British Land FD Lucinda Bell on constructing a future
Lucinda Bell, group finance director of FTSE 100 company British Land
As one of the few female finance chiefs among Britain’s top public companies the inevitable question of why there aren’t more women in executive positions is often asked of Lucinda Bell, chief financial officer of FTSE 100 company British Land.
She has clearly learned to rise above such clichéd questions with the response: “I’m quite gender-blind”, which is probably for the best given that she works in the mostly male-dominated construction industry.
Bell is however an even rarer kind of finance chief because she, unlike most CFOs in the FTSE 100, has worked her way up the ranks of British Land since joining the company in 1991. She had held a wide range of roles in finance, including the roles of director of tax and financial planning, before replacing Graham Roberts as group finance director in May 2011.
As well as being singled out as a female finance chief in a male-dominated industry, Bell has also had to contend with claims of nepotism. British Land has, in the past, been criticised for being run like a private business with family relations working as long-standing company advisers before later joining the company. Bell, whose father was former British Land director John Weston Smith, had herself previously worked at company auditors Binder Hamlyn (which was later bought by Andersen).
Whether or not Bell joined the company because of family connections is now a moot point, because she has more than earned her spurs during her first year as group FD, proving to the City that she is more than capable of filling her predecessor’s boots.
Last year she raised £2 billion – the largest amount raised by any real estate investment trust (REIT) in 2011. This compares to just £0.5 billion raised over the previous two years. Moreover she secured an average cost of debt of 4.6 percent, offering the property company a major “competitive advantage” in an uncertain economy.
The financing was raised through a variety of sources in a bid to spread the refinancing risk: such caution and the balancing of risk is perhaps another trait you could arguably attribute to women, but again she disputes any gender link, positive or otherwise.
Some of the financing was with banks – secured and unsecured – but perhaps more challenging given the constrained debt markets, Bell raised around $500 million in the US private placement market in her first foray there.
Last year she went to the US to do a private placement with the intention of raising about $200 million. She ended up taking over $480 million with an average life over 11.2 years and cost of funding under 1.5 percent over Libor, the inter-bank lending rate now engulfed in a transatlantic scandal. She says the attraction for US investors was that real estate is a long-term business.
From a CFO’s point of view what is attractive about the US private placement market is that if investors want to invest for different periods, they can each bid on what suits them and then the CFO can effectively pick and choose which bits to take, or as Bell says, “you can choose your sweet spots”.
“One of the trends in real estate finance is that some of the insurers are coming into the market. Our most recent financing had a US insurer coming in alongside a UK bank and that’s a trend you’ll see more of,” she says.
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