Butler’s Place: Chris Oakes

Heather Butler meets Chris Oakes, founder of upmarket house builder Huntsmere and co-founder of student accommodation provider Vita Student, which he set up with Mark Stott, chief executive of residential agency Select Property.

Where are we?

My back garden. We're bringing around 50 people from Huntsmere and Select together to purpose-built offices on the other side of Alderley Edge by the end of the summer. But for now Huntsmere's in this converted barn in my back garden. It makes for a nice commute to work, but it is all too easy to come back in the evening. More importantly the house is effectively our show home as all our properties are sold off plan or built bespoke for their owner, so there's no stock to show people what we do. I have a very pragmatic wife and a family that's used to moving. We don't have much clutter so it's not too difficult to keep the place tidy.

What do you do?

Huntsmere houseHuntsmere builds high value homes for successful people. We were doing one property a year five years ago, this year we are on site with 10 homes at between £3m and £10m each. We do some speculative builds but more often we work with the client, find the plot, do the planning and development, interior design, right down to the knives and forks.

Then there's Vita Student, which is something else entirely. We partnered with Select Property, one of the few companies offering the full service in global property marketing, selling investment properties in the UAE. I got to know Mark Stott and we looked at the UK property market, in particular in luxury student market, saw there was demand from abroad, especially at the luxury end. Vita Student currently has two schemes on site, Liverpool and Manchester, and we're in negotiations for sites in other university cities across the country.

What's on your desk?

A lot of plans, there's five different architects on projects at the moment. We don't want to get predictable and have a typical look, so we choose the right architect for that particular scheme.

I've also got the sales stats for Vita and it's astonishing. When you start something new you don't know how it is going to go, but it has grown unbelievably. Sold by Select, the Liverpool scheme sold 90% off plan before work even started. With Manchester, we launched in February and sold out within four months. Investors come from as far afield as Dubai, Singapore, but also the UK and some 10% will be individual investors.

How did you get started?

I was sponsored through a degree at Liverpool Uni by an electronics company. It was a growing sector, the home computer was just coming on line, but a year after graduating in 1988 I was looking around. I was getting offers from racing teams which would have been fantastic if I was a petrol head, but it wasn't for me. I then trained as a lawyer and worked as a barrister. Because you're self-employed as a barrister you can have a lot of spare time on your hands. I started like many developers, a flat here, a house there, and the projects got bigger. I realised I preferred doing development and it just grew from there.

How come you're here?

I'm originally from the Wirral, my parents are still in the house I was born in which is ironic considering what I do. I've three kids and as a family we're fairly mobile, we've always bought, developed, and moved. My son is 13 and he's moved 10 times, in fact the youngest recently asked when we'd be moving again but we've said we'll stay a while, the children are in school and part of the community now, but never say never.

With Huntsmere we tend not to travel very far, there is a strong market in the Alderley, Wilmslow, Prestbury area and until this year we'd never got past the M56. We've now branched out… into Hale and Bowdon.

What was a job well done?

I take pride in what I do and there's something about every house I've built. But there was one a couple of years ago, we'd just formed the interiors department, and the finish of the property was at a level I simply hadn't expected, I walked into it and said 'wow'. I took so much professional pride from that, more than I'd ever felt in my previous career. As a barrister you don't build relationships like you do with a property client, it is not as satisfying as building something from scratch that will be there in years to come, helping to shape a community.

And the tougher times?

The hardest thing has been coming to terms with the changing environment over the last five or six years. It was a double whammy with demand for property dropping off and the ability to fund anything all but disappearing. But it has also forced us to find other solutions and think about things differently. Vita and Select have been our solution, the sales model and development experience makes it a powerful animal.

Now sites are better value and there are fewer competitors. Ten years ago there were guys developing properties as a hobby with a mate with some spare cash, those disappeared over night. Some of the bigger developers found they couldn't sell what they had built because the mortgages had gone.

We found alternative funding through specialist banks for speculative development and do a lot of bespoke work, which acts to reassure the banks we are delivering. This has allowed us to grow and now we're busier than ever.

I didn't work all this out five years ago and follow a plan, we tried things that worked and things that didn't but overall they were the right solutions.

Do you ever relax?

I don't work weekends and I like to go on holiday, but I do work when I'm away I'll admit. Last year I did the Inca trail in Peru with my 13-year-old son, it was an amazing experience and an incredible thing to share with him. I'm very family-orientated so spend as much time with them as I can. I don't play golf, I don't have the time. I grew up a Liverpool fan and used to go with my dad but that's less frequent now and the kids haven't really taken to it. Also, we do quite a bit of work with footballers, some we've got to know well as friends, so I don't tend to mention it.

What's next?

Huntsmere has found its natural level and we've launched the interiors business Hunter & Bell which is also building an independent client base, so that will continue. With Vita it's quite different, and ultimately it'll be a lot bigger. No one is doing anything like this outside of London, the locations, the specification, the sales model, this is going to be an extremely strong sector. Although there is pressure on domestic students due to the changes in funding, there is rampant demand from the international community. They know this market, a lot of their children are educated in the UK and they have a different budget in mind, they're used to paying £20,000 a year. There are other student accommodation providers but there is no product tailored for this particular market which is focused on delivering an elevated specification. We're talking about delivering the best product in each city, Corian kitchen worktops, Samsung TVs; this is the ethos Vita Student is bringing to these projects. The sales speak for themselves, we know we have something the market is responding to and we're looking at Bristol, Nottingham, Birmingham, Newcastle, Edinburgh.

Your Comments

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The guaranteed returns for between 2 and 5 years on current Vita developments in Manchester and Bristol are very attractive but ultimately the Capital values on resales will determine the attractiveness of the developments.Fortunately the timing may just be about right as property prices appear to be on the up! Good luck Huntsmere and Select.

By Nick

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