Charlie Baxter featured in Showhouse Magazine
Career View: Charlie Baxter, MD and Co-founder, Alchemi Group
We speak exclusively to Charlie Baxter, managing director and co-founder of Alchemi Group, about his career and experiences in the housebuilding and development, what his job involves and his advice for people considering working in the property industry.
Please tell us a little about yourself, A/chem/ Group and your current role.
I founded Alchemi Group with my wife, interior designer Laura Marino (of Studio L, London) in 2002. We began refurbishing a number of one-off apartments simultaneously and purchasing air rights. A few years into doing that, we bought a hotel and received planning permission to convert it into flats. That organically led to us scaling up to larger developments by 2009. As managing director and co-founder (and an entrepreneur), my role is to set the direction of the company and its policies; I also look to find site locations and help raise funds tor exciting future projects. My innate passion and knowledge of property comes from my dynamic and entrepreneurial mother who developed a vast portfolio - and is still at it at 81 !
What does your Job entail?
There are many meetings - weekly, bi-weekly and monthly! These are mandatory, and are key to ensuring our projects are on track, and the whole team is on the same page. Each week I try to carve out time on a weekly basis to view sites, meet investors, colleagues (past and present) and new potential external team members for future projects. I also enjoy going to a variety of forums and round-table talks, gaining interesting insights from industry leaders on various topics regarding real-estate, planning and politics. Other than that though, I'm very hands-on as we're a small team, and a lot of my job is to anticipate what may happen down the road on a project in its various stages.
What career path brought you to this position?
I didn't go to university. I left school at 18 to travel the world, upon returning I joined a City firm and after a few years decided to follow in Mum's footsteps and become a developer.
My first property role was at Barratt Homes, where I was part of a small team that set up their successful Barratt West London division. After ten years at Barratt, I decided to go it alone and eventually set up Alchemi Group. It has been an incredible journey so far. Even though I have always had drive and aspirations, I never imagined I'd walk out of Victoria Station, look down Victoria Street and see one of our beautiful - RIBA award-winning - buildings, standing proudly amongst the rest.
Have there been mentors who have helped you through teaming, work experience and wisdom?
What a fortuitous question, and something I have been thinking about a lot recently. My Mum has an excellent instinct tor buying developments in areas of significant growth and good value, which was definitely a motivator for me to venture into the sector.
When I partnered with Laura, my passion and ambition grew even further and she was inspirational in pushing me to create beautifully designed homes, rather than just a development. Imagine my initial shock when Laura, a great interior designer with a fantastic eye tor detail, told me my refurbishments were average. Regardless of the budget, Laura encourages me to create a dream product tor our purchasers. Together, as a duo, we continually challenge the architecture of the buildings we deliver from internal specification and layouts to the procurement of each site.
We also have various investors who have taught me many things - including taking care to read contracts carefully! Onequote I always refer to is: 'Charlie, take as long as required to understand every contract fully. Even if it means tocking yourself in a dark room and putting a cold towel on the head'. I think of that every time I read long contracts, and I'm still learning from those mentors every week.
Does delegating to your team mean you miss out on some aspects of the building process?
Our average project is about 24 months of construction so it's not possible to see every aspect of the process. However, I regularly visit sites and thoroughly read every report - because you often have to read between the lines. I think you have to be able to identify what the real message is regardless of what's being reported, anticipate what it could result in and deal with it. Towards the end of each development I pay particular attention to the finishing of each apartment including reading the snagging reports. By doing all of this I feel that I am very up to speed on our projects.
Does London's luxury property market need particular Jobs and ski/ls expertise, and has it been easy finding the right people?
In any job, experience and skill sets are hugely beneficial. However, just because someone has experience doesn't mean that person is necessarily good at their job, or the right fit for your company. At Alchemi Group, we grew very fast as a company achieving 180% growth year-on-year within five years. Hiring the right fit is one of the critical lessons we've learned and very important to us as an overall team.
We're not a large corporation. We're a dynamic, and passionate, entrepreneurial business that has gained a massive amount of experience with more to learn and offer. I'm sure most companies feel that way about themselves, and likewise, most self-employed businesses will say the same thing. Finding the right people is not easy, primarily because you are joining a personality and culture not just a company. Just like dating, it's not always going to work out! However, when the chemistry does gel, you want to nurture that potential.
Are there projects you are especially proud of?
That's like asking me to choose who my favourite child is!
We're proud of all our developments tor all of their unique personalities. Currently, though, Westminster Fire Station showcases every skill we have to date. We have had to steer through a sensitive planning application, which we did by Laura identifying the concept and voice of the project, and had to select the right architectural practice that would accurately build our concept and vision. That choice enabled the level of detail required to help the project sing, gain Westminster's trust and ultimately, we were consented to construct the development.The team has taken considerable time and care to design the retail space restaurant, which will form an exciting new restaurant tenant, and 17 boutique apartments - only two are alike. Internally, the majority of the finishes and detailed design are completely bespoke to the project. From a construction perspective, we also managed a complex basement demolition and shell-and-core contract on time and on budget with an excellent contractor.
Westminster Fire Station is also the first London venture with a new JV partner; Far East Orchard Limited. They're a subsidiary of the largest developers in Singapore who are also working largely in Australia, and this is their first project in the UK, and we are proud to be partnered with them.
What advice do you have for anyone considering a career In the UK new homes Industry?
It's competitive, but try not to let ego and a bottom line get in the way. It's hard work and you need to develop a thick skin but not too thick that you are obtuse. There is always something to learn from each project and the people on your team as well as your partners, and you'd be wise to realise that. Be prepared to eat humble pie as and when in order to improve.
It would also be wise to learn and identify sound advice no matter how it may come across at first. Be accountable. Have the passion or don't do it. Don't be covetous! Don't be afraid to share your knowledge and experience! There is plenty to go around, and we encourage supporting the industry by championing and giving credit where it's due and sharing our knowledge thus far. Also, examine the value you're genuinely offering your end user.
As an industry, we must rapidly embrace true sustainability. It's our responsibility. Building homes in the UK is a national priority. So, building homes that are genuinely green is a global necessity and should be a top priority tor all boroughs and the government. We as developers have the opportunity to change the overwhelming public perception that we're greedy, don't care and take short cuts to solely make a bottom line. Values and principles should be integral. More than anything, have faith and be true to what it is you want to accomplish when entering this industry.