Canary Wharf Group’s CIO on the world’s biggest refurb opportunity


In the latest episode of PropCast, Andrew Teacher debates offices, labs and the revival of the Docklands great estate with John Mulqueen, Chief Investment Officer at Canary Wharf Group. Leave your cynicism at the door and be prepared to visit the Wharf with an open mind.

 

“I’ve spent the last 30 years working on some pretty significant assets, but the ability for you to influence the placemaking… to have that broader and long-term custodian approach to providing real estate for people is very rare,” says John Mulqueen, musing on why he’s taken on a very public role helping reimagine one of Britain’s, nay the world’s, most important real estate districts.

From the chat about curating occupiers, investment in greenery and building a fervent culture of shopping, dining and even go-karting, you’d be mistaken for thinking he was chatting about a Great Estate. But that’s precisely what Canary Wharf is and probably always has been. But under current CEO Shobi Khan, it seems to have found its voice with a management team that is really up to the challenge.

John Mulqueen may have been with Canary Wharf Group for less than a year, but his energy and passion for moving the Wharf forward comes across strongly. Best known previously for his time with Hammerson and most recently as Head of Offices EMEA for CBRE, he knows a thing or two about corporate challenges. But the East End is in his blood. He grew up nearby and the towers of the original development were being constructed just as he began his professional career.

Designed originally to provide offices for professional services firms dissatisfied with their City digs, today the likes of Citigroup, JP Morgan, Barclays and Morgan Stanley still call Canary Wharf home; the latter two have recently doubled down and extended their leases.  High profile departees like HSBC have rocked confidence in the district as corporates have cut staff and office space requirements, seeking smaller, newer space. Yet it’s clear that the area is under pressure to change, and Mulqueen and his team are rising to the challenge.

For Mulqueen, professional services firms will remain part of the make-up of Canary Wharf into the future. But there is recognition that the needs of occupiers have diversified. Responding to a need for greater flexibility and more of a turnkey approach to workspace, Canary Wharf Group provides MadeFor, a platform “for occupiers who want short-term offices, typically up to three years”.

Mulqueen agrees that the best-vs-rest split that is present in the wider office market is also true of Canary Wharf.  The availability rate for Canary Wharf Group’s Grade A space is 6%. Yet there is also lower quality stock that offers an opportunity for repositioning.  In Mulqueen’s view, “we have a great opportunity, having buildings which are really high quality and will take a good refurbishment and be equal to or better than many of the buildings that are specified today”.  Mulqueen attributes the overall quality of these assets to the foresight of Canary Wharf Group’s former CEO and current Chair, Sir George Iacobescu CBE and his engineering acumen.  HSBC’s soon-to-be-vacated offices are a case in point, and Mulqueen relishes the challenge of pivoting the building to mixed use.  While the final look will be subject to the outcome of architectural competitions, Mulqueen is certain that “it will not be a 100% office building”.

While there are departing occupiers, there are also high-profile arrivals. Life science companies are joining the professional services firms, as well as technology firms at incubator Level39. In the last year, Canary Wharf Group has revealed plans for a new clinical trial hub by hVIVO (formerly Open Orphan) and plans for a 23 storey, 823,000 square feet of life sciences tower with Kadans Science Partners, set for completion in 2027. Mulqueen says that Canary Wharf Group is up to the engineering challenges of completing life sciences buildings since, “we own the land, and we have a great amount of knowledge in how to construct buildings in this location”. Delivering the project should cement Canary Wharf as a life sciences hub since, in Mulqueen’s view, “We are very confident that if we provide the largest and most sophisticated life science building in Europe, then the outlook for that has to be positive”. Early proof points include Kadans Science Partners already taking on 40,000 square feet in Wood Wharf as an incubator for some of the burgeoning demand.

Kadans is one of Europe’s leading life sciences operators and it’s confident that the Wharf’s proximity to several key East London hospitals provides an excellent opportunity to fulfil needs for diagnostics and testing.

Canary Wharf has also progressed plans to transform the public space on the estate. This will create a connection point for commuters and visitors with new public spaces, biodiversity enhancements and water activations, including open water swimming. Plans for a green axis linking existing green spaces from east to west are also under consideration. For Mulqueen, the vision is “creating somewhere people want to just sit and spend some time – a much better use of the space.”

Mulqueen also stresses that Canary Wharf is also about more than commercial opportunities. Vertus, Canary Wharf Group’s build-to-rent platform, has gone from strength to strength, now totalling 3,500 apartments. He admits that the firm is potentially looking to sell stakes in some of the buildings to release cash to reinvest elsewhere – which is likely to attract serious interest from foreign capital.

Mulqueen attributes this success to the estate acquiring all the ingredients for a 15-minute city – workspace, retail, hospitality and public space – all necessary in a post-Covid world.

While many will doubtlessly retain their past perception of Canary Wharf, what’s clear is there is a growing army of younger millennials who no longer associate the place as being the sole domain of banks and accountants. Many visitors – and residents in the local rental housing – enjoy the safety, security and convenience of high-rise living and frictionless public transit. It reminds them of home and, for a growing army of City workers, tech start-ups and life sciences companies, it is just that.

 

Participants

John Mulqueen

Chief Investment Officer

Canary Wharf Group

Andrew Teacher

Senior Advisor to Montfort

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