Hard work and network does work

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The Independent Online

The 2004 Olympic Games are three years away and the world's athletes are preparing to return the Games to historic Athens.

But that also means the expected influx of visitors and money is driving several major developments in Athens, with a host of companies touting for contracts, and architectural, and surveying and planning firm Miller Hughes Associates has been an early winners.

Last year the small Sussex-based company won the contract as the master-planners on what is to be Athens' largest brownland regeneration project.

The waterside development around the port of Piraeus includes plans to transform the area into a major leisure and retail centre, with a hotel and conference space as well as offices and apartments.

The historic surroundings of suburban Athens are a far cry from the offices at the back door of the Chichester branch of Iceland, where Miller Hughes has its headquarters. The company has worked with big-name clients including Heinz, Disneyland Europe and more recently the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Last year the practice notched up profits of around £600,000 on turnover of just under £2m.

Miller Hughes' roots go back to 1985 when partner Charles Hughes was headhunted to join Martlett, an estate agency business that wished to develop its own architecture and planning function. Six months later General Accident bought that firm, and in June 1986 Charles Hughes and fellow director Bruce Miller staged a management buyout of the architecture and planning practice.

But just a year after the company was formed came the 1987 Black Monday stock market crash, a precursor to the wider economic slowdown which hit the property market hard.

The fledgling company owed its survival to its multi-disciplinary approach. Miller Hughes focused its efforts on the areas of ongoing work, chiefly planning and surveying. "Between 1987 and 1991 we actually increased turnover," says Mr Hughes. "We never downsized during the recession. I think we're possibly among the only architects in Britain who can say that."

Also key to maintaining revenues was the decision to branch into a new area of expertise. Recognising a continuing demand, in 1990 Miller Hughes set up a specialist social housing division, poaching Chichester District Council's director of housing and chief housing architect to join them.

The new division accounted for around £500,000 of Miller Hughes' total fee revenues in its first year of operation. Mr Hughes says the company's approach to new business was another major reason for its success then, and later.

"We've got a very pro-active approach to networking," says Mr Hughes. "We don't wait for people to come to our door, we nag them to give us business. Quality is a baseline but one of the ways to get work is to have fun."

Miller Hughes got what was perhaps its biggest break during a networking session, watching the Barbarians play at Twickenham. Another spectator bought along a contractor who was facing a crisis on a Disneyland project. French employment laws made the government force non-European workers working for a subcontractor off the site. Mr Hughes seized the chance.

"I flew to Paris the next day and within the week we'd started on the site design." The company ended up working on several attractions including "The Haunted Manor" and "The Silver Dollar Saloon".

Miller Hughes built on its success. A chance meeting over a drink at a property conference was the beginning of a nine-year tie-up with Blue Circle.

After meeting Richard Spray, now head of group land at Blue Circle the two went on to form a business relationship that meant Miller Hughes worked as master-planners on a 100-acre redevelopment project at Barrhead in Scotland, which led to the project in Greece.

In 1994 Miller Hughes got another big break, this timefor Heinz on a baby-food factory in Russia. "It was a bit unusual for a company based at the back of Iceland," says Mr Hughes.

The firm has worked on the new headquarters for the RSPCA in Horsham, and been appointed master-planners on Barking Reach, a major brownland regeneration project on the River Thames covering leisure and commercial activities as well as a school.

Today the company employs 30 in Chichester, and is setting up its first full-time foreign office to develop further business opportunities in Athens.

The major issue for Miller Hughes now is how to develop the business. After retirement of Mr Miller in 1995 the company is 100 per cent owned by Mr Hughes, but he insists much of the credit is due to the people he employs.

"The biggest challenge is how to fuel growth by changing the ownership. The guys at the top need to be able to hand over the reins and ownership to people better than them. I'm planning to release some of the equity to younger directors to feed and sustain the next generation of growth."

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