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Pettifer gets set for succession

PROFILE - In Pettifer family tradition, if you want to take the top job from your father, you first have to gain experience in the outside world. Steve Menary talks to the two men heading the £100 million, 50year-old firm about its growth

'THERE'S not going to be a lot of arm wrestling about it, ' says Charles Pettifer, with a smile, about eventually succeeding his father Brian as head of the family firm.

Unlike some privately owned firms both generations of the Pettifer clan are happy to discuss succession plans at the Cotswolds-based construction group.

This interview was initially arranged with Brian but his first reaction after agreeing to meet up was to make sure his son was invited along too.

At 61, Brian Pettifer is still chairman of a business his father founded in 1955.

Tom officially retired in 1983 but remained a non-executive. Brian looks likely to follow suit but he is happy that his son decided to join the family firm.

'I don't think I'll ever retire fully and I'd like to be involved in the development side in the future, ' he says.'That doesn't mean there won't be a change but I'm not suddenly going to stop when I'm 70.'

Charles is equally relaxed about joining the group but wants to delay his succession as he garners more experience in the business that he only joined in 2001 after securing a degree in London before working four years in the property industry.

'There was no pressure from the old man, ' he says, glancing at his smiling father for a moment.'I was finding my feet in London and didn't realise what I wanted to do after school.We both agreed I shouldn't come straight here.'

Brian and Charles both worked elsewhere before signing up with Pettifer and each agrees that running a family business would be impossible had they been there since school.

'You have to be judged against your peers. It's very hard if you've done nothing before, ' Brian says.

Mr Pettifer senior remains chairman but his son is a director on all of the operating boards at the firm's six subsidiaries in order to learn more about each business.

Charles admits he does not know anywhere near enough to run Pettifer yet but he is helping to oversee a step change in the development side at the firm, which has always played second string to the £56 million turnover contracting arm.

Pettifer started out doing development work in the 1980s after building a store in the Midlands for J Sainsbury, then the UK's largest supermarket chain.

Pettifer only agreed to find a site for Sainsbury on the condition that the firm's contracting arm could also build the scheme out. Since then retail and property have been inextricably linked to the company's fortunes.

The firm was developing and building around 50 homes a year until 2000, when the family decided to leave house building.

Retail remains a core strength. Pettifer builds half the new stores opened in the UK by Swedish furniture giant Ikea and works regularly for supermarkets from Sainsbury to Sommerfield.

The subject of supermarkets is the only time Mr Pettifer senior stops being completely open.

He is more than willing to tell you how much he paid for the plot that houses Pettifer's headquarters in the Cotswolds town of Shipston-on-Stour - the freehold cost just £20,000 in 1972 - but is loathe to say too much about his biggest clients.

That says more about the guardedness of the UK's big supermarkets than it does the amiable Mr Pettifer, who finds the company's latest accounts as soon as finance is mentioned instead of changing the subject as his peers so often do.

Having spent a good deal of time involved with property, Charles, who is 30 and recently married, is slightly more cautious.

He obviously enjoys a good working relationship with his father and, just as Pettifer evolved when Brian joined with a move into property, so there is another change under way.

With 46,000 sq m of retail schemes and 23,000 sq m of office projects in the pipeline, Charles is clearly eager about the prospects for this side of the business.

Pettifer lets all its development work to other contractors, such as Welsh outfit Watkin Jones or Shropshire firm Wrekin, and only rarely builds out its own schemes.That will not change, but a recent rebranding was carried out so that clients know exactly what the rest of the business does, instead of thinking that Pettifer is simply just a contractorcum-developer.

A construction management business earns £3 million a year in fees competing for commissions against established firms such as Mace and Bovis; the contracting arm, which does jobs from £1 million to £14 million across the Midlands, is growing; but the biggest impetus is likely to come from the other subsidiaries.

In 2000 Pettifer began setting up distinct subsidiaries with an estates operation founded that year followed by a safety business in 2003.The previous year the firm's relationship with architect Building Design Partnership had led to the pair founding a cost consultant.

'We had contact with BDP, which had an in-house project manager and cost consultant facility, ' says Brian Pettifer.'They came to us as it wasn't working as just architects were using it and it wasn't a profit centre.'

Named Clarus, the business was founded in 2002 with Pettifer holding a 55 per cent stake and BDP owning the remainder.The business earned £4.5 million in fees in the year to September 2004 and Pettifer hopes this will rise to £20 million in 10 years' time.

Computer-based system Knowledge Online remains loss-making but is still in embryonic state. But both Pettifers are enthusiastic about its potential in all areas of the industry from building to civils.

With turnover expected to pass the £100 million mark this year, father and son are clearly enjoying their time together.

'The next five years should be really exciting, ' says Charles.