their own personal touch. To me, the future looks bright.

Describe your role and responsibilities at Sorbon.

I manage a team of estate managers and leasing managers, with ‘heads of’ managing teams in finance, projects, maintenance and legal. I spend a lot of time motivating the team to make decisions for themselves, and reviewing developments and schemes as I love getting creative.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before Sorbon.

“Shopping centres are in dire straits and will have to diversify into more leisure and offices.”

I worked in retail from the age of 13, starting as Saturday girl at my sister’s sandwich shop in Marlow. Throughout my teens and 20s, I had evening and weekend jobs in restaurants and retail. I also worked in the family property business a few times over the years, starting on reception at aged 18, then in accounts, buying building materials, land buying and eventually estate management.

In my late 20s I borrowed the money from Dad to start a restaurant in Hove, Brighton, which I managed and ran for four years before selling it at a profit (in the days of lease premiums.) and paid the loan back. I came back to the family business in a marketing role as our marketing was non-existent and found myself being naturally drawn back into Sorbon Estates which I care deeply about.

Going forward, I am excited about putting plans in place to ensure the further longevity of the Sorbon business and also drawing on my creative side through my own retail business, Keeeps, which sells ceramics and launches later this year.

What got you into retail in the first place?

I love customer interaction and products and services that surprise and delight. I love the immediacy of it and the constant ability to change and improve. And I love to shop.

In terms of property and asset management, I love negotiating and finding a deal that works for both sides. It is inspiring to see tenants’ ideas gain traction and watch their businesses grow.

How has your previous experience aided your current job?

I understand retail from both sides, as a retailer and as a landlord.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Being a landlord can be a thankless task at times as the perception sometimes overrides the reality. Usually, once people meet us, they realise that while we have a business to run we are also human and at the end of the phone. The naysayers are almost always people that have not met us personally and we have to be thick skinned enough to take the flack.

And the most rewarding?

Managing a team at all levels who work hard and care about the business and for all of us to be working in an industry that gets all the senses going. We can see (property), smell and taste (restaurants), touch and feel (physical retail) and be proud of what we and our customers are achieving every day. And being in the fortunate position to be able to give back to the community is incredibly rewarding.

What advice would you give someone considering a career in retail?

Do not believe the hype in the press about the “death of the high street”. There is no better way to interact with your customers and follow your excitement with a product or service that you are passionate about. Retail technology is also evolving rapidly and the industry will see exciting changes over the coming years.

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