Rags to riches: How Romany Gypsy Alfie Best built a business worth £200m
Best on building a business in the recession and why he’s proud of his Gypsy roots
VITAL STATISTICS: WYLDECREST PARKS
- Wyldecrest Parks are one of the UK’s largest residential park home and holiday home operators in the UK
- Cost of a Wyldecrest home: £75,000 to £250,000
- Number of parks: 47
- Number of residents: 6800 residents
- Countries: England, Wales, Scotland
- Valued at: £200m
LLB: You’ve just been in a TV documentary for the BBC set to be aired soon, what was that like?
AB: The BBC wanted to do some filming on how people have made their businesses and wealth, and they wanted to see some parts of my business. So we flew over one of the parks in a helicopter, with Anne Robinson. It was surreal, not something I’m particularly used to – publicity isn’t something I’ve really embraced before.
LLB: What was Anne Robinson like?
AB: She was extremely charming – nothing like on The Weakest Link! It sort of took me back a little bit.
LLB: You going to see her again then?
AB: No! But she sent me a lovely text afterwards to say she had a lovely time and thanked me for the day.
LLB: Yes it does. So how much are you worth, personally?
AB: I don’t know is the answer! Would you say that I’m worth what the company’s worth? Or if you take me outside the company, and I had to value my house and my personal assets, I would say I’m worth somewhere in the region of £15m.
LLB: How did your upbringing help you become the businessperson you are today?
AB: Obviously, growing up as a Romany Gypsy, I come from an extremely poor background. But I actually believe that’s helped, because it’s given me the desire and the will to succeed. But also, because I’m from a minority group and Gypsies are sometimes looked down upon, I had to swim to the top, and that’s what I’ve done. And that’s a benefit.
“I worked from the age of 10. I was labouring, tarmacking – that’s pretty much a traveller’s background.”
LLB: So it’s given you determination?
AB: Yeah, listen: it’s given me the will to succeed and the desire to succeed. I never wanted to be poor and I never wanted to go back to being poor.
And I never actually realised that I was poor – or even dreamed that I was poor. It wasn’t hard at the time, but it’s only when I look back and see how we lived that I realise that we were actually poor. I come from a very loving family. I was treated like a star, I was their child and their son, and that makes up for an awful lot of things.
LLB: How old were you when you started working?
AB: I worked from the age of 10. I was labouring, tarmacking – working with my dad. I worked like a man from an extremely early age. And that’s pretty much a traveller’s background.
LLB: Was this weekends, what about school?
AB: It was pretty much every day, I tended to go to school in the winter and then we’d go away working in the summer. I left school completely when I was 12, and had a small amount of home tutoring. My mum couldn’t read or write and my dad could barely read or write, but they felt it was a benefit to be able to read and write so they instilled that in me.
LLB: what was your first business then?
AB: Wyldecrest was actually the third business that I set up. Way before Wyldecrest I started a van hire centre and a van dealership in Forest Gate – I was 17 when I started that and I did very well. But then the recession [in 1990] set in, when I was about 20, and I lost almost everything. I managed to hang on to by the skin of my teeth by renting my house out, renting out the car pitch, selling off every vehicle we had and sleeping in my car for three months. I was just holding on to what I had the best I could, but I had no money at all – and no way of getting any money!
LLB: So you were penniless – what did you do?
AB: I drove around London looking for something to do – to try and find a business. And all I did was look for a business that had a queue, and I came across mobile phone shops. I went in and begged and pleaded for a job, which was quite humbling, having built up my own business, but you have to do whatever it takes to get by and to succeed. And there’s a great saying: ‘needs must’.
But I got the job in the phone shop and worked there for a couple of months. I learnt what they did, I understood the business as best I could within that time, and then I went back to the van pitch, took one of the units back, dressed it up and decorated as best I could as a phone shop – and started a mobile communications business.
“I drove around London looking for something to do. All I did was look for a business that had a queue, and I came across mobile phone shops.”
LLB: That’s brilliant. How did the phone business work out?
Within a year we built the business up to 13 shops, and every penny we had I put back into the business. I then sold that business but retained the freehold of the shops and went into commercial property. I did that for five years, and in 2001 I bought my first mobile home park for £1.7m. That was in Romford, and at that time it was an inordinate amount of money – more money than I’d ever see.
I scrimped and saved and pulled it together and the reason why I started that business was because it just felt like second nature. I’m a Romany Gypsy, I’m born and bred in a caravan, why wouldn’t I be involved in that business?
LLB: Are your residents Romany Gypsies then?
AB: No. All of our residents – except for three or four holiday parks that we have – are semi-retired and retired non-Gypsy people. We don’t have Romany Gypsy residents, it’s not the market we’re aiming at. You tend to find that Gypsies still have a free roaming blood that flows through their bodies. The market we’re looking at is a permanent market, even though it’s called a mobile home park, it’s permanent – they never move!
LLB: What have been the key milestones for the business?
AB: The first milestone for any business is about getting your team all battling from the same side. Getting your team focussed on the same goals that your business is headed for.
LLB: When did you manage that?
AB: The moment that my managing director Waseem Hanif joined me. Together we started setting up systems for the company – where we needed maintenance, where we needed financial control. And we had a very early cash flow and business plan for where we were taking the business. And that forecast, cash flow and business plan is still used today – it’s just added to constantly. It’s not it doesn’t change, because you must adapt your business to its environments and customers – otherwise your business will stagnate.
LLB: How did the recession hit your business?
AB: We’ve been through one of the worst recessions that I can remember. And it’s actually been an extremely good recession for us. Our company has continued to grow, year on year, at a minimum of 25%.
LLB: Because people had to downsize their homes?
Yes, but they couldn’t sell their homes to begin with. So what we looked at ways of allowing people to sell their homes by setting up a part exchange scheme. This allowed people to move in to a park home and we were left to sell the property. We looked at what the problem was, found a solution and turned it into a benefit for our customers.
LLB: Why were you able to sell their homes when they couldn’t?
AB: Well, we’re professionals at marketing property. We can sell your property better than yourself. So we’d go into a house, and we’d look at it to see if it was cluttered, and we’d give them a true and honest opinion. We’d find the value that was there, we’d go above and beyond what it took to help the customer move.
LLB: How did you deal with the mortgage lenders?
We had a lot of people who were behind on their mortgage, so we set up a small finance company. We’d lend people the money to purchase their park home. There is always a solution.
We always try and find a way to say ‘yes’. It’s all too easy to say ‘no’. Whatever a customer asks for, we will find a way to say yes, to make it agreeable for the customer.
LLB: What does the future hold for Wyldecrest Parks?
AB: We just purchased a small group of parks in Cornwall and Devon which equates to six retirement mobile home parks. On top of that we have another £15m worth of assets and mobile home parks that we are currently purchasing. They are based in Cheltenham, Cornwall, Devon, Bristol and Bath. We don’t have appetite to stop growing, but I am very conscious that we need to keep control of the business, as opposed to the business being in control of us. And that we don’t lose our way. It’s very important that my whole team is focussed on the same goal and we don’t become fragmented.