Affordable homes from the man who lost millions

Business Profile: How Country & Metropolitan's chief bounced back

With house prices still holding up so well, it seems a contradiction to put the words "affordable housing" and the "South-east" in the same sentence. Bringing affordable housing to the area is Stephen Wicks' great passion, but buyers may have to help out with a bit of extra DIY.

The chief executive of the housebuilder Country & Metropolitan is talking about building and selling one-bedroom flats in north London for about £100,000. "My main passion at the moment is to drive down the cost of homes to make them more affordable for more people," he says. "I'd like to be the market leader in low-cost housing in the country".

"The ideas I have for the South-east, for instance, include selling houses undecorated. You can't expect first-time buyers to tile the roof or whatever, but people are far more geared up for DIY now and if that saves money, why shouldn't they do it themselves?"

His background, combined with the fact that he had made and lost millions of pounds - all by the time he was 40 - go some way to explaining why affordability is a topic close to his heart. Money was tight when he was growing up and his childhood was marred by personal tragedy. His father, who managed a fruit and vegetable shop in North-west London, died when Mr Wicks was 17.

"We were a pretty hard-up family," he says. Referring to the death of his father, he adds: "I was thrown in at the deep end, being the eldest of the three of us [he has two brothers]."

Those two factors undoubtedly spurred him on and brought out his entrepreneurial streak very early on in life. "My first enterprise was when I was 13 - I bought 500 plastic bags and filled them up with leaf mould from the local woods and then sold them as peat round the doors," he says. "I've always found it brilliant when I could earn my own money so I've always had a series of those type of things."

He left school at 15 with no qualifications to speak of, became an apprentice electrician and, by the time he was 20, had started his own electrical contracting business, wiring up new houses, poaching a few of his first boss's customers along the way.

That eventually gave way to land-buying. "When I was about 27, one of my clients said if I ever found any building plots, he'd give me the price of what he'd pay for wiring one as a finding fee. So I went off and found quite a few plots and within about 18 months to two years, I was earning more money finding building plots for builders than I was wiring houses."

By the time he was 30, Mr Wicks had set up his own housebuilding business, which during the peak of the 1980s property boom was building about 150 homes a year. One of his brothers was, by then, running the electrical contracting business.

That he has enjoyed such success without acquiring any formal qualifications is a subject he finds tricky to tackle when trying to enthuse his four children, aged between seven and 21, about education. "They say: 'You've done all right without any qualifications so why are you pushing me so hard?'"

Not that his career went entirely to plan. Sky-high interest rates coupled with falling land prices forced him to pump more of his own cash into the business to keep it going.

It didn't work. "On 5 December 1989, I had to call the receivers in, having put back pretty much all my money to keep the whole thing going." He lost the lot. "That was a glum time for me."

Not that it deterred him from trying again. Just a month later, he set up Country & Metropolitan "from a room in Rickmansworth, feeling a bit sorry for myself". He says: "I started off with the princely sum of £10,000 which is all I had left, having made millions in the 1980s and lost the lot."

Initially, he set about taking options on sites before working with various housing associations and, eventually, building properties again. As it turned out, it was not such a bad time to start a property business since many in the industry were still trying to fix their own problems. "As a fairly early victim of the recession, I was able to get back on my feet and build this company a lot earlier in the cycle. There were some very good deals out there to be done when there wasn't too much competition."

The experience of making and then losing all his cash in the late 1980s meant the second time around, Mr Wicks took a totally different tack with Country & Metropolitan. "It changed my philosophy. In the previous company, it was limited to a small area of North-west London and the South-east. So when I started again, I didn't want to do that and, in 1993, we set up an office in Wetherby, Yorkshire. Given what's happened, I think what we've done is justified."

The company moved to a full listing from Ofex four years ago Mr Wicks' stake is now worth about £5.2m. It is looking at completing nearly 1,000 homes this year, has had people camping outside its sales offices up north to get their names on the list for a two-bedroom £68,000 home. "We literally can't build them fast enough," he says.

Only 27 of the 643 homes Country & Metropolitan built last year were in the South-east, but Mr Wicks is keen to change that, and is considering buying small businesses to help him get there.

Not that he is getting complacent - he concedes the market in the South-east is slowing, driven partly, he believes, by a lack of affordability. But he insists there is still huge demand for property all over the country - driven by factors such as divorce, more people living alone and people living longer. He concedes that the demand hinges on interest rates not running up too far from the current base rate of 3.5 per cent.

"We can probably cope with a 5 per cent base rate reasonably well but we couldn't cope with a 10-12 per cent base rate and if we went back to 15 per cent, we'd all be stuffed."

STEVE WICKS - BUILDING IT UP AGAIN

Position: Chief executive of Country & Metropolitan

Age: 52

Salary: £231,000

Career: Left school at 15, set up own electrical contracting business at 20 before moving into land-buying. Set up first housebuilding business at 29 and founded Country & Metropolitan in 1990.

Interests: His four children, gym, guitar

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