Charlie Green doesn’t believe he ever took a risk while co-creating his £500m business, The Office Group. “We just did what made sense,” he says. And he has some simple advice for anyone thinking of following in his footsteps…
Charlie Green’s advice for entrepreneurs is beautifully simple. Step one: use a proven business model. Step two: create an offering that’s compellingly different from anything else in the sector. That recipe for success has certainly worked for him. The Office Group, which Charlie co-founded in 2002, is now worth £500m according to US private-equity giant Blackstone, which bought a majority stake in the business in June 2017.
Yet Charlie, 47, discovered the power of his own advice almost accidentally. He never saw himself as an entrepreneur and he did not have a burning urge to found a company. Instead, he co-created his £500m business by taking a series of logical steps without having any grand destination in mind. Base camp – becoming self-employed – happened mainly by chance, and after that he simply followed his nose. It’s fair to say he’s got a good sense of direction.
Until the age of 29, the former chartered surveyor worked for a firm of property developers, helping to launch its office-lettings department. Then life took an unexpected turn when he was rushed to hospital for heart surgery following a freak infection. “It took four months to recover and when I returned, I didn’t want to work for someone else anymore,” he says. “It was life-changing.”
He left in 2001 and soon became a freelance consultant, advising on how to manage serviced offices. “I’d make recommendations and think: if I really believe what I’m saying, I should actually run a serviced-offices business myself,” he says. At this point, Olly Olsen, co-founder of The Office Group, gave Charlie a call. He was still working for Charlie’s previous employer but he had developed a business idea.
In the chat that followed, it became clear that Charlie and Olly shared the same vision for a new business and their skills were ideally complementary. “Our thoughts were aligned. Olly had secured funding for the idea as long as he found the right property partner. He had operational and financial expertise; I had property know-how. We agreed to give it a go. I didn’t finish our conversation punching the air thinking: ‘This is it!’ But the idea made complete sense.”
So Charlie took the first logical step forward, never once doubting that their plan would work. “We didn’t at any point think we were taking a risk,” he says. “I put my savings into the launch and borrowed some cash from my sister and father, but I was always confident I’d be able to pay it back. The feeling was: we’ve got this; it’s going to work. And in a way it seems like we’ve cheated the system, because entrepreneurship is meant to be about taking risks.”
Their plan was to buy property and let serviced-office space – a proven business model that they both knew well – but Charlie and Olly’s offices would be unlike anything the market had ever seen before. In 2002, serviced offices were, on the whole, a little less enticing than a paperclip conference. In fact, they were rather like a Corby Trouser Press – generic and only any good if you like Alan Partridge-style suits (our comparison, not theirs). “Serviced offices were corporate, boring and vanilla,” says Charlie. “Who wants to work in that environment?” And, as he explains, the market was less than generous to its customers: “People tended to rent serviced offices for short periods, so the providers would think: ‘We’ve only got them for nine months; let’s squeeze every penny we can out of them.’ And they did; not just from rent but also from phone calls, printing and other add-ons.”
What Charlie and Olly did was to take the proven business model of serviced-office lettings but enhance – hugely – the product on offer. They also eschewed fast financial gain in favour of a customer-service focused, trust-building ethos. “We thought: let’s forget about short-term income. Let’s not chase the money. Instead, let’s create something amazing and then people will stay. If we find great buildings, make them look beautiful and look after the people who rent them, we will succeed.”
This approach has taken The Office Group from a £100,000 start-up to a £500m market leader. From day one, it has always looked far beyond the staid serviced-office sector for inspiration. “Everything we did – and continue to do today – is about being different. We take design cues from restaurants, bars and private members’ clubs; never from existing offices. Then we develop buildings individually, with no house style. A property in Shoreditch is different from one in Mayfair. We design each property appropriately and with close attention to detail. People may not always see that detail, but they feel it. That feeling is what makes a space seem ‘right’, warm, comfortable and welcoming.”
Today it seems obvious that companies and individuals are ever keener to work in distinctive, cool offices – workspaces that are less corporate, more coffee shop. But in the early 2000s the trend wasn’t quite so clear. Charlie and Olly’s pioneering work has played a large part in transforming the market, making the beige, vanilla workspaces that once dominated the office-lettings market (and there are still plenty out there) look more boring than ever.
The Office Group now has a portfolio of 40 buildings – just less than 1.5m square-feet of space – and sits 44th in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table. Expect more growth and more distinctive properties to follow; especially now that Blackstone has bought a majority stake. A stake that has given Olly and Charlie a spectacular return on their initial £100,000 investment. The founders and their team have already learned a huge amount from the US private equity house and are relishing the new partnership.
“Blackstone know what to get involved in and what to ignore,” says Charlie. “When we’re creating our buildings and doing what we do best, they don’t interfere. Where the relationship adds huge value is with strategy. Blackstone’s know-how allows us to see the business differently. Where we previously got bogged down in detail, we are now starting to understand our data, interpret it, think about where we are, where we should be, consider our growth potential, demand, and competition. Our thinking is moving to a new level. With Blackstone in the room, you learn from your mistakes faster, you make fewer and you recover more quickly. The deal is unlocking untapped opportunities, too. We’re now entering new markets – New York and Berlin in particular – and the doors being opened are phenomenal.”
Despite growing competition, the future looks brighter than ever for The Office Group. Charlie and Olly are loving this new leg of their entrepreneurial adventure but for them it’s just another logical step along the journey they began in 2002. Their decision to “take a proven business and do it differently” is the best they have taken, and now that they’ve made it this far, they plan to stick to their founding principles while avoiding thoughts of a final destination. “We don’t have an endgame; we just enjoy what we do,” says Charlie. “As we grow, we need to stay true to our ethos. If we do that, we’ll be OK.” And, history suggests they’ll get it just right.