Siobhan Cook, managing director at property firm Archco, is building a slice of Essex, development by development. Mike Hughes meets the boss whose company has just recorded growth of 1,532%.
The fact that Siobhan Cook is a mum and a business leader is underlined by a few hiccups in our interview schedule. The first slot was written off because of a “nightmare” day at the office involving issues with sub-contractors and then the rearranged time was lost as well, this time because someone had run into her car – with the children inside.
Thankfully everyone is okay and her profuse apologies and friendly manner when we talk later that day bring out another big part of her character and her company’s success – she’s really easy to get on with. Cook is managing director at Archco, an Ilford-based developer that started out doing restorations and is now focused on new builds, including luxury homes at Kenley in Surrey and family homes at Abridge in Essex, both due next year, and apartments in Epping to be completed this year.
The astonishing 1,532% growth figure posted by the company won her an equally-astonishing title when the Financial Times named her, at the age of 34, as the boss of the UK’s fastest growing female-led small business. It has been a rapid, but controlled, ascent from the moment she left her previous job on a trading floor.
“When I was pregnant with my daughter [now 11], I made a decision to have a career change and looked back at my training as an interior designer,” she says. “I was working for some people looking over properties and the market was doing nicely, with places like Stratford and Walthamstow being developed, but still relatively cheap in comparison to now. After the baby was born, I started going to auctions and picking up some cheap properties myself to flip them.”
Cook had already built up a trusted team of tradespeople and sub-contractors and started looking at the next stage, buying plots and building the whole thing from scratch if cash-flow allowed. The niche that Archco started to occupy was buying cheaper land without planning permission and taking the time to get the permissions in place for just one or two houses, rather than stretch their finances – already being carefully controlled – for pre-packaged plots.
“The growth then was really fairly organic and steady,” she says. “The plots just started getting progressively bigger and the permissions we went after were now for three or four dwellings, and then up to five or six and now we are doing blocks of flats with mixed commercial and living space and some extreme growth.”
She talks of this in a calm and reflective way, as if describing a busy weekend of events. But this is a hard business already populated by a number of seasoned veterans – almost always men – who are protective of their business and their particular patch. Who was this young woman coming in and changing the landscape under their feet?
Her personality – so friendly and yet, I imagine, not the sort of person you would want to cross at the boardroom table – is important. Particularly as a relative newcomer, she needed to get on with people and build relationships at the same pace as she builds homes.
“In some ways, we have been fortunate that the market has gone with us and given us a really great run at a time when other developers were struggling so that by the time 2008 came along there was a lot of property available at the same time as we had a little bit of cashflow,” Cook says.
“Do you know what? I truly believe being a woman has worked in my favour. I think you will always get the element of people” – she pauses as she chooses her word carefully – “pressuring you because you are a woman and there is not that instant confidence they might have for a man who has been working in the industry for a long time.
“But it is normally dismissed pretty quickly with me because I make an effort to talk to as many people as possible and they realise I know my industry. Once they get past the whole ‘woman’ thing and see that you know what you are talking about there is a new-found respect.
“There are a lot of high-testosterone men out there who can be difficult to deal with and are quite rude and aggressive because they feel they need to exert power. I think it is nice for people to see that they don’t get that with me.
“I also think that for some men it is all turnover, turnover, turnover but I honestly don’t want to grow too big. Our turnover will be about £6m, and I always aim for around 20%-30% to be profit, all without needing to be a mass developer and have my ego rubbed.
“I have a strong character, born out of a working-class family and a very East End upbringing. My Dad had scrap metal yards my whole life and had always worked for himself. I started working early, after leaving school at 15 and going to work on a trading floor – another male-dominated industry – and I learned very quickly to get on with it and make my mark.”
She admits to not being the most skilled of students, and is therefore delighted that her 11-year-old daughter seems very promising and might even be university material, while her six-year-old son is either going to move into football or construction.
“I certainly have two very different children,” says Cook. “But I instil into them that a good work ethic is everything and can carry them through. They will want to make their own way, but I would love it if perhaps my son decided on the construction side of things and started moving into the business – but perhaps even that is a bit stereotypical.”
The landscape she’s changing goes north from her Ilford base to the Chigwell and Epping area and south to Sydenham, below the Thames. It’s a decent patch, with lots of potential, and she feels at home there.
“Everywhere seems so busy at the moment that I have almost been tempted to go out and do some building work for other people because there has been such a demand,” Cook says. “The way the economy is going, I doubt there will be many lulls in the construction sector around for a while, and that confidence is reflected by most people I talk to, so I would be quite happy for my son to take on a trade because they are constantly working and often for really good day rates.
“For me, it is all down to work ethic, grit, determination and a positive attitude. If you do what you know you are capable of and believe in yourself then the people that you work with and that surround you will see that, and believe it as well. Otherwise, you are going into jobs and thinking ‘I’m not sure I can do that’ and that means you won’t be able to.
“You also have to build good relationships because people have to want to work with you. You could be the greatest entrepreneur in the world, but if people don’t like you it is very hard to do business.”
The evident enjoyment she gets from her success and tackling the challenges of leading a 21st-century business is slightly tinged by regret that it is all happening as her children are growing, but the same ethics are at play here as well – building a strong relationship means people aged from six to 66 have a better chance of understanding what is going on and appreciating the reasons.
“It is so hard,” she confesses. “Of everything I do, this is the most difficult balance to find because, at my age, this is when I need to be working my hardest and it is a juggling act between my home life and my work life.
“The very fortunate thing is that I have a great family network and there are parents and aunts and uncles to give the kids time if I’m not around. I think it is so important for new entrepreneurs to have a support network because when I was first setting up the business I found it really hard to get it established and could never switch off at the end of the day, but now, with the support I have, I am finding it easier to say, ‘I’ll talk about it tomorrow’.
“But the kids get it. They know this is what I have to do and hopefully as they go forward in life it will be something they will have as well.”
As the business grows over the coming years into something well worth the sacrifices, innovation will become ever more important as land becomes scarcer and competition tougher. Cook’s mind is a sharp as any in the sector and a literally ground-breaking partnership with a Methodist church in Abbey Wood could signal one way she will keep ahead of her rivals.
With churches, charities and schools struggling to make ends meet and keep on doing their good work in the community, Archco is looking at the land they might have around their buildings and seeing if a deal can be done to develop spaces that might have seemed unusable and put some revenue back into the coffers. It’s a business deal, but an imaginative one that will be snapped up by communities that thought they had reached a dead end.
Companies like Archco, with their loyalties so deeply embedded in the region, are a vital player in the South East, if bosses like Cook can continue to make the most of the spaces that link a community together.
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