Having taken on two huge roles in the last year, as head of property at Friends First, and President of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI), Claire Solon is a woman who knows how to manage her time.
Having previously secured planning permission for the redevelopment of ESB’s new headquarters on Lower Fitzwilliam Street, in the last 12 months she has taken on a half a billion euro property portfolio at Friends First.
She also became President of SCSI, the leading land, construction, and property professional body in Ireland, having previously held the position of Vice President.
This week Construction Network Ireland caught up with Solon for a chat.
How do you combine two such huge roles?
With the SCSI presidential role, there is a very strong executive in house with approx. 25 people based in Merrion Square who are responsible for the running of the organisation. The support network is very good and works around my day job, so it tends to be early morning and late evening meetings. This means the days are very long as opposed to both jobs interfering too much with each other.
What does each role entail?
With the role at Friends First, I’m responsible, along with my team of Chartered Surveyors, for the property portfolio which is worth over half a billion euro. It comprises a number of different funds, in different life assurance and pension investment vehicles. We look for solid investments and acquire properties that we think are a good fit for the relevant fund. We then add value to those properties over time, through various asset management initiatives. It’s all about trying to create the best return for people who invest in the funds. The Irish Commercial Property Fund is the largest of our funds worth about 400 million euros and is predominantly a retail-oriented fund. It comprises almost 30 properties and consists of core (or prime) properties with some ‘value add’ projects. These would consist of redevelopment opportunities such as Royal Hibernian Way in Dublin 2 and Blackrock Shopping Centre, or refurbishments such as the one we recently completed in Pelham House and now let to the Ardagh Group. We are continually trying to source good quality tenants for any vacant units and ensure we plan for future events such as leases ending to maximise the rental opportunities within the fund. We also initiate a proactive asset management strategy and programme to make sure our investors get the best return for the portfolio. This has resulted in the Irish Commercial Property Fund being the top performing fund in our peer group both year to date for 2016 and year on year.
My work with the SCSI is representative of the 5,000 members across the country. It is the leading land, construction, and property professional body in Ireland. Our members come from a range of backgrounds including estate agency, quantity surveying, land surveying, building surveying, facilities management, and valuations so there is a huge array of different types of people and professionalisms across the organisation. I represent that body in an array of functions, and this ranges from liaising with policy makers in Government to shaping the direction of the organisation and managing the business plans or offering advice on where we think things could be improved within the property sector. It is also a regulatory function tasked with managing the registered quantity surveyor and the registered valuer functions and ensuring standards across the professions. We also have a very strong education team, with a number of courses that we both run and accredit with various Institutes of Technology.
How did you get into the property industry?
My parents are both architects and they had a pretty rough time in the 1980’s as a lot of people did generally. They advised me not to get into architecture and suggested the Property Economics degree in DIT. I had no clue what I wanted to do so was quite open to suggestion at that point. I was always interested in finance, investment and asset management but I didn’t realise the Chartered Surveying was a route into that. That’s part of the challenge in SCSI, advising younger people and students as to what the profession is all about as it is tremendously diverse.
Many of the women we have spoken to for this series say it’s a male dominated industry. Do you agree?
I agree but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never or very rarely encountered any negative outcomes from working in what’s considered a man’s world. I think there is a huge amount of support for women. If you work hard and deliver, it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman- that will be recognised. It is a little tougher for women but I do think that happens in every profession, not just property.
How can more females be encouraged into the industry?
I think a lot of it is letting women know the different professions that are available. I gave a talk recently about gender diversity, and one of the things I thought about was women in the profession in senior positions that could be considered role models. Frankly, the outcome was rather disheartening as I could only think of five women in senior positions in all of Ireland in property development/asset management roles and there are probably over 100 men in similar senior positions. That took me aback as it wasn’t something I had ever really thought about. You can’t deny that there is a gender gap and it’s tougher to get to the top being female. However, the thing that does give me hope is that in previous generations, would there even have been five women in property development? Things are changing and certainly in the legal and estate agency side things are more balanced from a gender perspective. However, things need to change faster. Part of the problem getting women into the industry is that if they don’t see senior women in those positions, they have to wonder if there a glass ceiling in that profession. We need more women in those senior positions and I think that will benefit the profession overall.
Is life hectic with two roles?
It is certainly hectic and I have two small children as well so it’s all a balancing act. I’ve lectured for years on Saturdays and in the evenings previously so I’m used to doing more than the day job. The presidential role is for a year and it is going to be a hectic year but it’s well worth it and enjoyable.
What’s your greatest achievement?
It sounds corny, but finding roles that I have really enjoyed is probably my greatest achievement. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve always managed to find a role, even in difficult times, that I felt a sense of enjoyment and achievement in doing the job. Being elected President of the SCSI by my peers as the youngest candidate, and the second female of SCSI was a very proud moment.
What project stands out for you?
One of the toughest challenges was getting planning for the ESB HQ building. I project managed the planning application and it was a long, arduous process but there was a great sense of achievement when that finally came through. It was six years of hard work and one of toughest projects I’ve ever worked on.
What did that project entail?
It was very complex with lots of different challenges including conservation, design, feasibility assessments, cost challenges, planning risks, stakeholder and communications along with internal challenges. It is located on Lower Fitzwilliam Street, the current location of the ESB Head Office. The plan is to demolish the existing buildings and build a modern office building that is sensitive to the historic environs and provide a high-quality working environment. There were a number of differing opinions as to how the building should be developed from a design perspective – from reinstating Georgian buildings, to listing part of the existing structure. There was a lot of public interest in it as a project given the history on the site and we really wanted to create a design that was respectful yet of its time. It was a real challenge to find a design that would fit in with the street but also then fulfil the aspirations in terms of the working environment inside the building while being sensitive to the historic environs and yet make a financial return. There were a lot of moving parts. ESB are a semi-state company so tendering for services involved adhering to all EU procurement regulations which were my first time dealing with that particular aspect. Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike Architects are the two architects involved, and they have great design ideas and are very successful with challenging sites. Their concept was of a modern interpretation of Georgian architecture. It’s not pretending it was built in a different era or being pastiche in its nature but it is still tying in with the brick materials, the four-storey streetscape, the rhythm of openings for doors and windows and is a positive contribution to the streetscape. I look forward to seeing it completed.
Do you ever get to unwind!? If so, what do you do?
I love snowboarding. I also like reading and painting. I used to do a lot of horseriding and eventing when I was younger but it’s years since I sat on a horse. I keep threatening to take up golf….