By his own admission, Clive Lucking fell into a career in office interiors. It was a happy accident: Fourfront Group, the company he founded with Nigel Hudson and James Cornwell, now turns over £116m and employs more than 200 people
Clive Lucking isn’t a designer, nor does he pretend to be. He leaves the artistic flourish to the teams of talented designers within Fourfront Group, the company he co-created in 2000. But what Lucking does have is the gift of the gab. Quick-witted and with bags of charisma, it’s little wonder he climbed the ranks from a telesales rep on just £4,000 a year to running his own multi-million pound business.
Lucking had no intention of following the herd through the education system. Having passed his 11-plus he was accepted to the prestigious Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, an Oxbridge conveyor belt. But at 16 he dropped out. “It was absolutely frowned upon by my parents and the teachers – you’re deemed a failure if you leave at 16,” says Lucking. “But I just knew I didn’t want to do A-levels and I didn’t want to go to university.”
Instead he plumped for a business and finance course at the nearby Buxton College, now Buxton & Leek College – an altogether different environment to the one he’d found so stifling at grammar school. “I loved the flexibility of not being sat in uniform and the fact that if you didn’t turn up there was no hassle. Obviously it would show in your results at the end of the year if you hadn’t worked though,” he adds.
Lucking was seduced by the prospect of earning a salary rather than pursuing his education further. He drew inspiration from his parents, who’d worked tirelessly to provide a comfortable upbringing for him and his sister. “My dad was born into a working class family in the east end of London and he worked really hard to move to Buckinghamshire in the 60s and become middle class,” explains Lucking.
He began to contemplate a career in accounting. “I always liked numbers, statistics and analysis. During my business and finance course, those were the modules I enjoyed the most,” he recalls. His first task as a trainee accountant was to go out on audit. “If ever there is a job that is more mind-numbingly boring than going out on audit, I’m yet to find it,” laughs Lucking.
Four months into the job, aged 19, he went on an 18-30s holiday with a friend to Fuengirola, Spain. As the reality of returning to the monotony of bean-counting dawned, Lucking decided to stay put. “I handed in my notice by postcard and phoned my mum to say I was not coming back.”
Back in Blighty, his mother was unimpressed with her son’s decision to abandon his career. “She had a grammar school-educated son who dropped out of school at 16 who then became a trainee accountant only to drop out at 19,” explains Lucking. “She was pretty pissed off, to be honest.”
Nevertheless, Lucking says the decision to stay in Spain for four months was one of the best he ever made. “I learnt to fend for myself. We had no money and we did everything from gardening and working in bars, to selling timeshares and ice creams – whatever we needed to do to make enough money to live and drink and party.”
When the party was over, Lucking retreated to the family home in High Wycombe. “Going from living in Spain doing whatever I liked to living back at home made me realise I needed to move out very quickly,” he says. He was offered two roles in telemarketing: one at an IT firm and one at an office interiors company. “The IT company was offering a base salary of £6,000 a year and the office interiors company was offering £4,000 and a 1.1litre Ford Fiesta,” explains Lucking. Seduced by the offer of a company car, Lucking plumped for the role at the office interiors company – little did he know this decision would shape his entire future.
Being chatty and amiable meant Lucking took to telemarketing quickly. “I found I could use my personality on the phone and I was able to book appointments easily,” he says. After six months Lucking was going to the appointments and became part of the negotiating teams that were selling office interiors to clients. His sales target for his first year was £250,000: he sold £600,000. “I blasted it.” After eight months in the role he bought a flat with a friend and moved out.
Lucking eventually wound up at Maris, an office interiors company. He started there as a junior sales advisor and left six years later when running the Thames Valley region for the business. In 1997, he was recruited as the MD of a company called Redd Projects. Lucking poached two of his colleagues from Maris to join him and together they transformed the fortunes of an ailing business. “We took it from a loss-making business to a profit-making business within 18 months,” says Lucking.
Redd was owned by an Irish parent company, which, according to Lucking, “didn’t understand fit-out at all” so he and his two colleagues, Nigel Hudson and James Cornwell, tried to buy the business towards the end of 1999. “The parent company decided that they weren’t going to sell it to us and then they sacked me for trying to engineer a management buyout,” explains Lucking.
Fortuitously, Lucking and his partners-to-be had a plan B: they had decided they would set up their own business if their management buyout attempt was unsuccessful. The day after Lucking was fired, Hudson and Cornwell handed in their resignations. Once notice periods were duly served, Area Sq was launched on January 10 2000.
“There were us three plus three employees on day one in a very small office in Egham, which is equidistant from our three homes,” says Lucking. The founders had a clear vision for the office interiors start-up: “we wanted to be one of the design and build experts in the Thames Valley and we thought if we could get to £10m or £15m turnover then that would be amazing,” he recalls.
In reality, the business grew far more quickly than the partners had envisioned. Their target in the first year was to reach £3.5m turnover – they achieved £6m and secured their first £1m project within just eight months of trading.
One of the company’s selling points in the early days was that its management team had skin in the game, claims Lucking. Though the bank was supportive, the houses of the three founders were put against the business as security. “From a sales point of view, we would go in to clients and say, ‘our houses are on the line here, we cannot afford to do a bad job for you,’” he says.
Business boomed until the tragic events of 9/11 abruptly halted the firm’s meteoric growth. “The phones stopped ringing. American corporations stopped spending money. Their ex-pats retreated back to the homeland. People stopped investing overseas, the markets became very jittery and there was a knock-on effect on property,” explains Lucking.
The company directors took the decision to sit tight and ride out the storm. As cash reserves dwindled, they had to face the very real possibility of scaling back and making some of the team redundant. But they held their nerve and when Lucking landed in Barcelona on a sunny day in March 2002 for his stag do, the fog suddenly lifted. “I had two voicemail messages from clients who put two projects on hold the previous year to say they’re back on,” he says. Crisis had been averted.
There has been only one other time of impeded growth in the company’s history – the global economic crisis of 2008. “Everything in the world went absolutely belly up again – albeit for very different reasons,” says Lucking. “We were close to a £40m business by then and we did actually have to make people redundant; we probably let go about 10-15% of our workforce at that point. It was difficult but it meant we could go backwards to go forwards at a much stronger and faster rate than we had ever previously thought possible.”
Now turning over a whopping £116m, the company that begun life as Area Sq in 2000 is now a group of four firms, with the addition of 360, Cube and Sketch, a boutique design house, a contracting business and a furniture company respectively. “I think to be a one-stop solution under one branded name is a mistake,” says Lucking. “We’re actually a collection of different businesses, so why not formalise that, give each MD responsibility for their own P&L and create incentives for them to be rewarded by the success of their business and also by the group of companies?” he explains.
The trio of founders welcomed a fourth partner into the fold in 2006, Aki Stamatis, whose brief was to create Fourfront Group. “His mandate was to look at the structure of the business going forward, which he has absolutely done,” comments Lucking.
With four experienced, opinionated men around the table, discussions can sometimes get a little heated, admits Lucking. “We work on the basis that we agree on eight things out of ten, we reach an agreement on nine things out of ten and we just fundamentally disagree on one thing out of ten,” he laughs. “It works because there are not just two of us where it’s a yes or no debate. There are three or four of us debating things and that creates a healthy environment where you get the wisdom of the crowd.”
Lucking’s personal focus is on long-term strategy: what will continue to give Fourfront the edge over its competitors? Whilst he grapples with this from 9 till 5, the entrepreneur says he knows when to switch off. “It’s so important that you have no regrets, that you don’t look back in life and think: I wish I hadn’t worked all those hours or I wish I’d spent more time with my children,” he says. He and wife Lindsey have two children: James, seven, and Ria, three.
But he says work/life balance isn’t just for those at the uppermost echelons of the company. “It should be for every single person who works for us.” he says. “If people are flogging themselves to death in the office they will burn out and they will leave because it won’t be a difficult sell for a competitor to come along and persuade somebody that they can earn just as much money and not have to work as hard,” says Lucking.
There are other ways to cling on to talented people, he advises. “A competitive salary and benefits package is a given,” he starts. But people also want to be stretched, Lucking adds. “We challenge our employees. If someone doesn’t want to be challenged, to be honest, I probably don’t want them working here anyway,” says Lucking. “I want people who want to add something to our business.”