Interview: Wilben’s Benjamin & William Samuels on why property is in the blood

Prime Resi

December, 2015

In the vanguard of exciting young developers making their mark on central London’s resi scene, the twin brothers behind Wilben Developments tell us how they broke into the ultra-prime league…

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We hear you had already sketched out your business plan by the age of 16; what drew you both to the world of property so early on?

Benjamin: Property is in the family. Our dad is a developer and when we were young we used to go with him on site. We caught the bug and we haven’t looked back since.

Wilben provides the full gamut of services from Acquisition and Development Management to Project Management and Interior Design; who looks after which elements and how closely do you work together?

William: I look after the design side and Ben manages the acquisitions. We have our own teams in the office but we work very closely and consult each other on everything.

We can think of a number of successful siblings in the property development world; what are the advantages of being brothers in business together?

Benjamin: I think one of the best advantages is that you can actually speak your mind to one another. We know each other so well that if we have a disagreement it won’t sour our relationship. For us it works really well for the business; we know exactly what to expect from each other and we can be ourselves happy in the knowledge that each has the other’s total support.

Your first project was a 1,675 square foot property in Egerton Gardens, Knightsbridge (pictured below) that sold for £2.55m; nice address – can you talk us through this one, any lessons you learned, and why it made you so confident you were on the right track?

Benjamin: Egerton Gardens was one massive learning curve for us from day one. We threw ourselves in the deep end in every sense, from buying a property with seven years left on the lease and dealing with one of the biggest freeholders in London, to getting planning permission to completely rebuild the top floor. Had we known the extent of the challenge beforehand I don’t think we would have done it so early on but in hindsight it was the best thing we could have done.

William: It was an exciting project and we were very proud of it in the end; we did it in 15 months start to finish and sold it in a good market. We then bought the flat next door which had been on the market for ages in a similar situation – since we’d already jumped through all the hoops it held no surprises.

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Your latest development is a vast 8,000 square foot Grade II listed townhouse on Chester Square valued at £32.5m (pictured below); what were the biggest challenges you faced in tackling a project of this scale?

William: The size itself was a big challenge. It was twice as big as anything we had done before, design wise and everything else. Despite keeping our team the same size we managed to bring it through on time and on budget. Working within the constraints of a Grade II listed building has all the normal challenges. Also being over seven floors was a challenge; particularly for the builders!

How did you find the planning process? Are you still keen to develop listed properties in the future?

Benjamin: These things are always complicated but we have a good relationship with the planners. We respect the process and don’t try to cut corners.

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Have you noticed any standout trends amongst HNW buyers in 2015?

William: We have noticed people moving away from very high tech systems in houses. They still want the technology but a simplified version. They are also focusing more on what they’re buying in terms of quality and design; it can’t just be ‘the best’ anymore it has to be the best of the best.

How did you react to last December’s SDLT reforms and has it affected your business? If so, how?

Benjamin: There is no doubt it has had an effect on most parts of the market. Everyone has had to take a realistic view about their prices including us and we are definitely more careful about what we buy but because we are so location specific we have managed to largely shelter ourselves from the effects.

Have you ever felt any pressure to ‘time the market’ and to what degree do you plan for market ups and downs?

William: It is a stressful business and we are constantly under pressure on all fronts; finance, sales, construction, man management, but we never try and second guess the market. It is of crucial importance to buy in the market you are in and value the property accordingly. Price every project on its merits for the current market; not what you think it might be worth in two years’ time

If you could make one policy change to improve the way in which the property industry works in the UK, what would that be?

Benjamin: It is what it is. We know our properties, we know the rules and the process when we buy and we know the hoops we have to go through. It’s easy to get frustrated on individual projects but in the long run you understand that the policies are there for a reason.

How have you found the acquisition process over the last couple of years compared to when you started the business in 2009?

Benjamin: Tough! We are competing against a lot of others with a lot of money. Having said that the people we buy from bring properties to us because if we agree to a deal they know we are going to perform quickly. We have performed on every single purchase to date and we don’t let people down.

Much of your end product relies on highly skilled craftspeople and construction specialists; has it been hard to find the right talent of late?

William: Tradesman are in demand. We have our own teams who we have worked with for years, some right from the beginning and we make sure we hang onto them. Because our work is so top-end we have to have a team that we know inside out and trust.

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How have you found the service from estate agencies in the marketing of your schemes? Have you tended to stick with the same firms so far?

William: The agents we choose have always worked very well for us because we choose on the basis of the individual agent not specifically the agency. The agents we deal with are sharp and they know what they’re doing.

Before starting Wilben, you worked at some top property firms between you, including Northacre, Brahm and Foxtons – which other PCL developers and firms do you admire and why?

William: I would have to bring it back to Northacre, I worked for them because I really admired the work that they do; their classic style and their ability to consistently deliver at an exceptional level. There are several companies that are competing at the top in this industry at the moment, but only a few have a defined style and presence in the market and I think we are one of them.

What makes a great super-prime product in your opinion?

William: Quality, unique design and location. Attention to detail is critical.

What are the key elements you look for in a new project?

Benjamin: Buy well and carefully. We only buy properties that offer the opportunity to create something special. We don’t do run of the mill and that’s why we’ve been able to set new record sales prices.

How would you describe your signature style?

William: I would say classic contemporary, always extremely high quality and luxurious. I also like heavy contrast – dark wood joinery and light textured fabrics.

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Are there any areas of PCL you consider to be undervalued right now?

Benjamin: Yes…but I couldn’t possibly say.

What’s in the pipeline?

William: We are currently working on properties in Albert Bridge Road, Kinnerton Street, The Little Boltons, Pont Street and two new build properties in Chelsea.

What advice would you give your 17 year old selves writing that business plan now?

William: Always work out your worst-case scenario before buying each development. Make sure that in that worst-case scenario you’re still making money.

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