What’s your background?
After growing up in the countryside of Devon, I headed off to Hong Kong via a few student years in Liverpool, starting out as a tennis coach.
The company I worked for had great people and a leisure arm which invested in the first mainstream fitness brand in Asia, and I was fortunate to be involved at a junior level from the outset with a team of eight starting the journey.
Growth was rapid and I grew with the company – fast forward 10 years with lots of fun and learning, and I co-founded the Pure Group in Asia after joining as an equity partner following the opening of two initial Pure yoga studios.
We built a great team and became the most successful fitness and leisure brand in Asia (that’s my opinion anyway!) with more than 20 locations and thousands of members. We learned the power of the brand we’d created in what was seen as an already well-established market.
I then founded Bricks Group while still based in Hong Kong and left Pure Group to pursue my passion with Bricks full-time, becoming based in the UK around eight years ago.
Bricks has developed a property portfolio with a value in excess of £500m, as well as establishing award-winning management platforms across the student, hotel, gym and living sectors.
The brands and teams within each vertical are what makes this fun and possible. Teamwork and an appreciation for individuals at all times is the key to long-term success. A great, positive mindset, passion and persistence are essential and that’s always a lot easier with the right people around us each day.
Every day is different and exciting to us; we love to enjoy what we do, and we’re always looking at how we can work with great people.
What’s your vision for your True Student brand?
Much of my passion comes from my experience in the health club business, an environment in which you’re genuinely working for positive change in your clients’ lives.
When we entered the student accommodation sector in 2015, most operators seemed to view their guests as a commodity, engagement with them was seen as transactional rather than transformational and we knew we could make a significant difference in a large market that we believed was being poorly served.
As parents, we collectively have good insight into this opinionated and well-informed student demographic and we knew that building the brand before the business was critical to success. The True brand vision is that it’s not what we do, but how we make our guests feel; that to fully experience life as a student, you must experience ‘True’, and it’s this principle that has allowed us to disrupt the market while becoming one of the leading student accommodation brands in the UK.
Tell us about True’s focus on wellness
Many of our team members come from the leisure and hospitality sectors, so they know how to put our guests at the heart of the experience and deliver it through our True Life platform, with the wellbeing of our students at the heart of everything we do.
We haven’t just ticked the box for our gym, rather we’ve purposely designed our training spaces for the student sector, with leading brands such as Escape and Technogym, who share our passion for wellness and providing students with world-class facilities.
As part of the True Life experience we provide personal training, nutrition talks, classes and seminars – anything fitness-related that provides that educational service.
In addition to physical wellbeing, student mental health has always been important, but now even more so, which is why we’re the only student accommodation provider to have an in-house professional advisor.
Dominique Thompson, an award-winning and widely-published student mental health expert, with more than 20 years’ clinical experience caring for students, develops our unique strategies to identify concerns and provide direction, care and support to both our students and our staff.
Will you add more wellness elements?
We’re tirelessly working to stay up to date with trends and believe what we currently have is a comprehensive package. However, we’re always listening, looking and learning – trying to find new services to offer our student guests and are looking to talk to people who have interesting ideas.
The bigger picture for us is to look beyond our own business and champion wellness for the whole student sector, encouraging the industry and partners to come together, to have a collective mindset when it comes to innovative products, services and experiences; we believe this is the best way of supporting students in the longer term.
What’s the commercial rationale behind the wellness integration?
It was less of a commercial decision and more of an essential component – it was a must-have of the brand.
True provides the very best experience for our student guests and by making this a core part of the True Life experience, we translate this into commercial gain by way of higher occupancy and rates. To be the leading brand for students is a commercial objective and wellness is an essential part of this.
How is True different from other student offerings?
Importantly, our number one focus is not just on being different.
Recognising we’re in the ‘hospitality’ sector, and relentlessly focusing on guest experience has enabled True to establish itself as a premium brand in a fairly vanilla marketplace.
It’s apparent from our winning the 2018 Property Week “Best Student Halls of Residence in the UK” award – for a development in Glasgow’s West End – that we bring something exceptional to the marketplace. Subsequent awards for guest experience and staff commitment demonstrate this further.
We’re proud to be leading the student accommodation sector in areas such as quality of accommodation, guest experience, investment in wellbeing and specifically, student mental health support.
The True brand is as important internally as it is for our guests and gives our teams a strong sense of purpose.
Ultimately, we want our guests to have a fun and rewarding experience while they’re with True and we wish them well going forward.
How many True developments are you planning?
True is an integral part of the Bricks Group, and the group’s development division has delivered around 2,700 beds so far, with another 1,000+ in the pipeline on secured sites.
In addition to managing the group’s student assets, True has now launched its own ‘asset-light’ platform and manages developments for third party owners and developers.
We’ve just secured a 1,000-bed development in Liverpool, where the brand will provide the award-winning experience to student guests, as well as full asset management, development management and operational management.
We’re targeting an additional 30,000 beds over the next five years, through a mix of the group’s own developments and third party projects.
What generational changes do you expect to see in student populations over the next 10 years?
We’re always conscious of striking the right balance between focusing on the here and now and looking at the future. Trends come and go, but there are big themes that remain consistent; the clear and well-established link between great wellbeing – both physical and psychological – and great academic performance, the need to support students with a ‘home away from home’ feeling and helping students to feel connected, while recognising and respecting that they’re all individuals.
Our goal is always to ensure students are the most supported people in our business, it’s why wellness for us is not just about looking fit, it’s a whole spectrum. It’s about feeling the best you’ve ever felt in mind and body and it comes back to the True brand mantra: “It’s not just what we do, it’s how we make you feel”. It’s this that we see standing the test of time today and over the next 10 years and beyond.
Within that period, there will certainly be lots of processes and technologies that will influence all generations. Our challenge as a business is bringing them down to a human level so we preserve that human connection and feeling that we uniquely provide to our students.
How are your developments funded?
Bricks Group is a 100 per cent privately-owned business and to date we’ve invested more than £200m in the True developments themselves, together with several millions of pounds in creating the brand and platform and assembling our brilliant management team.
How has the pandemic changed your plans and direction?
Hardly at all! We recognise and have experienced the obvious challenges in these unfortunate times. This year every student operator and hospitality owner is experiencing what we hope to be short-term challenges, but we welcome rising to these.
In fact, we’re in the process of securing two new additional development sites and will continue our expansion as planned. We still recognise the long-term appeal of the sector and the need to provide students with world-class living facilities during their time at university.
Is True competing with local gyms by taking the £20/month they would allocate to a gym membership into their rent for True?
This isn’t intended to take away market share or disadvantage local businesses, but is aimed squarely at our student guests being able to take advantage of the convenience, choice, privacy and cost-saving benefits of having a gym as part of our True Life experience.
I’m in no doubt that we have student guests that also have memberships at other gyms, and part of the wider Bricks Group strategy being discussed is the launch of a stand-alone fitness brand in the UK.
Which is most profitable – student accommodation, hotel or co-living space and how do these relate to each other in the portfolio?
We don’t just look at the individual assets alone, but in operating across all three sectors; we identify where the needs are and develop growth plans from there. We operate a particularly buoyant business, but what is more profitable today, is not always more profitable tomorrow.
The skill is in anticipating the trends. For example, if you look at the student sector over the last 3-5 years, we see record growth in asset transactions of more than £5bn last year and we only see the sector growing further and faster, and in particular, with great brands.
What’s the longer-term plan?
We’re expanding the True brand services to include asset management, development management and operational management to third party developers and owners, and we’re looking to scale it across the UK as well as overseas. We are soon to launch Thrive, which will be a class-leading co-living platform and we’ll continue our growth by developing world-class branded hotels.
We love to explore anything that has a roof and offers an exceptional experience, so we’re exploring various other sectors that include ‘built-to-rent’ and a new gym chain, as well as any other ideas that people may have. We are always on the look-out for opportunities where we can add value with like-minded, creative and authentic partners.
Tell us about the Bricks team
We never forget that at the heart of our business is the people with whom we work and the relationships we form, both within the company and outside of our teams. We work very hard to nurture these and we’ve got a great team at Bricks Group that makes all of this happen, dedicated to creating amazing guest experiences and sector-leading brands.