Beech Holdings is reclaiming Manchester’s old buildings and bringing them back to life. The firm has just moved from Portland Street to its new home at 60 Oxford Street.
The company specialises in the renovation of old, unloved and disused buildings in Manchester city centre. It is a passion of Stephen’s and one which has grown since the company began in 2003.
His route to success has not been easy – but his toughest business lesson came at the tender age of seven.
That’s when Stephen took out his first business loan – from his dad.
He borrowed £5 so that he could buy a large tub of Vimto lollies from
Makro, where his mother worked at the time, with a plan to sell them to his classmates at school, and it was here that he was taught his first life lesson.
“That was the hardest business I’ve had in my life,” he grins, “I had to avoid teachers, then I made a bit of money and someone else came in on my patch so there was competition, and then I had to pay my dad back.”
But it was this first taste of business that led Stephen, at 11 years of age, to move onto his next venture, washing cars. He roped in local kids from his neighbourhood to help him with the manpower, paying them 50p per car.
All this by the age of 11, not too bad for someone who by their own admission was not the most gifted academically, gaining seven Bs and Cs at high school, while his sisters went to grammar school.
Instead, what he had and what he prides himself on to this day, was a “common sense approach”, which Stephen feels was – and still is – during his time at school, an underrated attribute.
“I remember, and it pains me to this day, at 14 being called into the careers advisor, and by this time I had had two businesses, I obviously had something about me, but by the end of it she told me to go into computer admin.”
And despite continuing his studies he realised very early that it wasn’t for him.
He explains: “I wasn’t meant to be working for someone else”. So by 18, he decided that business was the way to go and more specifically, property.
He took an office job in a call centre, working any time he could until he had enough money to get his career moving. But once he did, he had to decide where to start.
Taking inspiration from his dad’s RAC map, he decided that Rusholme was where he was going to make his mark. And he managed to find his first property, 147 Acombe Street – which he still owns to this day.
“I put a £5,000 deposit down for the property, with a sale price of £38,000, but I didn’t have the other £33,000,” he says with a rye smile.
“It was a big risk, I’d worked very hard for that and I didn’t have the rest of the money. Eventually, I managed to find it and secured the property successfully.
“The next problem was that I had to do it up, it was virtually derelict. So I rolled my sleeves up and learnt the job myself, I couldn’t afford anyone else.”
So with some help from his sister, Joanne and dial-up internet, Stephen brought the property back to life, something that has become the very core of Beech Holdings’ philosophy ever since.
“This is where the DNA of the business we still have today was born. I wanted to provide the house that my target market wanted to see, not what myself, my sister or mum wanted to see.
“Rusholme was very unloved but had potential. It was tough, but I eventually turned it into a high-end four-bedroom house, and four international students moved in.
“Over time I built up Beech Properties and gradually employed more builders, plasterers and workers so I could stand back and keep the business moving. This expansion led to the growth of Beech’s property portfolio, with Stephen owning a total of 100 houses within walking distance of Acomb Street.
Yet student accommodation was only the start, he says it was “where I cut my teeth” and it was not until he purchased 90 Princess Street, that Beech Holdings was able to really take off.
A run-down building, with a nightmare tenant and no paperwork, it was another huge risk for Stephen and one his legal team were unwilling to make. But for the developer, this wasn’t the case.
With a grin, he says: “Everyone was very, very nervous about this building, and I looked at it and I wasn’t scared by it, to me it was a big terraced house. I knew what I was doing with it.
“And that was really the start of Beech Holdings, that was the ‘b of the bang’ and it really exploded and I went through a lot of trials and tribulations to get there,” he says, with a clear look of pride.
Since its beginnings in 2003, Beech has grown from that one property in Rusholme to a company with a projected turnover of £39m over the next 12 months, a total stock worth £40m and a gross development value pipeline of £100m – so much for careers advice.
Despite this success, however, Stephen doesn’t hide his hunger to grow the business even further with several more developments of older properties in the pipeline, including 2 Waterloo Street, which is currently awaiting planning permission.
He says most people just don’t understand these kinds of buildings, they don’t know how to handle them and because of this, a considerable number of properties are going wasted and unused.
This is a phenomenon, which Stephen, for one, does not understand. However, he is happy to take responsibility for changing that attitude and making these buildings a staple of city-centre living.
“That’s why we concentrate on old buildings. Everyone else is scared of them”, he says bemusedly, “they don’t know what’s behind this old woodchip wallpaper or carpet, that’s why they choose new builds.
“I do go over price on some properties, but they’re beautiful buildings being brought back to life and I think the value will be there long after all these new builds have come and gone.” And gesturing at his former office in Basil House – where we are meeting – he says, “this will be here for another 200 years.”
And like the buildings they purchase and renovate, Manchester’s Restoration Man wants to be here for many years to come, stepping in where others fear to tread, to bring new life to the city’s forgotten buildings.
But it is not just about proving people wrong and growth at all costs for Stephen, these old properties in the city centre, he thinks, also hold the key to helping Manchester as a city grow and to reach its potential.
A keen supporter of the Northern Powerhouse, he feels very strongly that if Manchester is going to stay relevant in all aspects of life – not just business, whether it be arts and technology or science and sport – then the city needs to have an abundance of housing stock.
Yet at this moment in time, this is something which the region is seriously lacking.
“HS2 is coming, companies are moving here, and I am very much an advocate of doing things now, not in three or four years’ time.
“The city is my passion, my love. It’s where I was born and bred, I know it like the back of my hand and we need to deliver more homes quickly in order to keep up with the buzz of Manchester, otherwise, we may lose all this fantastic talent to outlying areas or potentially other cities.
He adds: “In Manchester, there are a lot of old buildings that need to be brought back. The demand exists.
“But I’ll say it again, this needs to happen now, not in 10 years’ time, not even tomorrow – now.”