Thirty years ago, Fred Story built his first house. Since then he has expanded his businesses, owned a football club, won countless awards and given thousands of pounds back to communities. Paul Robertson charts his remarkable career.
As Fred Story reflects on being one of Northern England’s most successful entrepreneurs, he says: “I strongly believe that ‘doing the right thing’ – whatever that means – is the most effective and successful way to do business.”
We are sitting in the head office of Story Homes and Story Contracting in his beloved Carlisle, a converted RAF complex made
as good as new by the contracting arm of his business, just a few miles from where it all began.
“My dad was a small farmer and market gardener with cattle and sheep,” says Story. “I grew up there learning practical skills with my brothers, Billy and David. We all had a bullock to look after and then sell it to make money. We also grew vegetables and sold produce at the door so I was making good money at 12.
“When I went to Nottingham polytechnic, I dabbled in the stock market and made quite a bit of money investing what I made from the farm. I never gave it a thought until recent years, but it was all a great grounding as far as running a business is concerned.”
On graduating, Story had no interest in taking on the family farm – “I wanted to be an architect but wasn’t clever enough, so became an engineer.” He had watched his brother, Billy, a plumber, buying houses, doing them up with the help of improvement grants and selling them on.
Having married childhood sweetheart Vivien and while working for John Laing construction, then Thomas Armstrong, in Cumbria for eight years, he spent his spare hours following Billy’s example.
By the time he was 30, Story had bought a small farmstead and set about converting the barn into a family home, with four plots of land behind it – all mortgage-free, such had been the success of his investments. “My wife insisted that this project was finished before we moved in,” he says. “Previously we had lived in caravans while conversions took place and one time a mouse jumped out of the Cornflakes packet during my daughter’s breakfast time – that was the last straw.”
It was also to be the catalyst for a business that 30 years later is about to see the number of employees pass the 1,000 mark and turnover hit £290m. He was hands-on, labouring on site, as the small plot became the first four Story Homes – the very first of which is still occupied by the family who bought it.
“My passion was civil engineering but housebuilding was a route to get there while I got on tender lists,” says Story. “In the first year, we made £130,000 profit and Vivien was teaching in the local junior school. We were selling people houses in our back garden and their children were going to that school so it made us very accountable. That accountability has been a real driver for the business to deliver a quality product.
“Our motto is ‘Do it right’ – sounds very straightforward, but it means all the decisions people make. We only employ sub-contractors who go above and beyond to provide a high-quality finish using the best materials. We pay them on time and they do a great job. It is important the people who work for and with us have the right culture and values as well as the skills.”
Story Homes now has 30 schemes in Cumbria, the North East and the North West of England, as well as Southern Scotland, with regional offices in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Chorley in Lancashire. It is aiming to build more than 800 homes this year and sell 1,000, with its sights firmly set on becoming the best quality house builder in the UK.
The past six years have seen the biggest growth and Story is refreshingly honest as to the reasons – the business had outgrown his capacity, while owning Carlisle United became a huge distraction.
“Like many family businesses we had a flat structure,” says Story. “Business had plateaued at £60m turnover over seven years, coinciding with the fact I had bought Carlisle. I was making every decision and the business had reached my capacity.”
Story brought in non-executive director Peter Stybelski, who put a structure in place, improving the recruitment process and leading to the appointment of Steve Errington as Story Homes’ financial director in 2012 then chief executive in 2014, with the owner becoming chairman.
He was keen the transition maintained the traditional strengths of a family business while encompassing the best parts of the corporate world – without what he sees as the madness displayed by many highly-profitable companies that damage the business by driving profit to reward shareholders rather than deal with making a little less money in tough times.
“I have given real responsibility to people I have confidence in rather than me thinking I know best on everything,” says Story. “When Steve came, there was a massive land bank because I had always invested in the business, we saw explosive growth, we had the brand and then a facility with Lloyds Bank for the first time, which has also been invested.
“We demerged Homes and Contracting. Story Homes’ model is about family houses at the quality end on a volume basis. I am an entrepreneur and always thought I could buy the land, get planning, build, make profit and reinvest but we had six or seven sites that didn’t fit the new model.
“We tried to dispose of them but three quarters of housebuilders got wiped out after 2008 due to the difficulty of getting finance and the domination of the big builders – there was nobody to buy the sites. So, we set up another company – Reiver Homes – to develop them.
“We are totally committed to creating a quality product and to the satisfaction of our customers. We are all proud of the homes we create and we attract staff that share a sense of pride in what they do, something that can’t always be found easily in the industry. I am very proud of the fact houses are still advertised for sale in local papers as Story-built houses 15 years after they were built and that we were recently awarded five-star builder status for the third year running.”
Story Contracting is also experiencing rapid growth. The business has three areas of operation: construction, rail and plant. The plant division provides diggers and machinery to the business as well as the wider rail industry from bases in Edinburgh, Cumbria and Yorkshire and is growing by approximately 25% every year.
The construction division carries out works in Cumbria and South-West Scotland. Projects vary from factory extensions to bridge and road works, infrastructure and maintenance of industrial and commercial properties.
The rail division has grown rapidly to £35m of revenues, with projected growth of 25% a year. The company has a five-year framework agreement with Network Rail, providing secured workstreams in North-West England and Scotland, facilitated by delivery teams based in Glasgow and Cumbria.
All employees will be invited to a 30th anniversary family fun day at Carlisle racecourse in September, which will include Story in the stocks. The company is also setting up a special anniversary fund planning to give £1,000 to 30 charities, on top of an existing fund where organisations in the communities in which Story operates can apply for sponsorship.
At six-foot eight, Story is an imposing figure, having honed his talents and competitive spirit on the rugby field, but family is the most important thing in his life. Having been married to Vivien for 36 years, they have three children. The eldest, Emma, is head of operations in his construction division, currently on maternity leave expecting their fifth grandchild, while Ruth runs a holiday lettings business and son John celebrates his 30th birthday in this anniversary year and is currently financial director in the contracting unit.
Story is delighted that two of his children have followed him into the business but says there is no pressure on any of them. “As for me, I am just learning to be chairman and the company likes the fact I put all the profits back into the business. We all want a business that grows and to be proud of.”
What of the future? “There has never been a masterplan, it’s a case of we do that well so let’s do more of that,” says Story. “It is about continually pushing that flywheel and making it go faster. There are landmarks along the way but they are not the difference between success and failure – it’s about focusing on driving the business forward, making all the sacrifices and ensuring our customers are happy. I wouldn’t do anything else.”
A funny old game
In 2004, Fred Story took ownership of his local football club, Carlisle United, in its “hour of need” after being relegated from the football league for the first time in its 100-year history. He oversaw the club’s most successful four-year period, taking it from the Conference League to the Division One play offs, and transformed it from a loss-making business to a stable profit-making entity before passing the club on to fellow directors in 2008.
Yet it is something that brought him little pleasure and caused a short-term dip in what until then had been a stellar growth.
“We had been in The Times Fast Track 100 for three years running having gone from £2m to £8m,” explains Story. “The last entry said we had just bought the local football club – and my son said there would be no more entries after that.
“I watched Carlisle United as a fan when Michael Knighton owned it – he was very successful for the first five years then it turned sour. I went to see him and effectively said I would give him some money if he cleared off.
“Then an Irishman, John Courtney, who was a great guy, became owner and I sent him a cheque because he had saved me money by buying it. Of course, he then spent a year trying to get me on the board.”
Eventually he agreed, along with other new directors, and began the task of putting structures in place to run it as a business but the club was in dire straits and went bust before plans could be implemented.
“I should have let it go into administration but my ego took over,” he says. “I did one important thing in paying off the debts as it had daft loans that were draining the blood out of the club. I kept out of the football side, made sure my job was the same as it is in business – provide people with the right environment – in this case manager Paul Simpson.
“I focused on getting the commercial department right and improving the fans’ experience. We did really well and made profit, but I hated owning it – I was just two thin-skinned. It doesn’t matter how well you are doing there was always abuse. People told me not to buy it. You learn from mistakes and I learned to listen to other people. I don’t regret anything but football is a tough gig.”
It made Story an even bigger name in Cumbria and there are not many fans who wouldn’t welcome him back as owner – but the chapter in that particular story is complete.