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Meet 2 Women Who Blazed A Trail As The First To Run Big UK Property Companies


One had no experience in real estate at all. The other had property in her blood. On the face of it, the path to the top for two of the first women ever to run major real estate companies in the UK could not have been more different. 

But their stories say a lot about what it takes for anyone to succeed in business — and what real estate can do to change the fact that, a quarter of a century later, the sector is not much better when it comes to diversity among its leadership.

Mickola Wilson on-site in the 1990s at Guardian Royal Exchange

Lorraine Baldry took over as the managing director of the £4B property division of the Prudential in January 1993 after just three years in the real estate industry. Mickola Wilson took over as MD at Guardian Royal Exchange, a fellow institution with about £1B of assets, in 1995, after 15 years at the company. At the time, female professionals at any kind of senior level in the property industry were rare enough, let alone in the top job. 

Baldry and Wilson talked to Bisnow in separate interviews about their experience of blazing a trail in a homogenous world and how their journeys and management styles helped them to succeed. There are lessons that the sector can learn from them about how to broaden diversity at the top levels: Invest in management training, give people different types of experience, create a supportive culture, be honest about the structural problems in companies and in the industry. And above all, be brave and thoughtful about who you pick as a leader. 

“I Wasn’t Even A Surveyor”

Not much in Baldry’s career up to 1990 would make you think she would end up running one of the UK’s largest property investors, the property division of the now 170-year-old Prudential. But that is perhaps why she was the right person to do it. 

Born in Manchester, she left school at the end of the 1960s with A-levels in maths, further maths and physics, but instead of taking the place at university those qualifications would suggest, at the suggestion of a friend she took a training course at a local company to learn about a new technology called the computer. 

Lorraine Baldry today and while running the Prudential's property investment division in the 1990s.

With that training, she took a job at Westminster City Council and went on to be head of IT in the engineering department at the BBC, the first woman to run a department in that division, and head of IT at record company RCA, where companywide parties celebrating No. 1 records for the firm’s musicians like Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart were the norm. 

She joined Prudential as head of information and business systems for the property investment division, quickly became chief operating officer and after an internal reshuffle became head of the 600-strong division in early 1993.

“Not only was I one of the first women, I wasn’t even a surveyor,” Baldry said with a laugh. “There was a lot more talk about that than about me being a woman, and the fact that I said I wasn’t going to stay there my whole career.”

Stay she didn’t. She left in 1998 to join Regus and took a further chief executive role at listed estate agent Chesterton. She joined the board of the London Olympic Delivery Authority and has chaired companies as diverse as Sellarfield, the nuclear facility in Cumbria, energy investment firm Inventa Partners and London & Continental Railways. She credits this variety of experience as a big factor in why she has been given chair and chief executive roles. 

“Going back to my IT years, I worked as a consultant, so I got to move around to lots of different types of company and business and learn what they needed very quickly,” she said. “My style has always been, if you come to me with a problem, we work together to find a solution. It doesn’t matter if it’s always been done a certain way, we find the right solution now. When I worked in IT it wasn’t as common for the IT department to be overwhelmed like they are today, so there was more time, but IT departments weren’t very good at prioritising which issue to solve first. You need to ask what the key problems are for a business and address them first.”

Baldry was appointed head of the Pru’s property division by Hugh Jenkins, himself a surveyor who had risen to become overall head of the investment division taking in equities, fixed income and property. Baldry said bringing in an outsider was a deliberate choice by Jenkins.

“I think he wanted to change things,” she said. “When you are an outsider you are able to be two things: You can ask naive questions and you can ask challenging questions because you say you don’t understand. The people who make the best changes to an organisation ask a lot of questions and then work with people to find the best solutions.”

Baldry said her gender was never discussed during her appointment, “at least not with me.” And there never seemed to be any problems managing what was an overwhelmingly male team, a fact which had an impact beyond the organisation. 

LCR's Lorraine Baldry

“Once they got over the shock of the fact that I wasn’t a surveyor I was accepted, and that was helpful in terms of the outside world. If there were people chattering internally that would have spread. And property people are like smokers: Once you’re one of them, then you are one of them, and they protect you.”

Baldry said she has always been confident and was perfectly happy walking into a cocktail party and just talking to the first person she met, even if she was often the only woman or one of very few in the room.

“It can be an advantage, because people know who you are,” she said. “And you have to take your advantage where you can.”

Her time running property companies was not entirely frictionless. In 1996 she became the first female president of the British Property Federation, a role which at that time was picked by former presidents, and one in particular balked at the idea of a woman taking the role. 

“At a meeting of former presidents I went up to him and said, ‘I hear you weren’t happy about my appointment,’ which he denied,” she said. “I think you have to challenge people.” 

There were also misunderstandings that came about as a result of her rarity in the property world.

“Sometimes you would get into lifts with people who would mistake you for a secretary, and for some reason they think secretaries don’t have ears,” she said. “You would pick up some very interesting snippets. And then when they realised you were the person they were there to see they were very embarrassed.”

Baldry said property companies are particularly poor at creating management teams that are diverse, not just in terms of gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, but in terms of that broad experience that gives you a wider insight, and which served her well.

They are less resilient as a result.

“If you are all the same and sit in a room agreeing with each other, you are not going to spot the thing that is going to kill you,” she said. “And as a girlfriend pointed out to me, it is no good just having one person that is different, as the lone voice gets drowned out.”

She has seen an example of directed diversity working well — when she joined the board of the Olympic Delivery Authority, the organisers set out very specific criteria for the members, with each member expected to bring different experiences and skills.

“When I first saw that I thought it looked very prescriptive, but it worked very well,” she said. 

Asked why property still has so few female leaders, or leaders that are diverse in any way, Baldry said the organisational makeup of the industry is holding it back. 

“If you look at property companies, there are not many management or training opportunities because they don’t employ many people,” she said. “At Prudential we were one of the biggest property managers, and we only employed 600 people. If you look at the outside world, companies employ many tens of thousands of people, so in property you don’t get as many management and training opportunities as at other corporates, where managers might manage a team and then go off and manage somewhere else.”

Combined with the inability to look outside the sector for hires, this exacerbates the problem of lack of diversity, she said. 

Looking beyond its shores and investing in management training thus become key things for the property industry to embrace. 

"I Was Well Trained To Be A CEO"

Mickola Wilson today

If Baldry was an outsider, Mickola Wilson was the opposite.

“I was from a property dynasty,” she said. Her father ran an eponymous property management business, Kalmars, which is still run by her brother today.

“I spent the holidays working for him and tramping around industrial estates.”

After completing a real estate course at Southbank Polytechnic, where she was one of four women in her 100-strong year group, she was expected to go back and work for the family firm. But as part of her training she had worked at insurance company Guardian Royal Exchange in the property investment division, and she joined the company in 1980. At that time it was a listed company in the FTSE 100 and its headquarters was London’s famous Royal Exchange, one of the first official goods exchange buildings in the City of London, built in 1571. 

She worked there for 15 years, rising to the position of manager of the £1B property investment division’s largest fund before taking the role of managing director in 1995. She left for MWB in 2000, and then took over as chief executive of listed company Teesland in 2002. Today she runs her own firm, investment manager Seven Dials.

While she may have taken the role after a long period of service at a single company, Wilson also cites a variety of experience as important in ascending to the top job.

“Within real estate there is a diversity of different jobs, and I’d worked in different departments across the business, managing buildings across the country,” she said.

As well as managing the investment portfolio, the real estate division also managed the property Guardian occupied, so Wilson was involved in setting up the company’s first call centre, working closely with the IT department and company’s finance director, a particularly valuable experience. 

Wilson said Guardian was fantastic about investing in training, sending her to the prestigious INSEAD business school in Paris and the London Business School for courses in management.

“Within the company I was one of about 250 senior managers, and we were all sent on these fantastic programmes,” she said. “By the time I was in my late 30s or 40s I was well trained to be a CEO. If you had the credentials, people didn’t question why you became a head of a department or a division.”

She cites women who had gone before her at the company, such as Caroline Burton, the overall chief investment officer for all asset classes and a member of the senior board at the time, as having truly broken the glass ceiling and normalised the idea of women in senior positions at the company. 

But there were some practices at the company that weren't so accepting, which says as much about the British class system as anything else. At the time, the Royal Exchange had seven restaurants, each allocated to different levels of staff in the company, including one for senior directors.

“I was one of the first women to become a senior manager at the company, so there was apparently a heated discussion about whether I could go in that dining room,” she said. “Looking back at it now, that is ridiculous.”

But Wilson said her long service at the company and the qualities and qualifications she displayed rising through the ranks meant she found nothing but acceptance from the roughly 250 staff in the property division. And she said the team appreciated her management style.

Mickola Wilson at a Guardian Royal Exchange board meeting in the 1990s.

“I do think being a woman you have a different management style,” she said. “My style is very inclusive, and I think that has been successful. I certainly don’t do that male thing of being competitive all the time. I was always very strong and keen to bring people along, and if they were better than you at some things then that was good.”

And the industry was accepting as well.

“One thing about being a woman in a man’s world is that we were terribly spoiled,” she said. “Being one of the only women you had a very high profile, and you’d get invited to everything. People wanted you at dinner because it was fun to have you there. That gave you an advantage over your competitors.”

One thing that set her apart was not seen as an advantage and remains a problem today: maternity leave.

For her personally, becoming a mother wasn’t a question, no matter the impact on her career.

“Even if it impedes your career, isn’t it worth it?” she said. “So what if it holds you up for five years.”

Although her own entry into motherhood was generally accepted by her company and didn’t restrict her progress, she sees the need for greater flexibility around maternity leave and parenting in the property industry.

“At that time, not many of the other women who went into the senior ranks in our industry or others had children. That really was a big shock, and there were a lot of questions around it,” Wilson said. She had her first child before she became MD, her second afterward. “I didn’t believe in rushing back after six weeks. I took seven months off. There was no maternity policy at that time. We just made it up. The reason I bring it up, I think it’s still a reason why there are so few senior women in the industry.”

Wilson said she was able to have full-time childcare, which allowed her to go back to work full time, and she was at an institutional investor, where working long and irregular hours was not necessarily expected, which made being a working mother more feasible than for many other women. 

“I think it is a big issue in client-facing roles like agency or law, where the expectation is that if a client calls at 10pm on a Friday night, you drop everything. Companies wonder how you can work a three-day week or take maternity leave and still service clients. It’s not prejudice, it’s just seen as a business issue, and it’s something women have to face, and our sector needs to work out. I think companies underestimate how tolerant their clients really are.”

Baldry and Wilson took two very different journeys to become some of the first women to reach the pinnacle of real estate. More than 25 years on, their stories have some very salient lessons that still apply today.