Asian experience underpins architecture firm Benoy's global expansion plans

Graham Cartledge sees Benoy's push into Asia as a way for the company to acquire new skills and knowledge to add to its British brand and to reinvest in new economies as it expands further

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 11:39pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 11:39pm

In late July, Graham Cartledge, chairman of Benoy, accompanied British Prime Minister David Cameron on a four-day trip to Southeast Asia to forge trade and business deals. It came at a time when Benoy was also expanding its business in the region.

Benoy works across 11 studios globally with a staff of 561. Its turnover from last year was projected to be £52 million, about 80 per cent of which was generated from its overseas business.

What attracted you to Southeast Asia?

These are open economies. They understand the importance of well-regulated regimes. We have British expertise, which has been recognised from our work in China and across Asia generally. So there are times, I think, when a little reinforcing of our commitment to the area is well received.

What we found through trading in China is that we learn new skills, [which are] added to our British brand. And we are able to reinvest those new skills and knowledge in new economies. For example, we started doing commercial retail projects, but now in Asia, we are doing high-rise buildings, residential towers and hotels.

What skills have you gained from the Chinese market?

Speed of performance - the ability to make quick and positive decisions. Often, European business models would be slower. So the energy that we learned from that [working in China] has helped in improving our efficiency in our British business.

Will you increase your business back in Britain?

London is uniquely positioned in terms of its time zone, legal system and strong, open investment policy. So it's only natural that over the past two years, I chose to reinforce my skill set in London to be available for this new energy that is emerging in Europe. And we are delighted that we were able to transfer some teams from different parts of the world, with experience of working with Chinese and other Asian clients, to our London office so that they can service international clients.

What is Benoy's expansion plan?

We have been following where the world's money is moving. Just recently, we engaged with a number of Chinese companies in Australia.

So we set up a base in Melbourne. We also found the Middle East has become an attractive investment destination for the world's money. So we expanded our operations in Dubai to service both the Middle East and northern Africa.

We started spending more time in the West. We are now doing work in America and Canada. We recently secured a North American project, and we are actively pursuing new business opportunities in Africa and South America, which are obviously attractive investment locations for international investors.

So there is a little balancing act going on. That means our business has to readjust to the business opportunities across the world.

It's rather exciting. For example, Korea has become a successful hub for our business, and even Japan, we have started looking carefully at opportunities there.

You are basically following Chinese money, aren't you?

Yes. We are helping Chinese investors [to] assess market opportunities.

Obviously having considerable experience myself, as do other colleagues in Europe, we can assist as companies from China look at these new opportunities.

One of my other roles is that I am on the main board of the China-Britain Business Council. And we are now actively working to prepare to welcome [President] Xi Jinping when he visits London later in the year.

And that is a very important moment because it reinforces that connection from China to London and beyond.

What is the future business breakdown for Benoy?

Our main interest is people's movements. It started with retail experience. But we rather like that retail has transformed itself into urban mix-used projects, which includes comfortable arrangements such as hotels and office buildings. We have just completed a theatre in Jakarta [Ciputra Artpreneur].

There is huge growth in urban lifestyle initiatives. We are constantly looking for the future of new thinking, new brands and new retailing. We are looking at new experiences through which people want to spend their leisure time.

People like to have a choice when they get up on a weekend morning and decide where to go. We want to make sure we design client's spaces to be places where people want to go, whether that is a hotel or a cinema. Understanding people's movements is a value that arises from that. For example, Changi Terminal 4 [airport in Singapore, designed by Benoy] is more of a shopping experience than an airport. It's an attractive retail leisure experience, not just a journey to the aircraft.

What is an innovative design and what makes a good design?

Good design is always the result of a great partnership between the client and the design team. It is also the result of a well-crafted brief that everyone understands and a rigorous design process.

Process is about seeking the most appropriate solution in any given situation by leaning on our experiences but also testing new concepts and technologies. We leave no stone unturned in pushing our research and design teams in finding the best solution.

A great example in my opinion is our scheme The Beach in Dubai. This is a recently opened mixed-use, urban village where we challenged the preconceived notion of what retail is in the Middle East; and so developed an exciting and deliverable new typology that has caught the attention of many developers and commentators around the world.

We are intrigued by the nature of true mixed-use coupled with an instinctive application of high density living. By understanding and investigating the way cities work and the way rich environments have evolved over the years, with a myriad integrated uses, we are better positioned to develop exciting and fulfilling distinctive new neighbourhoods.

How does Benoy balance its design creativity with urban landscape and opinions of local people?

Our attitude to integrated master planning is always to consider each new development as part of the wider connected cityscape.

In our opinion it is not sufficient to think about isolated plan development that has no relation with its surroundings. Social connectivity is equally as important as physical connectivity. We know we must engage with stakeholders and local interest groups, as well as our client, to find harmonious and valuable solutions.