There is never a perfect time to make risky, life-changing decisions. But nothing crystallises the reality of what is at stake more than starting a new business 72 hours after one of the most significant shocks to the British political, social and economic systems in recent history. Something 28-year-old Jacob Loftus knows all too well.
“Oh I had great foresight,” laughs the former head of UK investment at developer Resolution, wryly rolling his eyes to the ceiling. “I decided it had to be the best idea in the world to quit my job and set up alone three days after the Brexit vote.
“For about 24 hours after the result was in I was thinking to myself ‘Has this been a terrible idea?’ And I concluded that, yes. Maybe it was. But I also thought that if there is one thing I know it is that in times of great uncertainty, opportunity tends to arise. So I just got on with it.”
Two months on and Loftus is doing just that. Now chief executive and founder of General Projects, a new venture focused on delivering creative spaces for future generations, he has built up a five-strong team and has secured his first major project: 132-140 Goswell Road in Clerkenwell, EC1, due for completion in 2018, and is close to sign-off on a second site in Hackney.
It’s a big leap of faith from his role at Resolution, where he spent six years – one heading up the UK investment arm – and where he was instrumental in the success of some of London’s most creative new developments, including the Alphabeta building in Shoreditch, EC2 – the city’s first cycle-in building.
But now, with £50m of deal-by-deal capital already raised via “a few high-net-worth investors”, he has grand plans for an ambitious regional and international expansion of General Projects and an equally ambitious overarching goal: “Hopefully we will become one of the biggest mixed-use developers – certainly in London – by disrupting the traditional, corporate office world.”
Loftus says the key to this success will be delivering a commercial product that no one else is providing. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how 10, or even five, years ago this ambition would have been entirely possible. But now? Just when the industry is finally catching up to occupier demands and when a dedication to fresh, new workplace design has never been closer to the top of the agenda, how will General Projects shake things up on a scale that matches Loftus’s lofty ambitions?
He agrees that the industry has moved on in leaps and bounds over the past few years in terms of creative commercial design and development. But Loftus argues that he has yet to see anything truly different on a grand scale.
“A lot of developers have started to do some really interesting repositioning and are now adapting the traditional office model into spaces that are a bit more relevant,” he says. “But in terms of critical mass, there haven’t been many market-leading schemes that are really all that different. A lot of people are following the black paint/filament lightbulb/coffee shop formula. It is like the real estate industry has thought ‘OK, if we do that and expose some brickwork and some air conditioning units, that’s creating a cool building and people will pay big rents for it.’”
And won’t they? It is a starting point, says Loftus. The tech sector has “realigned people’s expectations of what the workplace of today should look like” and General Projects is looking to build on this shift, rather than simply replicate what is working right now.
And that is another huge driver behind Loftus’s business plan: a dedication to developing for the next generation. “I want to create a new real estate company that will develop game-changing buildings wholly designed around young people and the next generation.
“My guiding thesis is that by 2020, 50% of the global working population will have been born after 1980. By 2025 that number goes up to 75%. Those demographics don’t lie. Millennials will make up the vast majority of the occupier base over the next decade. They are tech inspired, tech enabled, they are socially connected, they are design led, and they have all grown up − in their professional lives, at least − through a recession.”
All true. But with a plethora of developers already focused on delivering fresh, flexible workspace to cater to the needs, desires and priorities of young and future occupiers, the question remains: what makes General Projects different?
Apart from a focus on show-stopping atriums and spaces based on hospitality products rather than traditional commercial schemes, Loftus says that the amenity mix is key.
“It is as much about a cool coffee shop as it is about the sort of fitness offer you are giving,” he says. “How easy is it for people to cycle into work? Shower when they get to the office? And what kind of other amenities are there that matter to the tenant? Whether that’s weekly yoga, curated talks from interesting business leaders, different companies in the building being brought in together with a view to staff being able to interact with one another.”
It all sounds good. It all makes sense. But is it genuinely new? The answer is probably yes − though this only really becomes clear after a quick look at some of the rough plans for the atrium at the Goswell Road building. A “bit barking mad” says Loftus, as he scrolls through sketches of two-storey ground and lower ground creative work spaces, glass-fronted extensions designed to showcase a “statement restaurant” and a three-storey open space, which will be kept flexible to cater for the needs of the occupiers.
“On Tuesday evenings it could be a night-time art gallery,” says Loftus. “On Wednesday morning there might then be a yoga class. On Thursday evening maybe the second-floor tenant wants to do a talk to their employees… these three levels will be the heart of the building but it is all flexible, reconfigurable space that is additional to the core space.”
General Projects will also offer some degree of affordable space − whether that’s as part of bigger schemes such as Goswell Road or by moving out into cheaper parts of the city to provide fresh, creative space without the astronomical rents. “I want to create environments where big, established businesses are mixing with cool, young start-ups. At Goswell Road we have partnered with Outset, one of the UK’s biggest arts charities, and Arbyte, who have a studio in Hackney Wick. We have given them 80,000 sq ft for the next 12 months while we wait to develop the building. They will be running it as artists’ studios and a pop-up gallery. And we will be running a competition over the next year for them to design the art for the reception area.”
He adds: “I love the idea that, in the long term, when the big creative businesses start to take prime space in the building they are going to be mixing with some of the coolest up-and-coming artists in London.”
In terms of what is next, the Goswell Road scheme will be in for planning by January 2017 and Loftus hopes to be on site by July, with an 18-month build time. He remains tight-lipped on rents but says that they will be “more realistic” than the steep trajectory the area is seeing at present.
“The aspiration is to create the best building in Clerkenwell but, like so many parts of London, the area has seen huge amounts of unsustainable growth over the past few years. The rents here won’t align with that.
“The longer-term plan is to scale up. Our principal goal over the next few years is to stay really focused on offices in London. Then it’s about identifying those cities where my generational customers and consumers want to live. Places such as Bristol: a city with amazing architecture, amazing culture, great universities and great access to London. Manchester is another great example, though I am sorry to say I find it difficult to buy into Birmingham. It’s a 1970s concrete city with big gyratories and horrible architecture. It doesn’t feel like a city designed for people.”
Is that despite the momentum behind the Midlands Engine? “I like to stick to what I believe in,” he says firmly. “I never want to be involved in a project that I wouldn’t be delighted to live or work in and Birmingham just doesn’t pass the litmus test.”
He doesn’t rule out a move across the Atlantic, though. “I would love to take this business overseas,” says Loftus. “One step at a time, but I do harbour an ambition to open a General Projects LA office, though we are some way off that yet.”
For now, the focus remains on London. As Loftus points out, in the current climate and with all the challenges that come with setting up a new business, this is plenty to be getting on with for the time being. “We are probably already negotiating a couple of hundred thousand square feet,” he says.
As for being a start-up in a sector facing an uncertain future, Loftus says that, on reflection, the Brexit vote might not be as disruptive as he first thought. “I might have been more nervous actually if we had voted in. Staying in the EU would have meant that the status quo wouldn’t have changed all that much. And that was one of my big hesitations before I left Resolution; that it felt like we were heading towards the tail end of what has been a really big growth cycle. Did I really want to be setting a business up at the top of the market?
“While there is ever more uncertainty in a post-Brexit vote world, it has helped to focus my mind on being intelligent, rational and careful about what I am committing to.
“But I have every faith that now is the perfect time to be developing creative spaces for the next generation of employees. And I know that because I am one of them.”
Jacob Loftus is on Twitter @jacobloftus