Showhouse 02 July 2018

Career view: Honor Barratt, managing director of Birchgrove

This week’s exclusive one-on-one is with Honor Barratt, who tells us about the career path that has led her to her current senior position at Birchgrove, a developer of homes for people of retirement age.

Hi Honor, please tell us a little about yourself and Birchgrove.

I’m the MD of Birchgrove and we are building developments of assisted living for rent in and around the M25. It’s our belief that the “for sale” model potentially excludes some older people from the market, those for whom managing the conveyance process, paying SDLT, signing up to an exit fee is too overwhelming. Right now, those people tend to stay put in their large family homes and that can take years off their life, in terms of falls and debilitating loneliness.

Can you tell us about your career path?

I have spent my entire career in television, having a super-fun time and seeing the world on expenses. But I was always conscious that the most impactful decision I made on a weekly basis was “is it red or is it blue?” (all news and sports brands are either one or the other). However, TV did instill in me a constant forward momentum – we were always up against transmission deadlines. So, I think I bring this peak frenzied energy to housebuilding.

What’s most satisfying about your current role?

If I do my job properly, we can genuinely change people’s lives for the better. I was once in a two man sandwich as they hugged me, thanking me for returning their mother to them. They said for the previous nine years, since their father died, she had been grey, and now her cheeks were pink again. I also had an 83-year-old diabetic saying that for the first time in his life he had bought a pair of trainers and was walking five miles three times a week.

What is it about housebuilding – and the retirement sector in particular – that attracted you to it?

I ended up here by total accident. I had sold part of my previous business to Octopus and then worked with them very happily for five years, until they asked me to meet with one of their other portfolio companies. Working with Octopus has really spiked my interest in the retirement property sector.

Are there any past projects and/or mentors that have been particularly inspiring?

I have a mentor in my life, Dee – who I met when she was 70 and I won’t embarrass her by revealing how long ago that was. Dee conducts her life at a hundred miles an hour because if she slows down she feels “the bastards will get me”. That is how most people feel about institutional living; it’s the place of last resort. I know the little terraced house that Dee lives in is going to kill her, so whenever my energy flags I think about her and know that I need to build all these homes as fast as I can. Because Dee represents a massive demographic explosion of older people who have no choice but to stay put in their inappropriate housing.

When you go onsite, are there jobs that you see that you see being done that you find particularly admirable?

Whenever I’m in a construction meeting I’m always overjoyed to see another woman in the room. It takes a lot to get to the top as a woman in property, so I know when I meet one, they must be bloody special to get there. One day I’ll sit with a female site manager, but I haven’t found one yet.

In terms of job satisfaction and career potential, what do you think housebuilding offers that other sectors don’t?

Most other companies experience start-up once, and then they move in to steady state. Housebuilding feels like it’s constantly in start-up mode; there’s always a new site to kick off, a new bid, a new plan and I love that forward momentum.

What’s your advice to those considering or applying for a job in UK housebuilding right now?

Don’t just settle for good. Be brilliant and have a vision because people rely on us to improve their lives, sometimes save their lives. So get in to housebuilding if you have it in you to be exceptional.