Studying philosophy may not be the most obvious route into property development, but for AshbyCapital founder Peter Ferrari his undergraduate degree was an important stepping stone to thinking his way through complex negotiations later in his working life.
Reflecting on his undergraduate choice, Ferrari comments: “In some ways it was a bit of an indulgence, though it was a useful experience to have complete intellectual freedom”.
With a first qualification already under his belt, he was one of the first to sign up in the mid-1980s to a then newly developed two-year Master’s qualification in surveying at Reading. He quips: “I did that because I realised job opportunities for philosophers were limited”.
In fact, property was already in his blood: “My father was a property developer and I was always very keen to follow in his footsteps”. An entrepreneurial spirit shone through even before he graduated.
“Rather than doing the milk round with most of my peers, I wrote just two letters to who I thought were the leading developers of the day – Speyhawk and London & Edinburgh Trust – and they were both kind enough to invite me in for a chat.”
He opted for a job at LET – a decision that demonstrated a canny instinct for success: Speyhawk later collapsed into receivership after the 1990s property crash.
Joining the industry in the boom times of the late 1980s was exciting for the newly qualified Ferrari, who was given a very hands-on role by publicly listed LET. He learnt on the job with suburban office projects in places like St Albans, Maidenhead and Milton Keynes, as well as getting to know LET’s central London portfolio in Mayfair and the City.
Working in close proximity with industry heavyweights John and Peter Beckwith, and particularly Gerald Kaye, was an invaluable experience for Ferrari. “They taught me a great deal and I was impressed by their attention to detail,” he says. “Above all, I learnt to invest in quality – it always pays dividends.”
LET’s global presence gave Ferrari the opportunity to hone his skills in mainland Europe. He was one of the first developers to move to Berlin after the wall fell to kickstart the initial wave of development in the reunified city and then moved on to Milan to run the firm’s Italian and subsequently Southern European operations. “I was in my early thirties by then and it was a great experience,” he says. “I loved the whole process of site assembly, putting the leases together, arranging the funding and so on.”
But the party couldn’t last and as the markets headed downwards in the 1990s Ferrari returned to the UK and found he was working in a very different environment. LET had been taken over by a Swedish pension fund with no appetite for development, so Ferrari looked around for a company more compatible with his unbridled development ambitions.
He found it in Gerald Ronson’s Heron International. “It was a natural fit. I’m very entrepreneurial and so is Heron,” he explains. “Gerald had just restructured the business and I liked the fact it was private, as well as having a European dimension.”
Ferrari became Ronson’s right-hand man as the company rolled out the Heron City branded retail and leisure parks in Spain and across Europe, before going on to do a wide variety of innovative high-quality city centre developments, culminating in London’s Heron Tower.
“We had a lot of fun and there was a very high level of energy in the business. My time there taught me that if you set your mind to it, you can do anything,” says Ferrari, who by 2009 had taken on the mantle of MD at Heron. However, the global recession of the previous year resulted in an industry-wide slow-down which took several years to work through.
“In 2013 things had got to the position when I had to decide whether to do it all over again at Heron or whether to move on.”
Ever the entrepreneur, and having just turned 50, he opted to strike out on his own. Was he perhaps trying to emulate Ronson? He smiles at the suggestion: “He’s such a captivating character, but I would never ever try to be Gerald – we’re very different.”
So, backed by some heavy-hitting investors, AshbyCapital, was formed, focused on the London market, with the capacity to take on projects in mainland Europe. Six years on and Ashby’s portfolio includes high quality assets across the UK, although the gems are, unsurprisingly, in the capital. They include the recent purchase, earlier this year of a mixed-use development site on Kensington High Street above the tube station.
While others may be hesitating, Ashby’s future course is set firmly on expansion. Ferrari explains: “Ultimately your business is defined by the assets you own. Buying opportunistically maximises your opportunities, though of course you never know what the next deal will be. We will always look for value-added – that’s what we do.”
A good example is Birmingham’s Colmore Building, a citycentre grade A office block. Formerly known as Colmore Plaza, it was rebranded after Ashby purchased it in 2015 and revamped exteriors and interiors, and was fully let earlier this year.
The Birmingham deal was Ashby’s first outside London and a couple of retail parks – in Swansea and Guiseley – have followed. Ferrari’s first-hand experience of developing retail parks at Heron means he’s less averse to investing in the asset class than many of his peers.
“Retail has taken a real bashing. But that doesn’t mean nobody will go out shopping any more or all retail sales will happen online. However, at the moment everything is being tarred by the same brush and that’s where opportunities lie.”
Ferrari is a big proponent of ’retailtainment’. “Going forward, retail will have to offer an experience. Food and beverages is one of the most exciting areas, as it is growing most rapidly and it responds to changing demographic profiles,” he says, pointing in particular to the recent rise of food halls in the capital.
The business has avoided the growing pains of some start-ups and Ferrari is sanguine about Brexit-induced unrest. “The situation isn’t spooking our investors,” he says, “because they are here for the long-term and understand that the fundamentals of the London economy – high levels of skilled employees, a rapidly developing tech sector and so on – remain strong.”
Certainly, he’s not deterred by tough market conditions: “Dealing with the fallout from the downturn was a time of real learning and perseverance for me. The things that really stick with me are when I turned around difficult situations and made a success of them.
“Maybe it’s human nature to take pleasure in adversity?”
The philosopher in Ferrari is clearly still just below the surface.