Property Director Ian Ashcroft, of Lucy Properties, based in the heart of Oxford, meets with B4's Richard Rosser to outline how the company has grown to enjoy its position as Oxford's principle private residential landlord, with an enviable reputation and expanding portfolio of high quality properties. Indigenous Oxford residents will remember W Lucy & Co Ltd as the heartbeat of Jericho, a large factory churning out huge volumes of product for the emerging electrical markets.
As the factory expanded in terms of production, so it expanded physically, and its custodians were able to reinvest profits into significant portions of property surrounding the factory in Walton Well Road, less than a mile from the City Centre. The houses provided accommodation for the skilled workforce and their families who had moved to Oxford. In 1965, the company bought a block of houses in Juxon Street from St John's College, adding more in Juxon Street and Walton Well Road the following year.
It became apparent that a global switchgear and lighting manufacturer operating from a site in the middle of Jericho was unsustainable, and following the City Council's approval to the redevelopment of Eagle Works in November 2004, the manufacturing operations transferred to premises in Thame shortly after.
The redevelopment of Eagle Works was completed in December 2008, and Lucy Properties retained twenty three apartments, including one complete building - Fettlers' House - and a 20,000 sq ft office. As freeholder, the company opted to manage the site which lies between Walton Well Road, the cemetery and the canal. With a total of 188 apartments, a large underground car park, canal side public spaces and a broad mix of residents, the management operation has played a vital role in making the new development a success. The office building on the site has been let on a fifteen year lease to Oxford University, and although Lucy Properties does already own offices, this is a major addition and part of a plan to increase the proportion of commercial property in its portfolio.
In terms of the service Lucy Properties provide to its tenants, Ian makes it crystal clear that the company places the customer first, from the initial website enquiry, through to the viewing and issuing contracts. "Moving is a stressful business, and we ensure that our tenants are made to feel welcome from the outset and enjoy living in our properties. We like to strike up personal relationships with our tenants which makes the whole landlord / tenant link much healthier and sustainable.
"With responsibility to manage a property portfolio comprising three hundred properties and the associated seven hundred tenants, our role is most definitely focused on making sure the tenants are content and the properties are fit for purpose. "That is what makes Lucy Properties unique - we want our tenants to stay, we are not driven by tenant turnover to boost letting fees, because we don't charge any. Our average tenancy length is approaching two years, but some tenants have been renting for almost forty."
Unique indeed. Ian and his more than capable team are united in their one aim, which is to keep tenants in the properties, and this philosophy has yielded a steady 95% occupancy rate which speaks louder than any other statistic in underlining the appetite to live in a Lucy property. Given that a number of the the properties are undergoing refurbishment at any one time, 95% is a remarkable occupancy level.
Being based literally on their tenantsâ€™ doorstep (for the most part), being a Lucy tenant means that if there is a problem, assistance is never far away, as Ian explains, â€œOur decision to stay on site, to remain visible and accessible, was the best way to say to our tenants 'we are here if you need us', and it has helped build that trust with our clients. Even the Chairman of Lucy's, Richard Dick, is based here, and his door is always open to the tenants, a ringing endorsement of the team supporting and servicing our tenants. "The Lucy approach has ensured high levels of repeat business through Oxford University Colleges and established Oxford businesses, as their tenants are guaranteed levels of service which are second to none.
The Lucy Property team which helps to maintain this high level of service, is relatively small given the property portfolio it is responsible for nurturing, but incredibly competent, as Ian explains, "Rachel Clark and Sarah Pascoe are responsible for the day.
Today lettings management, with over twenty years letting experience between them. Rachel and Sarah are the point of contact for the tenants, and they will handle most of the tenants' enquiries. Rose Head and Victoria Birnage are our administrative team, both very much key to the overall operation.
"Mark Hilton is our building surveyor. Mark's appointment was crucial, as it became evident that the volume of refurbishment work that we were going to embark on merited a full time appointment, if only to deal with the whole raft of health and safety legislation that goes with construction. Mark controls our health and safety policy and also has a fantastic eye for design and quality, and extensive experience of construction."
In addition to this tight knit office team, there are the Lucy Property accounts and maintenance teams, both of which operate out of the Walton Well Road offices servicing the property portfolio, 90% of which is centred in Jericho and Walton Well Road.
"We offer everything from a studio flat to serviced apartments and first class penthouse flats to family houses in North Oxford", identifies Ian, and such a diverse portfolio, combined with our high levels of service, places us, we believe, in a class of our own. We are widely regarded as Oxford's principle private residential landlord, and because we offer the complete package, we like to think that gives us the edge. "Letting properties is, and can be, fraught with problems, but our old fashioned principles of fairness and professionalism enables us to strengthen our foothold and look to develop our portfolio beyond the boundaries of our core property base here in Jericho.
"As a forward thinking company, we look to the medium to long term and the implications of how our developments impact on the surrounding residents and properties. One of our developments, Wharf House Mews, won the RIBA Downland Prize on 22nd September, a scheme we are particularly proud of. Initially, we had planning permission for a much bigger scheme, but when it came to the actual construction, we felt the scheme wasn't totally in keeping with its environment, so we reduced the total number of units. I think it is fair to say not too many developers would look to downsize a scheme which they had secured permission to build, so this again underlines why we are different. "This month, Lucy completes its latest project, 17 Iffley Road which many readers will know has been derelict for a number of years, as Ian expands. "We took a calculated risk when we acquired the property in 2007. We worked with the City Council Planning Department and their Conservation Officer in particular and secured planning permission to restore this impressive house, whilst building a very contemporary extension to the rear. This demonstrates our sensitive approach to restoration. Ian also explains how successful partnerships at 197 and 199 Iffley Road, where a pair of Victorian houses were converted into flats, resulted in another RIBA award in 2008. Interestingly the same architect, Riach Architects and builder, Cooper Construction, were used in both projects, as they were on the Wharf House Mews development. In addition to residential development, Lucy has recently taken another step on the commercial property ladder by developing Eagle House adjacent to Eagle Works. A twenty thousand square foot office block, this was, in Ian's own words, a speculative office development. "We are proud of the fact that we have pre let the whole building to Oxford University and were delighted when the building was officially opened by the Chancellor of the University in September."
Ian's view of the current market does not suggest the company's cautious approach reflects any long term economic concerns. "Oxford is undoubtedly fairly well insulated to an extent, but we have noticed, like everyone, that the market is tougher. Oxford itself is limited in terms of new development opportunities, restricting supply. Combine that with Oxford's historic appeal, its hospital network, the universities, a strong publishing presence and first class science and research, and Oxford will always be a place where people will want to come to live and work. That being said, there is no room for complacency.
"There is certainly more letting property available now than there has been before and, although there is strong demand, we will always face stiff competition. That is where our product, the high levels of repeat business and our commitment to the long term, put us in an excellent position to cope with economic and competitive threats.'
Reliability, consideration and service sum up why Lucy Properties has secured its well deserved position in the market and why the reputation of W Lucy & Co Ltd will remain intact, hopefully, for another two hundred and fifty years.