HLM’s Chris Liddle has put his house on the line to save his architectural business. Twice.

And now, after last year’s management buyout, he’s dragged the practice back into profit. Katie Puckett talks to him about winning the trust of bank managers and the power of positive thinking.

Liddle (centre) with fellow directors Caroline Buckingham (left) and Karen Mosley (right)
Liddle (centre) with fellow directors Caroline Buckingham (left) and Karen Mosley (right)

HLM Architects’ story is a dramatic saga of tough times, failed relationships and thwarted dreams. In the past five years, its management has weathered a failed stock market flotation, cut 10% of its workforce and sold out to US namesake HLM Design – only to stage a bloody management buyback two years later, when the UK arm of the merged company went into receivership.

Now, after its first full year since the buyout, it’s back in the black – which makes this an ideal time to ask chairman Chris Liddle, who’s been with the company since 1981, what it is that’s kept him going when many would have thrown in the towel.

But it soon becomes clear that Liddle is not a negative thinker.

In fact, he is relentlessly upbeat, putting a philosophical spin on disappointments, and turning negative questions smoothly into positives. “People criticise me for always being so positive. Maybe I’m scared of not being. Everyone has their off days, everyone gets pissed off, but I can’t afford to get like that. I have a responsibility not to walk into a room with that attitude because it will affect everyone else so badly.”

For Liddle, HLM’s story isn’t the roller-coaster ride it might appear. “This term ‘roller-coaster’ … it’s not really quite like that,” he says. “In the late 1980s, early 1990s, businesses were going down at 100 miles an hour, and architects were very exposed. We rescued the company. We then had 10 years of solid growth before we sold to the Americans in 2002. That merger gave us high hopes – they were a plc and they already had about eight or nine offices in the States. But there just wasn’t the infrastructure and the financial backing to carry the whole thing through, and some colleagues took their foot off the pedals. On 19 March 2004, we ended up buying up the company. So 1992 to 2004 isn’t a roller-coaster.”

Risking it all

Nevertheless, Liddle has been through some difficult times. After taking over as chairman in 1992, he sold his house to help repay £1.3m of debt accrued in the recession, and lived with his young family – he has seven children ranging from 29 to 11 – in the Sheffield office for a year. The company was saved, but his next idea, acquiring listed advertising company Osprey to form a “total branding” consultancy called RockArchimedia, was thwarted by the dotcom crash in 2000, putting his stock market hopes on hold.

He dismisses the Osprey idea now as “a bit of a red herring”. “The idea was, if you can manage designers then why can’t you have a firm that manages like-minded design people, and have a service to clients that’s as much about brand as about building? Maybe that’s a bit naive – nobody was interested.”

Liddle’s self-belief remains unbowed by the knocks he’s taken. The hardest lesson, he says, is to trust his instincts. “When I trust myself I’m right, and the minute you get swayed by other arguments … It’s important to look to yourself and what you believe in.”

People said ‘the last thing you want to do is employ your friends’. That’s absolute bollocks

Chris Liddle, HLM

But getting funding for last year’s buyout meant convincing the banks as well. Liddle says the deal with the Americans brought to an end a “fantastic” 10-year relationship with Barclays. Finances were centralised, and accounting became the subject of “intensive discussions”. “When you join a firm where financial management is spread across the Atlantic, you’re going to get problems,” he says.

He emphasises that when he approached HSBC to fund the buyout last year, he had banked with them personally since he was 18. “It required a bit of bottle on both sides,” says Liddle. “You have to believe in people don’t you? Banks put their trust in people.” It wasn’t quite that simple – a much more tightly focused business plan and strong forward order book played a big part, as did Liddle’s decision once again to put his house on the line. “It was obviously scary – for a minute. But it’s about belief, about leading from the front and being over the top first.”

Relationships and trust are a theme Liddle returns to again and again. Much of his confidence, he says, comes from the other nine directors at HLM, who all contributed an equal share to the buyout and most of whom he has worked with for more than 20 years. When he set up the Sheffield office in 1982, Liddle deliberately employed his friends from university. “People said ‘the last thing you want to do is employ your friends’. That’s absolute bollocks, you just have to be able to deal with it if it goes wrong.”

Love and loyalty

But how does Liddle’s wife feel about having to stake the family’s assets on the business? Liddle is initially reluctant to admit the depth of his family’s commitment to the firm, but in fact, he is married to Caroline Buckingham (pictured far left), a fellow architect and board member who joined HLM in 1984. He says HLM’s clients are aware of the relationship – and when one of the US managers asked them to conceal it, Liddle told him in no uncertain terms that he found that insulting. But he is wary of how it might be perceived. “In a business such as ours people make the wrong assumptions. They might think we’re married so she’s a director because I’m a chairman – crap like that.”

And he resents any belittling of Buckingham’s contribution to the business. “We’ve got a board of directors with two very powerful women on it, and there’s nothing better. Caroline and Karen [Mosley, pictured right] were pivotal in acquiring the business, more than any of the guys. They’ve got common sense, business acumen and Karen’s legally qualified.” It was Buckingham and Mosley who completed the buyout deal with the receivers. “On the day of the deal, all the blokes were in the pub saying ‘what’s going on?’ Caroline got home at 4.30am – I waited up.”

When asked if he ever worried if he was in the wrong game, he says: “You feel a great responsibility for your staff and your clients and sometimes you feel that on your own. But the great advantage is, I’ve been able to share that not only with the person I live with but with eight other people as well.”

Liddle is proud that many of HLM’s employees have returned after leaving for new jobs, and that the firm’s clients have stood by it throughout the merger crisis, and credits HLM’s “motivational culture”. “The hardest thing for me was to make sure we were effervescing that level of self-belief and then injecting it like a syringe full of adrenalin into the arms of all the team.”

But for all his energy, Liddle is shelving any grand expansion plans to focus on controlled growth and improving design quality and satisfaction among HLM’s largely public-sector client base in justice, healthcare, education and defence. He is determined not to repeat past mistakes – the company will not be taking on work it can’t complete, and the designers on the board will still work on projects. Liddle himself is working for Land Securities Trillium on a PFI defence project and on the Bethlem Royal Hospital. “We want to be able to feel the edges of the business again. If you’re running a people business and you can’t feel the edges, it’s very dangerous.”