"I am the culture" - Tony Pidgley's lessons growing a small business to the FTSE 100

The founder and chairman of FTSE 100 housebuilder Berkeley Group on the challenge of keeping control of a growing company's culture.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 01 May 2019

If you were so minded, you could divide businesses into two categories: those that are still run by their founder and those that aren’t. The division usually corresponds to the maturity of the company – small, nimble and entrepreneurial vs large, efficient and risk averse.

It gets interesting when the founder has grown their business into a giant, yet remains in control. It’s rare, because few people have a diverse enough skill set to run both a start-up and a heavyweight corporation, but in theory it promises the best of both worlds.

Tony Pidgley is one of the few. He started a haulage firm in his teens, selling to Crest Nicholson in 1968, at the age of 21. That earned him a place on the board, experience that served him well seven years later, when he left to set up Berkeley Group.

The London-focused housebuilder benefited from the capital’s immense late 20th century property boom, but also from Pidgley’s canny approach to the balance sheet ("Cash. Always cash," he explains when you get him on the subject. "The power of money."), which enabled him to make counter-cyclical investments that paid off big in the long term.

Having taken the business public in 1985, Pidgley brought it into the FTSE 100 in 2015, albeit as chairman – he stepped down from the MD’s chair in 2009, in favour of his FD Rob Perrins, who remains in the position to this day. That’s not to say, of course, that Pidgley has in any sense stepped back from the business. He remains intimately involved in both strategy and operations.

Management Today spoke with him about the particular challenges for a founder of running a business with over 2,000 employees.

When there’s four or five of you, it’s quite clear what your culture is – you can see it every day. How well do you know your culture now?

Pidgley: I am the culture. You’re not late for meetings with me. You don’t tell me you’re going to do something and don’t do it. I’m the disciplinarian – it doesn’t mean you have to like me. I see the board every two weeks, I go round all the company, I see each new show house - I have to see the standard of the product.

It’s my DNA, it’s my hobby, it’s my life. I enjoy it. It’s no different than if you like to go out on a bicycle on the weekend. I’m just nosy. I want to know that house is built right, where that site is, are we on programme.

It’s relentless attention to detail, a work ethic, a dress code we expect. You have to have manners, because we take the view that everyone’s a customer. That culture forms over the years, but once you’ve got it, it stays.

You try presumably to hire people with the same attitude?

Pidgley: Oh yes I do, but I don’t always get it right! What I look for at interview is do you present yourself well, do you make eye contact – just common sense and decency. If someone turns up and they’re not prepared, they’re not for us.

I invariably ask what’s your strongest point, then two seconds later I ask for their weaknesses. If they say they haven’t got any, I know they’ve just told me a whopper. We don’t want people trying to be something they’re not. You should just be yourself.

Does that get harder, as a leader, when your business becomes high profile?

Pidgley: I can’t go out now on a Friday night like I did when I was 18 and get a bit legless – it’s not acceptable any more. I can’t get road rage. At the end of the day, you do have to behave in a different way, but you can still be yourself. It comes back to common sense and decency. I can be quite tough at work, telling someone to pull their socks up, maybe use a bit of French as it were, but when it’s all over, you have to have manners. It’s good evening, thanks for all you’ve done and tomorrow’s a new day.

Image credit: Berkeley Group

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