We head to the east of England for the next in our weekly series of interviews with senior figures in the UK new homes industry, and pose the questions to Helen Hick, recently appointed joint managing director of award-winning Larkfleet Homes.
Helen, please tell us a bit about yourself, your new role and Larkfleet Homes
My job title at Larkfleet Homes is joint managing director, alongside Adrian Evans. My role includes helping to oversee the day-to-day budget and operation of the company and helping to manage the overall strategic direction.
Larkfleet Homes is a family business started by my husband, Karl Hick, and myself. I have worked alongside Karl since we started the company. However, my role has taken many twists and turns and has encompassed many aspects of running the company along the way!
What kind of homes are you currently selling?
We offer new homes to almost every type of buyer, whether they are looking for a one-bedroom apartment, a family home, an age-exclusive home or a large, bespoke luxury home. Our developments are currently situated within Lincolnshire, Rutland and Cambridgeshire.
We have two main brands, Larkfleet Homes and Allison Homes. Within these two, we have the sub-brands, Larkfleet Exclusive and Allison Luxury Homes.
Allison Luxury Homes and Larkfleet Exclusives cover our small, exclusive developments, such as the large country home, Applegrove, in the village of Thornhaugh, barn conversions at The Haybarn in Barleythorpe and The Paddock and Anvil Mews in Stamford.
We also have two age-exclusive developments, The Croft at Bourne and The Croft at Baston.
Do you have one particular ‘star’ development?
Our Whittlesey Green development has proved to be our most recent ‘star’ development. It is a development of 120 new houses, including two-, three-, four- and five-bedroom homes, situated just outside of Peterborough. These houses have absolutely flown out of the door and we could not be more pleased with way in which they have sold.
What do you think differentiates your company and products from the competition?
We are a family-owned business and are here to stay! Our roots are firmly in our local community. Our ethos is to build communities, not houses and estates. We build to high environmental standards and include solar panels as standard at most of our developments. I believe we differ as we consciously keep the size of our business at a manageable level. Our management team is involved in all aspects of the business and is very ‘hands on’.
One of the reasons we set up Allison Homes as a stand-alone business with its own management team was to ensure that Larkfleet Homes remained manageable and flexible and did not grow too large for our hands-on management style.
Our core principle is to focus on quality and to provide exceptional customer care. These are two of my passions and I always ensure we go the extra mile.
We encourage other companies to look at these qualities and this year the Larkfleet Group will be sponsoring the green achievement award at a local awards evening in Grantham. Allison Homes will be sponsoring a customer service award at another local business awards evening in Stamford.
Are assistance schemes such as Help to Buy and Part Exchange important to many of your customers?
These schemes are vital to new home buyers. We estimate that 75% of our new homes are reserved via the Help to Buy scheme, so it obviously is proving to be a popular and sound way to help yourself get onto the housing market. We are still reasonably new to the Part Exchange scheme and will be focusing on this far more heavily in 2016. We do have residents on a number of developments who have taken advantage of it and we know others are keen to hear more. I believe both schemes will grow in importance for us and we will certainly be doing all we can to help our customers buy their new home.
You are personally involved in the creation of your show homes. What's the key to your design ethos and in this tech-centred age, are show homes still important to many house-hunters?
I keenly follow the latest design trends and aim to create show homes that reflect these but which remain family friendly and liveable. My ethos is to show people what life in a Larkfleet home could be like. I have never adopted any of the tricks used by some developers in the past, such as using shorter or smaller furniture or removing doors! I like to show real fixtures and furniture for real people in real homes!
Show homes are still vital. People undertake much more online research through sites such as WhatHouse? so may drive around to see fewer sites than they did a decade ago. However, they still want to see the bricks and mortar when they find a new home they like online.
How do you see the property market changing in your region over 2016?
I don’t see it changing much. It is buoyant market at present. If the UK economy is performing well and consumers are feeling confident they will be willing to take on the debt associated with buying a home and housebuilding will prosper.
As we start 2016 the signs are all good but international events – such as a slowdown in China or further oil price shocks – could a have negative impact on the UK economy. If all goes well, though, 2016 should be a year of growth – rising numbers of homes being built and rising prices, so rising profits for housebuilders.
That is not going to be a situation without problems for housebuilders. House prices are rising at least in part because of pressures on the supply chain and there are issues with finding employees with the required skills levels.
However, smaller builders such as Larkfleet Homes, with good reputations for quality and looking after their customers – the companies that plan to be serving their local communities for years to come – can develop a competitive advantage in these market conditions if they keep a relentless focus on quality despite the pressure to drop standards.
Are buyer expectations changing year to year?
We would like to think buyer’s expectation of eco-credentials will continue to rise. We believe Larkfleet Homes leads the market in this area and it is something we focus on.
Buying a house is a vastly expensive purchase, so buyers rightly expect their new home be of the highest quality and also expect to benefit from good customer service. We strive to meet both these expectations.
We have noticed that the internet age and growth in social media have brought about a few changes. Buyers have more outlets to express their opinions and home builders need be responding to their customer expectations in a far faster fashion than prior to the internet.
What's in the pipeline for Larkfleet in the coming months?
We will be launching two new divisions this year. These are Larkfleet Norfolk and Suffolk and Larkfleet South West and these will cover new developments in these areas. We also have several new sites coming online in the next couple of months, Greetham and Pinchbeck in Lincolnshire. Our site, Rockingham Valley near Corby also starts work in earnest this spring and will extend our Larkfleet Homes developments into the Midlands.