Charlie Green is Changing the Way Businesses Work
On a grey November day in London, I meet 49-year-old Charlie Green in the lobby of one of the 51 buildings that belong to his company, The Office Group. Despite the refined elegance of the space, the vibe is warm and approachable; it was the receptionist’s birthday, and while I was waiting, I watched multiple clients in the coworking space come by and give her a hug and flowers.
The Office Group is a behemoth in the coworking industry; they are worth over 500 million pounds and will have approximately 28,000 members by next year when they are planning to expand beyond the UK and open locations in Germany and Paris. Yet somehow they’ve managed to maintain a sense of intimacy and homeyness that you associate with much smaller companies.
Green and his partner Olly Olsen launched their business 2003, long before creative and stylish co-working spaces could be found in cities across the world. Since then, they have become industry leaders who have fundamentally changed the nature of office work, and providing a solution that is more elevated than the tech-bro, inspirational-quote-laden feel of other big players, and more thoughtfully intentional then the alternative stale packaged office options. The Office Group began with the purchase of a North London building and renting flexible short-term office space, both for individuals and companies, but put the emphasis on design and amenities in a way that had never been done before. Their buildings look more like boutique hotels and chic restaurants rather than the boring, bland corporate offices of the 1950s. Plus, each building is unique, designed by leading architects with their clients in mind.
Charlie and I met once before, two and a half years ago, when I had an existential crisis about running my own small coworking business. I went to Palm Springs for three days to find myself and find clarity about the future. I didn’t find all the answers, but the universe did send me Charlie. Sitting at the Parker Hotel sipping tea one night, I mentioned to the friendly guy sitting opposite me that I was burnt out from growing my startup, in “an industry he might not know of.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was talking to one of the pioneers of my industry. I ended up in conversation with Charlie for an hour, and the insight and openness he provided changed the trajectory of my business and my professional journey.
We often make the assumption that Brits are closed off and tight-lipped but Charlie is warm and open and leads with profound emotional intelligence that extends to the way he runs his business. I sat down with him in London this fall for a long-ranging talk about the future of coworking, WeWork’s woes, and how he balances being a CEO with his own psychological and emotional wellbeing.
How has your personal journey impacted you professionally?
I was fortunate in my upbringing, and life was pretty straightforward for a good while. Then, at the age of 29, I had a freak illness and I had heart surgery. That changed an awful lot for me. I had a fantastic job with this really exciting company before that, but I came away from that experience and my perspective had shifted. I wanted more from every day. And I left the comfort of the employment that I had to pursue doing my own thing before setting up The Office Group.
How do you think that affects the way you run your company?
I think we have a level of emotional intelligence; we understand people. We’re thinking about others, and we're trying to understand on a human level what people want. What do the people who work for us want? What do the people who rent from us want? And if you're able to respond to that, you can get a lot more out of people.
"But you have to be authentic. Either you can do it and see it and feel it, or you don't. You can't fake leadership."
How have you personally evolved in the past 16 years?
Well, Olly and I have done every single role in the past 16 years. When we started the business, we did everything. We were selling office space. We were reading legal contracts. We were designing. We were unblocking toilets. We were doing the accounts - but not very well. Everything. And I think that gives us the right to say to people now: I need you to do this. And I understand what I'm asking you because I've done that. The business was valued at 500 million pounds two and a bit years ago when Blackstone invested in us. They are the largest investor in real estate globally, so that's a hell of an endorsement. And I think they probably saw qualities in us that are important values to them in terms of our application of what we do and how we do it.
You're a pioneer in the industry; You started in 2003 and WeWork didn’t launch until 2010. The industry has shifted and adapted so much since then, and especially in the last five years. Do you think that the future of work will continue to support this industry? Do you think there's a cap?
I don't think there is a cap. If you look at the big brokers, they’ll say: oh, the flex sector [flexible office space solutions] is currently 6 percent of the traditional market, we predict that it will be 18 percent by 2025 and 30 percent by 2035. And I think that's missing the point because what we're doing is responding to what people want. We're responding to what occupiers [tenants] want. This is listening to occupiers. And there's this huge power shift from the provider of the landlord, the owner of the asset who used to say, "here's my building, you can take it and you got to pay me this over a 10 year period and I'll see you when you're done in 10 years time, and give me the keys then.” Now occupiers are saying: "I need more from you. And if you're not prepared to give it to me, I will go to somebody who will give me that.” And more means flexibility. More is design. More is service and amenity facilities within the building and giving people this user experience. We spend the majority of our waking hours in a working environment. So let's apply that dedication to creating an experience within this physical environment. And if you get that right, and you understand what people want from the space, then you will have success because people will be drawn to you.
Then the question of "Well how much of the market is this?" Well, it's everybody. Think of some big companies like Ernst and Young, or Price Waterhouse Cooper. A professional firm might want to take 400,000 square feet somewhere. They're still going to take that. And they'll take that for 10 years. That's not going to change. What's going to change is what they want from that space. And they want to engage with the owner and they want a relationship because they want to know that they're being looked after and they're being cared for. In a way, you have coworking at one end of the market and then you have the traditional 10 year and 15 year lease at the other end of the market, and it's all starting to blur and come together.
So in terms of how you run your business, do you have a big population or group of independent [workers], like freelancers?
Our particular take on this is that what we're doing is trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. And what we do that's different than somewhere like WeWork is that we're a more grown-up offer. We're thinking about how businesses work in a slightly different way. We design every building individually and we're trying to think about the people who use the space and we're trying to give them a sense of ownership. That it's their space. We tend to appeal to more established businesses and be less about freelancers and startups. That is actually the smallest part of the market.
We do coworking in 16 of our buildings and the coworkers and small businesses taking that space are a really important part of our business, but they account for a very small part. That’s because one, it's a small market and two, it's deeply competitive. It's hard to get them and it's hard to get them to stay. We learned that early; the first December that we had, we lost a chunk of those coworking members. And we're like, what the hell's going on? It hurt financially. Turns out they all came back in January, they had just decided that December was going to be quiet so they were going to go on vacation and stop their membership for a month. If they do that in the summer as well, you have a 10 month income platform versus a 12 month cost base. That's quite a tough business to be in.
I’m laughing because everything you're saying resonates with what I’ve experienced in my own business. You mentioned WeWork, and I wanted to ask: what are some of the differentiators between WeWork and The Office Group? Before things went bad, I think WeWork was like the token success story of the North American way of doing business, this global expansion and take over, very ego-centric. Their growth was so romanticized, it was like watching a movie...
But people want the story. And investors want the story. And investors want a return. So when you have extraordinary high growth businesses that are able to capture high market share, like Uber and Airbnb, everybody references them in any kind of business discussion: "I'm the Uber of this" or "we're the Airbnb of that". People are looking for the next one. And Adam Neumann at WeWork put up his hand and said, "it's me, and here's how I'm going to do it." And he was able to convince sophisticated investors that that was the story that he could deliver.
He delivered and created something quite remarkable. I remember going to see some of their earlier premises on Varick Street, in New York, and it was inspirational and it made us address what we were doing and try harder and do more and be better and be bigger. But I think then what happened was that they just got carried away. And when you have such significant investment from one source who encourages you to go 10 times as far you thought you were going to go, I think it's hard to stay responsible and in control. They found themselves in a position where the growth was on such a scale that it was not sustainable, and they ran out of cash.
What do you think is next for WeWork?
So Softbank [the Japanese investment conglomerate who backed Alibaba and Uber] having now acquired 80 percent of their business and essentially bailed them out, has to create a relatively straightforward, flexible office operation without any of the non-core elements of running a good strong business. So strip out all the nonsense and strip out the markets that they shouldn't have been in in the first place. And by the way, penetrating global markets is not straightforward. We're doing it right now. We're opening in Germany, but we're only opening in Germany. Once we get our heads around that, and we have five buildings there, then we'll go to Paris. One step at a time. Grow in a disciplined way that makes sense. Get the best buildings and the best locations.
So WeWork will need to think about where they offload those buildings that aren't going to deliver that for them. The question is, can they last long enough and generate the right kind of revenue to become a profitable business? I have no idea. Tough, tough challenge.
You live a really high impact life, as many successful entrepreneurs do. How do you take care of yourself along the way?
I think exercise is hugely important to physical health and your mental health. I have a Peloton bike at home, and I try to exercise two or three times a week, which might be boxing or a spin class. And then I will stretch every day for kind of 15 to 20 minutes, using the ROMWOD method, which is brilliant. And then I'll get to work pretty early at like 7:45 or something. I get to see my daughter and son in the morning and I don't live too far from work.
"But of course there are challenges that you have at home in your personal life, and everybody has them. Sometimes you think you're coping you're but not. And you need to have people around you that can identify that and support that."
Olly has been a big partner, and have my friends and my family. I also think sometimes you need to put your hand up and say, "I need some help here." Olly and I have somebody that every now and again we go to together, who we’ve worked with for 10 years. Yes, he's a psychotherapist, but that's not what it is. Yes, he's a business coach. But that's not what it is. It's just somebody who we can both sit with, who we can be really open and honest with in front of each other Olly is like a brother to me. And, sometimes you get pissed off with each other. And you've got to deal with that and talk about it in the right way.
I think that can be particularly challenging for men.
I was part of a campaign a year or so ago. We have a fitness business in some of our buildings, and the guys are amazing. They put on a Strong, Not Silent campaign, which was about men [and mental health]. Eighty-four men in the UK commit suicide a week. It's extraordinary. And these guys are all about physical health, but they said: to have physical health, you have to have mental health. I was part of that campaign; I did a talk and a social media campaign. And all we can do as non-qualified people is just encourage people to just open up and talk. It all starts there.
I have one final question that I ask everyone. And it's as simple or complex as you want to make it. But what does it mean to you to be well?
It's a big question, especially because of my personal experience with health. My own personal challenges and my wife's health challenges. Ultimately, physical strength is a part of being well. But also the ability to experience. Life is an experience. That could be going on a date with your loved one, or it could be going bungee jumping. I think my definition of being well is being able to have and acknowledge and appreciate those experiences.