As chief executive of The Crown Estate, Alison Nimmo is responsible for overseeing the company's diverse portfolio. With a capital value of over £8 billion, the business's assets range from prime real estate in London’s West End to the entire seabed around the UK.

Prior to joining in January 2012, she was director of design and regeneration at the Olympic Delivery Authority. Her role involved leading on the sustainability and legacy programmes for London’s Olympic Park. Previously she has held senior executive roles at urban regeneration initiatives such as Sheffield One and Manchester Millennium. Alison is a chartered surveyor and town planner by training and was awarded a CBE for services to urban regeneration in 2004. She will also be speaking at this year's Responsible Business Summit on how the integration of sustainbility into business practice generates better returns both socially and financially.

Ethical Corporation: The Crown Estate has a fairly unique corporate structure, right?

Alison Nimmo: Yes, that’s correct. The Crown Estate isn’t really like any other business. Essentially, we operate as an independent company under an Act of Parliament. The property we manage is owned by the Crown, but is not the private property of Her Majesty the Queen. So our central starting point is that we have a commercial mandate, which means we are here to make a profit. That said, we are also very much a progressive business that creates value well beyond that bottom line. One of the unique things about The Crown Estate is that we’ve been here for a long time and we can take an extraordinarily long-term view.

EC: Can you give an example of how these twin goals play out in practice?

AN: Sure. A good example is the £1bn investment programme to transform Regent Street in London. It’s been a great commercial success, but also it’s also been a great success for all of our customers, like the wonderful flagship stores that have opened on the Street. Our investment has also helped reinvigorate the historic fabric of one of the most fabulous, streets in London. Bringing that back to life represents a real investment in the public realm. In this sense, we’re about ‘place making’, blending our heritage with what people expect of a world-class space.

EC: Are green building features something that you push onto commercial tenants or are they asking for such measures from you? 

AN: Some tenants see it as an absolute requirement. They wouldn’t rent the building unless it comes up to a really high level of environmental standards. Others would see sustainability on the same level as they would, say, the quality of the space or the location.

EC: What steps are you taking to mainstream sustainability into The Crown Estate’s management processes?

AN: We took a brave step last year to head down the route of integrated [i.e. social, environmental and financial] reporting. We’re now in our second year of this approach. The idea is to be very clear about how we create value and being very clear and public about this.

Another key step is becoming really proactive from the bottom up, so to speak. We’re gathering stories from around the business and finding ways to share these. This is making our approach to sustainability more consistent right across the business. One of the measures we’re looking at, for example, are Green Fit Out Guides. After all, sustainability isn’t just about what we do to build very sustainable buildings and so forth. We’re working to help our tenants and partners to become more sustainable too.

We’re actually a very small company, with just 500 employees or so, but we have a very big reach geographically given all the extent of our business activities. So we’re thinking hard about what we can encourage others to do and then leveraging that.

EC: What would you say are the biggest challenges for you at present when it comes to sustainable management? 

AN: Measurement is a key challenge. Going forward, we’re looking at ways to increase our ability to measure the impacts of our sustainability practices. That way we can develop a strong business case for them. All the indications suggest that a strong case exists, but it can still be difficult to prove it in hard figures. The arguments for a business like ours centre on factors such as having the right tenants and the ability to let out buildings relatively easily. I fundamentally believe that sustainability plays a key part in these, yet, as I say, it’s very difficult to evidence it.

EC: What advice would you give to a senior executive looking to get his or her board to prioritise sustainability?

AN: We’re lucky in that we have a great board. Our chairman is Sir Stuart Hampson, was previously chairman of the John Lewis Partnership so he brings all that experience around values-led business. As for other companies, I think one of the most powerful arguments at present is around future talent. Young people today want to work for companies that have a clear sense of purpose and that a wider sense of business than just the bottom-line. 

EC: Finally, as a chief executive, the pressure on your time is high. Why are you taking the time to attend the Responsible Business Summit on May 19–20? 

AN: Success is a team game. We have worked with some fantastic leading companies over the last few years, seeing how they have tackled some of these taxing sustainability issues. With this experience and this learning, we’ve been able to then go away and think how these insights apply to our particular company and our specific business model. We’ve found that really inspiring. And then giving back is important for me too. We’re keen to share what has and hasn’t worked at Crown Estate. Hopefully, that will inspire more businesses to become responsible and to develop what is becoming a very powerful movement.

The Responsbile Business Summit is a forum through which we at Ethical Corporation seek to promote the notion of sustainability as being centric to business success. Among the attendees this year are SABMiller, Alliance Boots, Sainsbury's, BUPA and The Crown Estate. If you are interested, you can download the brochure for the event here.

Alison Nimmo  CEO interview  Responsible Business Summit  The Crown Estate 

The Responsible Business Summit 2014

May 2014, London, UK

Make sustainable innovation add to your bottom line. 15+ CEOs and C-Suite from leading multinationals plus heads of CSR will discuss the future of sustainability

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