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Property specialist gives his firm the space to grow

AS the curtain falls on 2012 this week's SME Focus provides a reminder from a property specialist that entrepreneurs continue to prosper, even in the most challenging markets.

UP FOR A CHALLENGE: Managing director Steve Judge took the plunge with a management buyout in 2007 and now employs more than 180 people. Picture: James Galloway
UP FOR A CHALLENGE: Managing director Steve Judge took the plunge with a management buyout in 2007 and now employs more than 180 people. Picture: James Galloway

Name: Steve Judge.

Age: 44.

Position: Managing director.

What is your business called?

Space Solutions Limited.

Where is it based?

We operate throughout Scotland with offices in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Livingston and Dundee. We have also just opened a London office, as we are increasingly being asked to service clients there.

What does it produce, what services does it offer?

We help companies manage or operate their business space better with design solutions.

To whom does it sell?

Any organisation occupying a commercial or industrial space.

What is its turnover?

Our interim figures show turnover for the past financial year, to June 2012, at £24 million, an increase of 23% on last year's figures.

How many employees?

More than 180 and growing.

When was it formed?

Space Solutions was formed in 1997. In 2007, I led a management buyout of the business (from Chess Group).

Why did you take the plunge?

I have always had a keen interest in business, and was fascinated from a young age by what made businesses work, identifying new opportunities and ways of doing things.

At the time, I was working for a property development company, overseeing a number of the firm's subsidiaries.

This gave me a real insight into commercial property development and workplace design. It was this insight, and my ambition to identify new ways of doing things, that led to the concept for a specialised single service in workplace design and commercial interiors. It seemed a great opportunity to develop it as another service within the group's portfolio.

The concept was a success and within the first month I had secured a significant project for an oil and gas services company. After a decade of developing the business, I knew I had gone as far as I could with my career aspirations while working within the group. In 2007 it felt like the right time to make Space Solutions its own entity and to continue my ambitions for the company with the rest of the management board.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

My father was a farmer and many would have presumed I would have followed in his footsteps, but I studied for a degree at Aberdeen University.

I enjoyed science at school and with an interest in marine biology I opted for a degree in zoology but after graduating I sought a career in a fast-paced environment where I could enhance my business skills. I joined the recruitment world, where I spent five years gaining an insight into business.

I learned a lot about connecting with people and fostering relationships. From there, I joined a property development group as a general manager. Property was new to me and I enjoyed the challenge.

How did you raise the start-up funding?

A combination of self-funding and support from Royal Bank of Scotland allowed us to complete the buyout in 2007.

What was your biggest break?

Getting the board of the firm I worked for at the time to support my decision to establish Space Solutions. Within the first month we secured a significant project which illustrated that the idea was commercially viable.

For me, the biggest element, and essentially break, of my career would be undertaking the MBO. Having started the business from an idea and developing it over the years, it was a proud moment when we completed the buyout. We still have a great relationship with the former owners and still work together; this was of great importance to me.

What was your worst moment?

Fortunately, these have been rare. Like a lot of businesses the recession has led to a few sleepless nights: we bought the business when the property market and construction industry were at the top of their game, however, within six months the recession had hit.

I am a firm believer of living within your means and have applied this throughout business, ensuring that our growth is sustainably managed.

What do you most enjoy about running the business?

Of course I am motivated by watching the business grow. However, watching some of the hard working staff we recruited at the very start of Space Solutions grow and develop has been really rewarding.

What do you least enjoy?

I am not a huge fan of the tendering process. It's very time and money-consuming, can be quite laborious in terms of people investment and doesn't guarantee the best outcome. The tender of the West Coast train line is an example of how it can go wrong. And the ability to submit a good tender is not a guarantee of ability to complete a project.

However, at the same time it is an important process and one that enables organisations to apply on a level playing field.

Easily my biggest bugbear as a businessman has to be slow payers. In the current economic climate some companies have resorted to not paying their bills until they are actively chased to do so, or are threatened with legal action. This puts unnecessary pressure on cash flow and adds stress.

What are your ambitions?

To further strengthen and develop our position within the UK and expand internationally, undertaking more projects overseas. We aim to grow turnover to £50m by 2016.

What are your top priorities?

Continue our expansion plan, including expanding into England via our new London office. To continue to build on our client base both south of the Border and on an international level. To carry on recruiting members of staff who understand our clients and our business values and to continue our acquisitions programme.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish Governments do that would help?

Anything that returns banks to funding projects of a real estate nature has an obvious benefit to a business such as ours. I fully appreciate many banks' over-exposure to real estate deals, but, if this could be addressed to allow projects to be funded more easily, it would give the property, construction industry and wider economy a huge and much needed boost.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?

That it's okay to make a mistake, as long as you learn from it. Oh, and always to read the small print.

How do you relax?

At home with my family, though with two young girls to run after I am not sure it would class as relaxation. I have been playing golf for years and find it a great way to unwind... if only we had the weather for it.

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