Alan Cherry is the ambassador of housebuilding – the multimillionaire chairman of Countryside Properties has the ear of a number of policymaking bodies. And as we find out, he’s not afraid to speak his mind.
When asked how to remedy Hartlepool’s deprivation, back in the 1990s, Alan Cherry replied: “Move it”. It was not the most diplomatic of answers, given that he was on the board of the Teesside development corporation. “It was no disrespect to the town,” says Cherry, recalling the remark. “Hartlepool needed significant change – and I believe the corporation largely succeeded.”
His forthright answer was typical of the Countryside Properties chairman. Whereas most housebuilders talk only of forward sales and an eternally rosy market, Cherry has never been afraid to engage with the complexities of the housebuilding and regeneration process, and speak frankly about issues. His words flow out in exhortations. “The industry has to ask itself why people are anti-development. It is because of the poor quality of developments. We must do it better.” He says of the industry’s image, and on training: “Our industry hasn’t been doing enough to encourage people in.”
His rounded views have made him a vocal contributor to many policymaking groups, and his company one of the more innovative housebuilders. “I’ve always liked the company to be bold in its approach. I try to give leadership. It makes for much more interesting and exciting work,” says Cherry. That boldness is reflected in projects like Abode, the radical-looking housing project at Newhall, near Harlow, designed by Proctor and Matthews Architects, the sustainable community at Greenwich Millennium Village, town-centre regeneration projects in Guildford and Croydon, and work with signature architects such as Richard Rogers (Chelmsford) and Will Alsop (Liverpool’s Fourth Grace).
With sons Graham and Richard taken on as chief executive and business director respectively, Cherry could be suspected of taking things easier, or even perhaps retiring. He parries an enquiry about his age by asking why journalists always want to know how old he is, but later it turns out he is old enough to qualify for a bus pass. However, his ensuing remarks don’t suggest that his working pace or enthusiasm are diminishing. “I want to die working. There’s so much to do,” he says.
“I’ve never had that Monday morning feeling. Never not wanted to go to work. If you get it right it is rewarding, and not just financially.” For Cherry, who started his career as a surveyor and was a founder partner of estate agent Bairstow Eves before building up Countryside, there have been financial gains too. “I suppose I’m a multimillionaire,” he says, as an aside.
The industry has to ask itself why people are anti-development. It is because of poor quality … We must do it better
The company’s latest financial results show a record pre-tax profit, up 5% to £36m. “I’m commercially driven, but I hope that in what it is doing our company has enhanced its base to give rise to more opportunities,” says Cherry. “It may not be the most profitable company in the sector yet, but we are giving ourselves long-term sustainability”. And giving the rest of us regeneration, affordable housing, integrated communities …
In an industry obsessed by consolidation, there has been speculation that Countryside could be an acquisition target, especially given its stake in the Thames Gateway. “There is always the chance of an offer I can’t refuse,” Cherry says.
Before he earned all this success, Cherry says he would like to have been an architect “but I couldn’t draw”. Instead, he has channelled his creative energies into housebuilding, and a broader ambassadorial role. The latter has taken him onto the boards of the East of England Development Agency, Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership, and more. “I think more people in the industry should get involved,” says Cherry, “so that when an area is being regenerated they’re not the last to be called in, but the first.” He was a member of the Duke of Edinburgh’s inquiry into housing in the 1980s, was the lone housebuilder on Lord Rogers’ urban taskforce in the late 1990s.
Who’s in your family? My wife Fay, my two sons and nine grandchildren.
How long is your working week? I do an eight-to-eight day and I am at the office every Saturday morning. We sometimes do some site visiting on Sunday.
Do you and your sons talk business at family gatherings? Yes. The wives have got used to that.
What are your hobbies? I have a home in Switzerland; I am a keen skier and go mountain walking.