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