Gerard Price is chairman of bespoke builder Bargate Homes, which recently secured a £25 million investment enabling its strategic expansion and a significant boost to the regional economy. A minority 30% shareholding in Fair Oak-based Bargate, taken by private equity firm Prowting Investment through a deal facilitated by Reading-based Spectrum Corporate Finance at the end of last year, means that Bargate can look to 2015 undertaking larger developments across the region. It not only represents a boost for the south’s construction industry, but also features wider economic implications with the provisions of much-needed housing. Bargate has been building beautiful homes across the region for many years – in Southampton, Winchester, Hambledon, Salisbury, Emsworth, Southbourne, Alton and Chandler’s Ford – and is known for prestigious, sensitive developments, among them St James Mews in Winchester and the former brewery site at Hambledon.
Having grown up in various mining towns where his father worked for the National Coal Board, Price’s family watched the decline of this once mighty industry from close quarters. His father’s desire for his children to avoid working in a mine led to them to pursue different career paths, and having spent their early years travelling around Scotland, the north of England and Midlands, the family settled on the South Coast, which has been home to Price ever since. As he studied the development of towns and cities for geography in senior school, it sparked a lifelong fascination with building and how to build a business based on construction. A self-confessed ’dealmaker’, Price spent a short spell in the diplomatic corps, but a civil service career was not for him. He has run two highly-successful property businesses, the sale of which left him a multi-millionaire, but at the age of 43 he harnessed the drive and ambition which forged the award-winning companies Amplevine and Linden Homes in the 1980s and 1990s, to launch Bargate Homes.
Tell us about your first company?
I started at the beginning of the property recession and kind of attached myself to the rollercoaster which was the property market. At the age of 25, I set up my own business with a builder friend, a cold start housebuilding company initially funded by working with a government business expansion scheme. Amplevine subsequently raised development finance to reach a 200 homes a year building level prior to disposal. It was responsible for apartment developments and housing schemes across the south before I had the chance to sell to Linden Homes. In the early days I was lucky to have fantastic advisers and received huge support from our contractors. It’s all about people management – if it is tough for everybody, then people pull together.
Linden grew and became a national force in the housebuilding arena, how did you do this?
I transformed the new company from a greenfield developer to a brownfield specialist. Linden was fully quoted on the London Stock Exchange. As a result I became the largest private shareholder in the company and was part of the £150m MBO deal which returned Linden plc to private ownership in 2000. I sold my shares at the end of 2004 and after a period of gardening leave, decided to get back in the property development business. Linden was innovative and in seeking to learn and gather fresh ideas, I went to the USA to see how and what they build. As a journey, Linden was fantastic. There were very few newly-listed housebuilding developments that dealt with John Prescott at ministerial level. About four years after the MBO I disagreed with the business finance strategy; it was expanding too fast in my opinion and for that you need the right team.
Starting a new company is similar to building a house, with foundations, planning and a structure, would you agree?
I started Bargate in 2006-07. We were originally a tenant here at Vicarage Farm. I thought about what the business would be and the name gave us the brand. We had three people and knew we wanted to create something different, but it’s hard to restrict growth. Some of the team have worked with me for 15 to 25 years; we have new faces too – you need them for fresh ideas because it’s an incredibly consumer-facing business. That’s the key point; you have to hit the sweet spot in the market, so when people walk in they see what they want. A lot of technology is involved in homes nowadays and much of it is hidden. The UK housing regulations, however, are much more controlled than in the USA, which is why a lot of our housing appears bland. It may be innovative inside, but exteriors can be somewhat traditional.
You have nine developments planned for 2015, so how quickly is this business taking off?
We’re aiming to build around 200 homes a year, which means that there are eight or nine physical sites on the go at any one time, and of those 200 we build around 80 for housing associations. All our sites are 45-minutes’ drive time from the office. It’s a conscious decision. We can manage them better, visit all in a day and remain on top of detail. We’re very much hands-on directors. Working for me is a lifestyle choice. We love the area we live in and our mantra is that we should look forward to taking our grandchildren to see what we have built.
Are you surprised by its success?
No. The British love housing; it’s a national obsession, the ’my home is my castle’ thing, and here in the affluent south we are building in some very nice areas.
How do you pick locations?
We are enormously fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Bargate Homes will never be about the volume or the density of the development. We strive to build homes which we are proud to take our family and friends to visit; in short, homes our grandchildren will feel are positive additions to this wonderful area. We work with an expert team to build homes in locations which have a lasting legacy, leading the way in terms of sustainability and modern methods of construction. We develop new property, refurbish existing property and develop listed buildings; we work in conservation areas, greenfield and brownfield sites, promote land for development and work in joint ventures with landowners.
What are people looking for?
People are moving out of the city centre to sought-after villages and we’re adding a modern way to live to some nice locations. Many feature traditional exteriors, but are modern within. People want to shop locally for specialised goods or treats and there is a lot of discretionary spend coming with them. New-build homes sell as people trade down to enjoy a better quality of life.
You’re moving ’house’, to a larger head office in 2015, due to expansion?
Yes, but it’s right here, because we are building The New Barn at Vicarage Farm. We were initially a tenant, then bought the business park. We need a larger office for our expansion, with another dozen staff likely to join by the end of 2015.
What drives your entrepreneurial spirit?
I never wanted to be beholden to someone else to give me a job – and when you run it yourself you make your own rules.
Who taught you the most important lesson in business, and what is it?
My O-level geography teacher. I studied the development of new cities in the UK. Milton Keynes was on our doorstep and he organised a two-day placement with Milton Keynes Development Corporation when I was about 15. I didn’t want to be an architect, they’re a small part of the bigger picture, but I became interested in the entire development process.
Who do you admire?
Seb Coe, for being a figurehead in the London 2012 Olympics and coming from a working-class background. A man of great integrity who is looking at a role on the international stage as IAAF presidential candidate.
Downtime, are you a sporting man?
I love skiing with my family and follow F1.
What’s your own house like?
An incredibly contemporary house in the Test Valley; open plan with huge windows and light, the sort of open plan living we enjoyed during a spell in Canada. I’m always trying gadgets and home innovation ideas out in it.
You have four children, what do they lean to for future career interests?
I have a daughter aged 33 who is a full-time foster carer and three younger children, a son of 14 and daughters aged 11 and nine. Family and work life balance is very important to me because the work-life balance was not good when my eldest daughter was growing up. I suspect my 11-year-old will be a business person of some sort, possibly even follow me into property. She’s interested in all aspects of business, absorbs a lot and quizzes me on it; something she’s done for several years.
Where do you go from here?
This is it. I spend most of my time at Bargate and the rest working with and mentoring other management teams, as an investor shareholder and non-executive director. Having just turned 50, more time in the gym is on the cards.