In one respect, construction is like the dairy industry, in that when the the man delivering the product meets the woman receiving it, all kinds of things can happen. Gus Alexander has some good examples …
One of my more amusing collaborators in the construction game retired about 10 years ago. John ran a very effective building company with about a dozen people, and by the time a firm like this has finished about 20 jobs for clients of yours, you get to know them pretty well. The client is always important regardless of the project, but when you are doing work for private individuals in their own homes, keeping them sweet is doubly important.
But it wasn’t the strain of dealing with clients that persuaded John to cash in his company. “It’s just become too competitive lately,” he told me, three-quarters of the way through our last job together. This involved trying to redirect the water that was dripping through a series of listed vaults and into a collection of fabulously expensive engravings in a small art gallery in St James. “I used to enjoy it but the paperwork is just tearing the arse out of it. I’ve managed to save about £400,000, and I’ve decided that it’s less trouble to sit back and watch that grow for a bit, while I work out what to do next.”
John was one of those builders for whom there were other aspects of running a building firm to be enjoyed apart from getting the client’s dampproof course in the right place and getting paid on time.
Although he was quite short, he was very dapper, and he had always been one of the original cheeky chappies, with an eye for the ladies. Whenever I asked him if he wanted to price something up for one of my residential clients his first response was always, “What’s their cleaner like?”
You see John had a habit of extending his personal care to the client’s domestic help. He was never shy about discussing his technique with me. “It turns them on something rotten if you let them watch you bossing the lads about, especially the big ones like Alan and Gary. After that, you’ve got to help them tie up their apron.” To hear him describe it, even the most demure of my clients’ domestic help was secretly a libidinous raver, who loved nothing better than to have John talk dirty to her while she stood in her housecoat holding her Hoover.
John rings me up every new year to keep me abreast of his latest property coup (or heart bypass), tell me his latest fruity joke, and pass on news of his former workforce.
This year, the main character was Paul, who had “done well for himself”. I’d heard about Paul’s progress over the years. He was one of those industrious chaps who was always looking to work his way up. He was always able to tell a client he’d never get the job finished if she didn’t stop bothering him, and he managed to be charming with it.
“Didn’t he have a weekend business when he was still with you? “
“That’s right. Worked all hours. Well, when we packed it up, Paul started up a proper little maintenance company looking after some of our old clients, and he’s grown it into quite a business”
“Yes, he asked me to look at a house in Kensington for him, but he’d never get consent to subdivide it.”
“Well, after he’d been up and running for a bit, he bought a doss house on the South Coast and extended it, and he also tarted up the odd flat here and there. Then a couple of years back, he went into partnership with this bloke Terry something or other. A real sharpie who’d inherited his father’s property business. Nasty piece of work if you ask me but crazy about making money.
John totted up the net worth of the real estate of someone he’d not long ago been paying sixty quid a day to. ‘I reckon it must be getting on for close to £10m,’ he said with a sigh
“Anyway, Paul had been round their house a few times and one time had gone to fix the boiler when he found Terry’s wife making eyes at him. She looked like one of the Desperate Housewives, Paul said. This went on for a bit until it started getting a bit embarrassing. ‘Listen Nicole,’ he told her. ‘You’re a real nice looking woman and everything, but Terry is my business partner and I just couldn’t do anything like that’.”
“So he didn’t take after you then?”
“Well, I told you this bloke was a real ess aitch eye tee, so a few months later Terry shafted him on his share of some deal they were in together. Paul just said, ‘You asked for it’, and not only went and pinched Nicole off him, but went and married her.”
“Paul was married already wasn’t he?”
“Well that came to a stop pretty soon after all this started. But he’s still got the house in Worthing, and the flats in Bognor, which he lets. He managed to hold on to a plot of land that he didn’t put in for planning until after his divorce came through, and he’s just got consent for nine units on it.”
I couldn’t work out if John was more envious of his former employee’s burgeoning property empire or his stormy love life. It was obviously the former, since he went on: “And of course they did fantastically well out of Nicole’s settlement. She kept their house in Reigate, and the flats outside Woking. She’s held onto one of the houses in Spain, and she’s got a flat in Florida as well.”
I could almost hear the wheels turning in John’s head as he totted up the net worth of the accumulated real estate of someone he’d not long ago been paying sixty quid a day to. “I reckon it must be getting on close to £10m,“ he sighed.
“Well, he’d better make sure he doesn’t send any good-looking plumbers around the next time the boiler packs up.”
“Talking of plumbers that reminds me; there was this woman whose husband was an inspector in the Gas Board. One day her waste disposal packed up…”
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London