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Meet The Man Who Went From McLaren F1 Team Manager To Selling His Real Estate Business To Heitman

A McLaren F1 car from the period when Alastair Caldwell was team manager.

There are many different routes into the world of commercial real estate and selling your business to a private equity firm, but Alastair Caldwell’s was a bit more circuitous than some — the Formula One circuit, that is.

This week, Heitman completed a deal to buy Space Station, the UK self-storage firm Caldwell set up at the beginning of the 1980s. Australian pension fund Sunsuper is the main investor behind the transaction, which includes 10 sites across London, the south east and the Midlands.

The deal is interesting in its own right. Self-storage is a small sector of UK property, but a highly successful one — listed companies Big Yellow and Safestore are regularly among the top-performing property shares. As Caldwell pointed out in the most recent accounts for Space Station, self-storage usually performs resiliently in a recession. Heitman said it had made the investment because the sector is in its infancy in Europe. 

But it is Caldwell’s backstory and path into the sector that particularly catch the eye. A sentence you do not expect to read about the origins of a property company, from Space Station’s website: “While touring the world with the McLaren F1 team, Alastair was impressed by the self-storage facilities across the U.S. and decided to bring the business idea back across the pond.”

Caldwell was born in England but grew up in New Zealand in the 1950s, and was always a car nut: He drove his mum around the countryside age 12, was taking part in illegal races with his friends at 15 and at 17, he became a mechanic for the New Zealand post office. 

He became an amateur motor racing mechanic on the Australasian circuit in the early 1960s, and then left for England to work for the McLaren Formula One team, sweeping the factory floor and then helping ship the team cars around Europe for races.

He became a mechanic and ultimately went on to become team manager, leading the team during the famous 1976 season when playboy British driver James Hunt beat Ferrari rival Niki Lauda to the F1 championship, a story portrayed in the Ron Howard film Rush. He came up with several design innovations that helped Hunt to the championship, as well as managing the famously wild driver. 

He went on to work for other motor racing teams before leaving the sport in 1981, at which point Space Station was born. As he wrote on his website: “I wanted to become an eccentric millionaire rather than working for one.”