Jump to content

The Entrepreneurial Exchange

Grown In With The Bricks

In 14 years working for his father's eponymous building group Elliot Robertson found the many challenges associated with being the boss's son were not confined to the obvious places.

Working on site with people who had spent years doing heavy work outdoors, the Napier University building management graduate was bound to get some grief from workmates.

"It was hard being the boss's son as you have to work so much harder to prove yourself as everyone assumes you've been put there. I worked so hard to get respect."

Pressed to elaborate on how tough things were, Robertson admits with apparent reluctance that there was the odd bit of aggro along the way.

"Not something I want to go into detail with," he says, with his gaze fixed on the table where it remains for much of our interview. While this habit lends him the modest air of a trainee for the priesthood, Robertson's comments make clear he has learned much more about life than the average seminarian "On site was not a problem, I could handle the guys on site."

Surprisingly perhaps, Robertson learned that more demanding situations arose in what might be considered more select company.

"At director level there's lots of politics involved."

As Robertson spent years on the board of the Robertson contracting-to-housebuilding combine, he had plenty of exposure to politics.

Speaking about his new life in charge of his own housebuilding business, Manorlane, the 33-year-old says one of the things he most values is the fact that he can make decisions without endless meetings and paperwork. These seem to be an inescapable part of life in a bigger company.

But Elgin-born Robertson stresses that his decision to go his own way was not the product of any unhappiness. Far from it.

He speaks with obvious respect and affection about his father Bill, with whom he often spent Saturdays on site as a boy while sister Sonia went country dancing.

Despite having to work all the hours, Robertson senior always made time for his children.

Robertson junior obviously has no problem mixing home with work. Ilia, the childhood sweetheart whom he married, was formerly a manager at Robertson Group. These days she is sales director of Manorlane and evenings chez Robertson are often spent talking about the firm, whose branding Ilia guards zealously.

Having grown up expecting to make his life in the family business, Robertson explains that the decision to go solo followed an epiphany at an Entrepreneurial Exchange event at Gleneagles Hotel early in the decade.

"Tom Hunter was the chairman and hearing him talk about success and what it means to be an entrepreneur, it was inspiring to see; to get personal success and recognition you really have to go and do it yourself."

The session set Robertson on a path which culminated in a decision to go his own way in the world of housebuilding. This was the side of the business he had most enjoyed at Robertson Group, whose housing division he headed for some years.

While construction was his father's first love, Robertson's experience convinced him that housing was where the most money was to be made. With few barriers to entry, cut-throat competition meant constructors operated on tiny margins and had to bear most of the risk on projects, before the boom in Private Finance Initiative-funded public work.

Housebuilders sell a product rather than a service and there are all sorts of ways to maximise returns.

The knowledge of the Scottish scene that he developed left him satisfied that there would be plenty of room for both his own and his father's businesses in the Scottish market.

As someone who was unable to work for anyone else, Robertson Sr did not object when his son wanted to do his own thing.

The younger Robertson came up with a strategy to focus on building Georgian-style family homes on brownfield sites. This initially convinced him more than it did his nearest and dearest.

A father of three young children, he recalls fraught evenings in the family home in Elgin with Ilia in tears as he sketched out plans on the dining table.

"She was saying what are you doing? What are you doing?"

Robertson was sure he knew just what he was doing.

Building family homes requires much lower upfront spending than flatted developments, while individual units can be finished and sold faster, making them easier to fund.

By working on brownfield land, Robertson hoped to make a contribution to improving areas that would make planning consents easier to obtain.

He believes the Georgian designs developed by Manorlane gives them a quality which is lacking from too much of what he sees in Scotland. By allowing buyers to adapt standard designs to include features like conservatories and in-home cinemas in the attic floor he expected to increase the appeal of the homes while boosting margins to match those achieved by plcs.

After remortgaging the family home, Robertson found Royal Bank of Scotland was impressed enough to agree to provide a £3.5m facility which allowed Manorlane to get started early in 2005 on its first development at Armadale in West Lothian. The houses sold like hot cakes, allowing Robertson to start work on more sites and get the company off to a flying start.

In the first year of trading to April 2006, Manorlane achieved sales of £5m and made a pre-tax profit of £1m, compared with forecast earnings of £79,000.

In the year to April 2007, the company made pre-tax profits of £3m on £13m turnover.

Manorlane's housebuilding operations now span a number of strategic sites which are big enough to accommodate hundreds of homes, generating an income stream which will last for several years.

Subject to final planning consent, forthcoming projects will include a big development on the site of the former Clydesdale steelworks in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, which has been derelict for years.

Manorlane has broadened its scope to include a subsidiary which specialises in retirement property. This has been developed to cash in on the growing grey market that Sir Tom Hunter is also targeting with investments in property and gardening stores.

Robertson is planning a move into supplying green energy systems for its own and third-party schemes. He talks enthusiastically about the possibility of cutting emissions and boosting efficiency through the likes of shared heating schemes which allow all the homes on an estate to draw heating from a single source.

Despite increases in interest rates the shortage of new family housing in central Scotland should give Robertson grounds for confidence that Manorlane's business should weather any downturn in the market.

Roberston is thriving. "It's just been great fun, being focused on the things that are profitable rather than the things that are done because they have always been done."

He is confident enough about Manorlane's prospects to be trying to raise around £50m debt to fund expansion.

This should be made easier by the fact that Brian Johnston, former head of corporate banking at Bank of Scotland, is a non-executive director of Manorlane.

Robertson says the Scottish market is big enough to mean he need not follow other Scottish housebuilders into England.

Lest anyone think this suggests lack of ambition, the Formula One motor racing nut admits to some racy targets, including sales of 1000 units annually.

When I ask whether he hopes to match his father by creating a £100m business there is not a moment's hesitation.

"At least that."

In the news

Registered in Scotland. Company registration number SC160976.
Registered office: Barncluith Business Centre, Townhead Street, Hamilton, ML3 7DP. Developed by Mercurytide