Leon Fear – the real deal
For its latest cover story BLM met with influential property developer and entrepreneur Leon Fear to find out more about his values, vision and future plans.
Can you tell readers about your background?
I started my first business whilst I was at school. The business was aligned to my interest at the time, which was mountain biking; and I used to buy and sell mountain bikes and mountain bike parts, mail order.
I then left school and joined the family business – Fear Group, which my father Dr Stephen Fear started in 1969, from a red phone box.
Because he had undergone very little formal education, he was keen for me to go to university but I didn’t want to. I was always buying and selling and wanted to go straight into business.
Can you tell readers about what the Fear Group does?
The core business of the Fear Group is primarily property based. We do have other interests but property has always been central to the business; and this includes investment and development.
Our over-arching business ethos is to seek and build long-term relationships – we think long term and consider any relationship to be life-long and work along that basis.
As well as property we do get involved with SMEs and we are also involved with the British Library in London, where IP and patents are registered.
This means we get to see many fledgling businesses and some of those we get involved with, either in a commercial way or with mentoring and advice.
Recently we also launched a business called Ethical Homes.
Can you elaborate on the purpose of Ethical Homes?
This business came about because we control a large amount of land in the UK. We need 200,000 houses to be built each year, at least, and Ethical Homes is a hybrid between a commercial developer and a housing association.
Ultimately we try and bring land forward that may usually struggle. One of the Group’s current projects which includes affordable housing is a big mix use project in Newport and has a gross development value of £100 million.
In your view how is the property sector changing?
Quite dramatically. It doesn’t seem that long ago when everything had stopped and the world seemed to have ended; but property has bounced back hugely and the major issue it is now facing is a skills shortage.
The industry is hugely dependant on migrant labour. You often hear people saying we need to stem immigration but – and it’s only my view – without migrant labour the property sector would really struggle.
Regarding residential housing, we are building less than a third of what is needed.
Moving onto the economic recovery – do you believe it is sustainable?
I think it’s sustainable but I also think there are still some inherent issues in the economy; and lots of people with debt.
Interest rates have been at an all-time low but they are likely to rise in the next year.
Overall I do think a lot of good has been done. People and businesses have been through difficult times and tough decisions have been made that needed to be made.
One issue is that there are lots of businesses doing well on face of it; but if interest rates start to move they are heavily borrowed and there could be a bit of a fall out. Business seems to have confidence to expand and grow again though – and in particular in property.
The Fear Group is a value driven business – why do you believe it is important to give back?
I think it’s important because whatever you do as a business – whether you want too or not – you do impact the immediate community you are dealing with.
It’s very important to engage with people and giving something back
Ethical Homes – for example – is commercial but it has high social values. We make no bones about it being commercial because if it doesn’t make a profit it won’t be sustainable.
There are people less fortunate than us and this is through no fault of their own. If you can help, then there is a sense of responsibility that you should do something.
Not everybody agrees with that but we do. Traditionally developers don’t like affordable housing because it crashes their profits, but for the sustainability of society you do need it.
Can you give an example of how you operate differently?
Take our Newport project for example. We are including within it a scooter park for electric scooters. We haven’t been asked to do this but we wanted too; as it allows elderly people to head into town.
Many of the residents may have the money to buy a scooter but maybe not to house it. Yes it will cost us money but it will make a lasting difference to the community.
As a group we are keen on humanitarian causes, as opposed to giving to arts foundations. There is nothing wrong with that but somebody’s life and health is more important than a painting being restored, in our opinion.
Do you still think profit is seen as a dirty word?
If you don’t create a profit a business or cause isn’t sustainable. You can’t keep spending money you don’t have – you have to create a profit.
What you do with that profit is down to each business. Many businesses these days are saying they are a ‘social business’ but what does this mean?
My view is that a social business is one that employs people, gives back and creates job – which is pretty much all businesses.
The tag social business is being used too heavily to grab headlines because when you draw down, most businesses are social businesses.
Who or what inspires you?
My main inspiration is my father (Dr Stephen Fear). We’re best mates and he’s been an inspiration as he came from a very difficult background and had no education.
There are a number of businesses that have been an inspiration as well, one of which is John Lewis. The way that business is structured is an inspiration.