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Q&A With Joe Lister and Mike Burt

10 April 2024

Q&A with Joe Lister, Chief Executive Officer & Mike Burt, Chief Financial Officer


You both secured internal promotions at the start of January 2024. What are your main ambitions for the business going forward?
Joe Lister: I’ve taken over the role of Chief Executive at a time of great opportunity. Unite Students is poised to take advantage of a significant period of growth thanks to our unique position, market-leading platform, and unrivalled relationships with university partners.

Growth is, therefore, absolutely a key ambition for the business going forward. There is a shortage in student accommodation and we are focused on increasing supply of high-quality, affordable homes through our development pipeline and by helping universities to unlock the value of their campuses.

Ensuring Unite Students continues to be a great place to live is also front of mind. We’re committed to making sure that our all-inclusive proposition remains relevant to evolving student needs – and a broad student mix. More than just a space to live, we offer a home and a community – where students can thrive.

An enhanced employee proposition is another key ambition for me as we look ahead – ensuring that Unite Students is a great place to work. We want to attract and nurture the best talent – which is why we’re proud to be the first in our sector to be a Real Living Wage employer and are committed to offering our staff best-in-class training and career progression opportunities.

What are the main areas of focus in 2024?
Joe Lister: An immediate focus of mine has been visiting all our sites and cities to speak to people on the ground. I want people to know they’re being listened to – to make sure I fully understand their concerns and where they see opportunities. This will be crucial in ensuring a smooth transition for the new leadership team. I’m honoured to have received such a positive reception so far but that’s not something I – or any of us – want to take for granted. That also links to our focus on culture and values. We want to build on a culture where difference is valued so that all our customers and employees feel they belong.

Mike Burt: As Joe has said, culture and clearly-understood values are hugely important to all of us at Unite Students. That filters through to our overarching purpose: creating a Home for Success. A key area of focus throughout 2024 must be doing the right thing for all our stakeholders. That includes our customers, universities, local communities, and our investors.

Putting us in the best possible position for sustainable growth is key. The acute need for new student beds supports the strongest growth outlook Unite Students has seen for several years. We have a fantastic pipeline of 7,300 beds in the strongest university cities, which will see us invest around £1.2 billion to increase the supply of much-needed student accommodation. Delivering our growth potential while also maintaining a high-quality balance sheet is crucial, which is why we chose to raise equity in 2023 to support our future growth ambitions.

How do you plan to build on three decades of success?
Mike Burt: It’s an exciting time for us and the sector – and we’re fortunate to find ourselves in a position where we can continue to grow our platform and go from strength to strength.

The growth we’ve delivered in the past gives us the foundations to push ahead and thanks to our track record we are a partner of choice for the UK Higher Education sector.

Joe Lister: Those strong relationships and historical ties are key. Unite Students now accounts for 4 in 10 beds nominated by Higher Education institutions, and this is a key area of growth potential for us. That we’re trusted by universities to deliver safe, high-quality homes and a stand-out student experience, where everyone’s wellbeing is prioritised, is testament to our successes to date. We see huge potential for working collaboratively with university partners further, to unlock the full potential of their campuses. That’s why we’re so excited about our joint venture with Newcastle University, an industry-first deal which will deliver 2,000 affordable beds to students.

How will you continue to make Unite Students a great place to work?
Joe Lister: Our Home for Success ethos extends to all those who work with us.

We are focused on being a great place to work and, as we’ve said, are working to create a culture where everyone can thrive. Part of that is building and supporting great frontline teams and we have various initiatives to help attract and nurture the best talent.

I’m really excited by the potential of The Academy, which was launched in October 2022 and encourages on-the-job learning and development for colleagues across all career stages. This ranges from fast-track leadership training to mentoring and coaching. Our strong employee offer and staff benefits provide a great place to build a meaningful career.

We’re working with young people at such an important time of their lives and as such that gives us a huge opportunity to provide real value to them. Our teams frequently go above and beyond and volunteer in local communities, which is so important and appreciated by our students.

What do you think investors are looking for as the business grows?
Mike Burt: It’s clearly a challenging time for many businesses. We’re operating in a high cost and inflationary environment which impacts the viability of new development, alongside a broader cost-of-living crisis. Generating value and sustainable growth for our investors, while also maintaining a prudent approach to costs, is key. It’s about balance right now.

Our strong track record, high-quality balance sheet and disciplined approach to capital allocation is very important to investors.  Our approach, a really strong team and a stand-out customer proposition delivers sustainable growth in earnings and dividends, backed by a high-quality balance sheet, which translates to attractive returns for our investors.

How is sustainability going to shape how we do business in future?
Joe Lister: We aspire to lead the living sector on sustainability – that’s important to us and is reflected by our ambitious targets.

We’re already delivering against our plan to become a net zero carbon business by 2030 and are committed to having a positive impact on people and the communities in which we operate. We’re also delivering against our new Sustainable Construction Framework which formalises our approach to sustainable design and construction, as well as looking at how we reduce carbon emissions internally and with supply chain partners.”

Mike Burt: We’ve invested c.£50 million in sustainability improvements since 2018, which sets us in good stead. Our sustainability framework sets our growing social impact within the context of our wider sustainability goals, which is important to us.

We now commit to donating 1% of our adjusted profits to social initiatives, to ensure we are continuously giving back. This delivered £2.4 million of investment last year and, as part of that, we’re proud of our continued support of the Unite Foundation, which does vital work for care leavers and estranged students. Over 700 young people have now benefited from accommodation scholarships since 2012.

In addition, research we commissioned in 2023 showed that purpose-built student accommodation contributed more than £7 billion to the national economy through operational costs and spending of undergraduate students, demonstrating the impact of the sector.

How will Unite Students maintain its sector‑leading position?
Joe Lister: As we’ve said, we believe we have a really exciting future and are well-positioned to build on our successes to date. As well as providing significant socio-economic benefits to the areas in which we operate, student accommodation is a vital part of the university experience.

However, the UK is increasingly short of suitable, high-quality accommodation – especially as HMO landlords continue to leave the market. We therefore have a crucial role to play in increasing supply and we have a clear strategy to do so – maintaining our sector-leading position at the same time. In addition, our ongoing investment into building enhancements, new technology and our broader service offering means we can be confident of providing the best possible proposition and support to our students.

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