Real estate twins do nothing by halves

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

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Birmingham's failure to win the Millennium festival celebration will be a sharp disappointment to the Richardsons - but not a great surprise. The region's best-known developers have spent almost half a century watching namby-pamby southerners look down their noses and turn away - only to come back begging.  Don and Roy, universally  known as the twins, were ready to put up £10m to draw the festival into a site next to the National Exhibition Centre. But they will find something just as useful for their money. They always have.  And it will probably make just as many waves.

  The twins do nothing by halves - and almost relish the face-puckering  doubts by  outsiders about every ambitious development they try. 'If we had listened to so-called experts - even some local ones - we would never have laid a brick,' says Don.   Instead, the Merry Hill Centre wrote a chapter in property history during the Eighties, showing that the prosperous South did not have a monopoly on glossy shopping. The glistening 170,000m2 (1.85m sq ft) mass of glass and steel is reputed to have put more than £150m into the twins' pockets when sold to Mountleigh. It is still  making oodles of money for Chelsfield, the current owners, who want to expand even further.

   Then the neighbouring Waterfront complex, more than 92,000m2 (almost 1m sq ft) of state-of-the-art office and business space, wrote  a few more pages in the battle against prejudice. MEPC - no slouch at building its own glossy schemes - snapped up the 15,800m2 (170,000 sq ft) business park section as an investment. The Prudential, another out of property's top-drawer, has added a final sentence or two by choosing the 9,300m2 (100,000 sq ft) Point North flagship block out of hundreds of alternatives for its national telephone banking operation.

 'That was the biggest moment of our life,' says Don. One glance around his Waterfront offices explains why. The walls are smothered with aerial shots of dreary, semi-derelict industrial sheds and a massive, mud-engulfed wasteland - the Round Oak Steelworks before and after clearance. That could be put down to sentiment. 'Our house was here,' he says, waving at a spot just off the bottom of the picture. 'Around 5,000 people used to work there, although less than a tenth were employed by the end.'

  But sentiment plays no part in the Richardsons' makeup.  Next to each shot are views  of Merry Hill and the Waterfront now sprawling across the same land. 'There will be 10,000 people working there,' he says.  It is  everything the twins want to preach  about their home turf. A grossly-contaminated site, undercut by mineshafts, smothered with old sheds and far from fashionable locations can be turned into one of the most prime developments in the UK.

  'The Black Country has always been unfairly treated,' says Don. The  accent is still  so thick that whole phrases can be missed by an outsiders' untrained ear. But at least  Roy is unavailable while chatting up investors on a whistle-stop tour of the Far East. The twins have the confusing habit of finishing each other's sentences, making a conversation a bit like watching tennis.

 Not all the blame for neglect lies with outsiders. Local politicians are simply not banging the drum hard enough, he says. They have no particular axe to grind. Eight changes of power have been ridden since the steelworks site was taken and both major parties were given campaign space in the last elections.

  Such campaigning vigour was not uppermost in the twins' minds when they took on the site in the early Eighties. No masterplan for the two centres; no visions of gleaming buildings; and certainly no idea of the vast development profits. Just a vague idea that the enterprise zone benefits would attract businesses.

 In fact, they had done no development in their home town until then. 'I think we were last on the list of people the council asked to help,' says Don. 'I told them I would put Nissen huts on it. I think they thought I meant putting Nissan there,' he half-jokes.

  In fact the  first development in 1985 gave no hint of things to come, as it was pure industrial. Retail started on the other side of the huge site but this was an MFI box. Stores like Marks & Spencer came to the site - still a bleak wasteland -  and politely declined. But a year or so later they  were scrambling to get in.

  David Baker, who managed Merry Hill before moving onto the Waterfront is still amazed by the speed of transformation. In two years the Richardsons brought in the first free-standing Pizza Hut in the UK, the first drive-in McDonalds, the largest Texas store as well as a shopping mall. By 1989 there was a 10-screen cinema, several stores - including M&S - and the original malls had been extended and upgraded.

 'We were getting 120 coaches coming in with shoppers from a 150-mile radius by the end,' he says.

  All this on a site the Richardsons were told to ignore. 'Every  professional advised not to touch it with a bargepole,' says Don. 'Even the planners meant to be getting jobs into the region could not believe what we proposed.'

 Banks were also wary, although the Richardsons are even more shy of  borrowing.  Special pride is, therefore,  given to a letter from the chairman of one  top bank who  admits the twins were right all along.

  Success has proved to the twins that  gut feeling can be more use than financial analysis. They moved onto the Waterfront against similar scepticism but have created a new community complete with restaurants, bars, an hotel - and let 94% of the space to almost 50 companies.

  'There have been doubters, even within the region, but the Richardsons always seem to come up trumps,' says Andrew Venables of Grimley, agents for the Waterfront. Now with more than 46,000m2 (500,000 sq ft) of offices let and the Pru paying around £113/m2 (£10.50/sq ft), there is strong belief that the remaining small units can be got away at almost £130/m2 (£12/sq ft).

  Don Richardson fiercely believes his independence contributes to that success. 'We got the Pru because we owed no money to banks and had no shareholders to placate,' he says. They could build space to high standards, wait patiently for the right tenant and make 'flexible' arrangements about letting.

 The same determination has battered through scepticism to start  more than 24,000m2 (260,000 sq ft) of shopping next to Fort Dunlop. The scheme has sat around for years waiting for  access via the new Heartland Spine Road but was given a boost with the announcement of a new Jaguar factory next door.

 English Partnerships bought the main building as a base for component makers and the twins have bought out their long-term partner Tarmac. This time around it appears the big high street names want to get in at the start, as Next and Boots are already showing interest.

  If only the region could be kick-started so effectively. 'The problem is that it is short of big sites,' he says. 'It needs political will to assemble these but we have  never fought our  corner hard enough.

 'The people are OK; that's why the Prudential came here. And we have shown there is demand by letting the Waterfront in the middle of a recession.'

  The Millennium  Festival would have helped bend some prejudices but the twins will continue their personal campaign without it. So far they appear to have done pretty well without all the flag-waving.


1982 - Round Oak Steelworks bought

1985 - Phase 1 - MFI building.

1986 - Phase 2 - shopping malls, Carrefour store

1987 - Phase 3 - Childrens World, Pizza Hut, drive-in McDonalds,

                 Texas superstore. Malls extended on two levels.

1988 - Phase 4 - 10-screen cinema

1989 - Phase 5 - Debenhams, M&S, BHS. Malls upgraded.

1990 - Sold to Mountleigh


1991-95 - Phase 6 - 69,700m2 (750,000 sq ft) offices

          Phase 7 -  6,500m2 (70,000 sq ft) restaurants/bars

          Phase 8 - 15,800m2 (170,000 sq ft) business park