It’s more than 140 years since the celebrated Victorian polymath, Francis Galton, coined the phrase ‘nature or nurture’ to neatly précis the ferocious debate about the relative influence of genes and upbringing.
It remains a classic conundrum, which comes strongly to mind as Neil Edginton settles down to explain the intriguing route by which he became a significant influence upon Birmingham’s fast-changing skyline during the last decade.
Like all Quakers, Birmingham-born Galton loved nothing better than a good debate, but even he couldn’t have denied nurture’s influence on the young Edginton, growing up in Solihull.
“Dad was a civil engineer, who worked for Severn Trent, and when the National Rivers Authority was set up, he was asked to run it,” recalls Edginton. “My earliest memory of weekends was being dragged round a multitude of sites, weirs and dams.
“I had two brothers, and was the youngest, so there was always a very competitive atmosphere, although I think my parents went through all the hassle with my brothers, so I probably had a bit of an easier ride.”
Regardless of upbringing, signs of entrepreneurial nous are usually seen early in life. One of the Midlands’ richest folk, Lord Edmiston, admits his first money-making wheeze was to ‘borrow’ plants from roundabouts near his home, selling them on the same estate. His venture went painfully awry when he knocked on the door of his father’s chum, but Edginton’s first ‘business’ performed rather better.
“I was 12 when I set up a car-washing round and employed two kids,” he says. “Eventually we had a massive number of customers, and we did it every weekend for quite a while, but then I got distracted by other things.”
For the moment, his fledgling entrepreneurial instincts were sublimated, but that pesky ‘nurture’ was at it again, when the teenager came to study A-levels. “I did maths, history and economics, but my parents really influenced those choices. I enjoyed economics, but not the others. The things I enjoy academically are those I can relate to in the outside world.”
Edginton’s later decision between university and work was a close-run thing, and he was on the cusp of joining his dad’s employer, Severn Trent, before taking a degree in town planning at what is now Birmingham City University.
“Like a lot of youngsters, at first you only know what you don’t want to do. Gradually though, I realised I wanted to do something which would be tangible in the outside world,” he says. At which point, the ‘nurture’ lobby encounter a serious challenge. For sure, taking a child in their formative years to see dams, weirs and other impressive structures might have a lasting influence, but although the three Edginton lads had the same upbringing, there were different outcomes.
“My middle brother is now a finance director for BT. I’m sure he enjoys what he does, but it wouldn’t be for me,” concedes Edginton. “I like to take something I can see and feel, and do something with it. Town planning appealed at first, because it provided an interesting background to everything which happened in the built environment.
“It gradually became apparent though that the work was about enforcement and I wanted to work at the sharp-end of property and construction.”
The shift began when Edginton joined the surveyors, Silk & Frazier [now Faithful+Gould], and was underpinned by ‘conversion’ classes in Wolverhampton every Wednesday evening. This meant a wearisome trek from Solihull, but his flagging spirits were swiftly restored when he discovered that his choice of employer had been hugely opportune.
For all the ‘nature-nurture’ debate, there is nothing to beat a big slice of luck: “Project management was a brand-new concept then, and Silk & Frazier only employed one person to set up and run their project team.
“It was exactly the job I’d been dreaming of, so one night I went to the bloke who did it, and said I wanted to work with him. He agreed, and from that point. I knew what I was going to do. I went back to uni to do a Master’s in construction project management part-time. It was a case of ‘right place, right time’, and I was getting great experience being involved in major projects.”
However, his next move came via an unexpected weekend call: “The phone rang, and it was Alan Chatham, who was a client at Silk & Frazier. I thought it must be a work-related issue, but he said: ‘I hear you’re on the transfer list. Have a chat with your boss, you’re coming to work with us on Monday.’”
Chatham, and his business partner Mark Billingham, had bought the old Royal Mail sorting office two years earlier, and were starting to create what ultimately became the most spectacular symbol of Birmingham’s renaissance – the Mailbox.
They needed an in-house project manager, and the ever-confident Chatham decided Edginton was coming on board. It was a stunning opportunity, and the nature-nurture debate immediately lost its relevance. From that day, Edginton’s achievements have been about talent underpinned by tenacity and, as always, the occasional lucky break.
“They’d only started on site in 1999, so it was a chance to build something amazing from the ground up,” he recalls. “It wasn’t just a job though, it was a lifestyle and you lived it seven days a week. It was a great time to be in the property market, and even though I played only a small part, it was a tremendous experience and a great learning curve.”
Three years later, Edginton was invited onto the board of Birmingham Mailbox Ltd, and then headed its joint venture with Urban Splash to transform Fort Dunlop from a derelict, long-abandoned industrial eyesore to another spectacular element of the city’s renaissance.
“It was a crazy building, it really was, and we had to get consent for the residential phase. I thought it would be amazing to have huge triple-glazed apartments within sight of the M6, but when Splash took it on board, they chopped out the resi,” he recalls.
“Fair play, they did a great job, especially as it had been empty for 22 years, but I’d still have liked to have seen those penthouses.”
For a moment, you see a gleam in Edginton’s eyes, and it’s clear that even a decade on, the lost opportunity still irks just a little. Then though, the Fort was swiftly forgotten, as Chatham and Billingham created their Birmingham Development Ltd in 2004, with Edginton on board as co-founder, director and shareholder, to bring forward the Cube.
Its long and fraught journey from ambitious concept through to successful completion, bedecked with awards along the way, and with high-profile tenants to satisfy any developer, has been oft-told, but it’s still interesting to hear Edginton’s thoughts on the highs and lows.
“I still love Ken Shuttleworth’s design. He had an awesome team, but what stood out was his ability to identify potential snags ahead of everyone. He was always doodling, always thinking, always problem-solving.
“We never wanted to build it ourselves, but when the likely contractor demanded a risk premium of £16m – having agreed £2m several months earlier – we couldn’t make the building work so we set up BuildAbility.
“At its peak, we employed 500 people directly, and were turning over £1m a week. Despite all the challenges, we still brought the £75m building in on time and £750k under budget.
“When Lloyds TSB called in the administrators though, it was the worst – and the best –
time of my life. PwC came in at the end of March, and it was the only time I’ve shed a tear at work, but then my daughter was born in April.”
The bank, which had previously funded the Mailbox, feared the Cube’s complex design was sending the project over-budget, and had concerns that Chatham and Billingham weren’t focusing as intently on the scheme as was required. However, Edginton swiftly built up a solid relationship with the bank, and as his role morphed from developer to asset manager, the challenging task began of shifting 500,000 sq ft of new Grade A space in the depth of recession.
The Cube’s first tenant, the Highways Agency, arrived in May 2010, and lettings for the
final 17,500 sq ft are now going through the legal process.
“It has been a difficult journey, but when you see the Cube now, it’s a building which has really found its own soul,” says Edington.
In parallel with the Cube lettings, he also set up his own development venture, EDG Property, which focused initially on delivering a £5.5m mixed-use scheme called The School Yard, built around Harborne’s Grade II-listed Clock Tower. Contracts have just been signed for its 54-week build phase, so Edginton’s attention is turning to two mixed-use projects elsewhere in Birmingham – due to be announced this autumn – while he continues to advise the funders of a major development scheme in Northampton.
However, as the months slip by, ever more of his time is being taken up on work for which the only reward is a sense of personal satisfaction, and a deeper understanding of the fickleness of life, raising funds for the Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
Edginton is a trustee of the Steelhouse Lane hospital’s charity, which helps treat some 250,000 youngsters from across the UK each year. He currently chairs the fund-raising committee, and at the year-end will also chair the charity itself.
“It’s a sobering experience visiting the hospital and seeing the children. You see how brave they are, and how they are suffering in ways which would be incredibly tough, even for an adult, and you want to make a difference,” he says – his usual effervescent chirpiness replaced by calm introspection.
“We raised £6m last year to pay for equipment and make amazing spaces in the hospital
“Now we’re trying to raise an extra £4m for a new cancer centre. The fund-raising is taking up a lot more time than I thought it would, but it’s so worthwhile, and it makes you appreciate your good fortune and everything which has gone right for you and your family.”