The ARL in conversation with… Sam Smith, Operations Director at Dandara Living and Chair of the ARL London & South East Hub

In conversation with Sam Smith, who ‘followed a friend into lettings’ but carved his own path to the role of operations director at Dandara Living and Chair of the ARL London & South East Hub.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey into BTR

I have been working in property for nearly 20 years; I fell into it really – it wasn’t anything I thought about through school. I’d always had a bit of an interest in home renovations, but I just followed a friend into lettings.

I didn’t go to university, I did my GCSEs and then decided to get out to work. I did a couple of telesales jobs and then worked with my parents in their catering business for a couple of years but decided to spread my wings and ended up working in a large, independent estate agent.

My initial role was in their sales division but soon discovered it wasn’t fast paced enough for me, and so moved into lettings. After five years in front-end of the industry, I decided it was time to leave the sleepy Surrey suburbs and move to London, where I took a role with Foxtons.

Their selection process was quite unique – or it was 14 years ago – where you’d go to a recruitment evening with lots of other people and they’d tell you the job they wanted you to do and where they wanted to put you.

They gave me my first job in property management. I’d applied to be a lettings negotiator, but the company thought I was more suited to Property Management– it was a foot in the door, so I thought I’d give it a go, see how I got on and then maybe move back into the branch side of things later – which never happened.

Their training programme was excellent; you learn so much in a short space of time, in a very structured environment. I was there five years, worked my way up and ended up managing the London property management team, responsible for overseeing the team who provided the management services to the companies’ prestige offices in Mayfair, Notting Hill, and Marylebone.

Five years in, it became clear that the opportunities for progression weren’t there, at that time and so it was time to consider next options. This led to an interview with Get Living, who had just launched the Olympic Village about 12 months prior. Get Living was the first company to introduce me to ‘Build to Rent’ – a concept which was new back in 2013. At the time.

So, I joined Get Living, and it’s fair to say that it was a massive learning curve. The company was pretty much a start-up (a well-funded start-up of course) but work still needed to be done on processes and procedures, particularly given that many employees had come from a retail or hospitality background, without the technical knowhow required for roles in lettings.  

I was one of a pool of people who brought that expertise, and within two years was head of the department. We split the Village into three and ran our own teams. That gave me real exposure to building and estate management.

Two years on I was approached by Countrywide, who had a joint venture creating a residential fund entering the Build to Rent space.  With the first two assets in the North of England, Liverpool, and Manchester, I initially joined as the Operations Manager and later promoted to Director working with PRS clients across the UK. Countrywide later merged with Hamptons International Group, and I moved over to the Hamptons business.

From there I was approached by Dandara Living in 2021, and they had launched their first building 12 months prior and were looking for a National Head of Operations.

The role involved building the operational teams from the ground up, working on new business opportunities and business management. It got to a point after a couple of years that I felt it was time to spread my wings and look for the opportunity to step up again.

I decided to explore other opportunities and ended up doing some consultancy work on a various co-living project in London with Dandi – high end residential co-living, customer and design led. I did nine months with them and then got a call from Dandara Living, which had gone through a fast-paced period of growth and change, asking would I be interested in coming back.

It came at a time when I knew the business and could take a step up in a familiar environment, and so I returned at the beginning of the year. There’s a lot going on, including new buildings in Glasgow and Bristol coming on board this year. The team is growing and I’m really enjoying it.

The thing for me is the property industry, especially BTR, is quite small so I have always been on good terms with employers. I’ve also been fortunate to have come into BTR at the right time, basically since the beginning, but it’s also about cultural fit – which is an even more important a factor than what you are being paid.

I’ve been lucky in that the people I’ve worked with, and for, have put time and effort into me and I’m still in contact with most of them because you never know when you might work with them again.

BTR seems a friendlier place than other property sectors, would you say that’s the case?

I think it is. There’s healthy competition, it’s bringing so many different parts of the industry together, it dissolves those lines between block management, residential management, lettings, and accounts. If you’ve got somebody who has experience in all those areas it makes you an all-rounder, so I always advise my team not to pigeonhole themselves, just be a sponge in the BTR environment because it will cut across many of the traditional silos.

Even 20 years in I’m learning things daily – legislation changes are constant, and that’s what has been beneficial with the ARL in that it provides that forum for information sharing. I know other colleagues from other organisations very well and we all talk.

What’s interesting when we get to chat is that everyone has similar challenges, which I find reassuring because you can get insular just operating in your organisation and worry maybe you’re not doing as well as you should. But when you talk to industry peers you find they have the same challenges, and everyone is open to talking about them and how they are overcoming them.

I enjoy helping so getting involved with the ARL means I gain from it personally, but I also feel I’m contributing to the sector and giving something back.


What’s a day in the life of Sam Smith?

After this I have a call with MRI, our software provider about a project; we’re doing a complete operational review of our CRM system. Then I will sit down with my head of leasing to review our strategy for the Glasgow scheme and then it’s a call with the senior leadership team for a couple of hours.

After that it’s a sit down with the CEO, which I do on a fortnightly basis. The days are so varied and that’s what I love.

I could get a phone call with an issue – weird and wonderful things happen with buildings – but I like the strategy side of what I’m doing now, problem solving and looking at how we can evolve the business.

What’s key is that we take our people on the journey with us. We can make decisions in the boardroom but it’s about team engagement as well. I like to get out to the sites, which I do regularly.

Changes for me in my current role include driving the financial performance over the business, and I am really enjoying working to deliver our 5 year strategy, which is about growth and expanding our operations into the third party management space.

Where is BTR heading generally? How do you navigate the tricky economic headwinds?

Covid taught us that having an agile approach is crucial. We were able to successfully navigate the challenges that the pandemic brought, and even managed to grow during that period.

Trying to plan for what could be coming up requires more of the same – quick, calculated decisions. We’re not a PLC so we can be quick with getting things done, assuming they are well thought out and there’s always a back-up plan B.

However, Covid showed that if you tried to plan for everything, you’d lose sight of what you’re trying to achieve. Paralysis by analysis perhaps, sitting round analysing but not getting things done.

Yes, the economic and cost of living climate has had an impact. Managing our investors’ expectations is important because the cost of repairs have gone up, salaries have gone up – but rents have gone up as well. It has a domino effect, and staffing has probably been our biggest challenge. We have a well-established team which is ripe for picking. We’ve won awards but with that success comes: “They’re a great team, who shall we steal?”

It is therefore incredibly important that Dandara Living remains a competitive and rewarding employer; a place that our employees enjoy working in.

What keeps you up at night?

What’s never lost on me is the responsibility we have around health and safety, especially with the changes coming in with the Building Safety Act.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s what the sector needs, especially post-Grenfell, but what frustrates me is that we still don’t have proper guidance from the government on what it is we’re supposed to do.

For me, our approach is around exhausting and doing more than what’s to be expected. We’ve partnered with a Health & Safety advisor, but even they are at a point where they are waiting for information from government.

Are we doing everything we’re meant to be doing? Are we at the forefront if we have an audit tomorrow? We’re always quick to embrace tech but it’s a fine balance between upgrading and ensuring that all existing systems can still work effectively together.

And how does that affect things in Scotland?

We’re experienced in Scotland, we have assets in Aberdeen and are about to launch Glasgow. The Building Safety Act hasn’t come into play there yet so we’re replicating everything there that we’re doing in England. This should help us stay ahead of the curve.

Rent controls could come to England, which is a hard thing for our investors to get around, but it’s a strong market and a good learning curve. It’ll be interesting to see what Labour’s stance will be.

There are issues around the fact there’s a different housing minister every other week – in one year I saw three different ones at three conferences – so that doesn’t fill you with much hope for the sector. Our main business challenge is around planning consent; if we could sort out the planning process, we would all feel much more confident.

Also, raising awareness of BTR with government; they don’t quite get it. It’s potentially one of the solutions to the housing crisis so hopefully we can improve the exposure.

The ARL helps provide that platform to engage with government. I’m chairing the London and South East Hub and we have a great panel of professionals who have viewpoints from all parts of the sector.

I’ve also sat on the committee that’s been created to address the impact on the BTR sector of the landlord Selective Licencing and it’s great to be at the forefront of what’s happening. But government needs to understand that licences at £700 – and one of our clients has 300 units in a city centre – mean that an institutional investor has a substantial six-figure sum they’ve had to factor in.

I see why they are bringing in licences for the Buy to Let landlord as the PRS sector has a reputation for poor quality housing, but it’s not needed in the institutional world.

We are encouraged to keep standards high, and we wouldn’t get the returns if we weren’t offering a good service. There needs to be more thought and not just the blanket approach.

Will sharing data help your cause here?

The problem is getting it out to see what we’ve got. We try to get out what we can but there’s still no one-stop-shop CRM system out there which could give us everything we need for reporting.

If I look at investors and the information they want, it’s more and more every year. Then there’s health and safety.

Hospitality has some amazing systems, but it hasn’t moved over to BTR. I wish I was more intelligent and able to do it because I’d be a millionaire overnight!

It will come, especially when you look at the US. I did an ARL study tour to California and that was a real eye-opener.

It’s interesting that they still have similar challenges, I looked at some of their CRM systems and they can be way ahead of ours, but they are still having problems pulling out the data.


Won’t you need a way of differentiating your high-quality products as BTR gets bigger and more players enter the market?

I see that happening quite soon, to be honest.

At Dandara Living, we benchmark ourselves as the higher end of the middle market – our demographic is the everyday renter.

Our Manchester scheme is 995 units, but you could go to another provider and see more amenities. We don’t have many amenities as such, but we have more multi-use spaces which work better for our demographic.

Our rents are at the top end of the middle market, and that’s what has been a bit of a secret to our success. We don’t see mass dips, we see consistent growth, it’s very steady and we were robust through Covid.


Tell me about your experience with the Know Your Shift podcast

I did a podcast called Know Your Shift and it asked about personal challenges. I was honest that I’ve suffered from Imposter Syndrome, basically questioning how am I doing what I’m doing at the level I’m doing it at?

It’s been more prevalent over the last couple of years when I’ve been more involved with things like public speaking, being asked my opinion – and even articles like this.

I wonder: “Are people really interested in what I have to say?”

I’m quite modest and get flattered if I get asked and think I must find something interesting to say. But I’ve found out that it’s best to be yourself, be down to earth and don’t try to be anything you’re not.

I’m a driven person, very career oriented but I just enjoy the sector. I think being honest about this stuff is humbling and reassuring. If I can show a vulnerability it humanises me.

Have you a call to action?

One of the topics on the Hub agenda has been recruitment into the sector. There’s a need to attract talent and we’re coming up with some events to raise the profile of BTR and attract young talent.

We want to show there’s a career path in BTR.

My call to action would be for all the operators to be involved when we run the event this year.