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Prejudice In Property And How To Triumph Over It: A Lesson From The 1960s

Buildings don’t just appear out of thin air: They are conceived, designed, funded and built by people who bring with them their lives, experiences, backstories and influences, both in their careers and in the world outside real estate.

For this series, Bisnow undertook highly personal interviews with a range of developers, famous and less well-known, to dig into those experiences and influences to find out how they shaped the people that shaped our world. 

The 1960s and 1970s were all about liberation and radicalism, right? Not so fast. The City of London was still dominated by bowler hats and pinstripes, and life in most of post-war Britain was narrow, cramped and routinely prejudiced. You could watch flower power on the TV, but there was little flowering of new opportunities if you went to the wrong school, were Black, female, gay or Jewish.

Neil Sinclair built a series of London-based property businesses during the 1960s and '70s, became one of the surveying business leaders in the 1980s and '90s, and today is a doyen of the industry as co-founder and chief executive at investor Palace Capital. But getting to the top has required determination and mettle, and 50 years ago, it also meant overcoming prejudice in the property business.

Carnaby Street, London, in 1968

Sinclair’s CV reads like a rundown of the UK property business over the past five decades. Jostling for space with his original business, Sinclair Goldsmith, are names like Baker Lorenz and Conrad Ritblat, Tops Estates and, since 2010, Palace Capital.

Sinclair looks like a property insider. But he isn’t. Or to be more accurate, he wasn’t. His roots lie a long way from the traditional style of the property business of the 1980s and '90s, and even further from the genuinely upper-class London property business he recalls joining in the 1960s and '70s. 

To grasp how much of an outsider Sinclair was, and the sheer hard work required to become an insider, you have to travel back to a world very different from today, and revisit routine assumptions about class and race that now seem outrageous.

Neil Sinclair, centre, with his wife Pamela and late brother Philip, pictured at his wedding in 1975

Today property employers work hard to demonstrate the breadth of their recruitment policy; in the 1960s most property firms were proud to remain as narrow and exclusive as possible.

“It was very difficult to get a job," Sinclair said. "Some firms wouldn’t take you unless you’d been to a public [e.g. expensive and private] school. That was just the rules, and you were a goner before you even started, just a fact of life."

Fifty years ago London property business was a business for gentlemen. And in England, gentlemen did not engage in 'trade' and still less in manufacturing. Yet this was Sinclair’s background.

His father made his living in the ladies hat-making business, which in those days was focused on the south Midlands town of Luton. His premises on Bute Street (and also maybe No 64 of this guide to the town's long-defunct hat industry) was one of dozens of labour-intensive hat and millinery businesses that kept the town working. As the saying went, ‘If you want to get ahead, wear a hat’.

The big property firms literally required men to be hatted, as the young Sinclair quickly appreciated. He took himself to night school five nights a week for three years and qualified as a surveyor. He’s been wearing his property industry hat — metaphorically for the most part — ever since.

On top of rampant class prejudice, there was also anti-Semitism to confront. “I’m Jewish, and certain firms wouldn’t take me," he said. "People talk about racism today, but I’ll tell you before the [1968] Race Relations Act came into force, employers would give you a form to fill out, and one question was religion — and if you put the wrong one down, you were toast. So if you hadn’t been to the right school, or had the wrong faith, or were from another ethnic minority, forget it. That was the system, and you had to deal with it.”

His father advised a direct approach. “Go through the directory and find some names, jump on a tube, go to the West End, and walk in and ask for a job,” Sinclair remembers him saying. So Sinclair junior got on a train from his childhood home in the north London suburb of Cricklewood and explored the West End. “Within a week I had two job offers,” he said.

The result was a job in fashionable South Molton Street, a move to a new home in far-distant Hendon, and a starting salary of £4 a week.

Neil Sinclair and his wife, Pamela, at a Parliamentary reception

Today success in business often comes early in life. The leaders of the digital unicorns are in their twenties. But in the 1960s and 1970s success came late, often in middle age; which makes it all the more significant that by the age of 26, Sinclair had set up his own surveying firm.

“It was going to be called Neil Sinclair & Co, but a friend of mine called Peter Goldsmith phoned up and said ‘let’s join forces'," he said. "So we sat down and decided it would be a good idea. With additional advice from legendary lawyer Arnold Finer, Sinclair Goldsmith began trading, and by the early 1970s was operating from offices at Oxford Circus.

Business flourished, although professional restrictions limited what Sinclair could accomplish. “The problem was always conflicts of interest. Looking back I would have liked to be involved with larger-scale things, which was difficult for us,” Sinclair said.

The big break came in the late 1970s when Kodak pondered expansion in the London office market. “It was the depths of a recession, and it wasn’t a great market, and along came Kodak which at that time was absolutely a top company. They saw a building which was to let, but at that time Kodak only ever looked at buying freehold. We had a meeting, and I had to make a judgment — do they really want this building? Will they walk away if I can’t let them buy it?

“In my judgment they really wanted it and thought the way to handle this was to lease it to them and say we’re thinking of selling, so we could sell it to them on the back of their own covenant. That was risky for me. But we signed a lease, then sold it to Kodak, and the former owners of the building made an absolute packet — in fact they made so much money they moved offshore.

“I got that approach from Dad — though he died young, when I was 20 — he said you must never over-negotiate. Judge how far you can go. You have to know when to back off, and leave something for the other guy.”

By 1987 Sinclair Goldsmith had 90 staff and was one of the London property businesses’ giants. The time came to float the business on the London Stock Exchange. Good luck, or good judgment, meant they completed the deal just months before Black Monday and the start of another property crash.

In the meantime Sinclair pursued his lifelong involvement raising money for charitable causes, a world of giving that still occupies him today. In the 1960s he ran charity nights at a fashionable West End nightspot.

“We had all the great rock 'n' roll stars of the 1960s," Sinclair said. "The Rolling Stones, Billy J Kremer, everyone, though they generally hadn’t achieved much at the time we booked them. We even had The Beatles, but they cancelled.” 

Palace Capital's Neil Sinclair

And then things began to change. The 1980s Big Bang deregulation of the London financial markets saw restrictive practises swept away, and many of the older firms (and older partners in older firms) were swept away with them. It altered the mood forever.

“The Big Bang was an absolute breath of fresh air," Sinclair said. "It changed attitudes, it showed what a powerhouse London could become." Asked if one big change was that posh boys no longer dominated the property market, Sinclair shouts an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“The city changed. We had foreign banks come in, not just upper-class British banks, and people with lots of ethnicities, and it changed. It was a different ballgame.”

Sinclair is clear that opening the markets broke up the old system, and left it open to a wider pool of talent. The winners were people who did not come from the right school, or who could not answer the religion question with the 'right' answer.

Today the boundaries of what can be said, and what can't, are shifting once again. Sinclair remains a firm believer in plain speaking, even if the message is not popular. He is not a believer in the politics of grievance.

“Property is about people, it really is," he said. "There’s all sorts of characters — although there are fewer willing to speak out. You have to be able to speak out and say what you think, without fear of someone getting on social media and killing you off. But you have to be measured, constructive, sensible.” 

There are still all kinds of battles to be fought and won: But for one millinery manufacturer's son from Luton, the battle to get to the top of the property business has long been concluded.

Catch up with the other interviews in this series, Childhood Lessons In Getting Development Right From One Of UK Real Estate’s Top Execs 

How Tattoos, Eastern Philosophy And A Wandering Childhood Shaped One Of The UK's Most Successful Developers

Karma, Building Skyscrapers And The Eternal

Related Topics: Palace Capital, Neil Sinclair