Colin Cole of Lioncourt Homes
Entrepreneur Colin Cole has built Worcester-headquartered housebuilder Lioncourt Homes into one of the UK’s fastest-growing businesses. He reveals the secrets to his success.
Colin Cole started off his career as a junior accountant but found himself restless in almost every position he held.
Like many entrepreneurs, he was determined to progress and found himself moving from company to company as he looked to constantly better himself.
Following roles in hospitality, business services and even the defence sector, it wasn’t until 1984 when he joined Westbury Homes and realised he had found ‘the right job for him’.
Growing up in Gloucestershire as the son of an aeronautical inspector and a school canteen assistant, he always had an interest for architecture and design, which made Westbury the perfect fit.
Joining the housebuilder as a junior accountant, Colin found himself in the middle of a management buyout just 12 months after joining the company.
The MBO proved a huge success and the company went on to join the London Stock Exchange just 18 months after its acquisition, and again, Colin was at the thick of it.
“The big change for me came when I joined Westbury in 1984, everything came together,” he says. “I joined as a part-qualified accountant.
“During my time there I went from a junior accountant to one of only three executive directors in the business when the company was sold to Persimmon in 2006 for £950m.
“We’d grown the company from a small regional housebuilder through to the seventh largest housebuilder in the UK. It was quite an experience.
“I wouldn’t take credit for its growth however, we had a great team and I was fortunate to work with them. I enjoyed it and it was very very successful.”
Having been involved in raising the finance to help grow the company, Colin was also responsible for the disposal of it, he’d helped the company through the full cycle.
Then, following the sale of the company, he made the brave decision of going it alone with the launch of Lioncourt Homes.
“When Persimmon took over Westbury they were very good to me,” he said. “They offered me the same terms and conditions as I was on and even the shareholders agreement from both sides showing I was staying with the company, both sides agreed on that.
“I just felt that I wanted to do something different. I pulled a business plan together to launch a new housebuilder but I wanted it to be different. The difference being that I wanted it to be built on quality: quality of build, quality of design and a quality service.
“I wanted the company to stand out as being something very special in the industry. It was a very brave decision as on the Friday I had 2,000 people reporting into me and on the Monday I was sat at home on my dining room table by myself on my laptop.
“It’s times like that where you think to yourself, ‘what have you done?!’ I had to think of everything, what is the corporate livery going to be, where will my first site be, how will I get funding? Luckily, I met a couple of wealthy individuals who backed the company to start with.
“This helped us get up and running and a very good colleague of mine from Westbury, Neil Chandler who is our finance director, joined me and we built the business from there.”
But why name it Lioncourt? “I had lots of names," he said, "at first I wanted to name it after the town I came from Burleigh, but Burleigh Homes had been taken. I came up with a few ideas but couldn’t decide on one.
“The guys that backed me, their business was called Lioncourt Investments and I was telling them how I couldn’t think of a name. I had got used to using the name Lioncourt and asked them if I could use their name. They were absolutely delighted.
“There was no more thinking to it than that. Somehow the Lioncourt name feels like it has been around a long time, that was my logic behind it. “
It has since been 10 years since Colin launched Lioncourt and the Worcester-headquartered company is now the fastest growing housebuilder in the UK.
But, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. He added: “Our first site was in Newcastle-under-Lyme, it was made up of 26 houses and apartments.
"We had to knock down an old working mans club to build the site and we had to build them a replacement behind the site.
“The one thing I remember, that I didn’t expect, was that when we opened our sales office, people were coming along and thinking to themselves ‘oh they’re lovely, we’d love to buy one’ but a few of them were saying they had never heard of us.
“They didn’t know anything about us and were worried in case we went bust, what would happen? This would never happen with Barratt for example, as everyone knows them, nobody would even think of that issue. I hadn’t thought about the reservations people would have over us being a new housebuilder.
“Over the next few years this eased as people got used to the name and we started going in the right direction. That was the biggest issue I can remember. Even though we had great marketing delivery and all those sort of things, I never expected that to happen.”
Launching in 2006, the business was launched just two years before the recession hit. However, Colin believes this helped the company get off to the best possible start.
“You could say we started the business at the worst possible time to start a new business, we launched it in 2006 and started on our first site in 2007,” he added. “Then in 2008 we went into the biggest recession in living memory. That was a tough time.
“The thing I would say about that though, is people would say to me ‘corr you started at a bad time’ but we actually started at a very good time. When we formed the company in 2006 it was relatively easy to get investment and it was relatively easy to get bank funding.
“Having managed to get all of that in place, we went through the recession and proved to everyone that we knew what we were doing, we boxed clever through it. In fact, we increased our sales through the recession.
“In our first year of trading we sold 14 houses then in the first year of the recession we sold 51. At the recessions peak we pushed it onto 90 houses, the banks and everyone could see we really knew what we were doing as we were liquidating our assets and paying off our debt.
“We had a bank that had really bought into what we were doing and the investors felt the same. Then when we came out of the recession the banks were falling over themselves to help us, the same goes for our shareholders.
“The truth is, if I’d started the business today, last year or the year before, I don’t think I would have got the bank funding. I don’t think banks are in the same frame of mind where they will support new businesses, they want to support existing businesses. Interestingly, there’s good and bad in all of that. I think those early years were tough to get going but actually I think it’s tougher today than it was then.”
Braving the recession and coming through it unscathed, Colin had not only his shareholders but also the banks on his side and as the company continued to grow he made sure all of the company’s profits were being reinvested in the company to ensure it continued growing.
Lioncourt wasn’t just going to be another local housebuilder, he wanted it to become an industry recognised name: “It was always going to be a large business. It was never going to be buying the odd plot and building houses on it.
“The first site we bought in Newcastle under Lyme was 26 units, the second was 76 and the third was 141. They were all big sites. Very quickly the whole industry was looking at us and thinking ‘who are Lioncourt and where have they come from?’
“Nowadays we wouldn’t dream of buying a plot of less than 50 homes. We build in a range from 50-200 now, that’s the range we operate in. Even in the early days we had that. Our target was always to be the largest regional player we could be and we’re still well on track for that.”
LionCourt has also been boosted by the fact that it is now one of only 14 housebuilders in the country to receive a 5* Home Builder Customer Satisfaction rating by the UK’s House Building Federation (HBF).
The surveys, which are conducted independently by the body, take into account the views of customers through their own research to see how satisfied they are with the service they have received when buying property.
Colin said: “We stand out by being different and through our quality. The problem is that lots of people talk about quality but they don’t mean it. We mean it and I can demonstrate our quality quite simply by pointing to the fact that we are only one of 14 housebuilders in the whole of the UK with a five-star quality badge.
“To get to that status, we have to get consistently 90%+ customer satisfaction ratings. The Housebuilding Federation conducts a series of surveys taking in the views of customers from its members. They contact the customers directly and the feedback goes back to them, you can’t influence it. It’s fantastic for the industry.
“Over the last two years we’ve achieved 5*, you can’t get higher than that. We’re very proud of it. Everyone who goes onto our site sees that achievement, it’s what we’re based on. It has driven our growth, we are the fastest growing housebuilder in the UK. Over the past two years we’ve also been named among the fastest growing 100 businesses in the UK by The Sunday Times’ Fast Track 100 league.
“The key thing for me is that we want to be successful but we want to be successful in the right way. The culture we’ve built, the effort and drive the staff have has really pushed us along. There’s a special culture in this business and it starts from the lowest level right the way through. We encourage everyone to make their own decisions, we don’t dictate from the top.
“We’re very untraditional in terms of the housebuilding industry, it’s a very macho industry where usually a few people dictate everything with a rod iron that flows through the full business. What we have is everyone throughout the business making their own decisions, I may be steering the business but it’s out staff who drive it and make it happen.
“Everyone takes great pleasure in all of our achievements and because of this, we were named Housebuilder of the Year just two months ago, it’s a prime example of how we work. Our culture is very special.”
And Colin is determined to ensure the company retains its 5* status, something which has been a real driver in its recent growth spout. So much so, he actually conducts his own market research, unknowingly to his staff, in order to ensure every customer is satisfied.
“What I do on a random basis is I make arrangements,” he said, “nobody in the company knows who I’m going to, but I make independent appointments to meet customers. I go along, sit down and have a cup of tea and ask them about their experience with us.
“It’s not a way of taking them down a path, it’s a set of open questions so they can tell us whatever they want. That ranges from how they’ve been treated, what they think about the house all the way through to if they’re happy with how much storage space they have.
“There’s no better way of getting feedback from our customers. I chair our product group where we refine our product offering and I report back with all of the information I gather. As staff, we don’t live in the houses we build so we need the views of those that do to make sure we’re constantly progressing.”
What started as an idea being drafted up on Colin’s dining room table 10 years ago has now spawned Central England’s largest land owner and one of its biggest housebuilders, as well as one of the UK’s fastest growing businesses turning over £55m annually.
“Looking forward we will continue to grow,” Colin concluded. “We’re hoping to get above the 500 units in a year mark which will take us to £140m a year turnover and we’re well on track to achieve that.
"We’ve got 40 sites under our control at the moment and we’ve just setup satellite offices in Milton Keynes and Reading and are set to open an office in Bristol.
“This year we’ll turnover around £55m which we expect to see rise to £140m over the next two years.
"We now have 75 full-time members of staff as well as many many contractors who we work very closely with.
“We’ve grown quite significantly but I feel that there is still so much more to come, that’s the exciting bit.
"We’re only at the tip of what we can achieve.”