Little lady who hacks away retail rents

Copyright: David Lawson – appeared Property Week April 1998

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One leading retailer recently threatened to set his pet rotweiller on a landlord during a rent review. Sniggers all round. They both knew  there was no slavering hound  waiting in the back room -  just a sweet little grey-haired lady.

 But a flicker of fear will have gripped the landlord's agents when he passed on the message. Marie Busfield tends to have that affect on the most hardened negotiators.

 'I'm sure she does not cultivate the granny image,' says one who has negotiated across the table more than once. 'She really is a nice lady. But the first time around you get taken in. Then - Wham! She hits you with  a barrage of evidence about why you are talking through your hat.'

  Retailers love the results: a string of victories keeping down rent  increases following a near-hysterical growth over the last couple of years. But  Marie, head of out-of-town retail at Allsop & Co, dismisses the image of the 'tenant's champion'.

  'We also have landlords as clients,' she says. 'You have to keep a balanced view. But just because you represent an occupier does not mean you should not know what is really going on in the market.'

  That can be  enough to deflate the most optimistic landlord. Many have been carried away by  the frenetic growth seen on retail parks without realising this may not apply to their property, she says. 'There is a lot of hype around about open A1 planning consents. It makes landlords steam in with high rent demands matching places like Fosse Park. But rents are set by demand. A lot of schemes will not be this successful. Some of the older space should even be considered as industrial because it has been superseded by newer parks.'

  This steely analysis is not what landlords want to hear, particularly from what appears to be a maiden aunt who would spoil her young favourites rotten.

 A wider audience will  soon feel the weight of her determined objectivity as she has been studying for formal qualifications as    an arbitrator. And true to her forthright approach, she is likely to ruffle feathers by stating that all arbitrators should have such training rather than being picked out by seniority.

  Not that Marie needs more letters after her name.  The MA(Cantab), Dip Arb, FRICS, FCIArb (and possibly FSVA soon) inspired one colleague to joke that they will start running around the back of  her business card soon.

  'Not bad for a dim 11-plus failure,' she muses. Nor, indeed,  for a woman who did not get into higher education - let alone the property industry - until she was a thirtysomething mother of two. The unusual path to the top reveals much about her tenacity and power  as a forceful negotiator.

 It all started with that failed 11-plus. This  did not prevent her picking up O-levels and an accountancy A-level, but she spent only a year in the Sixth form and a short stint as a civil servant.  'I hated it and escaped by joining up  as a WAAF,' she says. She didn't wait for officer training but joined the ranks in  Singapore - where she had spent her early school years.

  After marriage and children she found herself back at home again - and once more in the civil service. 'I decided I needed a university degree,' says Marie. But how to do that and  fit in  a husband and two children?

  Most people  might have opted  for evening classes or the Open University: not this determined lady. 'It had to be local to where we were living in east Anglia, and my husband suggested Cambridge.'

  She got in, of course. 'I turned up on the doorstep of St Edmund's.' Any one else would have been sent packing: Marie ended up having tea with the Master.  His quota was full so she was guided to Lucy Cavendish College.

  Fate struck again  when she met the head of land economy studies at the freshers' reception. Thoughts of accountancy turned to surveying, despite reports that it was ' a man's world'. Or perhaps it was  because of this, considering Marie's steely determination. She purposely chose the right papers in a BA honours degree for RICS exemption and graduated in 1983, aged 37, taking her MA three years later.

  'The careers adviser said I would never get a job with a husband and two children in tow. And for the same reason I would not get on  because I could not go to London,' she says.  After 28 job rejections  from local firms  she joined Rapleys. Tenants were an immediate  speciality - another shrewd move, as this included  names like Waring & Gillow, taking  her into the big time.

  After 12 years and and winning a partnership,  she was ready to go for even bigger times. The rotweiller image had attracted enough attention to be head-hunted by Allsop in 1995. Within a year she was a partner and last December took over from Martyn Elkington - her headhunter - as department head.

  Many clients, quite naturally, followed their little champion, as she continued to fight their cause against over-ambitious landlords. And there seems to be little sign of a truce.

  This battle is not full of fire and fury. 'I'm not one for banging the table,' says Marie. She is content to rely on market logic that often runs counter to headlines about record rents and explosive growth.

  For instance, many smaller property companies do not realise that their sites are not good enough to qualify for this lucrative  market.  Even more painfully, some need persuading that many  early developments have been overtaken by better locations and specifications. 'We have been involved in selling old Texas stores and realise that some would be better considered as industrial space,' she says.

  Large buildings with sub-letting restrictions are also a special case which deserve bigger discounts on review because they are no longer as attractive to tenants looking for smaller units. 'Five years ago this may have been 50p a sq ft. Today it is up to 4 pounds,' says Marie.

  While restricted from giving details, she says  she  prevented any uplift on one recent rent review because of these factors. One more savaging by  the little rotweiller. It certainly  won't be the last.