The man from auntie in charge of a new trading division

Raymond Snoddy meets the executive responsible for the BBC’s property portfolio

Chris Kane has had three different titles during his nine years in charge of BBC property – head of Corporate Real Estate, head of BBC Workspace and now, chief executive of BBC Commercial Holdings.

In an organisation famous for bestowing silly titles, the changes on Chris’s business cards have actually coincided with three fundamental phases in the BBC’s management of more than 500 buildings across 616,000 square metres of space throughout the UK.

The task he was set was to turn property from being a commodity into “a strategic asset” for the BBC.

First he had to begin the consolidation of buildings and had to cope with the fact that only 2 per cent of the BBC’s real estate was judged to be fit for purpose – less than 15 years old.

Then there was his responsibility for the “development, financing and implementation of the BBC’s £2-billion property strategy, and for managing the team that provides the right workplace for the most creative organisation in the world”.

The £2 billion has produced the BBC’s new Scottish headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow and the more controversial moves to Salford as well as the £1.1-billion New Broadcasting House development in central London.

The task he was set was to turn property from being a commodity into ‘a strategic asset’ for the BBC

Finally Chris, a genial Irishman from County Kildare, has the task of ensuring that a strong BBC legacy – and stream of revenue – results from the sale of the much-loved BBC Television Centre to Stanhope for £200 million.

Although having qualifications in surveying and asset management, the BBC executive insists he is neither a conventional surveyor nor asset manager.

“The British property industry is pretty skewed to the supply side because historically it has all been down to location, location, location and, if you can’t make money out of property in the UK, you are not a great operator,” says the 53 year old, who once played rugby for London Irish.

Chris was advising major corporate clients, such as GlaxoSmithKlein, Nestlé and Microsoft, before moving over to the client side, first with Disney and then the BBC.

The property world, he believes, is hopelessly fragmented between asset and transaction management, design and construction management and facility management.

“They are three different streams divided by three different tribes. If you are a facility manager, you are regarded as bottom of the pile compared with the pinstripe-suited chartered surveying world, and then into design and construction management design,” he explains.

There is not only strife between the tribes, but also with the plethora of advisers from quantity surveys to engineers.

Chris, at an organisation such as the BBC with public purposes, such as transparency to licence fee payers and encouraging urban regeneration with its buildings, stands in the middle.

“I see my role as instigator, integrator and interpreter,” he says, repeating the words that define his Twitter profile.

It adds up to interpreting between the various tribes, who often speak their own internal languages, integrating the various disciplines and making things happen.

The world, he believes, has changed more than the buildings, which have yet to adapt fully to the digital and knowledge revolution. A building-centric world has to move to a people-centric approach reflecting the fact many people work in an office, at home and often in a third place.

As a result of Chris’s approach, the BBC will have reduced its real estate footprint by 40 per cent by 2017 and 60 per cent of it will have been modernised with annual savings in property expenditure of £47 million a year by 2016-17.

As for Salford, Chris believes the controversy, driven by short-term considerations of moving costs, will give way to an appreciation that a “Pinewood of the North” has been created uniting the BBC, ITV, independent producers and Salford University in a new Media City.

He is particularly proud of what has been achieved at New Broadcasting House where BBC journalism has been brought together with the World Service.

“All you have to do is walk around it today to feel the buzz,” he says. He points out that the case for the defence, on the delayed and initially troubled £1.1 billion project, includes the £736 million of BBC property released as a result.

His remaining tasks include delivering vacant possession of Television Centre to Stanhope in March 2015 to trigger the last tranche of the purchase price, modernising the three main BBC studios and creating a new home for BBC Worldwide, the corporation’s commercial arm.

In the process, Chris market-tested a conventional sale, which would have produced most cash, against “a smart-value sale” which will not just retain major studios for BBC use, but will also produce revenues from planned media-experience ventures.

The hope is to maximise the value of the BBC brand just round the corner from the Westfield shopping centre with its millions of visitors.

While the public service consolidates in its spiritual home in Portland Place, the commercial activities will be concentrated in Television Centre, though the listed centre will no longer be in BBC ownership.

“We’ll have the ability to shape the future and, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not closing for good, it’s just an intermission,” explains Chris, who plans a portfolio existence in future. He has already been appointed a non-executive director of NHS Property Services where there might be scope for more of a strategic asset approach.

But what is he going to do about the infestation of mice at New Broadcasting House? “Not my problem anymore,” he says, after a pause for thought.