Career view: Darius Ziatabari, entrepreneur at Equinox Living

Being an entrepreneur often takes multiple talents, but it’s unlikely many new homes developers can match Darius Ziatabari of Equinox Living for his unique mix of skills as he tackles the office-to-residential market.

Hi Darius, please tell us a little about yourself and the company you have set up.

I set up Equinox Living around two years ago with co-founder Steffen Priller, a former colleague at Citigroup where we both used to work on the trade floor. Equinox is an office-to-resi specialist developer offering first-time buyers and investors a choice of affordably-priced apartments expertly developed for modern living. Our homes are characterised by stylish open-plan living and clever, innovative design which helps maximise space. We offer superior spec and locations in London and the South East that have strong transport links with a view to creating smart living spaces and vibrant communities.

We are both big music fans and I enjoy singing and playing guitar and piano in my spare time. Glastonbury is an annual affair and I will be going on my honeymoon this year to Burning Man festival. I’m a member of the Magic Circle and enjoy performing as a magician at select parties – and indeed MIPIM!

How did you go about recruiting the right people for your organisation?

Steffen and I have a small amount of permanent staff, as we like to be agile and adaptable to a changing market. Initially, this process began with a reasonable amount of choosing consultants and seeing how they performed – we started by looked into planning applications and noted projects that were succeeding and which planners and consultants were behind them. We then tried out certain consultants on short-term projects. We learnt that a fast turnaround is extremely important for our organisation, as is finding a planning consultant who works in the areas we operate, rather than someone more general.

What’s the structure of your company and do you have firm growth plans for the business and the team you’ll need?

Our focus is mainly within permitted development for the moment. This market is however getting squeezed, with fewer opportunities and owners asking for higher prices, and very few deals actually stacking financially. We are currently busy with over 150 apartments in the expected pipeline, but should we see no market opportunity then we can pivot our model and try new-build, for example. We have had private equity offers for large scale co-living programmes, which we continue to investigate.

Does the office-to-resi sector require a very different approach to brand new homes?

New build and permitted development are almost completely different sectors with many subtleties and it is rare to find an expert in both divisions. With office-to-resi you’ve got to take a flexible approach and work with what you’ve got. Office-to-resi has the potential to uncover unknown issues whereas new build homes are more formulaic. For example, in our sector it is not until a building has been fully stripped out that we can uncover pre-existing structures that might increase costs or pose further complications.

Do you think some developers have missed a trick (no magic-related wordplay intended) in not doing more in the office-to-resi sector?

The real opportunity in permitted development was three years ago when office sellers did not realise the potential value of their buildings. Today, opportunity prices are dangerously high with [gross development values] GDVs as great as 50%. There were some deals done a few years ago that look like incredibly good value now, especially in outer London boroughs which have seen prices soar in that time. Each council looks at PDR with different approaches, making it a tricky subject matter.

What is about property development and creating new homes that you find particularly satisfying?

Both Steffen and I use to be in the front office as traders, with nothing tangible to show at the end of it. We’re in a completely different business now and both feel proud when we take visitors and friends to see our schemes. It’s satisfying to know that these developments will leave a lasting legacy. However, what excites us most is seeing a first-time buyer securing their first home and knowing that we provided them with a great experience.

Do you have advice for those with ambitions for starting their own development company?

Work as a junior in another development firm, as I did, before putting any of your own finances at stake. Even with investors you will have personal guarantees with the banks. It is a competitive market and one needs to be prudent with exit anticipations.

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