Tim Green speaks with the chief executive of Howard Group, a Cambridge-based family-owned property company.
Howard Group, where Nicholas Bewes has been chief executive since 1999, is a Cambridge-based family business established in 1935 and one of the largest regional property investment and development companies in the UK. Through Howard Capital, its private equity arm, the company is a significant investor in early-stage businesses, both in Cambridge and further afield. Before joining the company, Bewes worked for BOC Group for ten years in various management positions.
Bewes is one of the founding directors of Cambridge Ahead, an organisation dedicated to the city’s successful long‑term growth, and has held various roles in the Institute for Family Business, currently serving as a member of its policy committee. He is also a trustee of various charities, including the Cambridge Music Festival. He has also trained as a professional singer at the Guildhall in London, working for a spell with the BBC and touring within the UK and internationally.
What was your first job and what is the worst job you’ve ever done?
My first full-time job was as a graduate trainee at BOC Group. I joined the business straight from university and was assigned a role selling industrial gases around Berkshire. It was a great experience for me and one that provided me with a great grounding in business.
Perhaps the worst job was when I was in Oxford and earning some money as a student. My girlfriend (now wife) was a recruitment consultant and managed to place me in one of the colleges helping to build their alumni database. My PC skills were highly limited, indeed questionable. I remember crashing the system on day one, causing a power outage in the building, and not being invited back on day two!
What was your first career choice?
I was keen to work in industry in some shape or form. I didn’t really have a particular sector focus when I left university. I was keen to learn, be well trained and consider options. In the end, during my ten years or so at BOC Group, I gained experience across marketing, business development, communications and change management. I loved the variety and opportunity of working within different business functions, as well as experiencing a variety of working cultures around the world.
Why did you choose a career in the commercial real estate sector?
I had never really considered a career in real estate. Howard Group is a family-owned business which was started by my wife’s grandfather in the 1930s. I was invited by the family to consider taking on the role in around 1998, leading the business in our third generation. It took about two years for me to make up my mind to leave BOC, our home in Surrey, and relocate to Cambridge.
The family business at the time was a diverse mix of businesses spanning engineering, warehousing and logistics, concrete block making, quarrying and property. It was clear that the most profitable part of the business was real estate, so I set about refocusing the business around a commercial property core. We have since broadened this into other related sectors.
Why do you enjoy the sector?
The real estate business is at its core a people-based sector. I have met so many inspiring and fascinating people over the years and made many friends through the industry. There is something both challenging and exciting about dealing with physical assets and land.