Failure's just not in the vocabulary of London's straight-talking 'Mr Property'

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“I’ve never really played cricket, which is ironic when you’ve got a name like Mike Hussey,” says the chief executive of West End developer Almacantar, who nearly — even more ironically — ended up redeveloping Lord’s.

Hussey shares a name with Australia’s “Mr Cricket”, who racked up over 6000 runs in Tests for the old enemy.

That detail made things difficult when his firm won a design competition to redevelop part of the hallowed ground for the Marylebone Cricket Club.

“Imagine what it was like for me ringing up the secretary of the MCC and trying to get through to him on the phone. The lady on the switchboard would ask ‘who’s calling?’ I’d say, “it’s Mike Hussey”. On the first two occasions they put the phone down, the third time I got through to [MCC chief executive] Keith Bradshaw on his mobile.”

Although internal cricket politics scuppered the so-called “Vision for Lords” — and ended up with Almacantar successfully claiming £125,000 for its upfront costs — Hussey has more than enough to be getting on with. Two of his five projects bookend Oxford Street — converting Centre Point into luxury flats and the rebuilding of the Marble Arch tower. 

The company will also be seeking tenants for new offices on the South Bank after completing the £550 million purchase of the Shell Centre site  last summer. 

Besuited and sporting a Hermès tie in Almacantar’s swish West End offices, Hussey cuts a far-different figure to the cricketer; golf and the odd bit of shooting are his games, when the demands of running a business as well as five children allow. But he does make one nod to his sporting namesake in his Twitter handle, “Mr Property”.

That’s not a bad moniker for a man approaching 30 years in the sector since his first days as a young protégé acting as a bag-carrier for Edward Erdman, the legendary property agent who once sold the Ritz.

He worked with Docklands driving force Sir George Iacobescu, filling Canary Wharf in the Nineties, before moving on to the UK’s biggest listed property company, Land Securities, as head of its London portfolio. 

In 2009 — just after pretty much the worst property meltdown ever — he jacked it in to raise funding and  start Almacantar.

So what’s he like? He certainly has the respect of industry peers. One senior boss says: “He had the balls to get out and start his own business at the bottom of the market. He’s one of the few developers who have emerged from the recession.

“He’s not everybody’s cup of tea, not short of an opinion. He likes winding people up. Across the table he’s tough but straightforward, which is what you want, and he has a reputation for closing deals.” 

Another friend who worked with him says: “I like him. He reads situations very, very well. He’s always had a degree of confidence — some would say extreme arrogance. But he was a great person to watch and learn from.” 

Hussey, who turned 50 last October, was born in east London, but his family moved to Kent so he could go to a grammar school — the Skinners’ School in Tunbridge Wells. 

His father was in the property game and “when I was a teenager I’d go and get involved on a site and knock a few walls around”. 

The desire to do a practical degree took him into a surveying course at Bristol polytechnic, and a chance to make contacts which he keeps up to this day; one housemate was Mark Francois, now a minister of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government. 

The Almacantar boss says with a smile that he learned from Erdman “above all else — you’ll find this difficult to believe — humility and good manners”, but also “having the courage of your convictions to follow something through if you’ve done enough work on it”. But he doesn’t come across as arrogant; he’s simply matter-of-fact in stating where he thinks he’s right and others have got it wrong.

Take the current tremors around property markets in Battersea and Nine Elms. Almacantar teamed up with Chelsea FC to bid for the site in 2012 and potentially turn the iconic power station into a football stadium, eventually losing out to the Malaysians. 

Hussey’s scheme had far fewer flats, only 1.5 million sq ft compared to the current 8.3 million being built. 

He insists it’s not sour grapes, but “I did warn that the whole of Nine Elms Lane was going to be a bit of a car crash due to supply and demand”. 

“Politically Wandsworth were very anti — they had visions of 60,000 football fans beating everybody up three times a week, but Chelsea only play at home 25 times a year. Our scheme would have stopped all the problems in Nine Elms Lane as it would have taken 6 million sq ft out of the equation. But that’s history. People didn’t realise how smart I was until afterwards,” he laughs.

He’s completely animated about creating things and clearly a developer to his bones. It was that drive that took him away from Knight Frank, where he did deals like selling the Curzon Street “Circus” home of MI5. Spy fans used to come in pretending to be firms looking at the building and then try to rip stuff off the walls as a souvenir. 

He was the youngest salaried partner at Knight Frank and offered a prized — and lucrative — equity partnership at just 30 to get him to stay, but he didn’t want to be an adviser. He left Land Securities in the same way in 2009, because he didn’t want to be the boss of a plc. 

When Land Securities first announced plans to split in 2007, separating the retail and the London portfolio and selling its Trillium outsourcing arm, the chatter was that then-chief executive Francis Salway was doing it to give the ambitious Hussey mastery of his own domain.

He insists he had nothing to do with the demerger plans and never harboured desires to run the company. Choosing his words carefully, he says: “There were quite a few conversations had about what I wanted to do and the channel was left open for me but I told them I didn’t want to follow it. That is the fairest way to put it… I don’t want it to appear that I was offered something that I flatly turned down because it wasn’t quite like that.”

He adds: “To be fair to Francis he wanted me to go through and do his job because it would have been a neat solution and I think he thought I could do it. I think I could, I just didn’t want to do it. I want to do deals, I want to do property, I want to get involved in creating things.”

So that took him into the market in 2009 raising funds with co-founder Neil Jones, who opened the door to the billions of the Fiat-owning Agnelli family to get Almacantar off the ground. 

Jones, who was based in Paris, and Hussey parted company in 2011 when shareholders pushed for the business to be focused solely on London.

He was lucky that he hit the fundraising trail “at a time when people were starting to think about it again as opposed to definitely not thinking about it” — and had a very tight story to tell about a West End market offering better returns over the cycle, backed up by his own expertise. 

He savours the entrepreneurial thrill of the early days: “You had all your money at stake, you weren’t earning anything and you were trying to get something off the ground.” 

He made a splash with his debut purchase of Centre Point in 2010. That’s now under construction and he’s sold “quite a few” of the 82 flats so far. Almacantar did most of its deals between 2010 and 2013 and this year they’ll be building rather than buying. “We’ve got the quite nice pressure of having a lot to do,” he says. Now the firm employs 30 people. 

“I had no idea that Almacantar was going to be what it is today.” 

He admits being surprised at the hard work it took but, being Hussey, he never countenanced failure. “I never really thought about it at the time, because you don’t. When you’ve got nowhere else to go, you don’t.”

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April 2, 2016 |
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