Mark Clare: Baptism of fire for the chief of one of the UK's biggest housebuilders

A day in the life: The housing sector is going through a torrid time. But the chief executive of Barratt Developments, feels it is well placed
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The Independent Online


The alarm clock sounds on the dot of 6am, and Mark Clare's first action is to fire up his Blackberry to check the morning's press coverage of Barratt Developments. Of late, those early-morning trawls have made for a masochistic start to the day for the chief executive of one of the UK's largest housebuilders, a sector that has taken a battering in the markets during the past year.

He says the pressure has been particularly fierce in the past few months, and his usual day-to-day schedule has been "quite materially changed" as he has taken on the dual role of chief executive and fire fighter. Yet after news of a refinancing deal and group restructuring last month, Mr Clare's Blackberry has eased up.

Breakfast is a spartan affair of toast and decaffeinated coffee, a diet advised by his doctors at his last medical, who bemoaned his habit of going to work on an empty stomach


Mr Clare is in the car heading for Barratt's London headquarters just off Oxford Circus by 7am, and the journey from his home in Hertfordshire takes about an hour. One of London's central shopping and tourist thoroughfares is just coming to life and Mr Clare admits he enjoys the buzz of the area "as long as you keep away from Oxford Street itself".

The group was founded in 1958 by Sir Lawrie Barratt in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, initially to build homes for first-time buyers. The group boomed in the Eighties and Nineties and – but for a rocky patch when Sir Lawrie was forced out of retirement to get the business on track – this continued until last summer.

The financial director, Mark Pain, is already at his desk by the time Mr Clare walks in, and the two have a quick catch-up before the day starts in earnest. Shortly after 8am, Mr Clare holds a conference call with the group's executive team and all its operational regional directors to review the weekly sales figures. Within the hour, they have built up a pretty good idea of the conditions facing Barratt around the country, in a market that Mr Clare says is "incredibly tough".


The executives also discuss the customer concerns during the call. "The number one factor still concerning people is over getting mortgage approvals, although fears over declining house prices are rising," Mr Clare said. This often helps shape the agenda for the week, and today Mr Clare has a chat with the group's mortgage finance team and calls up lenders to discuss the state of the market.

The state of the housing market is not good, something that Mr Clare is all too aware off. The sector has been smashed in the past 12 months as mortgage lending has dried up in the wake of the credit crunch, house prices have fallen and the value of companies' land banks has crumbled.

"We just don't know what is going to happen in the short term," Mr Clare said. Sector analysts have become increasingly bearish, and a report from UBS last month saw no prospect of improvement in the mortgage market until 2010.


After some correspondence to customers who have written in with questions, concerns "and even some thank-yous," according to Mr Clare, executives get together to discuss ways to "break the log-jam" in the buying market. The builder is increasingly looking at plans to encourage buyers, including shared equity schemes, in which the housebuilder would retain a part of the property.

Mr Clare's introduction to the housing industry has been anything but quiet. He replaced David Pretty as the group chief executive of Barratt in 2006, with little experience of the sector after training as an accountant and 12 years at British Gas. By the following February, he had sealed the landmark takeover of smaller rival Wilson Bowden in a £2.2bn deal, which for a few months became the largest housebuilder in the UK. That was the high point.


Mr Clare meets shareholders in the office. Investors had feared the situation at Barratt had become so bad, it faced the prospect of an emergency rights issue. The shares plunged last month on talk it would breach its banking covenants. It shrugged off these fears as it announced a £400m loan and new banking covenants with its lenders HSBC, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB. This came despite the fact one of its biggest rivals, Taylor Wimpey, was unable to secure financing of its own several days before.

The shareholders react pretty well to the refinancing plan as Mr Clare takes them through it, and the group also outlines how it intends to manage costs and control the balance sheet in the coming year.

Mr Clare is used to being in the line of fire. He was the head of British Gas's residential energy operation when it was caught up in a maelstrom of criticism around price hikes in 2006. As the public face of the company, he remained unfazed by the calls for boycotts of the group from the energy watchdog and talk that the company was going to be bought.

Despite 2008 looking decidedly bleak for the housebuilders, he maintains the situation at Barratt is nowhere near as bad as those days. "There was so much uncertainty back then. Now there is quite a lot of certainty over the mid term."


Lunch is a sandwich at the desk and Mr Clare checks the company's share price, although says recently this has become less important, as he believes the value of the company and the share price have become "disconnected". The shares have spiralled from over £10 a year ago to almost £1 yesterday.

Mr Clare pointed out that the net asset value of the company is about £2bn without debt. "This is a short-term pressure on the value of land; no one is making land any more, so the trend should reverse in the long term."

The short-term pressure is also reflected in falling sales. Barratt announced earlier this month that its total completions in the year to June had dropped 13.8 per cent, and private completions were down 18.4 per cent. Mr Clare admitted: "House prices could fall to levels we haven't seen for tens of years."


Mr Clare is in the car on the way to one of its two major divisions in London to talk with managers and meet staff. He said: "I try and get out to sites as often as I can, and try to do it at least once a week."

Mr Clare and the chairman, Bob Lawson, who joined this year, are in the middle of an unofficial tour of the group's divisions round the country. "After the recent turmoil, I want to meet everyone and answer their questions."

The west London division is at the old GlaxoSmithKline Art Deco building just off the M4. Barratt is turning the site into luxury apartments, along with shops and amenities. "The whole site is being transformed – I get a real kick out of seeing this sort of regeneration," Mr Clare said. It is expected to complete in the next two years.


After overseeing one division, he is back on the road to Stratford, the group's other London base. The company has seen huge opportunity to develop in the area, considering the vast investment coming in related to the Olympics in 2012. Barratt also has been pushing its green credentials with a "green house" in Watford and low-carbon housing in Bristol. Mr Clare also chairs the UK Green Building Council on zero- carbon homes once a month.

Despite all the turmoil in the market, Mr Clare believes that Barratt is fundamentally sound and will be in a strong position for growth in the medium term. "The position is we need more homes in Britain. Barratt is one of the biggest housebuilders in the UK and we, as well as others, will have to step up. The key challenge for us is mortgage lending. It is clearly going to take time, and will follow a recovery in the banking sector."


With the site visit over, so is Mr Clare's day. He attends industry events twice a week, but tonight he heads home, getting back to Hertfordshire at about 8pm to spend some time with the family and relax. Unfortunately, his relaxation plans are scuppered as his 12-year-old daughter is having a sleepover with a load of friends. "They have a lot of energy," he sighs. After he eventually gets some time to himself, it's off to bed, although not before one last check of the Blackberry.

Name: Mark Clare

Job: Chief executive, Barratt Developments

Age: 50

Education: Prices Grammar School, Fareham, Hampshire; Portsmouth Business College.

Career: Palmer, Riley & Co; GEC Marconi; Nortel; British Gas; Barratt Developments

Interests: Playing tennis, holidays to his house in Spain