David Watson – partner at Geldards LLP, on his career, what’s in store for the property market in the East Midlands and multi-office collaboration

David, can you tell us a bit about your career to date?
I began my legal career in 1980 as an articled clerk at a medium sized (in those days – things are different now!!) practice in Leicester called Millhouse and Rumble. The firm was successful and growing, and on qualification in 1982 I remained with the firm as an assistant solicitor, becoming a partner a couple of years later. Eventually I became the managing partner of the business.

In 1999, Millhouse and Rumble merged with Smith Partnership, and became the Leicester office of that firm. Over the next couple of years I spent an increasing amount of time at Smith Partnership’s Derby office (after the merger I was the only lawyer in the firm undertaking business law not based in Derby), and eventually our family moved back to Derbyshire, where my wife and I were brought up.

I left Smith Partnership for Geldards in 2007. Initially I was based at Geldards’ Derby offices on Pride Park, and around 4 years ago I was invited to relocate to the firm’s Nottingham office to assist in the development and management of the Retail Real Estate team and for the last 18 months I have led the Nottingham Real Estate team. In addition to undertaking work for our key retail clients, I also handle a wide range of transactions for funders, developers and investors.

The East Midlands commercial property market seems strong. How are you finding things?
The Nottingham team has been very busy for the last 18 – 24 months. Much of this activity has flowed from those of our clients which are large national operators such as Alliance Boots, Mountain Warehouse and Tesco and so isn’t essentially of a “local market” nature, but there is no doubt that the real estate sector locally is very active. The “big” banks are keen to lend to the “right” borrower for the “right” project, and the challengers and other smaller specialist lenders are currently reasonably prominent. Business owner occupiers are perhaps more confident than latterly, and are prepared to consider acquisitions where greater space is required.

The investment market also seems to be strong, with high-net-worth individuals looking for a home for capital and frequently finding it in local real estate. Additionally, our corporate teams have been extremely busy, undertaking several very large acquisitions and disposals with very significant real estate content over the last two years.

What do you think will be the growth areas and where is your work coming from?
Whilst low interest rates remain a feature of the economy, I’m sure that there will be plenty of investment activity in Nottingham over the next two years, and I’m equally confident that the banks will wish to support both investors and developers with solid track records and compelling opportunities. However, the “stand out” opportunities for the Nottingham real estate sector as a whole are the new Enterprise Zone adjacent to the Alliance Boots campus and the various elements of the City Council’s Growth Plan which are beginning to take shape, particularly in the Bioscience/Life science sectors.

The recent completion of the A453 dualling project and the imminent opening of the NET2 tramline will hugely improve the city’s accessibility in the short term, making it an even more attractive proposition for investment and development. In the longer term, it may be that HS2 will also bring growth opportunities to the city and surrounding areas. All these factors create real opportunities for growth for our firm and other real estate professionals in and around the city.

What are your aims and ambitions for the team over the next couple of years?
I would like to see my team even more firmly embedded in the local real estate market. Because the firm as a whole has enjoyed a reputation for success in “big ticket” transactions, there seems to be a perception that it is only this type of work that we are interested in. Nothing could be further from the truth – we enjoy acting for local clients in relation to local projects, and our team has recently been significantly restructured so as to allow it to deliver real value for money for our clients. The City Council’s Growth Plan offers a route to an exciting future for Nottingham, and we are absolutely committed to playing our part in achieving that.

You also head up the firm’s property finance team. What does that involve & how much cross over is there?
Essentially it is a co-ordination role. I try to ensure that the lawyers in the firm’s Derby and Nottingham offices receive appropriate training, approach transactions in a consistent manner and provide efficient, value for money services to clients, be they borrowers or lenders. It also gives me the opportunity of speaking frequently to the local banking community to try to understand its thoughts on the current lending and borrowing market and general trends (nationally and locally) in the economy.

What does your role entail day to day?
My team is relatively young, so a great deal of my time is spent on supervision and training. I set aside time for formal supervision sessions, but I also try to maintain an “open door” policy and team members are actively encouraged to look for advice and guidance from me and from other senior team members. This can be extremely demanding, but it’s clearly the best way forward for the team and also for our clients! I’m also responsible for business planning and business development for the team, which is equally time-consuming and challenging. In and around these management duties I also maintain a reasonably heavy caseload of transactional work – so my days are varied and frequently very long!!

How closely do the five Geldards offices work together?
Very closely. It is sometimes the case that one office is particularly busy whilst another is less so, so either work or personnel can be transferred between offices – this is incredibly useful. Some offices have niche practice areas and other offices draw on that knowledge – for example our Cardiff office is particularly renowned for public sector work, and our Derby office has huge experience in the motor retail sector and in large infrastructure project work. Here in Nottingham, general retail real estate work is our speciality. We have developed methods of sharing this expertise so that all our clients – wherever they may be – can benefit from our shared knowledge and experience.

What’s been your career highlight so far?
Being asked to lead Geldards’ Nottingham Real Estate team. I work with great people at a well-respected law firm in an exciting and improving city – that really is a wonderful opportunity!

Finally, can you sum up why you like working at Geldards in five words?
Geldards allows people to succeed