Anyone who can demolish the Eton College boatyard for redevelopment must possess a very high degree of nerve.
The echoing strains of the Eton boat song and hundreds of years of College history on the River Thames must surely have given Bewley Homes uneasy feelings when it first spotted a development opportunity on this historic site, overlooked, as it is, by Windsor Castle.
Andrew Brooks, Bewley’s recently appointed managing director, seemed guardedly pleased about all this. He had been Bewley’s land director for several years and approached Eton about their boat houses which they now rarely used because, after centuries on the Thames, they’d moved their oarsmen to the safer Dorney Lake.
“They told me they were proposing to redevelop the boat houses, and the upshot was that they asked us to help them.”
As you may guess, there’s a wealth of background detail to all that. For a start Brooks is no stranger to competitive rowing, so when he talked to the College about its boatyard he was on familiar territory.
It all began when he went up to Shiplake College, Henley-on-Thames, a small boarding school – numerically about a third the size of Eton – whose major sport is rowing. Brooks had the satisfaction of being in the Shiplake eight that out-rowed the mighty Etonians. He went on to represent Great Britain as an oarsman.
The Eton Boatyard redevelopment involved the creation of 13 residential units on the highly sensitive river frontage facing Windsor Castle. To me it all seemed a bit like walking on eggshells to the sound of sharp intakes of breath from all quarters. However Bewley negotiated the planning consent nevertheless. But perhaps on tiptoe.
In fact working in this kind of environment is something of a Bewley speciality and Brooks points to another potentially tricky undertaking – the conversion of the Grade 11
Douay School into more than 30 apartments – as a further example.
It seemed to me that as a private individual, as well as a businessman and a developer, he is entirely at home in his company’s sphere of operation – Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey and
Buckinghamshire. And to an extent this is due to his long spell as Bewley’s land director, working under his father, Colin – former managing director and founder of the company.
Clearly he has a high regard for dad and when I asked Andrew about his preparation for joining the family business he gave me a novel explanation.
“I am a graduate of the University of the Breakfast Table. From the age of seven I heard all about the problems of housing development before my father went to work, and interest in
the business has stayed with me ever since.”
So, what came after the breakfast table? A three-year building management course at Oxford Brooks, followed by several years working in the land department of the family firm.
“Nepotism? Not likely! Working with father, he was keen not to be seen to favour me and he was harder on me than the others. The land directorship was not vacant for quite some time. I had to wait my turn.”
Now, as MD since last Christmas, Andrew Brooks has what many today will see as an enviable situation: there’s no bank debt. Bewley Homes is a plc with one major shareholder and
the hands-on backing of an independent venture capital outfit, Spring Ventures UK.Hands-on means Brooks meets the VCs formally once a month, but talks to them informally more often than that on the telephone.
He is clearly enjoying his new role as head of a team of 40-odd which includes board directors responsible for finance, commerce, land and sales. Design is largely in-house with recourse to independent firms of architects. All the practical building trade requirements are also contracted out – always to trusted local firms employed by Bewley for decades.
“The product range is broad. It’s from two bedroom apartments in towns such as Newbury, Reading or Basingstoke, to six-bedroom mansions in their own grounds. The link between them is the quality, which remains the same, and designs re distinctive so long as they suit their surroundings.”
All this activity is taking place according to a plan involving a sharply rising turnover. It was £40m last year, is projected to be £75m this year, topping £90m next year. The five-year plan has a goal of £150m and Brooks seems confident this will be achieved now the bank-led recession is becoming a fading memory in Bewley’s world, the admittedly rich world of Home Counties England.
Visiting Andrew Brooks in Baughurst, Hampshire, it was not difficult to understand his enthusiasm for his lifestyle. For the company’s HQ is in a rambling country house with useful
outbuildings, all settled comfortably in leafy quietude. It would not have surprised me to hear the ‘pock’ of tennis balls after I’d parked my car. Yes, it’s a rich area of England, which Brooks has known all his life and I imagined as he talked fondly of his wife and family – at Sherfield-on- Loddon ten miles away – that he hopes his two sons, both under ten, will soon be occupying that comfortable seat of learning: the University of the Breakfast Table.