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Cobalt Model is UK Success for Square One Law Client Highbridge Properties

Cobalt, located in North Tyneside is an amazing success story for the North East. It’s the largest office park in the UK and in 2014 let more space than any other office park in the country.

Adrian Hill, a director of Highbridge Properties plc talks to Barney Frith, Head of Property at Square One Law about his career.

Cobalt is a huge success story for Highbridge Properties and on completion will comprise of 2.5 million square feet of offices. Cobalt currently has a workforce of over 13,000 which is set to rise dramatically with the recent letting activity and it is anticipated that the number of people working at Cobalt will, on completion of the development, increase to over 18,000. Recent lettings include 78,000 sq ft to Utilitywise plc, (the largest letting in the region for 5 years); 25,000 sq ft to Hewlett Packard; 10,000 sq ft to Accenture; 10,000 sq ft to G4S; 10,000 sq ft to Perfect Image; 5,000 sq ft each to Barnardos and IBM and most recently, 39,200 sq ft to Siemens, making a total of 182,000 sq ft.

Adrian said: “These deals add to the already strong tenant line up at Cobalt which also includes Procter & Gamble, EE, North Tyneside Council and Santander. Not only have companies chosen to relocate their current employees but also see it as a premier location, with excellent communication links, for the expansion of their businesses. Six major occupiers have all taken either a second building or additional floors, in fact HP has just taken its third building.”

Adrian joined Highbridge Properties in 2009, following a very successful career with global property firm, Cushman & Wakefield, for 28 years and interestingly it was a chat with the family’s bank manager that set him on the property path.

Adrian said: “My family moved to Whitley Bay from Lancashire when I was 4 years old and I went to King’s School at Tynemouth. When I was doing my A levels I still didn’t know what I wanted to do so my father decided to take me to see his bank manager for advice.

This was 1972 when bank managers actually talked to you! He had a good overview of what businesses were successful and said people in property were doing well so I decided to go to Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University) to study Urban Estate Surveying.

“My first job was working for the government as a district valuer in London where I gained my surveying qualifications and I then moved on to work for one of the largest chartered surveyors and commercial property consultants in the country, Healey and Baker.”

Adrian worked in the industrial department and although based in London, covered the North East and other regions; in fact his first deal was in Cramlington. In 1981 he was introduced to development work, working on projects at The London Docklands and Castle Marina Park in Nottingham.

Adrian said: “This work really interested me and in 1985 I was asked to set up and lead the out-of- town retail parks team. Very few people had specialised in this area at that time and we started with retailers operating out of industrial buildings, and then later this changed to bespoke out-of-town retail park developments. My team developed a specialism and Healey and Baker soon became leaders in this area and in 1986 I became a partner.”

Then in 1991 a harsh recession hit the UK and out-of-town retail fell away quickly.

“I remember those tough times very well,” commented Adrian,” But I also remember that an interesting opportunity came my way in Healey & Baker in 1991. I had been asked to speak at the firm’s annual dinner and Sir Brian Goswell, deputy chairman of Healey & Baker, offered to help me with my speech. Working together was fortuitous and he persuaded me to leave retail and join his team in office development.

“It was one of the best decisions I made in my career and I was soon running the office development team for all the regional offices and in 1992 was made an equity partner, specialising in office development and agency.”

1992 saw the recession go deeper. When Adrian took over the team there were 21 people. The restructuring he introduced meant by 1997 they were a team of 7 but the fee turnover had doubled and they went on to win Office Agency Team of the Year. Success carried on and the team grew to 15 people. During this time Adrian was travelling abroad extensively, working with more American partners and corporates and spending a lot of time in the US attending conferences and meeting clients.

“It was an exciting time, but exhausting with so much travelling,”remembers Adrian, “It was about this time that Healey & Baker merged with the highly successful US firm Cushman & Wakefield who were looking for an opening into Europe. We became part of a much larger firm with global aspirations.

“In 1993 I was sent to Hong Kong for 10 weeks with a brief to report on whether the firm should open offices in the Far East. It was a fascinating time to be looking at Hong Kong, China and Thailand and Cushman & Wakefield subsequently opened offices in those countries.

“Then in 1996 I went to India to meet a potential firm that we could buy, but I had only 3 days to make my report. However it was clear that India would be an important part of the firm’s global expansion plans and it was great experience for me to be involved at this level.”

In 1999 Adrian was invited to join the UK board and then in 2001 was invited to join the International Board. Part of the role being on these boards was to take on more management responsibilities and Adrian ended up chairing 10 divisions, half in the UK and half in Europe.

He also was involved with the UK expansion plans and helped establish the Manchester office in 2005 and Birmingham in 2006.

Adrian said: “Being on the International Board meant a great deal of travel and even more management responsibility. I had always found the agency side very rewarding and stimulating but wanted to get more involved with development work from the client side, so after 28 very successful and happy years with Cushman & Wakefield (and Healey & Baker), I decided to have a complete change from being in agency to become a developer.

“I had worked with Highbridge Properties over the years acting as their agent and had been very involved with Cobalt. Guy Marsden and Piet Pulford had set the company up in 1988 and I had a high regard for what they had achieved. I joined as the third director in July 2009, just shortly before the collapse of Lehman Brothers so my first 3 years with Highbridge was all about consolidation and seeking to create new business opportunities in a very difficult market. I decided to focus my time on Cobalt and set about improving the marketing and profile of the scheme.”

The three main schemes that Highbridge Properties is involved with are Ansty Park, just outside of Coventry. It has an excellent location, adjacent to Junction 2 of the M6, and will provide 1.5 million sq ft of space set in 100 acres of beautifully landscaped parkland. Phase 1 is complete and now the home to the 136,000 sq ft Sainsbury’s Store Support Centre and the 120,000 sq ft Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). Cobalt Park is the second and the third, Indigo Park is an 82 acre development site offering the opportunity for bespoke manufacturing and distribution buildings. The site is one of the largest in the north and can offer units ranging in size from 40,000 sq ft to 1.5 million sq ft. This is a joint venture with the Homes and Communities Agency, North Tyneside Council and a local farmer and is located north of Gosforth Park. Adrian recognises the value of the input and co-operation he receives from North Tyneside Council both at Cobalt and at Indigo.

Barney Frith has known Adrian for over 15 years as they worked on many projects together for mutual clients, including Akeler/Doxford on the development of Doxford International Business Park, when Adrian was with Cushman & Wakefield.

Adrian said: “Barney contacted me when he moved to Square One Law and has been involved with all my recent transactions. He has a great depth of experience in commercial out-of-town developments. He always thinks commercially and sees things ahead that will need a commercial legal solution and this informs the way he advises me. I like the fact he is very proactive and will talk through and raise issues early on so we have already thought through the solutions before the situation arises.”

Barney said: “Highbridge is very much a delivery partner and they work closely with landowners and occupiers to achieve the best outcome. For Indigo it took two years to negotiate the deal between the three landowners and Highbridge had to create a development agreement that treated the three landowners as a whole so they act as one entity, which involved very complex negotiations.”

Adrian continued: “Indigo Park is being created to respond to the demand from clients and will see the development of bespoke industrial and distribution buildings designed to meet the precise requirements in terms of size and specification of those corporate clients.”

“We are very positive about the prospects of Indigo as there is virtually no standing stock above 50,000 sq ft available in the region. Companies looking to expand will need to move to a new building but at Indigo we have the capacity to manage growth and offer the potential for expansion”

Barney commented: “On a national scale, Cobalt is a remarkable product and illustrates how all business park developments should follow the Highbridge model which recognises that you are serving the business community that you house on site through first class buildings in an attractive setting, good access for cars and parking and a reliable public transport network. I really think there should be more recognition of what has been achieved at Cobalt as it is a remarkable business community. I know Adrian, quite rightly, has a great sense of pride in this development.”

As to the future, Adrian is keen to keep expanding, to grow the business and to develop relationships with landowners and tenants. He is currently engaged in very detailed discussions to partner landowners on very large development opportunities across the country, each over 1m sq ft. He also has ambition to create more schemes through joint ventures and to work with more corporates to deliver first class bespoke solutions to their real estate needs.

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