THE MT INTERVIEW - Tony Pidgley, Berkeley Group

In MT's annual poll for 2003, his company Berkeley Group has come top of its sector for the third year running. But this adopted son of gypsies has had his private life dissected and attracted much controversy.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 16 Feb 2015

It's not often that the boss of a plc with a billion-pound turnover attracts the adjective 'colourful'. It's true that over the past 10 years the spinmeisters who control the presentation of top business leaders have allowed a more three-dimensional character picture of some of them to emerge into the public eye. Colourful, though, is another matter.

Most companies like to portray those who sit around the boardroom table in more manageable black and white, if not pinstripe. Colour and a healthy share price are not thought to sit well together.
Tony Pidgley, however, comes with an aura of colour both round him and trailing a rainbow in his wake - and we should be thankful for that. He's a Barnado's boy-made-good, who presented his Dagenham Cleavage to the nation as he bent down to finish some paving on one of his building sites in 1998, in Back to the Floor on BBC2. He has had his marital vicissitudes splashed across the redtop tabloids, and the Pidgley family soap opera took a credulity-stretching twist when he had to face down his own son plotting a takeover of Berkeley behind his back.

There's enough in the life of Pidgley for a Technicolor epic.

In the past year, interest in the Pidgley phenomenon has reached a feverish level. All the way from his highly publicised divorce to a sticky patch over corporate governance, a hack-pack from Investors' Chronicle to the Daily Mail has kept on his tail. 'I suffered for years at the hands of Tony ... Inside the £1 billion feud family, by jilted wife', screamed the Sunday Mirror.

For its part, the Financial Times was, in its own way, no less noisy: 'Berkeley admits to pay gaffe: Homes group wrong to backdate MD's £1.2 million incentive' ran a headline. Even the driest of analyst's notes from Citigroup Smith Barney - not documents usually noted for their loose use of adjectives - described Pidgley's organisation as 'maverick'.

Down at the Berkeley group's HQ in Cobham, Surrey, Pidgley is behind his large desk surrounded by papers and files. His office is done out like a drawing room with deep carpet, swagged curtains, ornamented shelving and many pictures of his family. Maybe it was dressed by one his teams who do the Berkeley show flats. Pidgley, now 56, is a shortish but quite stout man with a warm, fleshy face and a pair of powerful-looking hands.

He also has a small and unexplained patch of blood on his shirt. This is not connected with the serious problem he is currently having with his knee. 'My doctor's just told me I should have a week off. No! There's too much of that sort of thing in our country. You get a bad toe and have a week off!'

He is an engaging man and is straightaway eager to put his side of the story over the governance row. The facts are as follows. During the dog days of August this year it emerged that Berkeley's remuneration committee had retrospectively awarded its managing director £1.2 million under a long-term incentive plan that he had not initially been a member of.

Pidgley's total package had been a handsome £4.7 million in what had been a very good year for the company. Indeed, the past 10 years have been highly satisfactory as Berkeley's trademark plush city apartments and top-of-the-range executive homes have ridden the rising market and delivered steadily increasing profits. The company was the pioneer and is now the UK's leading specialist in redeveloping often difficult brownfield sites in inner cities and turning them into luxury housing. In a country obsessed by property - buying it, selling it, improving it, watching endless television programmes about it - the Berkeley brands, which include St James and St George, achieve almost BMW levels of desirability in their target markets.

However, in August it became apparent by what appears to have been a costly error a couple of years ago that Pidgley had not had his name put down for the LTIP plan when it was launched. But because the Berkeley board felt he was entitled to the cash they stuck to their guns while admitting: 'We feel it was unfortunate and undesirable. It won't happen again.' Guardians of City morals immediately smelled blood.

Both the National Association of Pension Funds and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) - noisy new forces in the corporate firmament and from which we will be hearing plenty more in the coming years - were quick with their condemnations. As a result, Berkeley suffered one of the biggest shareholder revolts in recent memory as almost 47% of investors registered their disapproval and Pidgley was dragged into the Fat Cat Alley of Shame.

Because what occurred appears to have been as the result of an oversight rather than trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, Pidgley seems to have taken the whole painful episode as a personal affront. It must have hurt all the more because he's been down as a champion of anti-fat cattery and the 'reward for failure' syndrome. He has sounded off in print on the subject: 'People who get it wrong should be hanged. They should be sacked and get no compensation. It's a travesty.'

He's still sore about the controversy. 'That was the first time we've ever had our wrists slapped for that sort of thing. Well, right, wrong or indifferent, we're going to take on board their comments and deal with them.'

But he doesn't like the method by which it all happened, and Berkeley found itself in all the wrong headlines. The thought that his company is being lumped in with Enron and Maxwell makes him wince. 'I think the proper place for the ABI is to have a quiet word behind closed doors.

You just can't win in the public arena. We are not immaculate, but I resent the fact that they challenged the company's integrity.'

Doing things straight is no problem for him, but Pidgley foresees a tangle of Higgs-inspired red tape ahead. 'I do think it would be very bad if corporate governance took over GB plc to such a degree that it drove people out. I don't think lots more checks and regulations would do us any good at all.'
What irks him more than anything is the sense that he was filling his boots on the sly. 'We've got a strong culture here. You don't come here and play golf and you don't come in late. We work straight through lunch. My work's my hobby. I don't even think about Friday during the week. Discipline with fun, that's what I say.'

Pidgley is piloted non-stop around his sites in his Bentley, and his weekly diary, which he prints off for our joint perusal, is choc-a-bloc.

He starts meetings at seven. He goes from Oxford to Portsmouth. He sees his people at Warburgs.

Then he's with Network Rail. Next day he's with the chairman of Wimpey. Then a broker. Then with the office of the deputy prime minister. He has a slot to deal with a personal complaint from a customer. 'She had a legitimate gripe.' Later he's off to the Bank of England. At the end of an ominously busy week there are two gaps at the weekend for time in the gym. 'That's a pretty standard week,' he chuckles, 'hee hee hee.'

His enthusiasm for what he does is quite infectious. What's odd is his keenness to show how easy it is to do it all. He wants to show me a 'Black Book'. This is a comprehensive dossier on a new site that he's bidding for. 'This one's twenty million quid so I'm definitely involved.' Then he goes through some figures making sure all is in good order. 'This is the Warren in Woolwich Arsenal. You and I could go through it in two minutes ... Let's have a look at these sales and check they're holding up their margin. Let's see if I can find a really bad one. Mmmmn. That sticks out - I'll call them.'

Getting the call from Pidgley must be daunting. When he did Back to the Floor he discovered plenty he wasn't happy about, and let his staff know about it. 'All the articles say what a tough taskmaster I am, but I don't think I am at all,' he protests. 'You just ask my secretaries - they'd walk on water for me and that's not because I shout at them. I will shout at you if you steal from me ... I trust you until you misbehave.'

But is he as scary as his reputation might suggest? Does he have a temper?

'Temper?' He pauses, grins and then goes out into an anteroom and comes back with Jo, his blushing PA. 'Now listen, don't be embarrassed,' he urges Jo. 'You've got to tell the absolute truth - have I got a temper or not?' Jo is in a tricky position. 'No, you don't really get cross, you get ... heated,' says the poor woman diplomatically. Has he ever banged the desk, I ask? 'No ... maybe once,' and she mentions a name. 'Yes, well, that wasn't internal,' Pidgley says. 'He called a member of staff that I'd known for 30 years a cheat and a liar. And he wouldn't withdraw. That's not acceptable. So I told him to leave.'

One imagines there are few dull moments in the average Pidgley day. He agrees - 'In the course of a day here 20 to 30 things go wrong. Property is a business that wants to go wrong. It doesn't want to run easily like a production line that you just set up and then it goes like clockwork. You have to touch it every day and go back to it.'

We talk about disputes, business difficulties and his philosophy of problem-solving. The rough and tumble. 'Now there are people out there who like a good ruck. Some of our contractors who come to settle final accounts with me - they are some of my best mates, but they do like a good ruck. It's all part of it. Par for the course. But you don't get excited. I don't throw my toys out of the pram.'

What do others make of the Pidgley temperament? One who knows him well, having done business with Berkeley, is Ian Henderson, the CEO of Land Securities. 'Tony is fairly tough,' he says. 'He wouldn't be where he is today if it wasn't for a fair degree of toughness. But it does depend on who he is dealing with. He relates very well to all levels of society. What makes him special is that he's very imaginative, very creative and a true entrepreneur.'

What he clearly loves doing is deals. Take the example of Vauxhall Cross, a massive site next to the MI6 building by the Thames in London. In telling the story of how he got his hands on the land, he glows with enthusiasm.

'That's what gives me a buzz. I bought that site late one night off some Arab gentlemen. I sat up all night with them at Rutland Gate. Arabs are very hospitable people and we just haggled and haggled and haggled. They'd say: "One million more and it's yours. You're like our brother." One handshake and it was done. And now look, we've transformed Vauxhall ... In fact, with Chelsea Bridge Wharf and Imperial Wharf, we own half the bloody Thames.'

Pidgley still isn't finished in Vauxhall. He has plans to construct the tallest residential skyscraper in Europe, much to the disgust of English Heritage but with the wholehearted support of the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. If it finally gets planning permission, the proposed 181-metre tower designed by Broadway Malayan will have a wind turbine on the top providing half the building's power. 'Don't think of it as a skyscraper,' he urges, 'it's an ecotower.'

The protestors who question the effect on the capital's skyline are clearly not his cup of tea. 'As long as it's not next to St Paul's, does it matter?' he asks.

And Livingstone? How does he get on with him? Berkeley must be involved in constant battles with City Hall over the proportion of affordable housing it is compelled to include in its upmarket sites. Sometimes, the proportion sought is 50/50. 'I wouldn't like to say I have a good or bad relationship with him. You can deal with him because he's a pragmatist,' says Pidgley.

'Everyone takes our relationship out of context and claims he's my best mate. Well, he's not my best mate, but what I like about him is that he's made up his mind what he wants and is clear about going for it. That doesn't happen too often with politicians.'

And what about the 50% issue and the havoc that it plays with his margins?

'Of course I can't live with 50%,' he says. And he doesn't always get 50%, either.' Those kind of negotiations must be a joy to behold.

So, where does this colourful, combative individual come from? The facts behind Pidgley's origins are indeed extraordinary. He was the adopted son of a gypsy couple Bill and Florence Pidgley, who came to a private arrangement with his birth mother to take him on, aged four. The Pidgleys lived in an abandoned railway carriage near Walton-on-Thames, Surrey before building their own bungalow.

A job he was given at the age of nine was to drain the radiators of his father's lorries each night to save on the use of anti-freeze. He left school early and worked as a delivery boy, a window cleaner, a hod-carrier and tree-feller before starting his own haulage firm.

Both his parents were illiterate and Pidgley has admitted, rather bravely in his candour, that his spelling and writing still aren't up to scratch, commenting that if you asked him to spell 10 words he'd probably struggle to cope with three. 'I never have any shame if I don't know how to do something,' he stated. 'I'm not ashamed because I cannot spell, because I can do many other things in life.' Maths, and those profit margins, for a start.

A lack of formal education did not put off Crest Nicholson, a property company who bought his haulage firm in 1968 and offered the 21-year-old a seat on the board. After seven years, Pidgley left to set up Berkeley.

He wisely saw the crash of the late '80s coming, getting out by speeding up the sales of his houses, selling his land stocks and getting the cash into the bank before the typhoon struck.
With property coursing through the family blood, it seemed inevitable that Pidgley's son Tony Jnr would follow him into the business. (Behind their backs, some in the industry now refer to them as Big Pidge and Little Pidge.) Pidgley Jnr's company Thirlstone Homes was bought by Berkeley in 1998 for £15 million and the two were working together.

But there were real problems and the younger man left Berkeley in 2001 to set up on his own. In February this year it emerged that Pidgley Jnr was, through his private company Cadenza, and with the support of Merrill Lynch, HBOS and 3i, preparing to launch a secret £1 billion bid for Berkeley. The plot was rumbled and rebuffed by Pidgley Snr.

Did he get cross with his son. 'Cross!' he laughs uproariously. 'No! We thought it was absolutely hysterical. Really, we had a good laugh.'

But didn't the whole episode make Berkeley Group look like a soap opera?

'You have to know my son. He's a very ambitious young man. It was the banks that gave him the money ... Anyway, it was all over in 24 hours. We never fell out over it. That's life. Maybe if it hadn't leaked out it would have a been a different story.' (For his part, Pidgley Jnr said there would be no second bid because 'I value my relationship with my father far more than I do making money.')

But it has changed their relationship. 'We talk a lot,' he observes.

'In fact, he rang today, but we don't talk about business any more. We have had a much better relationship since we stopped talking business.'

Does he play polo with his son? 'Polo! No, I'm far too short and fat for polo.'

Family feuds apart, there are other potential clouds on the Berkeley horizon. Property is a cyclical business and after the boom all are waiting for what is said to be the inevitable bust, with interest rates now finally on the way up. Yet on the day last month when the Bank of England increased its base rate by a quarter per cent, Berkeley's share price shot up by five per cent.

Forty-five per cent of Berkeley's sales go to investors - those who buy flats and houses either as institutional investments or as private buy-to-lets. (That figure has already slipped from more than half last year.) A serious downturn will hit these sales hard, as there will be more owner-occupiers left in the market than those who are playing it.

Berkeley's emphasis on the South East, and especially London, was previously a strength, but could now prove a weakness.

If you look at the average price of one of its units it grew by an astonishing £126,000, or 67%, between 1995 and 2003 - that is, from £190,000 to £315,000.

Clearly, land costs have risen, as have those of building the blocks of apartments and houses. (Pidgley and his sub-contractors probably have the same difficulty in finding a decent plumber or plasterer as the rest of us.)

And working in brownfield sites - such as the one squeezed in between the entrance to Chelsea Bridge and Battersea Power station (where our photographs of Pidgley were taken), with difficult access and building conditions - is very much more costly than buying a set-aside, fallow field and putting your foundations into virgin soil.

Nevertheless, a near 70% increase in what you can charge for the goods you sell over eight years of low inflation is a blinding game to be in.

Pidgley also has the Government four-square behind him as the lead exponent of urban regeneration. John Prescott, head of inner-city regeneration, is said to be a big fan, and you can see how the two would get on. But such is the force of public feeling about building on this small, crowded island that permission is always an issue.

'Planning is still one of the most difficult things for us, although the Government is trying to do something about it,' he says. 'It still takes us three years to get planning permission on an average site. It needs to be speeded up with a presumption in our favour. I mean if we get it wrong we're the ones who go broke.'

There are sceptics out there who say that slow planning actually works in the developer's favour. The one thing about which there can be no doubt is we suffer a chronic lack of newly built houses in the UK. By releasing batches of their huge land banks only slowly, developers ensure the supply is kept tight and prices up.

Certainly, London, where Berkeley has a huge presence, is a tough, severely overheated town, and nobody can predict whether the landing will be soft or hard if the market drops significantly.
If things cut up rough for Berkeley after such a great run then Pidgley will not expect sympathy. One comes away with the strong feeling that he is a hard man, but he's probably hardest of all on himself.

That sort of self-reliant stoicism is common among those who've had a rough time and have been let down as children. If you suggest to him that his childhood must have been difficult he just brushes it off ... 'People make too many excuses these days. I haven't had a bad life.'

His divorce, about which he spoke with some passion off the record, has caused a schism in the family, and was clearly painful financially and emotionally, although he's now happily remarried to a woman in her mid-thirties. His adopted parents did not live long enough to see their son's great success, although he says they would not have understood it - 'If they could have got away with it, they'd never have sent me to school at all!'

He admits to a regret in this area, though. 'I wish I was better educated. It would be nice. Things interest me.' A pause. But then he quickly adds: 'But I don't regret anything. I've had a wonderful life.'
So no Open University degree after he retires? 'Nah. I'll always be too busy.'

... BUT THREE TOUGH ISSUES CONFRONT PIDGLEY

1. With rising interest rates and record levels of debt among the general British population, how can Berkeley continue to offer growth the like of which its shareholders have enjoyed over the past 10 years?
2. With such a dominant figure at the helm, leaving aside key-person risk issues, what can be done about the succession question at Berkeley?
3. Can the property sector ever be anything other than a roller-coaster ride for both home-owners and property company shareholders?

PIDGLEY IN A MINUTE

1947: Born 6 August, in Surrey. Early '60s Works for his father and sets
up a haulage business
1968: Joins Crest Nicholson board after they buy his haulage firm
1976: Founds Berkeley, which builds eight homes in its first year
1985: Berkeley floats on the London Stock Exchange, builds 84 homes
2003: Group turnover breaks the £1 billion barrier, Berkeley sells
3,544 homes.

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