Profile: John Elkington at the helm of Penhurst Properties
I walk into the gleaming reception area of Penhurst Properties in Lonsdale Gate. These are newly refurbished serviced offices in a prestigious building, complete with its own gym facility, just a stone’s throw away from Tunbridge Wells train station and the busy high street.
John Elkington, an elegant man, with chiselled good looks and piercing blow-torch blue eyes, walks me into his glass walled office. There’s no time for chitchat, so we agree how good it is to meet, then get straight to the topic – what makes the man tick.
Q: What does Penhurst Properties do?
A: We revive buildings – both residential and business – giving them a much-needed revamp. We also do some property development. This is my least favourite genre of the property market. We’ve done a few new build projects in London, blocks of flats, which can be festooned with problems, causing delays, which affects costings. I prefer to buy existing buildings and rework them. I see something, potential, that someone else has overlooked.
This building, for example, has a big car park on which we plan to build residential units. There’s a great shortage of residential units in the town centre so it’s an attractive proposal for the council.
Q: Tell me about your philanthropic work.
A: I’m an emotional person, I get involved with projects I hear about on the news. Sometimes too, people write to me requesting financial assistance. I like to invest in small businesses – anything but property – businesses that need capital. Not only is it tax efficient but it is a way for young businesses to grow, which interests me. For example, just recently, following a terrific presentation, I’ve invested in an online exercise app.
Q: In the business world, what gets your adrenaline pumping?
A: I love adding value. I find this exciting. Nothing is as exhilarating as building a business. I look at a building and evaluate it, assessing it for an additional floor or converting space for a different use.
This building for example, we have been open for two weeks. Last week we had someone look at the whole ground floor, a few days later they took it all. We’re nearly 50 percent let in just two weeks. Although I’m not directly involved in its marketing, on this occasion I came around to meet this businessman and showed him around.
What gives me sleepless nights are assets that don’t work for me and aren’t producing an income.
Q: What’s on your bucket list of business goals?
A: I want to continue doing what I do. I don’t believe in diversifying from my core business. My father ran a successful property business, but diversifying caused him challenges. So, I’ll stay with what I understand, with what I know.
I spend a lot of time driving around inspecting my properties. I want to ensure that when I hand over the business to the next generation it’s in good shape and comfortable – without putting pressures on them.
My 25-year old son is now in the business, he’s getting a balanced experience, and learning from the ground up. Looking to have all four of my children come into the business is a big challenge. It’s too early to tell if they have the same passion for it as I do. It’ll be different for them as the business has already been built. But the next generation won’t have an automatic right to it, they need to prove themselves. There’s a management structure in place.
Q: When is enough, enough?
A: I don’t think it’s ever ‘enough’. I am ambitious and know that the day I stop acquiring properties to revive I’ll become a very dull person. So, I will continue to build on the business portfolio until I fall off my perch.
Q: What are your largest business regrets?
A: My biggest regret is not learning to let go and not be in control of everything, all the time, to take a back seat even. Had I been able to do this I would have been more successful – with other business partners.
Another regret was not investing in Chapel Down Winery when it was offered to me 15 years ago.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
A: Back in the 80s I was given sage advice from a knowledgeable man in the property business. He said “When you buy assets, no matter what is happening in the world, hold onto them” – which is what I have done, and why I have a property portfolio in excess of £150‑m.
Q: What guidance would you give your younger self?
A: I wish I has learnt how to develop patience. I get exasperated with people who don’t ‘get it’. And I think my greatest business issue is trusting other people to get it done. I need to be in control.
Q: How do you see the future of the property market?
A: The commercial property market is in for a rough ride over the next six to twelve months as people are refocusing and looking to work from home. I feel residential property will be benign for possibly three years. And I’m certain this
Covid-19 pandemic will present many opportunities.
I don’t buy into some of the reports that claim property is going to continue to rise. The whole stamp duty holiday is creating a false rise. With a five-year mid-term view I still think property is the greatest tangible asset to have.
Q: If you weren’t in property what would you be doing?
A: I would have had a huge problem as I was not academic. At school I was incapable of passing exams. I reckon I would possibly have been a very mediocre estate agent. But because I like to travel, I would probably have been a travel writer. I love going to nice hotels; I can see myself travelling the world, reviewing hotels.
John Elkington started off as an Estate Agent in London’s Belgravia, first working for GL Hearn & Partners in the building surveying team, followed by Best Gapp Chartered Surveyors. Then, in 1987, he registered Penhurst Properties (with the purchase of a single flat in Tooting) with a view to building a residential property portfolio in London.
His property wallet has grown from a single-unit operation to becoming one of the largest and most successful in the UK. It now extends to over 350 residential properties, which includes 50 commercial units (complete with a professional, in-house maintenance team), and three business centres in London, Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge.
His company is now celebrating its 33rd year and has attained assets in excess of £150m.
In his spare time, he proudly supports Crystal Palace and enjoys sailing his 60-foot Sunseeker Predator from his holiday home Mallorca..
Written & photographed
by Cindy-Lou Dale