The exclusive career Q&A with a senior figure in UK housebuilding is this week focused on Karl Lockley, joint managing director for Lockley Homes, a luxury housebuilder in the Midlands, who takes us through the path that led to his current position and his thoughts on careers in our industry.
Karl, please tell us a little about yourself and Lockley Homes.
The company is headed by myself, my brother Tom Lockley and our chairman Martin Fitzpatrick. We initially refurbished properties, then moving into building one house at a time, and now on larger developments of up to nine homes.
We started by creating decent student digs out of old pubs, and after several of these we had accumulated a cash-pot that we decided to use on what you might call, illustrious housebuilding. We started with two homes in Great Witley, near Malvern in Worcestershire, which went really well.
Then we used the money from that to design and build three bungalows in Drakes Broughton, near Pershore in Worcestershire. These sold quickly off-plan via online marketing. We realised that our bungalows were definitely a bit unique.
As you walk through the hallway to the back of the bungalow there are double-vaulted walls with cathedral-style windows, and buyers seemed really keen on them.
The next development was for six units in Feckenham, near Redditch in Worcestershire, three of which were bungalows with the same sort of design but with a few changes to features, and this time we built three cottage-style homes as well. Again, these all sold quickly off-plan, and we gained around £400 per square foot in sales, which is pretty strong for that part of the Midlands.
Now we’re on a new project in Colwall, Herefordshire, with another three bungalows and six houses. We started this in mid-April and will be finished by Christmas, and we’ve only got one property left to sell.
We’re slowly building up the volume, and are looking to have two or three sites going at a time in the future. But we don’t want to go too far on numbers, as we like keeping control of everything and maintaining high quality. It’s also nice to be able to bring a personal approach to sales and meet all of the customers which you lose if you grow too big.
What’s been your career path?
Myself and my brother Tom are very much in this together. Tom’s on site, in his high-vis and boots, and has all the construction skills, while I’m in a suit in the office, meeting landowners, lawyers and planners. We’re opposites, chalk and cheese, and through combining our different skills we’ve got real strength.
After school, Tom went straight into construction for various companies learning the trade from the bottom up, while I went to the University of Reading to study Real Estate, Investment and Finance. A few years ago we just thought we knew enough to put our own business together, and it’s worked from there.
Are there any mentors that have been particularly inspiring?
When we moved into the Drakes Broughton development, we teamed up with an investor called Martin Fitzpatrick, of the Sandpiper Group in Warwick. Martin has since become chairman of Lockley Homes and he is an established developer across all sectors – industrial, retail, office and residential – and he saw something he liked with our work and decided to invest in our company.
He’s become a mentor, bringing all his experience into our business, advising us on how to gather the right team – the right consultants, architects, lawyers, finance experts and so on. And from that platform he’s helped us to build things to another level, showing us how to be distinct and different.
Martin’s also provided us with that wider, calmer head, inputting long-term thinking into the business plan, and not letting us get too excited too quickly. He’s not just a shareholder, he’s our mentor and we wouldn’t be where we are today without him.
What is it about your current role that you most enjoy?
Both Tom and I enjoy the camaraderie we have on our sites. As well as us we have a fantastic team. Richard Kelley is our construction manager, and we’ve recently appointed Darryl Swallow as our operations manager, and between us we pull together a good group of contractors, encourage team-thinking and show everyone the respect they deserve.
That starts on site where we work hard and ends on a Friday night over a beer, and that way of dealing with people not only keeps morale high but also maintains high quality in every aspect of our work. We’re all in it together.
Personally, I also enjoy finding good sites and the thrill of making good deals. We have also recently appointed Elizabeth Williams as our land director. Liz brings a vast wealth of experience to the team and we are already in the process of acquiring exciting new sites.
Have training, recruitment and HR changed a lot since your first experiences of them?
I guess my main experience is of our own company, and if you start with us and you’re young, keen and hungry we’ll throw you in at the deep end. The best way to develop someone’s skills and for them to learn is through trial by fire.
That said, health and safety is a big feature on our sites, and we’re very conscious of everything we have to have in place, and carry out all the right procedures, with the thorough inductions and training that go with that.
We go over and above what’s required on health and safety because we think it’s crucial, and that gives the team confidence in what they’re doing and contributes to our quality.
Are there roles in housebuilding that we’re in particular need of at the moment?
Definitely, as most specific trades seem to be dying out, with not enough young blood coming through, which is worrying. Roofers, brickies, plumbers, electricians – all those trades are in short supply, and there’s a shortage of apprentices with the right sort of attitude.
That means a lot of our guys are a bit older, and have great experience, which is all very good for the present but I do wonder how this will work in, say, 20 years time, as we’re currently relying on experience.
One way around this could be through looking at advanced technology in new build with properties that perhaps don’t rely on certain trades as heavily. I’m talking about things like prefabricated buildings on timber frames, and that’s something the sector is starting to look at.
What’s your advice to those considering or applying for a job in UK housebuilding right now?
If you’re talking about housebuilding as a business leader, then I’d say not to bother unless you like hard work! Seriously, I come across a lot of people who say things like: “I fancy a bit of housebuilding or development”, and they ask for my advice about possibly changing or diversifying their careers, and I just don’t think it’s that easy.
We’ve been very lucky as two brothers, both armed with bows but with entirely different arrows, me on the professional, front-of-house roles, Tom deeply involved in construction. It would be very easy for someone without either skill to be taken for a ride.
Therefore, my advice for anyone wanting to become a developer would be to make sure they – and possibly their business partner – have a thorough understanding of both construction, and a background and knowledge of real estate and finance.
Having both sets of skills in a deep and trusting business partnership is what’s behind the growing success of Lockley Homes.