By The Business Magazine on 02/03/2015
For a man who studied law at Oxford off the back of his prowess at rowing, it might seem strange that Hugh Thomas pursued a career in property development. By his own admission though, he has been obsessed with ‘making things’ since he was small, and even today he delights in travelling the countryside to see new buildings take shape and looking for ideas for his next project. As managing director of Thomas Homes, the company he co-founded with his older brother David, he now heads one of the largest private developers in the Thames Valley region.
Born in 1943 and the second youngest of five children, Thomas was a post-war baby who grew up in the shadow of rationing and hand-me-down clothes from his older brothers. With a father who was the local GP in Pangbourne, he remembers a happy childhood and says that somehow his “very generous” parents managed to ensure all the siblings enjoyed a good education. Sporting glory obviously ran in the family as all the brothers rowed, the youngest representing Great Britain in the Olympics, and it was his own rowing success which earned Thomas a place at Oxford. Halfway through his studies he decided to become a surveyor, so after graduating he took a second degree in estate management at the University of London. His first job was with a firm of surveyors in the capital, before he moved to a property company. By now married to wife Sally, who he met whilst at university, Thomas spent any spare time teaching himself the necessary skills to buy, renovate and sell various properties. In 1974, he and David joined forces to launch Thomas Homes, designing, developing and building both commercial and residential properties in locations from Bristol to Oxford, Reading to Winchester. Based outside Newbury, Thomas still works in the office five days a week and says retiring will never be an option.
How did you end up in property development?
As a child, I was always making things – whether it was toys or toast racks. One Christmas, when I was about 10, I was given a pile of wood stacked up under the Christmas tree and I immediately thought of all the wonderful things I could make with it. When I was still at school, I toyed with doing up a cottage and I suddenly discovered something I could apply my mind to. Later on, when I was doing my surveyor exams, there were some basics in building construction, but really I taught myself all the skills I needed to know by watching other people. I’ve always had a practical mind and even now I like to watch the way a bricklayer or a carpenter works. I also do a lot of thinking about things, wondering what I’m going to do next.
Was it a big decision to start your own business?
When the property company I was working for was sold, first to a merchant bank and then to another company, I decided I no longer wanted to work there. I gave in my notice and the finance director, whose family had a major shareholding in the business, offered to provide the finance David and I needed to start Thomas Homes. He became a shareholder and it was only when he retired that we bought out his shares and expanded the business.
Tell us more about Thomas Homes
When we started, David was responsible for acquiring the sites and selling the completed units, while I did all the drawings and organised the office. Even now, we run the business with a data-based computer programme that I designed. At the beginning, we were converting houses to offices in Reading and also building small offices. We were very fortunate to let those to some of the best public companies that wanted to come to Reading at the time. Gradually, we started doing more and more residential work and that’s largely what we focus on today. As a family-run business, we can decide what we want to do. We buy the land, commission the architect and gain planning permission, we have our own design department and we do our own building work and selling. We employ about 20 people now and I always say working for us leads to an easier life compared to our competitors as we wish our employees to have a stress-free life. We could have set out to make more money, but that would have been at the expense of our leisure and family time and that’s not what we’re about. It’s lovely to think that what we draw and design will actually be built – we’re suggesting how people live in the future.
Which developments are you most proud of?
The first would have to be Albion Terrace, in London Road, Reading. It was a lovely Regency period building; we bought it from the Council and converted it into 60 flats. It always gives me pleasure when I drive past and think “I did that”. The second would be the development of the former Fair Mile Hospital site in Cholsey, where we provided 134 homes, together with community buildings and recreational amenities for residents and the local community. It was a terrific project and followed a similar development we did in Basingstoke.
Can you share any business advice?
Don’t overstretch yourself. We always say that whereas bigger companies have the systems, we have the knowledge and people who really understand what they are doing. It reduces the risk. I learned early on, never to put yourself in a position that you can’t get out of and that’s why we will never overextend ourselves. We successfully got through two bad downturns in the property market by scaling back and then, as things improved, we built the business up again.
What do you enjoy most about your chosen career?
I visit our building sites every fortnight and I love seeing how things have changed. I get a real thrill from see a space that we have built or a view that we have created. Whenever I look at an old run-down building, within minutes I can picture what it could look like, even without going inside. I love that feeling.
Where does Thomas Homes go from here?
We’re still very much a family company. When David retired, my son James came on board as finance director and Chris Brotherton joined us as land director. We had known Chris’ family all our life, so as far as we’re concerned, it’s very much still a family business and will continue to be. As one scheme finishes you go down a different route and find another one. One of our next projects is at the Reading University London Road frontage buildings, coincidentally opposite Albion Terrace.
What do you do on your time off?
Work. We live in Wiltshire now, but ten years ago we bought a farm in the Meon Valley so I spend Monday to Friday in the office and at weekends I’m on the farm, that’s how I relax. The farm is worked on a contractor basis, and I work on the farm buildings and do things like tree planting and making ponds; anything to do with being on the land and in the fresh air. What worries me is that now I’m nearing the end of what I set out to do, I need to find something to do next. I have realised I’m a workaholic. When we go on holiday I always take my computer but I say to Sally that that’s no different to reading a book and she does agree.
Where do you get your work ethic from?
My father’s grandfather went bust in the depression in South Wales and we were brought up to value good education and qualifications. All of my siblings have become professional people – a doctor, a surveyor, a solicitor, another has a degree in retail – so we’ve all been very driven as a result of our upbringing.
Do you have a life philosophy?
You achieve in life what you put into it. When I was rowing at Oxford it taught me discipline and the fact that pain isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While someone might say they feel tired, I will never say that – because as soon as you do, then you become tired. I like to go to bed thinking I have done something with my life every day.
Do you see yourself retiring?
I’ve no intention of doing so. Out of all our friends, I’m the only one working but I enjoy what I do and I don’t consider it work. Sally is quite happy to have me out of the house. Without her support over the years I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do. My view is to enjoy what I do while I have the health to do so, I probably value it more now than I did 10 years ago because I want to make the most of life.
Published: The Business Magazine
Images: Angus Thomas