Tough setback proves pivotal for Gradon

When Graham McDarby was made redundant from his job as director of Newcastle-based Ryder Architecture, the 43-year-old was forced to take a hard look at life, he tells Ruth Lognonne

Talented architect Graham McDarby always wanted to set up his own business and so took the challenge in 2009, by launching Gradon Architecture with his wife Donna.

Growing the business steadily between them, the couple were gifted the opportunity two years ago of buying a listed church in Ryton and turning it into a design studio.

Dropping its ecclesiastical title and becoming NE40Studios, the former church has become the home of Gradon’s now 12-strong workforce – in more ways than one.

“We bought the village hall next door and converted it into our home,” said Graham. “Our offices are quite literally at the bottom of our garden.

“We don’t work the traditional nine to five, so it’s perfectly suited to us. It also gives us the flexibility of juggling our family life and actually, believe it or not, gives us that ideal work life balance which we both craved.

“When I left Ryder, my wife and I took a long, hard look at our lives. I was 39-years-old at the time and I knew it was now or never to take the risk.”

And the risk seems to have paid off for Graham, whose practice has embraced the difficult challenges faced by the construction industry to successfully grow into new sectors and international market places.

By the year end of March 2012, Gradon achieved an annual turnover of just under £400,000 having originally targeted £250,000.

For the past two years, Gradon has achieved healthy profits of around 20% - 25% of its annual turnover.

All profits have been reinvested into the growth of the business and have helped to completely finance the development of its wholly-owned offices at NE40Studios.

This provides the practice with base for future growth and also generates income by offering desk space opportunities to local business start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs in a co-working environment.

The practice continues to forge new relationships with public and private sector clients across the North East.

It has worked on a variety of local projects, including student residential and social housing projects within Gateshead, Durham and Stockton and has also delivered a range of sport and leisure projects and specialist education facilities.

Gradon is also growing an international reputation, currently working in Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

With support from UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), within the last two years Gradon has increased its international business from zero to 30% of the company’s total turnover.

Its futuristic design concepts for a renewable energy tower known as the E-Cobra has made it into the final three of an international competition to design an iconic structure for the International Specialised Exposition (Expo) to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2017.

Graham, who has just returned from a business trip to Mongolia, says tapping into the lesser-known international markets is more a voyage of discovery than anything else.

“Mongolia isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” he said. “It might not necessarily appeal to everybody but first and foremost it’s an adventure.

“We’ve got no desire to be a huge architectural business – we want to be very personal and we decided Mongolia would create a bit of fun along the way. If the opportunities are out there, we thought, why not?

“We’ve got a couple of commercial projects going on in Kazakhstan and a residential apartment scheme in Sydney.

“We’re also helping out a group of Newcastle University students who have been going out to Uganda eight weeks at a time for three years, to build an orphanage.

“It’s a bit of charitable work we’re helping them with and we’re thrilled to be able to do this kind of work whilst also nurturing the region’s talent of the future.”

The son of a painter and decorator, Graham grew up in Blaydon and regularly visited local building sites with his dad.

He studied architecture in London before graduating from Sheffield University in 1993.

Following an architectural tour of Europe in 1993-94 he went on to work for a number of architectural practices including Geoffrey Purves Partnership, John Edwards Architects and FaulknerBrowns, before joining Ryder in 1995.

Graham believes keeping the team young has ensured the practice remains dynamic and full of energy.

He is also a great advocator of broadening his team’s education and life experiences and will shortly be taking them on a study trip to Poland.

“It’s great working with people in their mid-20s because they keep me on my toes,” he said. “We took our first study trip to Venice and we’d like to be in a position to go abroad and study architecture as a team year on year.

“Architects are traditionally very good at spending other people’s money, but we’re not like that.

“It’s relatively easy to design something like The Shard, in London, because money is no object.

“For us it’s about the client’s needs and budgets and for that, we have to be flexible.”

In just four years, Gradon is racking up a healthy supply of industry gongs, including a North East Constructing Excellence Award for its sensory design of North East Autism Society’s New Warlands Farm – an agricultural training centre for people with autistic conditions in County Durham.

It’s been a rapid period of growth for Graham’s diverse architectural firm, but the entrepreneur’s feet remain firmly on the ground.

“We want to sustain what we’ve grown to be,” he said. “Our workforce may grow from 12 to 15 in the next two years as we win more projects, but we never want to lose that sense of personal service that we’ve grown a reputation for.”