A former banking high flyer who returned to her roots in North Wales is on a mission to build 1,000 new homes.
In a stellar career in the City of London, Helen Pittaway played a central role in mega, multi billion pound deals like the sale of Manchester United Football Club to the American Glazer family and she’s now applying her skills and financial acumen as the new chair of housing association Cartrefi Conwy.
It’s brought life full circle for the mother-of-two who was raised in a former council house on the Elwy estate in Rhos-on-Sea which is now run by Cartrefi.
After moving there in 1979, her parents bought the house three years later.
Fast forward to 2008 and the estate was taken over by Cartrefi when council house tenants across Conwy voted in favour of a stock transfer to the newly-formed housing association.
Mrs Pittaway said: “I’ve been on the board for four years and I’m incredibly proud to be the chair and I’m very excited about it.
“Given my background, social housing seemed very appropriate because I grew up on an estate. It felt like fate.
“My mum still lives in the old family home and I have been seeing the changes on that estate over time, particularly since Cartrefi took over all the council housing stock in Conwy in 2008.
“You go to an estate now and the Cartrefi homes look like the great quality ones with the cladding and new windows. You can really pick them out. The investment made by Cartrefi in their estates is very visible.”
None of that was on her radar when she won a scholarship to the former Penrhos College, a private school for girls in Colwyn Bay, going on to gain a degree in American Studies at Lancaster University.
It wasn’t the most obvious path into the world of high stakes banking but after moving to London she joined HSBC’s graduate training scheme.
She rose quickly through the ranks and found she had a talent for business lending, buy-outs, mergers and acquisitions.
From HSBC she moved to Rothschild and then to Alcentra, a “fund manager that nobody’s heard of but is actually one of the largest in Europe”, where she stayed for 10 years.
She said: “I was dealing with big numbers in the tech, media and healthcare sectors – anything where there was a big buy-out or a merger.
“When Manchester United got bought out by the Glazers, I looked at the debt deal with Goldman Sachs who were leading on it. I had a look at that deal and went out to Florida to see the Glazers.
“I had a personal portfolio of about £2 billion that I looked after for about 30 different clients.
“But to be honest the appraisal you make and the care that you take, it doesn’t really matter how many noughts you have on the end. You either believe in the business or you don’t.
“You could be lending them £100,000 or £100 million, the same principles apply – you just have to stop looking at the zeros at the end.”
But after two decades of big corporate deals, she and her husband, Gary, escaped the rat-race and settled back in her home county.
“It was quite a ruthless world and the hours were brutal,” she recalled, “certainly not family friendly and Gary was just about to retire from the Met Police.
“After moving to North Wales, I was quite happy to never work again but when our second daughter was about three I felt I was going slowly mad and there was more to life than being a stay at home mum. At that point I’d not worked for five years and I was keen to start using my skills again.
“I was sat with the kids in a café and flicking through the local paper and I saw the advert from Cartrefi Conwy looking for new board members – younger people, women and a finance background. I just thought it would be silly not to apply.”
Among the things that attracted her to Cartrefi Conwy was its track record of innovation, like the setting up of subsidiary Creating Enterprise, a community interest company which runs an employment academy and has opened a factory in Rhyl to make frames, joists and other wooden components to build low carbon, energy efficient homes.
She added: “We just want to be the best at the core business with great tenant engagement and be good at responding to their needs with comfortable, safe homes they can be proud of.
“The better Creating Enterprise does in terms of profitability, the more cash comes back to Cartrefi Conwy so we can build more social housing.
“At the same time, we also need to look after the tenants who live in the older properties and make sure they are improved to increase their energy efficiency.
“We have more than 600 new homes either being built or already in the pipeline so we are some distance down the road in terms of our ambition to build 1,000 new homes by 2030.
“The thing about building new houses is that it has a really positive impact on the local economy, using local suppliers and local labour as well providing jobs and training opportunities for our tenants.
“It’s the perfect example of the circular economy so, come what may, we will keep building new homes because the shortage of affordable housing is a real crisis that we’re determined to tackle in collaboration with key partners such as the local councils and housing associations.”