Mercers’ Company serves up fresh Covent Garden menu
This article first appeared on Property Week online and in print on March 15, 2019
Interview with Simon Taylor, Property Director at The Mercers’ Company
Simon Taylor has just been served a kebab – and very pleased he looks with it, too. This should not come as too much of a surprise, as Property Week’s interview with The Mercers’ Company’s property director is not taking place in the type of after-the-pub venue where you take an E.coli gamble. Rather, we are at Maison Bab in Covent Garden, which boasts Angus Bell, formerly of Mayfair staple Le Gavroche, as its head chef.
Maison Bab turns out not just to serve high-quality kebabs but also to represent in a large part Taylor’s strategy for The Mercers’ Company’s Covent Garden estate as it faces up to the headwinds facing the retail sector.
Taylor joined The Mercers’ Company in 2016 from Derwent London where as head of asset management he had led a substantial team at what is regarded one of the capital’s most forward-thinking developers and landlords.
In stark contrast, he now leads a department that consists, formally at least, of just himself. Moreover, The Mercers’ Company is one of those peculiarly British institutions that can trace its history back for 700 years and has a membership largely dictated by family lineage. It’s quite a contrast.
“What attracted me to it is that we’re a membership organisation, a livery company, in the business of philanthropy,” says Taylor. “All the rent I get in after costs goes to education and the elderly and things like that.
“I’d spent 35 years working for property companies and I’m not knocking the model where all the money goes to the shareholders – quite a lot went to me actually. But it was getting to the point in my career where I didn’t want to be managing people and I wanted to give something back.”
The Mercers’ Company’s prime purpose is to generate sustainable revenues for its charitable endeavours. It has 17 schools dotted around the country, mainly in the Midlands but also both the boys’ and girls’ St Paul’s schools in Hammersmith, London.
It also owns and manages nearly 200 almshouses, mainly in London and the South East.
To provide a steady stream of income for The Mercers’ Company’s causes, Taylor needs to ensure that its portfolio, which in addition to just over five acres in Covent Garden includes around two acres in the City, continues to thrive. It is a big job for one man, but fortunately Taylor has support in the form of Knight Frank.
“I am the property department, but all the day-to-day management is farmed out to Knight Frank, which has an asset and property management brief and does all the rent reviews, lease renewals and lettings,” he says. “I sit at the top of the tree and do the strategy and the deals that I enjoy doing.”
The renewal of the Covent Garden estate is an ongoing process. The estate comprises a series of four blocks between the Capco estate to the south and Shaftesbury’s holdings to the north in Seven Dials.
Food and beverage direction
At the western end closest to the heart of theatre land, The Mercers’ Company formed a joint venture with Shaftesbury in 2010 to redevelop St Martin’s Courtyard. Given its location, Taylor says the logical direction for the ongoing project was for it to be food and beverage orientated.
“We put in land, they put in a bit of land and some money and St Martin’s Courtyard was developed on the back of that,” he says. “We’re in the middle of a big job on it. We’ve got planning consent to put in a terrace at the first floor so that we can put some more restaurants in because I think the feeling is that the courtyard is much more of a destination food and beverage-type place than somewhere people go to shop.”
Maison Bab and fellow restaurant Temper form the main food and beverage offering in the middle of the estate, but the strategy here is far more mixed-use. Historically, the area was made up of what Taylor describes as “really rather appalling” warehouses.
One of these warehouses is home to Pineapple, the dance studio started by former model Debbie Moore OBE in the 1980s. Pineapple still holds classes in the space it has occupied for a generation and its spin-off clothing brand has just taken space in a building just around the corner that was previously home to Estée Lauder.
“The key for us is the activity point – we’re not a company that has to focus on getting the highest rents and we don’t have to report to shareholders or justify our NAV every half year,” says Taylor.
“It’s about getting the right mix and getting people into the site to activate it. It’s about supporting H&M, which has set up its Covent Garden flagship store in another warehouse, and the restaurants, and creating a sustainable environment.”
He adds: “Pineapple has 3,000 people a day going through their dance classes and that’s significant. They might come out of a dance class and have some lunch at Temper. It’s about maintaining a mix and not getting too many multinationals or chains in. People have to have a reason get off their backsides and come and have a look.”
The final block at the eastern edge of The Mercers’ Company estate fronts on to Long Acre and Covent Garden tube station. This area suffered a blow recently when M&S confirmed that it would take advantage of a break clause in its lease.
However, Taylor views M&S’s departure as more of an opportunity than a problem. “It was actually really good news for us because they had rights over Old Brewers Yard, which is an amazing goods access yard but was monopolised by M&S,” he says. “When they went all of a sudden it unlocked some more opportunities.”
The majority of the space M&S had occupied was quickly snapped up by Boots, but the chemist had no need for the access yard, nor the basement. The fact that Boots doesn’t need the service entrance has presented an opportunity to redevelop Old Brewers Yard – a gin distillery is one idea, alongside other food and beverage outlets – while the vacated basement means Mercers’ can provide a bike facility for the offices on the upper floors of the building, which are currently being refurbished. A new corner unit has also been created across from the tube station and will be let to a restaurant.
“My nose tells me that we’ll get a big chain saying they’ll give us a massive cheque, but what we want is somebody who will add value to the pitch,” says Taylor.
That nose has already sniffed out a restaurant with a chef from a Michelin-starred establishment to recreate the humble kebab in the heart of the estate, so who knows what interesting new operator might be found for the corner unit.