Meet the property design and real estate firm that has grown into an international giant

Employment & Skills | International | Interview | Property & Construction

Tom Cartledge is the CEO of Nottinghamshire and London-based international property design and real estate firm Handley House. He spoke to Business Leader Magazine about the history of the business, taking over the company from his father and what it takes to manage a global team.

CAN YOU GIVE US AN OVERVIEW OF THE BUSINESS?

Handley House is a family-owned company overseeing commercial advice and design expertise by four teams – Pragma, Benoy, Holmes Wood and Uncommon Land. Benoy is the oldest of our businesses, established in 1947 as a small, agricultural, architectural practice, based in Nottinghamshire.

My father, Graham Cartledge, joined Benoy as a young and energetic architect. He realised quite quickly that the future of design wasn’t in cow sheds in rural Nottinghamshire, but rather a more commercial and customer-led architectural design route. By the late 1980s, Benoy had established a reputation for retail and UK retail interventions in many major towns and cities.

Following a period of ownership changes, Graham acquired sole ownership of the business and secured a mega retail project – the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent – and that really put the ‘new’ Benoy on the map. They became the go-to practice for UK retail.

In the late 1990s, the business was then approached by an overseas company, who had seen the levels of UK activity and wanted to take that to Hong Kong and Dubai.

WHEN DID YOU JOIN THE BUSINESS?

I arrived in the business in 2015. My personal background is in retail property and surveying – but not design. I was very fortunate to work as a board member, at a very young age, at an American retail business, known in the UK as TK Maxx, as their Head of Property. That gave me a huge insight into leadership.

When I joined, there was a clear message that there was now a succession plan in place. My approach has been different to Graham (who remains with the business as Chairman) and that is reflected by the diversity of the group’s skills, leadership and international growth.

WHAT DID YOU WANT TO CHANGE WHEN YOU JOINED?

Following the strategic review in 2015, we looked at the powerful global machine that it had become. We still believed that the clients, who want to work with Benoy, wanted more from the company, but that it would not have been right to do it under the Benoy banner of leading international architectural design.

So, over the last six years we established three new businesses alongside Benoy – graphics and wayfinding firm Holmes Wood, which was acquired, another which was a start-up landscape business named Uncommon Land, and more recently another acquisition of a data and analytics real estate business called Pragma.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH YOUR FATHER? CAN YOU TAKE ME THROUGH THE SUCCESSION PLANNING?

One of the benefits, for me, was spending 15 years outside the business because I wasn’t coming in as a fresh, naïve business person – I joined as an experienced board member who had gone through the ups and downs of running parts of a major company. That gave me the internal and external credit that made me confident in my own ability.

For the first three years of the succession, me and Graham were working out the best way to react to the changes – but during that time we worked out a plan. He is an insightful and knowledgeable chairman, who lets me run the business.

However, he is always there for advice and support. He has a vast knowledge of the business and wider industry, which is so valuable to me as the leader of the company.

My advice to anyone going through a family succession is listen and learn from others who have gone through the process, as you only have one shot at getting it right.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE GOING THROUGH A SUCCESSION PLANNING PROCESS?

It is unique to each individual business but there needs to be an understanding of what that new leaders’ job description is going to be. Getting advice from a great HR person to map out the succession and the new role, with what the company expects from them once they take up the job, is vital. There must be a shift in behaviour as a result of the succession, and it will put a strain on a personal relationship, as you are going from a non-business relationship to a high-pressure work environment.

You need to plan whether the changes will be just for one person at the top or will there need to be others within the organisation. What Graham allowed me to do was put a group of people around myself who knew how I worked – which is very different to my father.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?

As the CEO, I believe my role is to mentor and guide – not necessarily to get directly involved in the processes. However, as the leader, you do need to know when you need to step in. My leadership team would say that I give them space to take responsibility – but that I have a very good memory and attention to detail to help them at any moment, so we do not miss out on the bigger picture. You need to give others responsibilities to complete, but you need to constantly manage those – it is a constant narrative around strategy.

Managing remote teams is different as we have teams all over the world. Their jobs are different, their hours are different, their culture is very different and so you cannot have the same approach to all on your management team. You need to have a structure and be conscious of many other factors. Leadership must adapt if you are dealing with different countries and time zones. But no matter where your team are, you need to give them space and responsibility but at the same time direct everyone to the same common goal that is driving who we are as a business.

CAN YOU TAKE ME THROUGH YOUR ACQUISITIONS AND WHAT THEY HAVE MEANT TO THE BUSINESS?

Benoy has traditionally grown and entered new markets organically. To expand the group, we have always taken the view that if there is an opportunity to buy a business, it should be a specialist in its field and small enough that we could (quickly) take it overseas. Holmes Wood was our first acquisition. They are wayfinding specialists who help people to navigate and experience the world around them, so it provided a nice synergy with architecture and interior design.

Pragma, our most recent acquisition, provide commercial advice and strategic research for investors and operators – they are at the beginning of many real estate journeys for clients. Our fourth business, Uncommon Land, wasn’t an acquisition but was set-up by the group to provide landscape expertise.

I believe that we now have an unrivalled offer for clients – a holistic approach to research and design which is anchored in human behaviour and focused on delivering economic success, social wellbeing and environmental sustainability.

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