It's the inside that counts



In 2014, Avant Homes embarked on a transformation of its entire business, acquiring new owners and a fresh outlook. Suzie Mayes talks to ceo Colin Lewis about the next step and why product matters so much

Avant ceo Colin Lewis brightens up a drab Friday afternoon in central London with his pure enthusiasm, greeting Housebuilder brightly, keen to talk about his plans for the business which in 2014 began undergoing a “transformation”.

Lewis joined Avant Homes as chief operating officer four years before the start of its makeover, back when the company was named Gladedale Group and held regional brands. In late 2014, the newly monikered Avant was sold by owner Lloyds Bank to three hedge funds – Alchemy Special Opportunities, Avenue Capital and Angelo Gordon. Completing its transition, a year later the company brought its brands under the Avant banner.

Mid-range, upper-end
Now, the revitalised “mid-range, upper-end northern housebuilder” (as Lewis describes it), is targeting growth – 2,000 homes per annum on a turnover of £500 million in the medium term. In the half year to October 2016, its completions rose 27% to 721, after the business achieved a total of 1,210 completions in the previous financial year. It is set to reach 35% revenue growth by the current year end.

Avant is a significant employer in the north with six new people recruited for each new site. But it “hasn’t been in the press a lot”, Lewis notes. He seems determined to change this.

(Pictured) At Kingsfield, West Yorkshire there are homes "to suit all requirements", Avant says

A qualified solicitor with an 18-year history at Redrow, Lewis was promoted to chief executive in December 2014. He led the company through its acquisition, which strengthened Avant’s financial position by £330 million and eliminated all debts.

He strikes as a jovial sort but is clearly serious about delivering the best “product”. This now being the backbone of Avant’s philosophy – and evidently what he believes in – it is what he spends much of the interview talking about. The company’s literature states that he was the driving force behind redefining Avant’s product range. So, the sunny disposition comes with a razor-sharp focus.

“We centre the business on product,” he confirms. “Housebuilders don’t always do this. We update the product and make it aspirational, designing it so we give customers what they want, all in one inclusive package.” Customers get an all-inclusive specification as one of the perks of picking Avant. Standard features include increased ceiling heights, flexible floorplans and larger windows.

“Our product is our hero,” Lewis continues enthusiastically. “In 2010 we had an opportunity with the way in which we were going to go forward. We thought differently. We looked at what other housebuilders did and looked at our customers and the ones who weren’t with us. We saw that people wanted the look of what’s in glossy magazines, so we developed a value-led model, asking the question: ‘If it costs more, can you get the value?’”

(Pictured) Prince’s Park in historic Pontefract features three and four bedroom homes and the all-inclusive specification on which Avant prides itself

Armed with its new banking facilities of £160 million, by April 2015 Avant possessed the firepower to buy land. It became, Lewis says, “a recognised company”. Pre-investment, Avant invested little in land, selling prices were lower, site volumes were declining and the disparate branding had become an issue. Average house prices are now £250 million. The brands were amalgamated “to create a unified presence”, with Avant switching to a product-led offering across all of its regions – Scotland, North East England, Yorkshire and the Midlands.

“This is the Avant way of doing things,” Lewis says smilingly, explaining how the firm now strives for overall excellence. “We train all staff, investing in leadership programmes for senior managers through to directors.” It was “critical” – with the company undergoing rapid, significant change – that the collegiate management team fully supported his vision.

Going forward
And the name refresh – from the distinctly British Gladedale to the more continental and energised Avant – reflects the housebuilder’s intent. “Avant is Italian for going forward,” Lewis enthuses. “It also refers to being Avant Garde.”

With bi-fold doors and “floating kitchens” in all homes, Avant keeps abreast of various European interior trends. “We want to align ourselves with the retail market and respond to changes in fashion,” Lewis explains. On the route to improving the product, he drafted in a product development group. “We started with a blank piece of paper and looked at what other housebuilders do and what our customers do. The business now conducts a review every month to keep the product fresh.” Avant has a two-year rolling programme of change for each element of its product. (For more on Avant’s spec, see Design principles box).

(Pictured) Chacefield View in Denny, Falkirk is a scheme of two to four bedroom homes featuring full-height tiling in bathrooms

Lewis wants Avant to be a “shopfront” for specification suppliers. “We say: ‘You put in your product at a price we want to pay. That way it’s a part of our partnership with them – we’re helping their business.”

Avant’s approach may not be unique, Lewis acknowledges. But it is not cost-led – the key differentiation between his company and other housebuilders. “If we get copied, we’ll be ahead,” he says without any trace of arrogance. “We’ve influenced large and small housebuilders; they’ve asked for our Avant specification.” The company still has standard house type layouts. “But the specification comes from our own selection.”

As for the homes’ external appearances, Lewis is pleased to say that they slide in seamlessly with local vernaculars. His team will always check this with the architect, he says. Windows will be deeper “if the vernacular allows”. And elevations must be included in the land price if Avant’s model is to work. The business is acquiring land apace but the attitude to buying land is painstaking and “highly selective”. It is understood that if land is bought “badly”, homes will not sell so well.

But very importantly for Lewis: “We start from the premise that the region has to prove the site fits the product.”

Regions are another passion of his, or rather – the government’s apparent neglect of them. Here, his tone turns a little grave. “Don’t forget about the rest of the country when it comes to housebuilding,” he tells the government through Housebuilder. “There’s a risk that it will focus too much on the south, when there’s a lot happening in the north.”

He welcomes moves in the Housing White Paper to reignite the Northern Powerhouse. But, he comments after this interview: “I continue to believe that a more regionally focused strategy in housing is needed to help meaningfully increase housing output levels.” A blanket mentality to policy has failed to honour the multi-faceted nature of the UK housing market, he says. The White Paper is therefore to him overall, “a bit of a missed opportunity for the government to really set out and clarify its plans on how to tackle the UK housing shortage.”

But Lewis seems too positive and resilient to be disappointed for long. He talks excitedly about harnessing Avant’s new capacity “to open more shops to sell our product.” By the end of FY17, he anticipates sales outlets nudging 50. A significant number of them will open over the next three to six months.

Growth will be confined to Avant’s four operating regions. London and the south east are not under consideration. “We’re scaling up the existing businesses and not spreading ourselves thinly. It was a deliberate choice not to go into London and the south east – Gladedale used to with the Country & Metropolitan brand. The market there was getting itself into an overheated state. We saw particular problems with labour supply.

“Instead, we felt we could punch our weight in the markets we know.”

At the same time, he notes, some have described Avant as restless. The company is now channelling its restive spirit into constant innovation. In its latest project it has introduced virtual reality to its schemes. Through a head set at marketing suites or online access, customers can see and specify their new home as if they were in it. (See Homes and innovation box).

It is these customers who will seal Avant’s success, Lewis stresses. “It’s key we stay close to them. We want to get our model to be one of quality. 70% of our customers are experienced buyers, but the breadth of our range allows for first time buyers too.” Avant has employed a market research company to hold events for its customers and– crucially – for those who, after visiting an Avant scheme, chose not to buy. “Whatever we find, it’ll shape the business.”

Transformational journey
Avant Homes has enjoyed a “transformational” journey, Lewis muses. The refinancing was merely one aspect of it. And the adventure continues. “We have a ‘vision and values’ wheel which says that we aim to be the housebuilder of choice north of England and in Scotland,” he says brightly. “We’re excited about what we do and confident we can achieve our goals. We’re a differentiated housebuilder but not niche or bespoke. Our ambition is to be of sufficient critical mass to be a notable player in the industry.”

Lewis will probably undertake the rest of the journey with boundless enthusiasm and a smile on his face.



Homes and innovation

(Pictured) Avant Homes has introduced virtual reality technology to some of its schemes, allowing customers to view and specify their new home

Pomegranate Park in Chesterfield is an Avant scheme of three to five bedroom homes resplendent with mood lighting and integrated appliances, and bathrooms sporting generous storage space as well as digital showers and full height tiling. Exteriors honour the historic market town setting.

The scheme also features virtual reality (VR) technology in its marketing suite, inviting customers to “walk around” and specify their new home. They can also access the same virtual tour online. Avant says it is the first housebuilder to utilise VR in this way.

Colin Lewis says: “As a business we are restless and constantly seeking opportunities to innovate within the housebuilding sector. We believe the sector is ripe for change, so our early adoption of this type of virtual reality technology to enhance the buying experience is perfectly in line with our ambitions and values. It allows us to leap ahead of our competitors by giving buyers more choice than they have ever had before.”

The system, developed by virtual reality company EyeSiteView, has been tested on a number of schemes and is being rolled out across 22 more.



Design principles

(Pictured) Damstead Park in Alfreton, Derbyshire is a selection of three to five bedroom houses featuring additional storage and glazing within

Avant Homes adheres to a number of design principles. One is producing larger entrance halls than the average to achieve that “sense of arrival,” Colin Lewis explains. “We have ‘fatter’ houses than the norm.”

Avant’s properties are "light, bright and airy," Lewis says. Their modern designs reflect the way families want to live, the firm says. Customers can enjoy designer kitchens and bathrooms (“not just high specification”) and bifold doors are a key feature of each abode. “In our one of our developments, there are three-pane bifold doors,” Lewis says proudly. “Floating kitchens” also feature prominently – units which hang above the ground and off walls.

Avant currently has 47 developments ranging from Falkirk to Bletchley. These include Damstead Park in Alfreton, Derbyshire; Kingsfield in Pontefract, West Yorkshire; and Chacefield View in Denny, Falkirk.

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