Don’t mention Sir John Betjeman. In 1937, the poet wrote these immortal lines: “Let friendly bombs come and fall on Slough!” Now it is not suitable for humans. But David Sleath, chief executive of Segro – the industrial property group formerly known as Slough Estates – paints a very different picture of the much-maligned Berkshire town.
If Sleath ever decided to step down as chief executive, a job at Slough Tourist Board would surely appeal to him. “Yes, there is a little image problem,” he admits. “But I love Slough.” I think we’re moving forward, but there’s more.
‘When I meet people, I put four photographs. David Brent (the boss of the television comedy The Office), a Mars bar, Thunderbird 2 and the Ford GT40. Then I ask them what they have in common. They are all from Slough,” he says.
‘Then the follow-up question. Which is the odd one out?’ The answer, she declares with a flourish, is The Office.
The other three were all made at Slough Trading Estate. While the fictional company Wernham Hogg was supposed to be based on the estate, but in reality the program was not made there.’
Big fan: If David Sleath ever decided to step down as chief executive of Segro, a job at Slough Tourist Board would surely appeal to him.
Slough Trading Estate may not be the most beautiful acreage in England, but Sleath elevates it all the same.
‘It is the largest shopping complex in Europe. Seven thousand people work there.
“Slough was once the largest manufacturing center in Europe,” he adds, getting closer to the point. ‘There is a very rich industrial heritage. It suffered a decline in the 1980s and 1990s as the manufacturing industry was in decline.
Now, with the popularity of online shopping, he says it is the ideal location for logistics warehouses, film and television studios and data centers for companies like Amazon.
‘There is a power station. And Slough sits on top of major fiber communication cables crossing the Atlantic.
“It’s close to London and Heathrow airport,” he says. “It’s very well positioned.”
Why then, as Slough’s number one fan, change the name of the company founded more than 100 years ago?
‘We discovered that foreigners couldn’t pronounce Slough. Instead they said Slow or Sluff.
Perhaps much to his chagrin, Sleath does not hail from Slough, but was born in fashionable Leamington Spa and raised in South Wales.
He went to university in Warwick, where he still lives, as well as having a place in London.
He “stumbled upon” Slough Estates in 2005, when he joined as finance director after spending 18 years at accounting firm Arthur Andersen.
“I didn’t know anything about property,” he admits. ‘I had only bought two houses in my life. “They wanted a new perspective.” Six years later he became CEO.
Segro shares have risen steadily since the financial crisis and the company is in the elite FTSE 100 index, but Sleath maintains it is one of the country’s “most overlooked” blue-chip companies.
Segro’s activities may not be exciting, but Sleath says they are essential. ‘Everything we take for granted in our lives – all the goods and services we consume – will involve something passing through our warehouses at some point.
“That became very evident during the pandemic with the increase in online shopping.”
In the past, Segro’s performance was so slow that it was nicknamed “slow growth.”
But, Sleath says, the great financial crisis of 2008 – shortly after he took over as CFO – turned out to be a real turning point.
‘Like many property companies, Slough Estates was living in the Middle Ages and needed to modernise. Then we had the global financial crisis. We came out of that pretty well.”
After raising capital in a rescue rights issue in 2009, the company bought its biggest competitor, Brixton. “We thought it was too good an opportunity to be true,” he says. ‘We did one of the businesses of the crisis. Something we thought we would never be able to do.’ A year later, the company bought cargo warehouses at Heathrow.
‘We saw it as a really important gateway for both goods and passengers. Forty per cent of UK exports by value pass through Heathrow.
‘We made a couple of really transformative deals, but the truth is that the business hadn’t done so well because it had been on the wrong side of the decline in Western European manufacturing.
“We went through a very difficult time in the ’90s and ‘200s.”
When he took over as chief executive in 2011, Sleath identified “huge potential”.
He says: ‘I didn’t want to be a CEO. I thought he was perfect to be a strong number two. But then I thought I could figure out what needed to be done.
‘We had to leave some areas. At first the market didn’t like her. They thought we were selling high-yield properties and would have to cut the dividend. Actually, we didn’t.
Segro has between 40 and 50 developments underway, including logistics parks in Coventry and Northampton, data center projects in Slough and refurbishments in London.
“Many companies are struggling to get their employees back to work. Great buildings would help,” he says.
‘We don’t make offices, but we are very careful with our developments. We have walkways, outdoor gyms, insect hotels and 250 hives. There are many varieties of Segro honey.’
Now, he says, he is trying to replicate what he has achieved – in Slough and around London – in other European capitals.
“We discovered the opportunity to build data centers,” he says. “Approximately a third of the Slough Trading Estate (35 in total) is made up of them,” she adds. ‘Our job is to provide the canvas for someone else’s business. We provide a framework: all four walls and a roof according to modern sustainable standards.
“We then pass on the building and rent it to the occupier, whether it’s Netflix, Amazon, Royal Mail or Ocado.”
Policymakers don’t think much about having the right industrial infrastructure, Sleath says.
Planning, as in residential real estate, is “a big barrier.”
‘London has lost half of its industrial base in the last 25 years. If you move all your logistics and warehouses to Northamptonshire, you will create a lot more traffic on the roads.
‘The message is not to convert all abandoned land into new flats. We need to ensure the UK has a national logistics base that supports inward investment, innovation and investment in technology.
‘The United Kingdom wants to be a technological superpower. But you need the industrial base to do it. We are trying very hard to get the government to understand the importance of our sector to the growth of the UK.
‘Our industry can help achieve many goals, whether it is productivity, being a technological superpower or leveling up.
‘There are 3.8 million jobs in the warehousing and logistics sector. Seventy per cent of them are in the Midlands and North and most earn more than the national average.
Warehouses may be difficult to build in Slough and the logistics may seem complicated, but Sleath does its best.
‘If Segro did not exist, would the world be poorer? I think so, because we create the space to allow extraordinary things to happen.”
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