This month’s cover feature focus is on Phil Graves, Founder and Director of the well-known, Sussex-based independent property practice, Graves Jenkins. SBT took time out to speak to Phil about his career journey
Phil Graves, Director at Graves Jenkins, celebrated 35 years in the property industry on Valentines Day and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to interview someone who has helped shape the city landscape and influenced the property world throughout Sussex.
Sussex Business Times caught up with Phil at the popular Bill’s restaurant, opposite his city centre office.
“I started at Stiles Horton Ledger (now SHW) on Valentines Day 1983 on the first floor office which is now Al Duomo Pizzeria. Although it was a relatively small team, it was a very busy office and there were some quality agents and surveyors there under the stewardship of Robert Stiles. It became a bit of a breeding ground for many prominent figures in the industry for the region,” commented Phil.
“I was made a Director aged 23, the youngest in the firm’s history and had an immediate passion for the property industry. However, I became a little disillusioned after the firm sold out to the Alliance & Leicester. Although financially rewarding, I simply didn’t have the same job satisfaction working for a faceless Building Society. I wasn’t sharing an office any longer with the decision makers.”
So, in 1991 Graves & Company was born, albeit there wasn’t much company at the time. Phil shared an office in Portslade Old Village with a property colleague, but was a one man band.
“It was certainly a culture shock and I used to arrange all of my viewings on a Wednesday afternoon because that was the day my now-late father, who did all of my bookkeeping, came in to cover the phones. It still makes me smile now. I borrowed some money off my parents to start the business, thinking I would pay them back (according to my business plan) in nine months. It didn’t quite work out that way as I actually had to ask for some more. Cash flow was pretty tight in those days, but it was a great feeling when I took them both out for dinner some months later and paid the entire amount back.”
“It was a natural partnership as ‘Jenks’ covered a different discipline, but there was an obvious crossover for clients. It took off straight away and when the first cheque came in, rather than simply splitting it 50/50, we ended up flicking a coin for £100 a time so that we could remember the occasion – I ended up four to three and a strong bond was made from that day.
Two years later, we expanded the business further by bringing in Chris Halls, who ran a sizeable management portfolio and who is still Co-Director at Graves Jenkins to this day. We started to establish a business that could look after the needs of anyone involved in property. A real multi-disciplined practice with a range of clients who can benefit from the expertise in each area. This is very much our ethos today.”
Not satisfied in making a big impact in the city of Brighton, GJ then opened an office in Crawley in 1997, with some more ex SHL employees, in the form of Neil Cooper and David Bessant. A trend was beginning to be set.
“We all worked together previously and they had both forged careers in London, working for large practices, but still lived in the area and had ambitions to have a greater say in the running of a business. We therefore opened GJ in Crawley and were able to offer the same range of specialist property services for the town and wider area covering Mid Sussex and Surrey.”
It was in 2001 however, that the business suffered a big setback when Richard Jenkins sadly passed away.
“It was devastating at the time, as not only had I lost my partner in business, but a close friend. Chris and I had to regroup and plan for the future without him, but we never considered renaming the practice as a mark of respect for what he had done. I’m sure he would have liked the way the business has grown.”
By then Graves Jenkins had established itself as one of the leading property advisory practices in the region, offering the core traditional values of the industry, but with a modern twist.
“We have modernised our logo and brand appearance over the years, updated the offices to create the right environment and have attempted to hire the right staff for the right positions. We are now up to over 30 staff members in the two offices and are still seeking more key members for certain positions.
It is always a difficult challenge to try to create a culture that works for everyone, but we do have a high staff retention rate and some have been working with us for over 15 years, so we must be doing something right.”
The acquisition of the long-established firm, ML Surveyors, last year is the most recent addition, which strengthens the valuation team and brings in an additional service of building surveying. The Sussex and Surrey region remain the company’s main focus, but the professional services stretch to the Isle of Wight, Kent, Hampshire and South London. Very few firms seem to be able to offer the same depth of knowledge in so many sectors and covering such an area.
“We steered clear of residential sales and lettings for a long time as none of us had been in that market, but we were being offered the work from existing clients, so we decided to take the plunge. For about twelve years we offered a traditional estate agency service and did well, but with the advent of the Rightmove property portal, estate agency was to be revolutionised, so we changed with it. Everything is more visual and online now.
The residential side excites me as we are beginning to build a reputation for solid performance and advice. We were recently appointed on the former Astoria cinema site in Brighton, which will shortly be demolished and replaced by a strong design-led building, and we will be offering 71 exclusive private apartments with a high range of facilities, which could include a gym, a cinema room, secure bike storage, open plan study areas and more.
We have a number of client schemes either going through planning, being built or about to be released and we could have approaching two hundred units for sale very soon. Many high street agents have moulded themselves into one look, so you have to be different and I feel our USP is the full understanding of the development process and the advice we can provide. Developers agents, if you like.”
Phil talks with so much enthusiasm, it becomes infectious and it is a trait in most successful business personalities. When asked about any recent headline deals to report, Phil reeled off plenty, including bringing The Ivy restaurant to the Brighton Lanes, acquiring a multi million pound shopping centre for Wealden District Council, acquiring a major Bank investment for a private property company and bringing together a number of student developments to the city, which will house almost 1,400 students and should take some of the pressure off HMO’s and family homes.
Such is Phil’s passion for the city, having spent his entire life both living and working in Brighton, he has also been involved in two other high profile cases, namely the football club and Saltdean Lido.
“I was asked to assist in brokering a deal to remove Bill Archer and David Bellotti from Brighton & Hove Albion FC. It was at the time that the club were in dire straits and I acted for Liam Brady, who himself was fronting the proposal for an unnamed party. We managed to get a 12 month extension on the Goldstone Ground and eventually the directors walked. Little did I even know at the time that it was Dick Knight who wanted to invest and the rest is history. I was once removed from a meeting when Archer and I became a little heated during discussions when I wouldn’t name my client – the irony was that I didn’t know myself at the time.
I also purchased the long leasehold interest on Saltdean Lido with a partner back in 1995 and managed to save the pool from being concreted over by the Council. I lived in Saltdean at the time and having learnt to swim in the pool and wanted my two young sons to do the same, I thought it was outrageous that the Council wanted to close the facility. We acquired the site, built the family pub, reinvested the money into the refurbishment and reopened the facility. We sold it in 1999, but its great to see it attracting Lottery Funding now to secure a long term future as a community pool.”
The company also acts on behalf of a number of other high profile sports and leisure related businesses, including Sussex Cricket Club and a few golf clubs.
“It’s all about increasing revenue outside of the main trading seasons. In the case of the cricket club, I sit on the Estates Committee and we are always looking at ways of working the site and facilities to generate income outside of the cricket itself.”
Sussex seems to be always at the heart of the company activity and Phil stresses the need to invest in the county with all professional and trade services to ‘keep the wheels turning’. This also includes his commitment to fundraising and his legendary charity golf day, in association with The Argus Appeal, which he has organised for many years, culminating in raising over £100,000 for good causes. The Rockinghorse appeal also receive a donation for every new property instruction received.
Ryan Heal, CEO at Rockinghorse added: “Although Phil is very well-known in local business circles, his charitable work deserves a special mention. We have benefitted hugely from his generosity. He is always willing to attend fundraising events and he contributes generously. We are incredibly grateful for his charitable efforts.”
The company also regulate themselves through being members of the RICS and the Brighton & Hove Estate Agents Association (BHEAA), with Phil being appointed as President in 2010. They are also co-hosts of Construction Voice, a quarterly property and construction seminar for the decision makers in the industry, alongside the Brighton Chamber of Commerce. In addition, Phil is an Executive member of the Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership, which works with stakeholders in devising the economic strategy for the city.
“I am very proud to have been President of the association, an honour which I took very seriously. It is very gratifying to be recognised by your peers. As a company, we try to integrate into the business community and to stimulate positive economic activity in the industry.
GJ has a philosophy of working as a team and I have been lucky to have some co-directors whom I respect and enjoy working with. We are also committed to succession planning and graduate training to provide further employment opportunities.
It’s been an incredible journey. At one stage I knew every client and every property instruction, but with the working volume now, it is impossible for me to be personally involved, and although I am pretty hands on, I am happy to rely on the capable team around me. We could not have expanded without the loyalty of some long standing clients and some of them have been with us since the start.
And for the future? I still enjoy doing deals and don’t ever see that changing.”
For any further information, please visit www.gravesjenkins.com