Not that Hough can claim all the credit for the results, as he only joined the company six months ago. By that time, it was on an upward trajectory, had successfully assimilated four acquisitions and was consolidating after a period of dramatic change. As Hough readily acknowledges, it got him off to a good start. "The work that has been done over the past three years stands the company in good stead," he says. Then he flashes that smile again and adds: "The financial results just need improving slightly."
When Miller's headhunters came to call, Hough was working as group operations director at David Wilson Homes. "I'd only been there a year and I was not looking to move," he says. "But I had a number of dinners with Keith Miller and got to know him, and the company. The last thing I wanted to do was work in Edinburgh but in housebuilding you work all over the country."
Even though his working week now includes the added burden of regular commutes from his Solihull home to Scotland, Hough seems to be liberated by his new job. After 15 years with big plc housebuilders David Wilson and Alfred McAlpine Homes, Hough is quick to recognise benefits of working for a private firm. "I worked for companies that innovated, used prefabricated build methods, and had City analysts asking why they were doing that. A private company can do what it wants."
Whereas many contractor/housebuilders have shed their housebuilding operations, Miller Group has retained the strategy of mixing construction, property development and housebuilding. "Housebuilders must now be missing out," says Hough. "They are facing the problem of doing high-density mixed urban schemes, so you have either got to hire the skills in or share with commercial developers. We have a 262-apartment scheme on the Clyde in Glasgow that is not the sort of scheme an ordinary housebuilder would do, but we're building it. We've done a scheme in Newcastle with commercial in the ground floor, and our property division knows exactly what to do with it. We see it as complementary."
That apartment scheme in Glasgow, the ultra-modern Lancefield Quay which Miller Homes is developing jointly with Cala, is something of an icon for Hough. He declares it as the company's flagship, and recently took all of Miller Homes' regional managing directors on a site tour of it. "There are so many cities where there is potential for that kind of scheme," he says. "Over the next three to five years we'll be doing more urban development. We're setting out our stall to operate in that marketplace."
Hough plans to build on Miller's growing reputation for design quality and customer care. It is currently carrying out an unusual piece of research, quizzing customers on the "emotional rollercoaster" of the housebuying process. Buyers keep a diary of the events in the process, recording their feelings. "From the 20 completed cases we're getting a pattern," says Hough. "We all know that housebuying is stressful, but we're pinpointing where.
For example, we thought exchange of contracts would be a high point, but in fact it is a low point emotionally." The objective of the research is to give a better understanding of the homebuying process: "We're not doing this to get stars in a league table, we're doing it to focus our business."
Hough has already gone on record as saying that he wants to expand Miller's operations into the South-east, a region the company backed out of in the mid-1990s. "We'll probably look at two additional southern-based operations, but we don't need to do it tomorrow. We don't need to do it to improve the profitability of the group," he says.
The new region could be formed by acquisition, organic growth or could even evolve out of a deal with NHS Estates, which Hough says should be finalised by September. Miller Ventures, the Miller Group's property partnership arm, has hooked up with HBOS and is preferred bidder to acquire 114 surplus NHS sites, many in the South.
One area of the South-east that is not in Hough's expansion plan, however, is the capital. "We're unlikely to come into London. I'm not a fan," he says. "It is a specialist market and it will tough in the next 12 months."
Hough knows how tough the market can get. His early career took him from accountancy training at British Rail Engineering to Tarmac, where he made the move to housebuilding and general management. Then, in the late 1980s he moved to Canberra Property Group, where he found himself heading a new subsidiary based on the South Coast. "It was a struggle, but it turned out to be the best time to launch," he recalls. "While other companies were making massive provisions against their landbank, we had no landbank. We kept sites moving. We were the only player on the South Coast buying land for three to four years, and were able to buy land cheap. That's something to be considered when thinking about the timing of a launch into the South-east."
Land acquisition is still one of Hough's favourite bits of the housebuilding business, alongside selling, and he sounds at his happiest describing a one-day whistlestop tour of 18 prospective and active sites in north-east England. It is why he moved out of accountancy. "I wasn't bad at my job. I just didn't enjoy being deskbound." And when Miller Homes' results come out, it seems likely they will prove that his accounting streak is still very much in play.
Personal & professionalHow has your working week been? This week I’ve spent three nights away in three different cities – that’s unusual, but it’s the worst part of the job. Who else is in your family? My wife, and two daughters, one at Nottingham University and one in the middle of her GCSEs. What are your hobbies? I enjoy sailing, although I haven’t done it for a while. When I relocated from the South Coast to Solihull it was a big wrench to sell the boat. Now I accept any invite to go sailing. Where do you live? In a six-year-old house built by Bryant Country Homes, which I actually bought for the accommodation and not the location. I’ve generally bought new homes. I’ve had homes by Bloor, Taylor Woodrow and Tarmac. How is Miller performing?
In our trading statement in January we reported that turnover and average selling price would be up 20%, as well as record forward housing sales of 1000 units.