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Millionaire age 20: A life in construction

Published on: 28 Apr 2009

Gareth Darbyshire (pictured, right) has just celebrated his 20th birthday. Two years ago he was doing his A levels; today, he is in charge of a £20m turnover business – the Darbyshire Group – and 75 people.

Darbyshire has been running his own business since he was 18, when he set up Darbyshire Developments to do small-scale refurbishment work around Preston, driven by a desire “never to work for anyone else”. He says construction appealed to him because he liked to see “something tangible for my efforts”.

The business was self-funding, he says, and early work came through family friends and other acquaintances, then “snowballed”. After school, he went to Nottingham university to study law but three months in, a contact approached him with an acquisition proposal. “He told me he had found this marvellous company but there was one problem: it was in deepest, darkest Wales. I said, ‘if it’s doing as well as you say, there’s got to be something special down there that could be carried eastward’.”

Without dropping his studies – he still travels to Nottingham twice a week for lectures – Darbyshire began raising the cash to buy TPT. He spent the best part of a year going from one finance house to the next until he hit gold with wealthy private investors in London. He haggled the vendors down from £11m to £7m and agreed to pay half up front and defer half, to be serviced through the firm’s landbank.

Heavy stuff for a teenager. He admits there are times he misses being an ordinary student. “Sometimes I’ll be absolutely knackered and go out for something to eat with a friend,” he says. “But I’ll talk to them for five minutes in two hours because the phone keeps ringing and I don’t have it in me to reject the call.”

But the hard work has paid off. While most of Darbyshire’s peers are in student digs, here he is in Claridge’s – his second choice in London accommodation. “Historically, I prefer the Savoy,” he says. And while he may be just out of his teens, he looks 10 years older and talks business with total confidence.

Despite experience beyond his years, it comes as little surprise that Darbyshire sometimes finds it hard to be taken seriously. “When people find out my date of birth, they often have a genuine problem with it,” he says. “I’ve approached banks whose first response has been ‘I am not lending anything to a 19 year old’. That annoys me – the point blank refusal because of age.”

He understands concerns about gaps in his knowledge but is quick to defend his ability to work hard and learn quickly. “If I hear something I don’t understand, I’ll never admit to it, but that night I’ll go and look it up,” he says. And he has surrounded himself with experienced players. One of his trusted allies is family friend John Madeley, co-owner of Paul Madeley’s DIY chain, which was sold in the eighties for £27m. Together, they have a joint venture residential business called Damad. His parents are also involved.

Even with senior figures on board, Darbyshire is aware that his age can cause tensions. There was “some nervousness” in the TPT team when they heard about it, he says, so he got them all into a room, reassured them that none of their jobs would change and then took them out to lunch so they could get to know him. He says: “When you’ve got employees three times your age, how do you tell them what to do? I’ve got to go very softly, involve as many people as I can and be as polite as possible – always please and thank you a million times over. That’s the only way I can make it work.”

And he really believes he can make it work, even in today’s climate. He has plans to grow his workforce by 40% in the next few years, expand across Britain, get into the renewable energy business in Europe and tackle the luxury housing market in Cheshire. And these are “conservative if anything”, he says. It may sound naive, but TPT is in a stronger position than most. It has cornered a hefty chunk of the local authority market in west Wales, and built a track record in schools, hospitals and libraries.

Moreover, Darbyshire has an effective personal style. He claims to have contacts at Asda, Tesco, De Vere Hotels and premiership football clubs, built off the back of intensive schmoozing. “I might be 20 but I believe in old-fashioned networking,” he says. “You know when it’s someone’s wife’s birthday and you send a present.”

From any other 20 year old, this would sound laughable, but Darbyshire pulls it off. He may have been two during the last recession, but don’t write him off – one day you could be working for him.

Read the full article in Building's Gareth Darbyshire: the £20m 20-year-old.