Co-working – where several workers from different companies share an office space – is a growing phenomenon thanks to the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation fostered through this way of working. The Moment talks to Spencer Wrench, CEO of Brightfield Group, the developers behind the inspirational new co-working offices at the Brightfield Business Hub
Spencer, you’ve quite a history in real estate and commercial development, but how did you start off in this field?
I started about 25 years ago when I came back from America where I had worked as chief executive of a local cable television company. Our landlord at the time asked me if I’d like to do some work with him in property. He had bought the old Emap building and from there it wasn’t long before we started buying more buildings to develop. The rest, as they say, is history! It was a steep learning curve, but business is business.
What do you particularly enjoy about real estate development?
Regenerating stuff rather than just pulling it down! The big funds have lots of money, so they go in, pull it all down and build new. We don’t see the point of knocking one frame down just to put another one up. Instead, we prefer to strip properties back to their bare bones – the frame – then redesign, reengineer and repurpose it for something else.
Presumably keeping the original frame saves a lot of the potential costs?
And a lot of headaches and everything else! If you can do things that way round it saves costs, which really helps. The property business is all about money and if you’ve got lots of money to throw at a project then, ironically, it can take forever. Big pension or property funds have that sort of money but they also take a 20 to 30-year view. But so much is missed if you fail to think outside of the box.
The Brightfield Business Hub is one of your more recent projects. What made you realise there was a demand for this sort of office development?
There is a change underway, particularly among millennials, as to how people want to live and work. It’s not just people – company attitudes are changing too. Businesses are looking for more flexibility, which traditional long leases or institutional leases can’t offer. And then there is the loneliness factor. People want to connect, work together and collaborate – all the things that cultivate a good, innovative working environment really.
That is the main advantage of co-working, that even if you are not working in the same business you are still sharing ideas, resources and banter
Absolutely. Some 55-65%of coworkers do business with other people in the Hub. So if you need an accountant, you’ve got one. If you need a hairdresser, you’ve got one there too.
How did you find the site and did it require a lot of work needed to bring it up to standard?
It was a highly underused office building dating back to the 70s. It felt almost like it had a skeleton crew. The trouble is people aremoving away from big buildings, so the whole place needed retrofitting, with new office units, LED lighting, walling, the lot!
There’s lots in the Hub that you wouldn’t find in a traditional office block: a café, gym and a soon-to-open crèche, for example. What’s the logic behind that?
It’s all because of the way people want to work. They don’t want to be driving around everywhere. They need somewhere to drop their children off, to get the dry cleaning done or their hair cut – why not have it all under one roof to save them time? This year we are also introducing a hydropool swimming area, so it really will be a one-stop shop. On the crèche side we’re still seeking an operator to run it, so we would be delighted to hear from anyone interested in helping us with that side of things.
The attraction and convenience of all this to the Hub’s tenants is pretty obvious, but you also offer virtual offices. What is a virtual office and why would businesses consider this route?
Virtual offices are for small start-ups that don’t want people knocking on their door at home. Maybe they live in an apartment somewhere. It means they can have a separate address, mailbox, or someone to answer the phone. There are different levels of service, including someone to collect the post. But anyone with a virtual office is also welcome to come over to the Hub for their meetings. They can come along to the café or meet with other coworkers or virtual office owners.
Is it fair to say a virtual office is also about projecting a professional image on a budget?
The Brightfield Business Hub is an incubator. When you’re starting a business the worst thing you can do is go out and buy lots of equipment or have loads of overheads. Having a virtual office keeps you focused on what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to achieve.
The Brightfield Business Hub is clearly an innovative place. Do you wish you’d had access to somewhere like this when you were starting out?
Absolutely! I’d have loved to have had these sorts of people and support around me. Business can be very lonely, soul destroying even. It’s alright when you go to work in a big company where there are hundreds of people around you, but when it’s just you and the phone or your mate in a garage – well it’s hard. I say don’t start in a garage, think of the Hub as a very inexpensive garage that’s a lot more comfortable and that helps you to innovate too! Everybody needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning and having a supportive environment like the Hub provides can give you that motivation you need to achieve more.
Do you have plans for other developments similar to the Hub?
Yes, we hope to. We know the concept has been proven in America for about 10 years now and it’s fairly big in London and other large cities. We’re just trying to prove the concept in amore provincial city like Peterborough. But we are now looking at other sites. Our next venture is the old Fifth Avenue nightclub in Peterborough for which we have secured the first sui generis planning use for 50-plus co-living units. We think co-living is something people are looking for. Companies like WeWork are already doing this – bringing living and working together, so people live on site or in the same building they work. It means you haven’t got far to go in the morning and it certainly improves commuting times! Co-living is a great way to tackle loneliness too, which is a big problem in modern society. Co-working and co-living – we see this as the start of a revolution. We are very optimistic about the future.
Brightfield Business Hub Bakewell Road, Orton Southgate, Peterborough PE2 6XU. 01733 595885, brightfieldbusinesshub.co.uk
Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash