In the latest in a series of interviews with the region’s place makers for Christmas, Place North West asks Phil Mayall, development director at Muse Developments, about lockdown ‘bench swimming’ and his love for extreme triathlons.
Why did you choose a career in property/placemaking?
My dad is a plasterer by trade, and I would work for him at weekends and school holidays. That sparked an interest in buildings but certainly not in mixing plaster! Around that time, my parents had agreed a sale of the family home and it was my job to let the surveyor in to value the house. It took him all of 10 minutes and when my parents explained the cost of a valuation I thought ‘that sounds like the career for me’. Fast forward several years and I soon became bored of inspecting houses, but developed an interest in property development.
Who was your mentor and what was the best piece of advice they gave you?
My earliest mentor was a gentleman by the name of Ken Wilson, who was a legend in Rugby League circles in Oldham and ran a twice-weekly gym session at my local club, Waterhead. His training sessions were not for the fainthearted and he taught me that hard work will generally get you further in life than talent.
What building or project do you wish you’d delivered?
I’m going to go for an old building rather a new project. I absolutely love the Great Northern Warehouse as it fronts Deansgate. Obviously, it wasn’t possible to deliver that project given that construction started in 1885, however I think it is an amazing piece of streetscape and if anybody ever asks me to sum up Manchester in a photograph, I would send them that view.
What key lesson have you learned from 2020 and the pandemic?
Communication. The truth is that this is certainly not a strong point of mine, I find it far easier to adopt the ‘head down and push onwards’ approach to work but I have really missed the day-to-day interaction of working with colleagues and our wider team of advisers and consultants. I’ve learned that you have to be very deliberate in your attempts to facilitate the incidental conversations and encounters that generally lead to shared knowledge and opportunity. Easier said than done though!
What was your lockdown hobby? Did you get ‘Covid-fit’ or gain the ‘Covid stone’?
I can hear our managing director Matt Crompton groan as I type this but as an exercise bore, I’m afraid it was definitely ‘get Covid-fit’. I love doing triathlons so one of the challenges has been trying to recreate swim training without the use of a swimming pool. The sight of me lying on a bench ‘swimming’ with hand paddles fixed to bungee ropes tied to a wall has been a constant source of amusement to the kids.
Spend or save? What’s your most extravagant purchase, and what are you saving up for?
Generally speaking, I’m a spender and the amount I’ve spent on bikes over the last few years could certainly be considered extravagant. I definitely fall into the category of being concerned that, if I die, my wife will sell my bikes for the price I told her I paid for them!
Are you a rebel or a conformist?
I’m comfortable being either, if it gets the right result.
What keeps you awake at night?
In reality, nothing – I don’t struggle falling asleep at night! If I did though, I’d be thinking about how tough the next few years are going to be as we work out of the pandemic, and how we will deal with other headwinds such as Brexit (whether or not we get a deal) and how we respond to climate change.
What’s your proudest achievement?
First and foremost, my family, we have three fantastic children who make us proud every day. In work, it has to the Salford Central scheme, where we have transformed more than 50 acres of the city centre without the bluster and fanfare that sometimes precedes schemes of a similar size. I’ve worked on it with colleagues for 14 years and made friends for life during the process. It also allows me to bore the kids when we come in to town, with a line that usually starts with, ‘Do you see that building there…?’
What’s your biggest regret?
I’m a big believer that you only learn by trying and failing so, generally speaking, I don’t have any big regrets. One a day-to-day level, though, I do tend to dwell on the mistakes I make for far too long.
What’s your top wish for 2021?
It must go without saying that this awful pandemic is brought under control and we can start to build for recovery.
What was the best book you read this year?
Good to Great by Jim Collins, by a country mile. It’s a book about how companies move from being ‘good’ to ‘great’. I would urge anyone to read it – the chapter that deals with ‘Confront the brutal facts – the Stockdale Paradox’ could have been written specifically for 2020.
If you hadn’t gone into property, what would you have done?
In my mind, I would have been a professional Rugby League player but was never good enough! In reality, I would have definitely ended up learning the building trade.
Of your own projects next year, which are you most excited about?
Everything we do is in partnership, so this is the answer that generally ends up with me getting emails from some of our partners asking me to explain my choice! So, with the caveat that I’m excited about all of our projects, I think the work we are doing with St Helens Council [a 20-year deal signed this week] is particularly exciting. I’m not sure that any developer has entered into a borough-wide regeneration partnership of this type before and it has the potential to be truly transformative.
What trend do you believe will have the most profound impact on the placemaking industry in 2021?
Without doubt, the structural changes affecting the high street. You can get an immediate sense of the scale of the challenge, and opportunity, when you consider that a quarter of the property left empty when BHS went bust in 2016 is still empty today. In the vast majority of cases, that property would have been considered to be prime or very close to it. That was before Covid accelerated the changes already occurring.