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Meet our 3 regional Heads of Operations

24 November 2022

Unite Students’ operations are run along three divisional lines – the North & Scotland, South & Central, and London – with each division led by a Head of Operations.

We caught up with our three Head of Operations to find out about their journey into the student accommodation sector, how they manage operations across their patch, and their priorities for this academic year.


David Marr, Head of Operations for Scotland and the North at Unite Students

David Marr, Head of Operations for Scotland and the North

Aberdeen, Durham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield


Tell me a little bit about your journey towards becoming a Head of Operations at Unite Students.

I planned to go to university and become an accountant – but then, the summer before I planned to go to university, I went to work in a hotel over the summer and loved it: every day was different. So instead of going to uni, I moved across the country and pursued a career in hospitality.

I worked in a number of full-service independent hotels before joining IHG, and finally worked at Whitbread, who own Premier Inn, for 12 years. I worked my way up to manage a patch of 15 hotels, as well as overseeing the launch of the Premier Inn ‘Hub’ brand – a huge accolade – and running Central Operations for a period; I really learned a lot. In early 2018, I knew I was ready for a change, and the role with Unite Students seemed like such a great career move, and so it’s proven to be.

I didn’t know anything about the sector when I arrived, but as I got to grips with it I could see how it both mirrored and differed from the world of hotels. Hotels are quite transactional, whereas in student accommodation you get to know your customers, help them and support their welfare over the course of the year. Hotels are also more mature than the purpose-built student accommodation market, and I was able to use my experience in that environment to bring in a level of operational governance that I felt we needed.


How do you effectively lead on operations across so many properties, and what are some of the challenges that it brings?

It’s about having a great team that you trust. My team are experienced, competent and capable, and you need to give people space and freedom to do their own thing. I want to inspire them and give them a vision – but that won’t mean being in their space all the time.

I’m also very deliberate about how I spend my time, where I go and why. I’ve got a young family and can’t be away all week, so visiting cities has to have a specific purpose and I’m really clear about the value I want to get out of those days. I always take the train so that I have time to catch up on my admin!


What are some of your priorities for the new academic year?

My number one priority is supersizing the student experience, now that we have a structure in place  that allows us to be there for students in the way that they want us to be. Flexibility is key to that – a great experience differs from person to person. Our teams in the North are already well-equipped to deliver it, but I want us to raise the bar with standards ahead of where they were last year, and being more objective about how we measure our work with metrics and data. I’m proud of what we’re doing, and I look forward to driving it forwards.


Steph Dale, Head of Operations for the South at Unite Students

Steph Dale, Head of Operations for South & Central

Bath, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Coventry, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham, Oxford, Portsmouth, Southampton, Swindon


Tell me a little bit about your journey towards becoming a Head of Operations at Unite Students.

I studied German at the University of Birmingham and I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards. After speaking to a friend about the Aldi graduate scheme, I decided to apply for it and was successful. It was really intense and I found it tough, moving 12 times in 18 months around the north west and working long hours.

I did learn a lot about the world, how to lead a team and how to treat people, but the demands of the work environment were hurting my mental health and jeopardising my relationships, so I decided to look for a new challenge, moving to London to be with my now-husband. Unite Students got in touch about a job that was the equivalent of a Student Experience Manager, and in London I worked my way up to Area Manager over four years. After moving back north and overseeing our Manchester and Liverpool portfolio in the north-west as Head of Operations, I was asked to oversee the South and Central division.

I absolutely love working here. I only meant to be here for two years originally, but I’ve loved the opportunities and people’s faith and confidence in me. It’s a fabulous organisation and the people are what make it so brilliant – that’s why I’ve been here for eight years now!


The South and Central division that you head up covers 13 cities. How do you effectively lead on operations across so many cities, and what are some of the challenges that it brings?

Seeing people in person is so valuable, but with so many cities – and being based in Leeds myself – I can’t be everywhere as much as I’d like to be. I have to prioritise and rotate where I go, and also make the most of remote communication like phone calls and Teams meetings. I’m still figuring out the balance between in-person and remote communication.

Fortunately, I can trust my teams across South and Central, and our new structure means I don’t have to be everywhere. Each division has a dedicated regional leadership team of experts in estates, health and safety, student support, HR and finance, which gives me the support I need to lead my patch.


What are some of your priorities for the new academic year?

We’ll be continuing to build on our new ways of working, as well as prioritising the service that we deliver to students and Higher Education partners. Those are my top two priorities, alongside sitting down with our university partners to understand their priorities for 2023 and discuss how we can support them – that’s so important!


Will White, Head of Operations for London at Unite Students

Will White, Head of Operations for London

London and Medway


Tell me a little bit about your journey towards becoming a Head of Operations at Unite Students.

Most of my career was in retail. I was 23 when I went to study at Manchester Metropolitan University, and I saw the transformational impact of education first-hand; it put me on a better career path. Like Steph, I got onto the Aldi graduate scheme, and worked there for nearly a decade in both Manchester and Scotland.

By the end, I was looking for a role that was more varied. I wanted to work somewhere with scale, ambition and a great purpose, and the values of Unite Students really resonated with me, so I joined as a Head of Operations for the Midlands in late 2018. Soon after, we had the integration with Liberty Living, where I had to help blend our teams together to make one consistent, stable team – a challenge, especially when Covid hit!

Then the London opportunity came up last year. We have lots of potential new buildings based there, and a newly-assembled leadership team with lots of rising leaders working their way up. Our new cluster focus gives our students and university partners a better service level – it’s incredibly exciting.


How do you effectively lead on operations across so many properties, and what are some of the challenges that it brings?

This year, we’ve been really focused on getting the right people into the right places in our teams. We’re better resourced than ever to be able to train them on different skills, but we can’t train people to want to work with students and create an amazing home for them – that’s something they need to innately want. So we’ve built a team of people in London who are driven by great service and the desire to create the very best student experience they can.

There’s a lot of bad news out there in the world right now creating challenges for my team, so I’m trying to lead in a way that’s inspiring, positive and kind, creating an environment in which everyone wants to raise the bar of what they do. Communication is vital – you all need to be aligned on messaging with the right level of detail. We’re increasingly focused on good use of data and using that to understand how we can improve what we do.


Moving to the London patch meant building relationships with a whole new group of universities. How did you go about doing that, and what’s the secret to a great partnership?

The first thing is just getting out there in front of people – there’s no substitute for face-to-face contact, whether it’s round tables, one-to-one update meetings, catching people for a coffee when I’m in town. I always make myself available; if there’s a problem, I want to hear about it directly.

Providing a home for 13,500 young people is a complex operation, and there are complex challenges in what they can face, so being open and honest with partners, bringing them in when there are big decisions, and really advocating for what we’re doing, is fundamental. In this sector, we’re really privileged to have the opportunity to positively impact young people: making that process as collaborative as possible, with a rich dialogue about challenges and priorities, is where you get the best outcomes for students and form those great partnerships that are so important to us.

Something that impressed me right from the start at Unite Students is that it’s not about just getting a deal or a signature on a piece of paper; it’s about building a long-term partnership which helps our partners with their accommodation strategy too.


What are some of your priorities for the new academic year?

Focusing on our standards and service, definitely. We’ve had a great check-in and registered our best ever Net Promoter Score [NPS, a metric through which customer satisfaction is measured] in London, but that’s at the one point of the year where we know that students are coming and we’re prepared for that. We need to keep that going 365 days a year, by looking out for the moments that matter to students and where our teams can support that sense of community and belonging.

I also want to create a real culture in the London team that is high performance, high energy and celebrates success – and we need to work together to achieve that.


You’ll be hearing more from our Heads of Operations throughout the coming year – starting with David Marr’s contribution to October’s episode of Accommodation Matters, ‘Student accommodation: Home or hotel?’, available below:

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