ONE of the North East’s biggest property development deals in recent years was secured on the French Riviera by Bill Lynn and his team.
For the last eight years Lynn and his team have headed to Cannes for the MIPIM, the world’s largest annual commercial property fair, and it was on one of these trips that storeys:ssp introduced Liverpool-based property company Downing to the Newcastle Science City development.
With work now under way on the first stage at the former Scottish & Newcastle site, Lynn is proud of this achievement – especially in the current climate with new commercial property developments particularly thin on the ground.
“It was 2004 when we met and we struck up a successful relationship. This saw us take the scheme through the planning process for Downing and what we have now is the start of a very exciting scheme for the region,” he said.
The Downing Plaza development will include 100,000 sq ft of offices for Newcastle University Business School (NUBS) which will be a gateway to the city’s wider Science Central in Gallowgate, near St James’ Park.
But despite the national and regional commercial property market showing signs of recovery from the worst slump in living memory, Lynn, 55, remains cautious about the immediate outlook.
“Most people believe things are getting better, but slowly,” he says. “I have experienced three recessions and this one has been like none of the others.
“In the past we had high interest rates, or high unemployment, or high inflation or a combination of these things. But this time round we do not have the money in the system. Property has been the main sufferer of this lack of available cash.
“However, things are beginning to look better, although we should not get carried away and we are not out of the woods just yet.”
A keen sportsman, Lynn played table tennis at county level and was a single-handicap golfer in his teens.
He still enjoys skiing and golf, although he has now slipped to a handicap of 12. He recalls one school report which read “the start of the tennis season is no reason for Lynn to forget his maths”. It was little surprise that he became a PE teacher on leaving Walbottle Grammar School.
However, he failed to secure a place at his first-choice Loughborough College and went on study land economy at Sheffield Hallam University.
He was attracted to the world of surveying following a chance conversation with a couple of surveyors and joined the British Rail Property Board before joining storeys:ssp at the age of 25. He has stayed there for 30 years.
George H Storey established a base in Higham Place, Newcastle, in 1891. It then became George H Storey and Sons and later George Storey Sons and Parker. The name was later to be shortened to Storey Sons and Parker and then to storeys:ssp.
In 1988 Storey Sons and Parker was bought by Black Horse but after three years the six main partners, including Lynn, opted for a management buy out to regain control of the company.
The storeys:ssp name came into being in 2003, although Lynn’s attachment to it seems a little lukewarm.
“We employed someone to look at what we were doing and he thought of a lot of things which appeared quite exciting. We ended up talking late into the night and thought at the time that changing the name and the corporate image was fantastic. We wanted to do something different.”
The company – which is considering transforming itself into a limited liability partnership – has offices in London, Leeds, Manchester and Middlesbrough as well as its Newcastle headquarters.
An all-services property firm, Lynn says its strengths lie in investment, property rating and property management.
“There are not many firms like us left in the regions. We are very much in the minority, with most having regional independent firms having now been consumed by the by the national and international firms.
“We have expanded from our Tyneside base over the years and pride ourselves on our local knowledge of the areas we serve.
“One of our key strengths is the emphasis we put in our people – a lot of our staff have been with us for many years. John Irwin in Middlesbrough is a case in point. He is known locally as Mr Teesside.”
The success of the company has attracted a number of suitors in the last five years. Late last year it called off merger talks with Canadian-backed property firm Altus Group saying the numbers did not stack up and that it would have led to redundancies.
It has since rejected a second approach from a regional firm with a strong residential portfolio which had wanted to move into the commercial field. Lynn says this is the fourth approach the company has turned down in the last five years.
Lynn was made chief executive in 2007 and now works alongside managing director Martin Lytollis.
“Our roles dovetail nicely for the company,” he says. “I am very comfortable on the client relationship side of the business, the marketing and the PR.
“It’s my role to be the public face of the company, the presentation of the brand and the profile of the company. I look after the clients and come up with the ideas to grow the business.”
One of storeys’ strengths lies in its portfolio of clients, over half of which are based outside the region.
For example Rolls Royce, which is now based in Derby, is still one of its clients from the days when it had a stronger presence in the North East.
Like all property companies storeys:ssp has experienced a difficult couple of years with commercial property prices falling by up to 40% in some parts of the region.
Among the knock-on effects of a fall in business has been a cut in the number of people working at property agents, including storeys.
And last year the directors decided to cut their own salaries by 10%, the staff agreed to follow suit and there will be no pay rises at the company this year either.
But following a round of redundancies and job losses through natural wastage, storeys:ssp has begun recruiting again with signs of activity in the investment market and the appeals set to result from the 2010 rating valuations.
It is a sector where you need energy and optimism in times like these and Lynn describes himself as a “hyper” person.
“This is a job where you have to be a glass half-full person. You have to be up for it,” he says.
In the heady days of the commercial property bubble in the mid-noughties Lynn says much of his time was spent in London talking to clients with money to spend. But he can’t see those days returning for some time.
He says: “During the boom people forgot the basics. Now we have to get back to the fundamentals and those fundamentals for investment are the right location and the right specifications.”
There are signs of activity returning to the regional commercial property market with investment cash piling into high-quality property witnessed by a number of high-profile recent deals including the purchase of Barclays House and Earl Grey House on Grey Street in Newcastle by London investors for £20m.
“The pension funds have huge reserves and there is a real desire for investments,” says Lynn enthusiastically.
He sees the investment market rippling out into the secondary market and says there is greater sign of life in the lettings market. But he sees little immediate prospect of speculative developments taking place.
“There has to be confidence in the market place for speculative developments to materialise and there is no appetite from the banks yet for debt finance,” he says.
For the first time in years Storeys will not be attending next month’s annual commercial property bash at Cannes.
But Lynn says there will be plenty more opportunities world to attend and has no intention of taking a backseat just yet.
“I enjoy what I do and the people I meet and the friends I have made over the last 30 years. We have great staff and work and live in a great part of the world.”
What car do you drive?
911 Porsche Carrera.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
The Wolseley, London.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Sean Lock, but it’s not too hard.
What’s your favourite book?
Stieg Larsson crime novels.
What’s your favourite film?
What was the last album you bought?
Genesis – Best of.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
Think before you speak.
What’s your greatest fear?
Not being fit in old age.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Choose your friends well.
Worst business advice?
Wait and see!
What’s your poison?
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Stacking shelves in Laws Stores, but I can’t remember what I was paid.
How do you keep fit?
Golf and skiing.
What’s your most irritating habit?
I’m hyperactive so I’m always tapping (feet, pens, hands etc!) or humming tunes.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
911 Porsche Carrera.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
I don’t identify with any, but I admire big figures who stepped up such as Churchill or Wellington.
And which famous people would you most like to dine with?
Jack Nicklaus, Jennifer Aniston, Winston Churchill and Warren Buffett.
How would you like to be remembered?
Loyal, honest and straightforward.