Fate, friendship, risk-taking and self-belief – a story of how a chance meeting led to the creation of a business that’s now celebrating its tenth year
Much like the famous lyrics sung by 80’s pop band, Human League: “I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, when I met you”, except Justin wasn’t working in a cocktail bar, he was running a successful architectural practice when he had a chance encounter with John.
Just over ten years ago, John – who was in-between jobs at the time due to the recession – worked his charm and secured a meeting with Justin to try and sell him kitchen worktops. The pair immediately clicked and it was only a matter of minutes before they found themselves in a deep discussion over their shared passion – land. It was quickly established that Justin had a parcel of land he was looking to sell for a client and, as luck would have it, John had someone in mind who he thought would be very interested.
John and Justin’s intuition around the potential deal proved to be right and they quickly secured a favourable outcome, resulting in the pair each receiving a few thousand pounds for putting the deal together. In fact, because of how quickly and smoothly they handled the process, the landowner gave Justin a little bit extra on top of the initial fee as a ‘thank you’. Justin immediately rang John to tell him the good news and to share the extra reward. John was really impressed with Justin’s honesty. Justin states this decision was simple – they had worked on the deal together so they should split everything. It was this behaviour and approach to business that cemented their friendship and trust, which created the foundations of the successful business they would go on to create.
After the success of their first land deal, Justin approached John again as he knew of a few other parcels of land up for grabs, but they were struggling to secure sales due to the recession. Justin asked John what he knew about options, John’s reply was: “it’s more like what don’t I know about options”. So once again, the two joined forces and very quickly began creating opportunities for options on land.
It’s here, John lets us into a little secret: at that moment in time, the reality was he had very little knowledge about options at all, but he made it his mission to take a crash course and gain the necessary knowledge so that he could seize the opportunities being presented to them. This is just one example, in a line-up of many, where the pair have taken opportunities, applied a big dollop of tenacity in order to drive the business forward – entrepreneurial, go-getting spirit at its finest.
Fast forward a few months and it wasn’t long before John and Justin had spent all of their money on legal fees – but the duo were not going to let something like money get in the way of their vision. Their ambition was to transform their business model from dealing with smaller pieces of land into something far more substantial – so they set their eyes on scooping a large piece of land, this was Trewhiddle Farm in St Austell.
The land stretched over 60 acres and was well sought after by a number of developers, however, the land owner had expressed zero interest in selling his land. Both John and Justin knew the potential the land had to offer for the local area and they knew, unlike other developers, they would transform it in a way that was respectable and beneficial to the landowner.
Instead of rushing in like many of the developers that had tried and failed, John and Justin took a different approach. They took the time to get to know the landowner first, having countless informal meetings where they would all drink tea and chat. They let the landowner lead the discussions and tempo of the meetings, something John and Justin always abide by. John and Justin say this is a vital part of their strategy as it means they can be sure that when the time is right, they will be doing the best by any landowner.
The landowner brought up the possibility of selling his land and said he was interested in hearing what John and Justin had to offer. Both John and Justin knew the land was incredibly valuable so they offered the landowner a significantly high sum as they felt it was deserved, despite not having anywhere near the cash to do so at the time. But John and Justin were confident in what they could deliver. The landowner accepted their offer and then, despite not having any experience in house building, they put through the plans to build 450 houses, a retail park and a Sainsbury’s superstore. After much hard work – and sleepless nights – they got the deal through and within six months John and Justin found themselves transported from having no experience in development to sitting in the head office of Sainsbury’s discussing the creation of one of the largest supermarkets in the South West. This was their first project created under the Westcountry Land & Homes brand and it wasn’t long before more joined their portfolio.
The next few years were not quite as simple for Westcountry Land & Homes. They found a number of sites perfect and prime for land development, however despite them initially seeming straightforward, often they would come with a number of obstacles which ended up dragging projects out across a number of years. During these first few years the financial pressures were immense. The pair would have to pay substantial fees upfront, and with funds often secured through borrowing and therefore accruing interest rates, the weight of the transactions were huge. Teamed with the reality that the pair would have to endure going for months (if not years) seeing zero financial return until the deals came through, the duo managed to persevere where many would have given up and walked away due to the relentless financial pressures.
When John and Justin did finally see rewards more often than not, most of this would be spent paying off the debts built-up throughout the whole project.
When asking John and Justin what their biggest challenge was they’re unanimous on one site – Gloweth Barton, in Truro. This was a fantastic piece of land ideally located and surrounded by residential development, making it perfect for an infill-residential development. As was often the case, the site and planning should have been simple, however after complications with land buyers and the council creating difficulty by rejecting the planning proposals, the site proved to be anything but simple. As time went on waiting for the deal to go through, John and Justin were drastically running out of cash and were quickly building up debt to support themselves and the business. Making matters only harder, the land owners were also struggling and after being unable to continue paying their mortgage, John and Justin took on further debts as they knew they had to do right by their client by taking on their mortgage costs. The pressure was really on, and as time ticked away with no deal and increasing bills, John and Justin felt the heat like never before and admit they got to the point where they were one bill away from losing everything as – at the same time – they were facing a lengthy planning battle with a site in Mevagissey. The last bill came in and by a stroke of luck, 48 hours after the deal was closed – you couldn’t write it any better!
Looking back across the last 10 years, John and Justin realise they have been on an incredible journey with their business, one which would never have happened had John never popped his head in to sell Justin some kitchen tiles. The friendship and trust they have built up has carried them through the most rewarding and the most challenging times and with the help of some luck, they have managed to grow Westcountry Land & Homes into one of the most successful land and property companies in the South West.
Asked if they could give any advice to future SME developers, they both agree that cash flow, perseverance, relationships, determination acceptance and flexibility are the main things they have tapped into to keep the business going. Accepting each other’s skills and appreciating what they bring to the table has been a major part of their success too. Aside from these things, John and Justin both recognise the massive role their families, and in particular, their wives, have played in creating and growing Westcountry Land & Homes – by looking after their children and everything to do with running a home so they could put in the time and effort the business needed.
Looking at the future, John and Justin feel great excitement at what Westcountry Land & Homes will be able to achieve. Now being in a position of having some serious capital behind them they can look into new areas for the business to branch into, such as building-to-let whilst still having a major role in the land industry. As they grow more successful, John and Justin also both feel strongly about investing money and time into charities they resonate with such as Jeremiah’s Journey. Over the years, John and Justin have helped organise a number of events including a golf day to help raise money for the local Plymouth charity which provides the resources to help young children deal with bereavement and they are already looking at ways they can help the charity and others again in the near future.
It’s been an unimaginable 10 years for John and Justin. When they had everything to lose and the odds were against them, they carried on yet never did they think ten years ago they would be sitting where they are today. But despite everything faced, the good and the bad, many things have remained the same – John and Justin still love land, they still get excited about every project they begin and above all else, they still trust and care unquestionably about each other (they just do all this now in even funkier suits!).