Know what?

Know your customer. It's one of the clichéd truisms that we hear in work so often we possibly tune it out.

A couple of great examples of companies getting close to their customers lately have really struck me and made me think about how many property companies do the same. Both times I was at events where there was property being promoted but hardly any agents or other property folk present.

Peel Ports tourFirstly, the tour of the Mersey and Ship Canal with Peel Ports earlier this month. The ferry was full of bosses from shipping lines, freight companies, big industrial employers from chemicals to automotive and a smattering of construction contractors, aggregates and engineers. There were parties from Taiwan, Netherlands, Australia, US, Germany.

In the six years since Peel Ports bought Mersey Docks & Harbour Company it has slowly but surely got on with turning round the previously complacent and conservative operation. A typically aggressive Peel sales team has changed tack to reach into the manufacturing and retail supply chain in the North of England to find efficiencies for companies and win their trade with hard numbers about speed and savings. Trade is up year on year and the £300m post-Panamax facility in the Mersey will take the Port of Liverpool to another level in 2015.

Secondly, also this month was the opening of a fine office and retail scheme in Manchester's sometimes scruffy Northern Quarter. NQ or N4 as Tweeters like to call it, is rapidly becoming far more than a trendy bar haunt and instead is emerging as a serious commercial district.

Swan SquareIftikhar Gillan comes from a textile and fashion trade background and has used his cash to deliver a couple of high quality commercial projects in N4. He started with Hilton Square in Hilton Street, 11 self-contained office and retail units, which quickly let.

Iffi's next offering is larger, Swan Square off Tib Street and Swan Street, next to Band on the Wall, with 14 three-storey units elegantly designed by Jonathan Davidson of Q2 Architects.

If you haven't checked it out yet it's an interesting concept.

Not greedy on space, smart and homely hybrid units set around a private square with picnic tables the trendy tenants will love while they take a call and smoke a roll-up. The materials are not cheap, proper stone and wooden floors. Half a dozen units were taken on opening and the rest will, I reckon, be full in about ten minutes.

The tenants are fashion designers keen to display work in retail ground floor space with room to design and do admin above. And creative agencies who like to see and be seen behind their Macs and colourful toys. It feels like it's always been there and has a powerful logic despite the novelty of shop-cum-office.

Iffi will happily flex on sub-letting and create bespoke, easy-in, easy-out deals to suit. He cares about the young businesses he works with and his trading background allows him to empathise where more stuffy developers might turn up their noses about a tenant's prospects.

We can't all own big city ports or be fashion entrepreneurs but the principle taken in both cases is the same and can be applied to any of our businesses; focus not merely on the traditional property side and watching your peers, but get into the market and find customers you can help. It's obvious but hard to get right. There are still too many narrow, lazy operators out of touch with the locations they are supposed to serve. Is it time to think more broadly, laterally about your contacts, knowledge, networking? Go to a different sort of event, where occupiers go, know your town, city, your market. Know your customer.

Peel Ports and Iftikhar Gillan do.


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