Writ­ten off at school, David Gaffney now runs one of Bri­tain’s fastest-grow­ing con­struc­tion firms, writes Stephen Breen

The Herald Business - - David Gaffney -

AS A 16-year-old pon­der­ing what to do when he left school in Port Glas­gow, David Gaffney was ad­vised to go on a Youth Train­ing Scheme. With mass un­em­ploy­ment loom­ing in the early 1980s, his ca­reers ad­vi­sor had not ex­actly writ­ten him off, but it was clear she didn’t see a glit­ter­ing fu­ture ahead.

Thank­fully, Gaffney re­jected the ad­vice and to­day, at the age of just 39, he runs one of Bri­tain’s big­gest house­build­ing com­pa­nies, the Gladedale Group, which is aiming to be the mar­ket leader in Scot­land next year.

In his four years with the com­pany, Gaffney and his part­ner Remo Dipre have taken Gladedale from a re­gional builder based in Ep­som, Sur­rey, with a turnover of £65m to a UK-wide pow­er­house with a turnover of £483.3m. And pre-tax prof­its an­nounced this year have risen by a re­mark­able 48% to £61.7m.

It’s all a far cry from Gaffney’s teenage days on the Clyde coast when the son of a joiner took sum­mer jobs as a labourer on build­ing sites. Iron­i­cally, given the stel­lar suc­cess he has en­joyed in his ca­reer so far, work­ing in the build­ing in­dus­try is the one job he swore he would never take.

Through a com­bi­na­tion of hard work and a con­stant will­ing­ness to learn more, Gaffney has risen swiftly to be­come one of the youngest chief ex­ec­u­tives in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try, but he be­lieves many of his old school friends from St Stephen’s High never ful­filled their true po­ten­tial be­cause they didn’t get the op­por­tu­nity.

For this rea­son, Gladedale is plan­ning to pay two young­sters from Port Glas­gow and an­other pair from Ep­som through col­lege or univer­sity and give them the chance to shine in the busi­ness.

“There were peo­ple I was at school with who were far more in­tel­li­gent than I’ll ever be who had tremen­dous ca­pa­bil­ity but never had the op­por­tu­nity to flour­ish, so Remo and I are keen to give some of th­ese in­di­vid­u­als the chance,” says Gaffney dur­ing an in­ter­view at Gladedale’s Scot­tish head­quar­ters in Stir­ling.

“I do be­lieve there still is in the west of Scot­land, es­pe­cially in In­ver­clyde, an in­abil­ity to think be­yond the en­ve­lope – which is a bar­rier to peo­ple re­al­is­ing their po­ten­tial. If you be­lieve you can suc­ceed, with hard work you can make it hap­pen.”

Re­call­ing the fate­ful ca­reers ad­vice, Gaffney be­lieves it may have been one of the best things to have hap­pened to him be­cause it made him fo­cus his mind on do­ing some­thing bet­ter.

He wanted to be­come a teacher and was ac­cepted to study ge­og­ra­phy at St An­drews Univer­sity, but an­other teacher at St Stephen’s asked him if he had con­sid­ered a ca­reer as a quan­tity sur­veyor.

At his in­ter­view for the course at Glas­gow Cale­do­nian Univer­sity, Gaffney was asked if he could lay a pa­tio. “I had been lay­ing pa­tios all sum­mer be­cause I had been labour­ing and the con­struc­tion pro­fes­sor cre­ated an­other place on the course for me be­cause at least I had half an in­cli­na­tion as to how things fit­ted to­gether,” he says.

Dur­ing one of his course place­ments, he worked for nine months as a spe­cial­ist sub­con­trac­tor on the Sel­lafield nu­clear plant in Cum­bria, which at the time was the big­gest con­struc­tion project in the UK.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he worked as a quan­tity sur­veyor for Ar­mour in Pais­ley and Greenock deal­ing with hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tions, and took great sat­is­fac­tion from be­ing able to give some­thing back to his com­mu­nity.

His next job was as a tech­ni­cal man­ager for Scot­tish Homes where he was in­volved in the dis­tri­bu­tion of grants of be­tween £250-300m a year to hous­ing as­so­ci­a­tions.

Gaffney moved swiftly up the man­age­ment lad­der when he joined Miller as chief sur­veyor, dur­ing which time he was both a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor in Manch­ester and a di­vi­sional com­mer­cial di­rec­tor. Mov­ing through the Miller ranks, Gaffney was able to work at all lev­els from sales through to com­mer­cial con­struc­tion and civil en­gi­neer­ing projects.

Next stop was Per­sim­mon Homes, where he was ap­pointed as re­gional man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for Scot­land. Aged 30, Gaffney over­saw the ac­qui­si­tion of Tilbury Douglas for £24m plus debt.

“That was an ex­cel­lent ex­pe­ri­ence,

a fan­tas­tic learn­ing curve,” he re­calls. “I was given a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity and en­cour­age­ment by the di­vi­sional chief ex­ec­u­tive who was the main board rep­re­sen­ta­tive re­spon­si­ble, but he al­lowed me to lead the deal. I re­mem­ber two days be­fore it was all done bar the shout­ing that I got a tele­phone call at home from the group chair­man of Per­sim­mon. He was mak­ing sure that I had own­er­ship of the deal. It was both a con­grat­u­la­tion and to make sure the deal would hap­pen. It was a nice touch.”

Gaffney, who was based in East Kil­bride, was then poached by Bell­way as re­gional man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, and it was dur­ing that time that he met Ital­ian-born en­tre­pre­neur Dipre. A half hour meet­ing spilled over into four hours and at a sub­se­quent break­fast meet­ing at the Royal Scot Ho­tel in Ed­in­burgh, Dipre per­suaded Gaffney to join Gladedale as group man­ag­ing di­rec­tor.

“I was at­tracted by his en­ergy and drive and en­thu­si­asm,” Gaffney re­called. “Remo is the only guy I’ve ever met who is up be­fore me in the morn­ing and will go home af­ter me. He is very charis­matic and leads by ex­am­ple, and we got on very quickly be­cause there was a no-non­sense approach.”

They quickly de­cided they wanted to di­ver­sify the group and em­barked on an am­bi­tious pro­gramme of growth and ac­qui­si­tions. In 2000, Gladedale bought Fur­long Homes, which took the busi­ness inside the cru­cial M25 cor­ri­dor, and in 2003, it ac­quired Bett Homes for £96m plus debt. Other ac­qui­si­tions in­clude Coun­try & Metropoli­tan Homes, North Coun­try Homes, Pre­mier Homes, and a 50% stake in the Quar­ter­mile project in Ed­in­burgh, which in­cludes the re­de­vel­op­ment of the for­mer Ed­in­burgh Royal In­fir­mary.

Out­with the group, in 2004, Gaffney and Dipre bought Manor King­dom, Scot­land’s lead­ing lux­ury house­builder, turn­ing an £800,000 loss in the last two months of 2004 into a pre-tax prof it of £1.2m on sales of £28.6m.

Over­see­ing the run­ning of the Gladedale Group, with 1650 staff across the UK plus 220 at Manor King­dom, means the fa­ther of four has a hec­tic sched­ule, work­ing reg­u­lar 14 hours. He will nor­mally leave his home in East Kil­bride at 4am on Tues­day to fly south and not re­turn un­til 10am on Thurs­day night, spend­ing the rest of his time in Stir­ling.

“I have a fan­tas­tic wife, Aileen, who is very sup­port­ive of me and with­out her I couldn’t do what I do,” he says. “She is very pa­tient with me, but the quid pro quo is that I try to spend as much time as I can with the fam­ily at the week­end.”

De­spite his me­te­oric ca­reer rise to date, Gaffney re­mains mod­est about his achieve­ments and be­lieves the best is still to some. “I don’t class my­self as suc­cess­ful. I still think I’ve got an aw­ful lot to learn and an aw­ful lot more to give to Gladedale and the in­dus­try. I’m al­ways very ner­vous about putting my­self up for a fall be­cause I know I’m not the f in­ished ar­ti­cle. But I hope one day to be run­ning the best and hope­fully the big­gest house­build­ing and prop­erty de­vel­op­ment com­pany in the UK.”

Given David Gaffney’s track record to date, who would bet against it?

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