The Big Interview: Founder of Roche Chartered Surveyors steps down after 25 years

The Big Interview, James Allen and Mark Roche at Roche Chartered Surveyors in Norwich.PHOTO BY SIMON

The Big Interview, James Allen and Mark Roche at Roche Chartered Surveyors in Norwich.PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY - Credit: Archant Norfolk

The founder of Roche Chartered Surveyors is stepping down after a quarter of a century at the helm. Business writer Ben Woods discovers the history of the business – and what the future holds.

Mark Roche keeps a hawkish eye on the commercial properties on his books – and he has the pictures to prove it.

The founder and partner of Roche Chartered Surveyors has long been known for his dab hand at helping shape the fortunes of the region's leading business parks and shopping centres.

And when he isn't at the negotiating table, he can be found soaring above Norwich and the surrounding market towns, taking pictures of the developments from a small prop plane that he flies from his home in Stanhoe, near Burnham Market.

Glancing at a wedge of aerial photographs that he slides across the table at Roche's headquarters on Thorpe Road, Norwich, it is difficult to find a prominent business district in Norfolk that hasn't passed his gaze.

In his quarter-of-a-century tenure, he helped create the Broadland Business Park, Riverside Norwich, the Willow Business Park in King's Lynn, and brought the confectionary industry to Fakenham – to name a few examples.

But as he gears up to celebrate a major milestone in the company's history, he is also taking the dramatic decision to step down.

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For Mr Roche, the time has come to hand over the reins to senior partner James Allen, while he spends more time in the skies, and looking after a Labrador puppy bought for him by his daughters.

But that doesn't mean he has lost any of his passion for discussing the health of the commercial property market.

In recent years, the industry has felt the squeeze from the UK's bleak economic outlook.

But it is the subject of the government's policy on business rates which really gets him hot under the collar.

'What other industry would be pretty much fined for not selling enough?' Mr Roche says. He is referring to the fact that commercial property owners still pay business rates on a property regardless of whether it has a tenant or not. He is concerned that if the government doesn't radically change its position soon, it could prevent property investors spending money on upkeep, leaving units in a state of disrepair when the economic recovery arrives.

'An empty property is not selling anything, but this government is saying 'let's tax it',' he adds. 'So there is less money for repairs and upkeep, less money for refurbishment. It is just so negative.

'You've got the different aspects of production. You have got capital, you have got labour, materials and a building to do something in. Each of those components is critically important for any production. If you completely ignore any aspect of that, when the economic recovery does come, the property and buildings won't be there in the condition they should be.'

What Mr Roche would like to see is the government providing greater tax relief for property owners and business to encourage investment and spark growth.

But while the current business rates ignite frustration with Mr Roche, it is not the first time he has faced challenging economic circumstances.

By his own admission, the business was pushed to the brink of failure 20 years ago when it faced a slowdown in the commercial property market.

'We had very tough times during the early '90s,' he said. 'At that time it was really the difference between survival and going under.

'But one of the strengths of surveying is that it is so varied. You may be selling King's Lynn speedway for a receiver, but you will also be doing a rent review in Lowestoft. So if one area of the market is nose-diving, there are other things you can do.

'We set up the Riverside Association in Norwich, so the football club, the retail park, evening entertainment, the railway station, which all have a common interest in this locality, could talk to one another.

'And it has got people working together when times are hard. It means that you can be constructive, maximise the commercial potential, and get paid for it too.'

The commercial success of Riverside Norwich certainly stands out as a feather in Mr Roche's cap. But when it comes to job satisfaction, it is the negotiations that have made a difference to communities and created jobs that stand out in his career.

'In many ways you arrive as the undertaker and then you become part of breathing fresh life back into a site again,' he said.

'I remember travelling to London once to go see Phillips Industries to sort out the marketing of a property. It had a factory which made Dynatron gramaphones, but all of the assembly, where the guts of the gramophone would be put into these beautiful varnished boxes, was done in King's Lynn. The market for that declined and a lot of people's jobs were threatened. And while I was on the train, I was sitting near the strike committee of the workers from Lynn who were going to raise Cain with the board of directors. So there was I, sitting with my property papers, and I felt sorry for them. But I did manage to sell the property to Germains UK and there were jobs there for the guys who had lost their jobs.

'Meanwhile, there was a period of four or five years where segments of industry in East Anglia were running their historical course. We were instructed to sell the former printing works in Fakenham at a point when the town was synonymous with the Fakenham press of Cox and Wyman. The colour technology side of what they were doing was acquired by the Eastern Bloc and no longer competitive, so there were 1,800 people thrown out of work and we had the task of finding new uses for these buildings and that was great fun.

'The confectionary industry came to our aid. In fact, my daughter had been reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the time and said to me, 'Why don't you sell it as a sweet factory, daddy?' And a fortnight later, that is what happened.

'We were also involved with the sale of the King's Lynn British Sugar site owned by Associated British Foods. There was a large part of the plant there that could no longer be used because it had been worn down, so we had to go find a new use for that site and it became Palm Paper.'

This landmark £400m deal still stands out as one of the biggest examples of inward investment seen in East Anglia in the past 25 years.

And it is testament to Mr Roche that this key building on the fringes of King's Lynn, as well as many across Norfolk, have been reborn as homes to major industries that continue to drive cash into the local economy.

But while it demonstrates the growth and prestige that he has achieved, it is certainly a far cry from the firm's humble beginnings.

It started in 1973 when he decided to leave his job with London surveyors Healey and Baker after becoming increasingly concerned about the dangers posed by the IRA bombings in the West End of London.

'I was married and I had two little girls, and it seemed to me, with the IRA's campaign of bomb attacks in London during 1973 and 1974, it wasn't the place that I wanted to bring up a family,' he said. 'So it was a matter of where else I could go. The fortunate thing is that surveying is a mobile profession, so the first place me and my wife Penelope looked at was East Anglia.

'We had some friends who had a relative that lived close to Norwich Cathedral, and in the beginning of January 1975 I hopped in the car and came down to Norwich. It was a very cold winter; there was snow drifting past this floodlit cathedral spire and I was instantly enraptured with it. But somebody did warn me that Norfolk has got barbs on it: once you are down here, you will be here for life, and so it has turned out.'

Mr Roche spent his first 13 years in Norfolk working for Cruso Wilkin, but it was his family that persuaded him to go it alone after months of indecision.

'It was my teenage daughters at this point who said, 'Dad, what is this all about, are you having a mid-life crisis? Just go for it and set up your own business',' he said.

'I remember it was an awful first morning for Roche Chartered Surveyors,' he added. 'On Monday, April 11, 1988, it was chaos. I ended up kicking the wall because the telephone stopped working, the secretary couldn't find the office on Cathedral Street off the Prince of Wales Road, she couldn't work the Amstrad computer, and our post was delivered to another address.'

Nowadays, the firm runs with 'polished efficiency', says Mr Roche.

And he will be hoping the company continues to make its presence felt across East Anglia, as he watches on from the sidelines.