In conversation with … Dougie Orton-Wade

Head of Operations (North), Native Residential, and Chair of the UKAA North West Hub

Dougie Orton-Wade left school at 16 to be a professional footballer and worked on a market stall. So how did this ‘anomaly’ end up as Native’s Head of Operations in the north?

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with Build to Rent?

I think I’m something of an anomaly as I spent 13 years in the retail industry, managing all sorts of stores. I got out of Top Shop / Top Man just before they disappeared, because I had got to the point – just having hit 30 – where I could see where retail was going.

There wasn’t much of a future in the sector, with everything going online and a lot of good people all challenging for the same promotions. It just didn’t seem meaningful enough.

I then stumbled on a role within student accommodation provider Vita. I found that my roles in retail had given me lots of transferable skills – customer service, operational delivery, people management, profit & loss, health and safety, maintenance etcetera – and they all applied to the student living sector.

No, I wasn’t ever a student! In fact, I left school at 16 to be a footballer, initially with Chesterfield FC who were in League One at the time.

Unfortunately I didn’t quite make it and so started my retail journey on a market stall in Leicester (my home town) and then a small clothes shop where I discovered a passion for customer service and experience. Delivering something above and beyond to consumers is where I felt my natural strengths were, and so I spent the next 13 years delivering just that within retail.

Vita was a very high-end product – rooftop gardens, cinema rooms, free breakfasts cooked daily etc – and I found that I liked the building management side of things because it was so service led. But I wanted a more mature demographic and more longevity with tenure, so I jumped at the opportunity to become a General Manager at The Trilogy, one of Manchester’s early Build to Rent projects.

That development leased up quickly and eight months later I was asked to open a new site, Duet, at Salford Quays. I then shifted into that role as asset manager of Allsop’s national BTR portfolio, which, at the time was four sites.

It was at that point when I first got involved with the UKAA and after a couple of years of integration, I became chair of the North-West Regional Hub.

You’re now with Native. What does ‘a day-in-the-life’ look like for you?

I was approached by Native to be Head of Operations (North) and was really keen to be part of a growing business with an exciting trajectory.

We’ve doubled in size in the last 12 months in terms of units – and now have over 4,000 units, either in operation or in our contracted pipeline.

My job involves overall oversight of our developments in the north, which includes being a key contact for our clients, line managing the community managers, dealing with the day-to-day reporting, leasing, profit & loss management. There are many facets to operations but ultimately it comes down to us delivering our operational KPI’s and business plan targets.

I’m sure I’m not the only one in the industry to say that there are lots of meetings, which might be about strategy, team management, recruitment, leasing performance, mobilisation, plus much more! In short, it’s busy, but exciting!

What is Native’s agenda around social value?

Social value is a critical part of our agenda. Everyone is talking about it. We have a huge opportunity to influence our residents in making responsible choices and this can deliver measurable impact.

With the environment, much is taken care of in the development stage with carbon offsetting, how we run our utilities through infrastructure choices etc, but once we are operational it’s the social side which becomes key for us, the sector is still learning and measuring social impact is still a grey area, however we can make lots of small changes in our developments that positively impact the social landscape.

We’re about to launch our second Manchester scheme, Poplin, which will offer up to 35% of apartments to key workers at discounted rent. Together with our client Cheyne Capital, we’ve created a model that will enable key workers within Manchester to rent in the city, at a discounted rent that’s based around affordability, and not stipulated by a planning condition, which we’re really excited about.

As far as what we are doing at Native, we aim to keep our suppliers local, we use UK-based furniture providers where possible, and we work with the local restaurants, bars, cafes, and other facility providers to deliver our Neighbourhood Hero” scheme. Our developments incentivise reducing energy consumption, promote car clubs, recycle efficiently, and promote car clubs and cycling, to name a few of our initiatives. We have also recently partnered with national organisation Neighbourly who are supporting us in partnering with local good causes and charities, allowing our employees to volunteer and give back in the community.

Native are on a journey to become a ‘B Corp’ company, which we expect to achieve by the end of 2023. Measuring and analysing environmental and social impact is of critical importance of our clients and also us.

Has the recession / cost-of-living crisis had an impact on Native’s business?

Nationally we currently have eight operational sites and that will rise to 12 by the end of the year, with two others in the north – Manchester and Durham – opening soon.

The economic downturn hasn’t really slowed us down, although we have seen uncertainty impacting the funding market as interest rates have risen. We are expecting a slow down in delivery on new schemes in 2026 but those already under construction are keeping us occupied!

However, it’s more difficult for operators because op-ex budgets have suffered as a result of rising costs. We have to be more savvy in driving value by intelligent cost-control.

Investor expectations in terms of yields have not changed and we have to convince them that customer experience is BTR’s USP. 

The type of resident, our demographic, can shop around so we can’t cut corners. How we keep the level of service extremely high, amid economic constraints, is becoming our main challenge.

So, tell us about the UKAA North-West Hub

We are a group of likeminded northern BTR advocates, consisting of operators, suppliers, investors and other industry professionals, who come together to organise social and educational events in the North West, and to fly the flag for our region. I think it’s a valuable exercise. Its main goals are to raise awareness and standards in BTR and to put the north-west on the map – so not everything is about London.

There are some market leading BTR products in the north-west and we’re hoping the hub will raise awareness among investors and showcase the strength of our community, our suppliers and operators, but also set the standard for other regional hubs as they mature.

We would like to start benchmarking, but we are not quite ready for that yet.  What we do want further down the line is to speak as one voice so we can lobby the government and encourage a ‘fairer’ deal for BTR. We will of course continue in our quest to increase industry standards of showcase best practice.

Is there anything which could hamper the spread of BTR?

It’s difficult to find the right talent, especially in Manchester, and we are not doing enough to attract people into the industry from other sectors.

The industry is expecting staff to arrive adequately trained but if you’ve not lived in a BTR apartment or already worked in the sector how will you even know it exists?

Also, even if you have got into the sector, say as a concierge, how do you progress from that sort of entry position? Where is the career path? What would motivate you to stay?

Staffing, education, recruitment, and retention are really important, and we probably need more buy-in around this from investors when budgets are underwritten. These items can sometimes be omitted OPEX budgets, but they are core to the BTR product. The industry is so fast paced at the moment, and there’s no sign of things slowing down, so we as organisations need to look at how we look after our people, keep them motivated and feeling valued. A great way to achieve this is qualifications and training, not only will your team be more engaged, they’ll also be more qualified and save you time and money on recruitment down the line, a no brainer right…..

There are IRPM (Institute of Residential Property Management) qualifications, but they are heavy on property management and quite onerous. Maybe creating a specific BTR qualification is something UKAA could look at.

I’ll make sure to contact the Chair of the North-West Hub!