You might expect Telford chief executive Andrew Wiseman to be, at best, a little hesitant about this unconventional arrangement. Instead he can't wait to praise the housing association staff, recognising their expertise in a few of the essentials of residential development. "They are proactive, with good people who get the job done and don't let things drift," he says.
The housebuilder's approach is typical of both the two-year-old company and its chief executive. Wiseman turns up to our meeting wearing the conventional suit, but dressed down with a trendy rucksack, and he is clutching a batch of architects' drawings for upcoming schemes that he is keen to show off. In the course of the interview, he praises his housing association partners, the architects he works with, the finance director and the sales and marketing director he appointed to the growing company in January, and the rest of his management team. But he reserves his greatest admiration for land director Jim Furlong, the man who brought Wiseman into housebuilding, and who he describes as his mentor.
Under Furlong's mentorship, Wiseman has gone from accountant to housebuilding chief exec, first at Furlong Homes and now at Telford. Wiseman and Furlong were among five owner-directors of Furlong Homes, selling out to Gladedale Homes two years ago and departing to found Telford soon after. Although the pair chose to continue developing in the east London territory that had been their previous stamping ground, they have not recreated Telford in Furlong Homes' image.
Furlong Homes' flat management structure has been abandoned in favour of a traditional hierarchy. "Although we were friendly, we found we couldn't manage by committee, so the only way out was the sale," says Wiseman. "It's still a team effort, there's a collective will that makes it all happen, like the Borg," he adds, referring to a collective intelligence familiar only to watchers of Star Trek. "But I'm the boss. I carry the can."
The more visible difference is in Telford's end product. A decade ago, in their previous roles, Wiseman and Furlong were churning out the apartments that fuelled London Docklands' yuppie boom; now they are developing one- and two-bedroom apartments on pocket sites on the fringes of council estates. "The product is still very good, the specification is the same, it is just not in an area that can command such a high price. The architecture still needs to be good to lift the area," says Wiseman.
The development approach has come about through the housebuilder's relationship with Poplar Harca, the local housing company set up by the London borough of Tower Hamlets to regenerate some 4000 homes in the borough. The sale of pocket sites for private development among the swaths of social housing helps regenerate an area by going some way to redressing the tenure balance. What's more, Wiseman says the private homes developed there sell well to investors: "It is a relatively poor area, but it is so close to Canary Wharf that it's attractive." Apartment prices average a reasonable – for London – £165,000 for a one-bedder, below the London apartment average of £211,000.
Telford competed against several bidders, including Furlong Homes, to buy its first site from the Harca, pricing keenly because it could see the potential for it to buy many more sites. So far it has bought five sites from the Harca and agreed to buy five more. Its relationship with Poplar Harca led it to East Thames Housing Group, which is the Harca's agent, and it has since worked with other east London affordable housing providers. Telford does not always win land out of such relationships: it recently found it was competing with East Thames for a site, and instead of snapping it up quickly as any competitive private housebuilder would do, felt it had to do the decent thing and offer to withdraw or share the site.
There are, however, other benefits to working in partnership with housing associations. "Housing associations are important in getting planning consent. We need to have them on our side," says Wiseman. "It can be tough negotiating a section 106 agreement with a council housing department, and it is a benefit to have a housing association partner that will put a case or suggest a compromise to the council."
Wiseman expects housing association partnership to be a growing element of Telford's business. "Housing associations will become increasingly proactive and they need someone with our skills to complement their objectives. We can change the built environment and the right way forward for that is partnering," he says. "We're building 10 flats above a community centre for Poplar Harca. The deal is that we build the centre and get the flats. They had the idea of making it happen, but didn't know how to do it. Fortunately, we could make it happen."
The company built 140 homes last year, but that figure is set to rise to 250 this year and 400 next year. And locations and products are becoming more varied: the future portfolio will include luxury houses on a green belt site and 120 private apartments for a site in Docklands directly across the river from Greenwich's Royal Naval College. The alternative investment market-listed company is reckoned to be a good business performer, and raised £3m in a share placing last July.
Just don't expect the sold sign to go up over Telford Homes, as it did at Furlong. "Remo Dipre [Gladedale's managing director] and I didn't see to eye to eye on a few matters. I never expected things to go that way," says Wiseman. He says he never contemplated giving it all up to play golf after he left Furlong Homes. "We're not making a buck and going. This is a long-term business with long-term relationships. We don't dwell on what happened at Furlong." As he says it he glances down at the pen that he has been playing with for much of the interview and smiles as he notices it is a Furlong Homes freebie. "I didn't even know I had that on me."
Personal & ProfessionalDoes your reference to the Borg mean that you are a Star Trek fan?
No, my son watches it. Who else is in your family?
Two sons, Paul, 13, and Mark, 10, and my wife Judith works part time in the business. We’re a family business even though we are a public company. What are your hobbies?
Golf – I used to play a lot of rugby. I’m just getting involved in a refurbishment project of my local church. It seems to be in a hopeless mess. Where do you live?
In a four-bedroom detached Furlong home. I bought it in 1989 to be close to the business, and it was a house the company couldn’t sell so I got a good deal. How is Telford performing?
In our interims we reported a pre-tax profit of £1.4m. Turnover was £8.7m and gross profit was £2.4m, giving a gross margin of 27%.