Peter Grant enjoys the slopes around his home in Utah (main pic: Utah.com)
Interview: Peter Grant, property entrepreneur
Like most of us, Peter Grant is running his business from his home office, connecting with colleagues and clients around the world through the virtual meeting place that is Zoom. Few of us, though, have the opportunity to take a break to enjoy some of the world’s best ski slopes just a 20-minute drive away.
The former Scottish newspaper executive was raised around Aviemore where he developed a lifelong passion for the sport, so his decision to relocate to Park City in Utah six years ago was more a case of taking on a bigger, rather than an entirely new adventure.
His career in newspaper sales was similarly chair-lifted to ever-increasing heights before hitting a sudden downward descent following the arrival of new management at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail.
“I was paid a lot of money to leave when Liam Kane took over and brought in a new team. Let’s say I was invited to relocate,” he says, able to laugh at what was a big blow at the time, but he now sees as “just the way things work”.
He adds: “I was very settled and doing a good job, so I was devastated when I was told to leave. But it gave me an opportunity and a necessity to start my own business.”
These past 25 years he’s been running a company renovating and selling property to clients and managing tenants, usually students, on their behalf. It’s all in the UK and centres on buying traditional housing stock in university cities. During these pandemic times, the miracle of technology means neither he, nor the client, has to be anywhere near the property as all viewing and the transaction can be undertaken virtually.
“Investors used to fly over to view the properties. Now we use 360 degree virtual tours.” he says, adding that he does not see a return to how the business operated pre-pandemic.
He has about 2,000 properties under management for mainly ex-patriate clients in 40 countries and, after buying out his ex-wife Colette’s share, has rebranded the company from Grant Property to Sandstone, which was set up last year as a vehicle to handle all aspects of portfolio creation and asset management.
The firm works closely with Deloitte, Grant Thornton and boutique Scottish legal practice Dickson Minto to provide tailored, tax-efficient structuring for larger private clients around the world, typically investing an initial £10 million to start building a portfolio.
Sandstone (“it describes the sort of buildings we acquire”) will also be the foundation for the forthcoming Sandstone REIT, to provide clients with the opportunity to move assets into a listed fund and benefit from capital gains, corporation tax efficiency as well diversification and liquidity.
“It will launch in the middle of the year. We have a five year plan for the business and my vision is to float it,” he says.
Grant has also expanded into family offices, vehicles for managing family wealth and organising succession plans that are popular with entrepreneurs and other high net worth people. Many wealthy clients and family offices in Asia are sitting on pots of cash and seeking diversified opportunities which Grant’s business is geared up to provide.
The firm has outperformed many other asset classes. “We have achieved consistent returns of above 28% per annum for approaching 25 years,” he says. “History shows us that residential property in the UK doesn’t tend to fall, and if it does, it recovers and moves to new highs within a relatively short period of time.”
Rents have been raised by an average 12% for the last three consecutive years, which he describes as “phenomenal”. He quotes a Dubai-based investor who first bought into the concept through Grant Property in 2016 and today holds 25 properties in a portfolio that has achieved a total 26.8% annual rise based on income and capital uplift. An investor based in the US, who first bought property in 1997, now has 17 that have achieved a 38% annual return.
The student accommodation market has proved highly resilient, even through the pandemic with occupancy in the portfolio above 94%, and rents up by 12% during 2020.
Grant got into the business as a result of buying cheap property each time he relocated his work and then selling on at a profit. At the time he also had a Mirror Group Newspapers pension and the Maxwell scandal was about to break revealing how the owner of the papers had been raiding the scheme.
“I was conscious of paying into a pension fund that was bust. So I bought my first property wondering what was happening to the Mirror pension,” he says. “I just thought, let’s give this a go and I went from being a director of a big company to running a business from my kitchen table. It was quite a reality check.”
‘I sat next to Bill Clinton at a fund-raising dinner. That was a really good day’
It was also a wise and timely move. He began buying in Edinburgh and and then Glasgow, Stirling, Dundee before venturing south of the border.
But the work began to take over and he sought solace in the States. “It was meant to be a temporary move to sort out my work-life balance,” he says. “I am one of those people who just doesn’t switch off.
“I came out to the States to ski for a year and I was soon back as CEO and chairman of the company. Over the last year to 18 months I’ve restructured the finance to make it more robust.”
One other passion he’s developed over the years is a desire to see all his properties meet standards on green energy emissions, a goal set after seeing former US president Bill Clinton deliver a talk almost 20 years ago in Glasgow in which he highlighted the impact that property has on the environment.
Grant launched a charity called Global Trees which later caught Clinton’s attention. “His talk was the inspiration for setting up Global Trees and later his people got in touch, inviting me to meet him in New York. I sat next to him at a fund-raising dinner. That was a really good day.”
But it was not just the chance to swap anecdotes with one of the world’s most powerful men, says Grant. “The most profound thing he said to me was that the way you make a difference is the inspiration you pass on to others.”
He’s taken the message into his business. “We will become carbon positive. Switching our properties to green gas and moving all company cars to electric,” he says. “By the end of the year it will all be in place.”
He has already switched his own car to a Tesla.
“Doing the right thing yourself is one way to inspire other people,” he says.
Occupation: Chairman and CEO of Sandstone
Birthplace: Haddington, East Lothian
Education: Robert Gordon University (Business Studies); Edinburgh University Business School (MBA)
Career highlights: DC Thomson, Scotsman Publications (part of team that launched Scotland on Sunday), John Menzies, Mirror Group Newspapers; Grant Property
What did you want to be when you were young?
A helicopter pilot. I saw a lot of rescues in Aviemore. I applied to the RAF, but it never happened. I also applied to Edinburgh University to do physics. It really wasn’t my thing.
Who has inspired you, apart from Bill Clinton?
The two Toms, Hunter and Farmer. I was a member of the Entrepreneurial Exchange and those guys were the ones I listened to. They are my go-to role models.
What annoys you?
Guns! The US has lots of guns. I live in the wild west so you have always got to be on your best behaviour.
How do you shape your day?
I start work at 6am to catch a window of time in Asia and then work through, but try to make sure I get a couple of hours to ski most days.
Choose three people, dead or alive, who would make perfect dinner party guests
Bill Clinton, for reasons stated above
Mahatma Gandhi, I would love to have a conversation with him
Elvis Presley, I remember the day he died more than of anyone else
… if I could sneak in a fourth, it would be Princess Diana. I’d love to know the truth about what was said in that car.