Michael Marx: So what's a nice boy like this doing in a business like property?

He resembles Groucho, shares a name with Karl, and spends time with Gerald Ronson and Jack the Ripper
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is something depressingly corporate about the headquarters of property group Development Securities. The reception, on a busy, dirty junction by Victoria station, offers views across London but is otherwise a hushed, beige-and-marble space, devoid of personality.

Except, that is, for a red-and-white splash in one corner. In a small glass case sits a signed Arsenal football, the result of executive deputy chairman Michael Marx - a season ticket holder for 12 years - splashing out £5,000 at a charity auction.

The football looks out of place in its corporate identikit surroundings and gives a hint of something more interesting behind the façade. With a market value of £170m, Development Securities is, at first glance, hardly the stuff to set pulses racing. Yet it has embarked on a bold strategy, building a string of mixed-use developments. Many in the industry speak highly of it

Likewise its boss. Marx, 58, may share a surname with one of history's most radical political thinkers - and indeed bear more than a passing resemblance to a Marx brother - but at first he is quietly spoken and polite, giving little away.

As the interview goes on, however, he shows a more animated side, including a passion for the sector, theories about Jack the Ripper and a mean impression of property tycoon Gerald Ronson. He even relates how an uncle claimed to have built a family tree linking them to both Karl and the Marx brothers (no one was convinced and the uncle died before proof could be found).

Marx joined Development Securities in 1994 and shortly after he began a policy of buying central London offices. "We did it more or less from a standing start. The company wasn't known for anything.

"By 2000, we had developed a successful business. But in 2000, the City market come to a juddering stop."

So the group had to reduce its reliance on London offices. "Even today, towards the end of 2005, we're still cautious about the City," he says. "Canary Wharf has sucked 100,000 jobs down river. When I was 20, the City was full of people in bowler hats. The streets were black with people. Now it's quiet. They have gone and they're not coming back."

The resulting strategy was to sell its central London offices and focus on mixed-site developments, the first of which was the £1bn PaddingtonCentral site in west London. Sitting beside Paddington Basin (rival Chelsfield's project), it includes shops, homes and offices - Kingfisher and Prudential are tenants.

Development Securities is now taking this model to the regions: new projects include developments in Chester, South- ampton and Liverpool. Institutional investors fund them, though Development Securities often puts seed capital in as well.

"Development has been associated with rape and pillage," says Marx. "We think that's extreme. We regenerate the urban environment so people can enjoy what's being produced and benefit economically."

Marx runs Development Securities with three others. "My position is to lead, not dictate, and to test how we manage the risk." The latter is one of the reasons why Development Securities is often mentioned in the same breath as bigger rivals.

"This is how a little company like us has achieved a brand on a par with the big boys," says Marx. "We punch above our weight. We get an idea and take it to the institutional funding market. They know risk and can withstand the cycle's ups and downs.

"It may be that small companies are going to be overlooked. But we came to the conclusion that we needed to be better rather than bigger. He adds: "I was the proponent of the better-not-bigger debate - and it was won."

Statements like that echo those of his headstrong former boss, Gerald Ronson. Marx was "quite happy with life" when in 1981 the tycoon, later jailed for his part in the Guinness scandal, made Marx, his accountant, "an offer I couldn't refuse" to work for Heron, Ronson's property group.

His father, who came to the UK from Germany in 1933, was horrified. "Why would a nice boy like me want to give up an annuity for life? But I wanted the challenge. I couldn't have stayed as a chartered accountant. I would have just gone mad."

Accused of being a crook and a bully by some, Ronson is seen as a genius by others - such as Marx. "Straight talking - he's not afraid of anything, and I'm not afraid of anybody. To see somebody go through those difficulties, to see the way he dealt with them and led from the front, was fantastic. I often still think 'how would Gerald deal with that?' "

Not that Marx is blind to the, shall we say, unreconstructed parts of Ronson's character. When he decided to leave Heron in 1994, "I told Gerald I had to answer the last question: 'Could I do this on my own?' Of course, he said 'no you can't. Now stay where you bloody are'." He paus- es. "I've cleaned that up a bit."

Another thing he inherited from Ronson was a belief in the use of handwriting to ascertain personality. Every job application is sent to Hannah, his Israel-based graphologist. He even got her involved when a friend thought he had stumbled on the diary of Jack the Ripper.

Sensing scepticism, Marx argues at length. After the interview, a book about James Maybrick, the suspected Victorian murderer, arrives at The Independent on Sunday's offices.

But it is Development Securities that raises the most passion in Marx. "I want to take the company safely through its next phase, establishing it on a national basis. Where that takes the size of it, I don't know. It's possible that we will go to £500m, and if it does, that will be terrific. But that's not the objective."

He believes that will take five years, by which stage he will be 63. He looks horrified, mumbling "where has it all gone?" before adding: "I so enjoy what I do. To stop is to punish oneself."

BIOGRAPHY

BORN: 10 June 1947

EDUCATION: Kilburn Grammar School.

CAREER

1969: qualified as chartered accountant - Milne, Gregg & Turnbull

1971: senior auditor at Price Waterhouse in Zurich

1972: senior auditor, Touche Ross

1974: joins HW Fisher & Co, becoming partner in 1978

1981: joins Heron as finance director, becoming commercial director

1994: joint managing director and finance director, Development Securities

2004: deputy executive chairman and finance director

Other positions: non-executive directorships at shoe retailer Stead & Simpson and Fibi Bank UK, part of the First International Bank of Israel; member of the UK Listing Authority Advisory Committee.

Comments