The Jennings family has built a rather unique reputation for itself in the property management industry. Mike Jennings and his father began converting properties for business use in the 1980s, and as Mike says: “We’re a bit different to your average landlord. We like to think that we’re not just a property company, we’re a people company.”
The Jennings ethos is to put their tenants first. “While our financial investment is in the property, our human, or emotional investment is in our relationship with the tenants,” explained Mike.
The family’s commitment to responsible business grew from humble beginnings when Mike’s grandfather started poultry farming 80 years ago.
Mike remembers his grandfather upholding the importance of respect, honesty, fairness and trust. These strong personal values were passed on to his two sons and in turn his six grandchildren, including Mike.
For the last 30 years Mike has focused on maintaining these values, which form the basis of the success for his Oxford based property company, Jennings of Chalgrove & Garsingston. Today the company has 140 tenants, mostly small and medium sized, owner-managed businesses renting workshops, retail and business units, warehouses, serviced offices and meeting rooms.
Mike realises that being a ‘people company’ is not just about keeping his tenants happy, but also his 13 members of staff and everyone involved in the business. “Our aim is to serve people by behaving properly. By people we mean our suppliers, our team, and the local community from whom we derive future customers,” he explained.
The staff play a key role in this aim. “We set our values some years ago, and we communicate them. Our team have all been appointed for their attitude, and for their common values.
“My team are all lovely people. I only take on lovely people. I don’t take on people that have experience in the property industry as they’ve been tainted by the belief that the property is the value in the business and actually the value is the people.”
Like-minded workers reap many benefits of being part of this team. One of which is the opportunity to spend half a day per month working out in the community on a project of their choice. The satisfaction and enjoyment that this brings has a positive impact on individual members of staff and the office as a whole.
“We are confident that they will all take lessons from their community work which they can bring back to the team,” says Mike. “Does this make sense commercially? We are not sure, but I think we will have a happier, more committed team, who are more likely to work together in collaboration. How do you put a value on that?”
Adding a bit of fun to the usual working day also makes for a happy team. The company website features members of the Oxford office joining the latest video dance craze, the Harlem Shake, and this year’s Comic Relief event was marked with a “Where’s Wally” fancy dress day, with staff swapping roles – including Chairman Mike who took up position at the reception desk while the receptionist took care of business in the boardroom!
Jennings also recognises the importance of minimising its impact on the environment and strives to do its bit with the introduction of simple and very achievable targets such as using light sensors in all its offices and eco-friendly products in all of its new buildings. A recycling scheme also helps minimise waste.
Jennings has over many years experimented with many environmentally sound building techniques including Hemp buildings. More importantly every member of the team puts being 'green' at the forefront, and so they have developed a park-wide recycling scheme supported by the County Council, and using a local charity to do the collections.
Sustainable Urban Drainage
On a larger scale Jennings has set up an Sustainable Urban Drainage system on its main Chalgrove site, which provides a haven for plants and wildlife, a beautiful natural environment for the 85 businesses occupying it and reduces the potential water drainage and environmental impact of the development.
“It’s a way of alleviating flood,” explains Mike. Surface water is collected in ponds and lakes rather than in to ditches or drains, which is a fast route into rivers and can result in flooding.
“If there’s a lot of rainwater the level will go to about two metres deep and when there’s no rain water falling, slowly the water level dissipates into the ground, improving the water reservoir in the ground and the soil. We’ve always got at least one meter of depth in the water because there’s fish and plants in there,” he adds.
The system brings huge benefits to the 600 people who work on the site and the natural environment. “We’ve got three times as much area of lawns around the lake, we’ve also got a marsh area attached to the lake, which is designed specifically for reeds, marsh plants and wildlife. The land around it is kept mowed and we’ve planted groups of trees, including fruit trees, to give shade so that tenants can come out and have their lunch there or enjoy a walk.”
But as Mike points out, it’s not just the natural environment that makes this an appealing prospect for tenants. Creating a pleasant environment also relates to the way Jennings deals with people, with their tenants, their staff and the people who work and live in the surrounding areas.
Being part of the local community is vital to Jennings’ ongoing success says Mike. “We’re a family run business who have been in South Oxfordshire for over 80 years. Without respect and appreciation of the people around us we probably wouldn’t still be here!”
As well as encouraging staff members to select their own monthly community project, the company also organises a range of events (42 last year) and activities for local residents and business to enjoy. “It can be simple things like asking local school children to come and sing carols to our tenants at Christmas. Other times it can be more involved, like organising an area-wide new business competition.
Jennings also set up the Homeworkers Hub and Café. Realising that up to 50 percent of small business in the south England are run from home, Jennings launched the café to provide social and business benefits to these workers.Homeworkers are invited to call in, connect to free high-speed Wi-Fi and chat with like-minded people. This not only helps them escape the isolation of working from home but also offers the advantage of being able to share their ideas and best practices.
Charities also benefit from Jennings’ community events. The team has raised funds with coffee mornings, abseiling and Dragon Boat Racing and even launched a Virtual Sports Club. Jennings also set up the Monument Community Trust to offer mentoring and support to local charities and to help administer donations raised, while Community on the Park events encourage tenants to trade with each other and buy locally.
Jennings is also the main sponsor of the Oxford Business Mentors scheme – a unique mentoring service set up by Mike. Its 28 mentors, who are all current business owners in Oxfordshire, offer their empathy, time and experience free of charge as a way of giving back to their community. Nearly 300 business in Oxfordshire have been seen so far.
Traditionally, the main focus of the property industry has been on the building, with landlords expecting a return on their financial investment. This is where Jennings breaks the mould. Tenants are not bound by long conventional legal contracts. In fact, Jennings refuses to use agents or solicitors. “We make it very easy for our tenants to leave,” says Mike. “We aim to give away the natural power and control that landlords traditionally have over tenants.” This simplicity and flexibility allows tenants to concentrate on getting on with their business and making it a success.
“Not only do we invest a lot of time and energy looking after our properties, we do the same for the people and businesses that occupy them,” explains Mike. “It’s all about people. You get that right and your reputation builds. And you become an attractive party in the region and people want to come and have their business on our park because it’s not just about being looked after but they know that it feels right.
“Our tenants trust us, therefore the relationship is one of extreme ease. If you treat people properly you attract the right kind of people, and that is the focus of our marketing. We want tenants to leave happy. Every tenant that leaves happy is a potential marketing opportunity. Our ethos is spreading,” he adds.
People who have been with us don’t want to leave. There’s no push factor. Sometimes people have to leave for all sorts of reasons but they don’t want to.
One of our values is ‘Openness & Honesty - for the sake of removing the anxieties and fears associated with renting premises’. Many of our new tenants are taking on premises for the first time, and are anxious about the commitment to a long lease, and dilapidation clauses. We take the worries away.”
Ethics, Values & Transparency
The company’s core values are applied to everyone it deals with; tenants, suppliers, contractors, networking contacts, associates, partners and professionals.
Jennings is committed to building real relationships based on trust. Integrity and honesty have become the basis of the business, which in today’s climate is a refreshing approach. The lack of conventional leases, solicitors and agents is just one example of how Jennings’ constantly strives to reduce unnecessary red tape and uncertainty, making the whole process far more transparent for all involved.
All of the team shares the company’s positive attitude and core values and are themselves valued as part of the decision making process in the business.
Property investment is commercially difficult at the moment, following over ten years a 250% rise in building costs with no increase in rents at all. Jennings are looking now at ways they can enhance their offering to existing tenants, and at the same time leading the way by communicating their experience with the new culture of running a business.
The future will include production of green energy to sell to existing tenants, on-site broadband delivery, financial packages to support local businesses where members of the team can be involved, and authentic entrepreneur education, provided by entrepreneurs, not academics.
Mike says: “in a world where so many people fear change, we just love working with entrepreneurs who tend to embrace change, and are usually excited by the opportunities opened up by change”