Wednesday 16 January 2019 7:22 pm

Berkeley Group chairman Tony Pidgley on Brexit, buildings and bonus backlashes

Tony Pidgley is a staunch defender of his trade, as you would expect Britain’s best-known housebuilder to be.

So it comes as something of a surprise when, asked about the huge row that hit his sector last year when fellow housing boss Jeff Fairburn took a £75m bonus, he does not come down on Fairburn’s side.

Talking to City A.M. in his office in Berkeley Group’s Cobham HQ, the rags-to-riches developer, himself worth £300m, remarks frankly: “It did us a lot of harm.” Fairburn, chief executive of Persimmon, was forced out after a car crash TV interview in which the subject of his bumper bonus came up and, seemingly unprepared, he refused to discuss the matter. “I watched that interview,” says Pidgley. “If they asked me, I would’ve been ready…you have to be… we guys are fair game.”

To make his point, he asks staff in the next room to bring out the set of prompt cards prepared for him for when journalists bring up the thorny issue of executive pay, and rattles off his arguments about the company’s tax contribution and pay scheme. “He [Fairburn] could’ve deferred it [the bonus] over the space of ten years,” he says. Asked if the row had damaged the reputation of the housebuilding industry as whole he replies firmly: “Yes.”

Pidgley himself came under attack for his own hefty personal earnings by The Guardian last year, an attack which he describes as ‘unfair.’ Indeed, he is keen to get over the message that housebuilders on the whole are a force for good. “We take places like Woolwich Arsenal and turn them back into real communities,” he says.

By now the story of Pidgley’s rise is almost one of folklore: a former Barnado’s boy later adopted by a family of gypsies, who at one stage during his early years lived in a disused train carriage. After leaving school at the age of 15, he dabbled in odd jobs before setting up a successful haulage company. At 19 he sold the venture to Crest Homes and become a director reporting to the Crest MD Jim Farrer. By 1975 Pidgley and Farrer left to form Berkeley Homes, and the rest, at least in property circles, is history.

Despite currently sitting at number 399 in The Sunday Times rich list, Pidgley himself does not display the trappings of wealth, pointing out that his only two pieces of jewellery are his ring and his Patek Phillipe watch. His office is similarly understated; where other corporate bosses might decorate their walls with expensive artworks, Pidgley has six maps covering all of London.

It is a vivid illustration of his continued obsession, at the age of 71, with the capital’s housing market, where he has built most of his empire. “Building is in my DNA,” he says. As chairman of the blue-chip company, he has his hands full, but you get the sense that that is the way he likes it; waking up at 5.45 every morning and working on weekends (although he allowed himself a rest on Christmas day).

It is not just his dedication to the job that has earned him his reputation today, but also his ability to read cycles in the housing market. In the late 1980’s he famously liquidated his stock ahead of the vicious downturn between 1990-92, before once more building up the company’s assets. As Pidgley himself puts it: “I’ve lived through more recessions than you want to know”.

And here he is in another slump within Berkeley’s main London market, where house price rises have come off the boil in the wake of political uncertainty and stamp duty. Amid the capital’s woes, Pidgley has been turning his gaze towards Birmingham, which he visits once every fortnight. “Birmingham is a great place. You have HS2, the Bullring, great political leadership, great universities…places are selling”.

Yet in spite of the move north, and while he admits challenges are facing London’s housing market, Pidgley remains ultimately upbeat about his fortunes in the capital. “We’re not having a bad time when you consider everything that is going on,” he says.

Like most Ftse bosses at the moment, what he yearns for more than anything else is certainty, with Brexit above all. He voted Remain, and he fears a No-deal departure. “I’m at the stage now where I want them [politicians] to take a decision. London needs to be global city and open for business”.

Last week, looking back at his half-century career, the Berkeley boss returned to where it all began, visiting the first house he ever bought, in Shepperton. He purchased it with £250 in his account and an extra £250 loaned from the bank, and turned it around two years later for £6,000. “You can’t do that any more,” he says, citing red tape as the major difference. “When I was a young man you got planning in six weeks. Now it takes 10-12 months. Now you have to sign a 150-page agreement, and sign away your soul.”