Photography by Richard Dawson
Sophie van Oosterom does not like photo shoots. “That was awful,” she tells PERE with typical candor after being photographed for this cover story. But do not be misled by her dislike of flashing bulbs. Van Oosterom is no shrinking violet.
Indeed, after a year and a half under her leadership, the global real estate platform of UK asset manager Schroders Capital is markedly different from the one van Oosterom inherited from former property chief Duncan Owen in January 2021.
“With her arrival at Schroders, the firm has become more visible than it has been before,” observes Robert-Jan Foortse, head of European property investments at Dutch pension fund manager APG Asset Management.
“I had not heard much of Schroders before she landed. They were not on my radar screen. She is putting more emphasis on getting Schroders into the spotlight and getting more attention for the franchise.”
Kevin Etchells, senior investment manager at Greater Manchester Pension Fund, which selected Schroders to manage a £700 million ($881 million; €823 million) UK diversified real estate portfolio in November 2021, agrees. “Sophie has definitely developed a culture of boldness and ambition, based on the investments in the business, recruitment and acquisitions since she arrived,” he says. “She’s trying to do things in-house and retain knowledge of specialist sectors in-house.”
Notably, van Oosterom has bolstered the firm’s senior real estate bench through a series of hires that highlight key areas of focus for Schroders’s real estate team. These include Natalie Howard as head of real estate debt, James MacNamara as head of operational real estate strategies, Iris Aalders as head of real estate client and product management,
Kieran Farrelly as head of global solutions for real estate, Andrew Haskins as head of strategy and investor advisory of Asia-Pacific real estate and Rebecca Gates as head of UK asset management. All of these roles were newly created.
Van Oosterom’s career highlights
1995 Graduated from the University of Amsterdam
1996-98 Worked as an analyst in M&A advisory at ING Barings, her first professional role
1998-2000 worked as an associate in M&A advisory at JPMorgan Chase
2000-02 Was a co-founder and CFO of M2Match, an online commercial real estate leasing platform
2002-13 Was managing director at Lehman Brothers Real Estate Private Equity. Promoted to European head of asset management in 2009. GP later renamed Silverpeak Real Estate Partners
2013-20 Joined CBRE Global Investors (now CBRE Investment Management) as head of special programs EMEA. Promoted to EMEA chief investment officer in 2015 and elevated to CEO and CIO of EMEA in 2018
Van Oosterom also expanded the real estate team with the acquisition of Dutch manager Cairn Real Estate, with €1.3 billion of assets under management and a 26-strong team led by two of her former Lehman Brothers colleagues, Pieter Akkerman and Maarten Briët, as well as ex-PwC executive Sven van Loon.
According to company growth projections, Schroders’ real estate business, which had £20.2 billion in AUM as of March 31, is expected to reach £32 billion in AUM by 2025. Three anticipated drivers of that growth will be strategies that Schroders did not have just two years ago: solutions, or customized portfolios; debt; and impact.
Schroders has kicked off fundraising initiatives around these strategies. The manager announced in March a £1 billion fundraising target over the next 12 months for its real estate debt platform. It is also launching a diversified UK-focused impact fund this summer, with an eye on expanding the social impact strategy to continental Europe later in the year.
Further fueling Schroders’ real estate expansion will be a major fundraising milestone: the launch of the firm’s first global private real estate strategy, which will have allocations to all three geographical regions and raise capital from both private and institutional investors, in the third quarter of 2022. “That’s hopefully going to be our pièce de résistance,” van Oosterom says.
Connecting the dots
This pivotal moment for Schroders’ real estate business has been many months in the making. Indeed, positioning the platform for global growth is something van Oosterom has worked on from the start.
Hired by Georg Wunderlin, Schroders Capital’s global head of private assets, van Oosterom recalls sitting in on her first strategy meeting with the firm’s real estate global management team. “I saw all super engaged and smart people in the room, but they didn’t necessarily know each other as well as I would have expected,” she recounts. “I thought it was reflective of how the business was run – every individual team was running their own business in their own way.”
Schroder’s real estate business consequently lacked a strong narrative. “To me, at least on the outside, I felt Schroders Capital’s real estate business had a fantastic brand,” she says. “But at the same time, it was little known in the market and there was seemingly little presence as a group. I saw some deals, but I didn’t see a story about what it was about.”
In van Oosterom’s view, however, it was a problem that was solvable: “We needed to see more sharing of expertise, of knowledge, of client interaction, etc. So that, to me, was the logical missing piece.”
“We believe that the market is moving toward more purposeful investing”
The solution was to “find the connecting dots” to create a unified platform that still allowed for autonomy for the individual teams. “To do that, you need to build the umbrella over the top that says, we have a shared language that we use, we have a shared way of looking at risk and return that we use, we try and share the operational excellence as much as we can, to the extent that’s relevant for the sector and the asset class,” she explains. “But then everybody keeps doing their own thing in their own market competitively.”
Building the umbrella called for hiring new executives to bridge the different teams. To provide more consistent client services across geographies, van Oosterom brought in Aalders, previously the global executive director of client care in Asia and continental Europe from CBRE, to lead a newly formed client management team in September. “When you expand the offering of services to clients within the group, the clients will get the same experience across,” she notes.
Van Oosterom also homed in on a key common strength across the entire real estate team. “What really stands out with our team is a specific operational excellence in every single market,” she observes. “Every team had found a way to stand out in their own markets, by specific tenant management, by really thinking through what are the long-term trends, what tenants are looking for and being slightly ahead of the market in engagement with tenants on ESG. We call that managing every building as if it’s a business by itself.”
The challenge was finding the person that could focus on driving operational excellence across the platform, she says: “We were looking for someone who engages with operating partners and knows how to figure out new strategies and execute them, together with someone that has more of a CIO profile. And so I went for first interviewing the CIO type, and then interviewing some of the operating partner types and trying to match that into one person.”
Referencing a popular Dutch expression, she adds: “I was looking for the sheep with five legs in one person.” In the space of about a week, she interviewed both Farrelly, who was more strategically-minded and at the time a partner at StepStone Real Estate, and McNamara, who was more operationally-focused and then the European real estate co-head at private credit firm SVPGlobal. “That combination helps to knit together what we already have on the platform by just connecting the dots.”
A strong operational focus serves as a market differentiator for Schroders, says Greater Manchester’s Etchells. “I would say their headcount per property is larger than average,” he remarks. “They’ve resourced up significantly on the investment management and asset management teams. One thing we also like is they see the benefits of boots on the ground. They’re one of the only UK managers with a regional office.”
Although managing assets with a hospitality-driven approach had already been a focus for the company, “that has definitely been put more in the forefront” since van Oosterom’s arrival, Etchells adds.
Such an attribute is unusual for a big institution like Schroders, according to Foortse at APG. “The larger managers get, the more generic they seem to be,” he notes. “Often they treat the fund manager role as more of a caretaking role towards investors, rather than someone who has all operational skills to drive the underlying portfolio.”
Other strategic hires
On the strategy level, van Oosterom has also put people in place to fill gaps in the business. She lost no time in making one particular senior hire – Howard, another ex-Lehman colleague, was the first real estate recruit at Schroders under van Oosterom’s leadership and actually joined the firm before van Oosterom officially came on board.
The decision raised some eyebrows at Schroders – “the point was made, are you sure we should do this before you come in?” – but van Oosterom was resolute.
“There’s huge opportunity for private debt within real estate to succeed,” she says. “It’s a very logical piece for Schroders to have on the platform, and this was a perfect opportunity to get Natalie on board, who’s got 30 plus years of experience. I know she can build businesses. And it will actually help with the narrative of what we’re trying to build on the real estate side by connecting to the leverage expertise within that platform.”
Another real estate strategy where Schroders is now actively recruiting is impact. Schroders’ initial foray into impact was with its Social Supported Housing Fund, for which the firm closed on £192 million with its partner Civitas Investment Management in August 2021. But with the planned launch of the two impact vehicles this year, the firm last month hired Chris Santer, formerly the chief investment officer at UK real estate investment trust Primary Health Properties, to lead and manage capital for the new business.
“We believe that the market is moving toward purposeful investing, whether that’s creating a more sustainable environment, but also creating a better place for people to live, work and play,” van Oosterom says. “So what can we do to improve communities’ wellbeing and make our real estate more longer-term sustainable, because it has a function in society as well?”
Van Oosterom as a manager
When asked about her management style, van Oosterom demurs: “I’ll leave that to others to comment.” Here is what two former colleagues had to say.
When Aleksandra Njagulj first met van Oosterom while they were both working at CBRE Investment Management, she was struck by the executive’s straightforward manner.
“That really chimed with me, that open communication and just telling you what she thinks.”
In discussing CBRE IM’s ESG platform, “she would give very candid, very smart and very to-the-point advice,” Njagulj added. “She had good views on what was important for the business.”
Van Oosterom also pushed Njagulj to connect with key stakeholders at the company. “I had to create relationships in order to get things done and get this strategy approved,” the latter recalls. “Women often do not to push themselves forward. She helped me get over that particular weakness.”
Njagulj also remembers van Oosterom for her indefatigable nature, which was on full display during the ski weekends that CBRE IM would host every year after the MIPIM property conference in Cannes. “She was the first on the slopes, then she’d go to après-ski, then she’d go to dinner, she would just go on and on,” Njagulj recounts. “It’s amazing how much energy she had and how it passed along to everyone around her.”
Pieter Roozenboom, who worked with van Oosterom as the former chief operating officer of CBRE IM’s Europe business, concurs: “She’s a very hard worker. She works 24 hours, seven days a week, she’s always available. She’s not expecting that necessarily from you, but she’s being an example for the rest of the team. She’s fully committed to the job and therefore motivating you to do the same thing.”
Van Oosterom has an egalitarian management approach, he adds. “Her management style is she builds up with trust with you,” remarks Roozenboom. “When you trust her and she trusts you, she approaches you as a peer. Then when you discuss problems, she asks, ‘What’s your view?,’ rather than, ‘I’m going to tell you how it works.’ A lot of leaders are much more instructive than she is.”
Adds Njagulj: “She really put herself as one of the gang and was very much part of the team.” She explains that with some executives, it was clearly a tick-the-box exercise when they spoke to more junior staff. “We had a CEO walk around from time to time and talk to us. This person asked at least three or four times, ‘Who are you?’ They would not remember who I was. That’s what I mean by box ticking – they’re over and above their employees. Sophie was exactly the opposite.”
Van Oosterom had been a proponent of ESG long before it became an industry buzzword, recalls Aleksandra Njagulj, who had worked with van Oosterom when the former was global head of ESG and the latter was chief executive and chief investment officer of Europe at CBRE Investment Management. “I found her to be incredibly supportive way before ESG really took off,” recalls Njagulj, now global head of ESG for real estate at DWS. “It exploded while I was at CBRE. She was really instrumental in developing the ESG capacity in-house. Before it was all outsourced. So it was ahead of the curve.”
Today, van Oosterom remains forward-thinking on the impact front, with Foortse noting she is one of the few executives speaking on the subject at industry events. “These are crucially important topics, but not many people are capable of speaking about those topics onstage,” he says. “It’s a topic that is in motion and close to everyone’s heart but she likes to be a frontrunner on that.”
Geographically, Schroders’ real estate business also plans to staff up outside of Europe, which currently represents the bulk of its portfolio. Along with hiring Haskins in February, the firm also welcomed former JPMorgan Asset Management executive Keisuke Kusano as head of Japan real estate that same month. Further growth in the Asian region will come from expanding the Pamfleet platform – the Asia-focused manager in which the firm acquired a majority stake in July 2020 – through a mix of new investments and additional hires over the coming years.
Following the Cairn acquisition – which gave Schroders an on-the-ground team in the Dutch market – van Oosterom is looking at strategic deals that would allow the business to gain additional head count and exposure in sectors or markets where it is not yet operating.
“In the US, what we’d like to build is a foothold there that allows better access to that market,” she says, noting that Schroders already invests into US real estate through its listed Global Cities Real Estate Fund and has a locally-based distribution team.
Similar to the Cairn deal, van Oosterom is looking for “a small team that has a strategic fit” in the US. “We’re not buying a $20 billion group in the US, but looking at something that allows us the right access and ability to grow organically,” she notes. The executive adds that Schroders was in talks with three parties last year but none ultimately were the right match. For the time being, getting access to US real estate investments will likely be driven by the firm’s existing operating partners in the country, she says.
With any new strategic deals, the integration process will be similar to the one for Cairn, where the team remains responsible for investments and client capital in its local market but at the same time is connected to the larger organization through the sharing of clients and expertise. “I’m trying not to show up there in the Dutch office saying, ‘This is now how we’re doing things,’ because that’s not how we want to integrate them,” van Oosterom remarks. “People don’t want to be micromanaged. These are really entrepreneurial types that want to run their businesses.”
Such views have largely been informed by her own professional background: “I never ever liked someone to look over my shoulder and say, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’”
She notes that during her early, formative years in investment banking, she benefited from working with small entrepreneurial teams with few management layers. Yet “there was still something of a kick down and smile up approach in teams,” van Oosterom recalls. “As I was growing up in that environment, people said, you will do the same later on. And I said, I’ll hope to do the reverse. I’ll actually kick up and say where it needs to be different. You push the things above you out of the way to say, that’s where we’re headed, rather than doing it the other way around.”