When I was growing up in the Midlands I was lucky enough to receive a great education. I've never forgotten the start this gave me in life. It's an advantage too many children are denied and it's a key reason I try to play a part in improving education.
By the time I was 17, I'd already earned the nickname Ticey, but my early attempts at driving were distinctly dicey. I got three penalty points as a provisional driver for a broken L-plate on a moped. I then took four attempts to pass my driving test. Things have got better since...
I'm well over 6ft tall now, but until I was 18 I was pretty short for my age, which had its real disadvantages. I felt especially unlucky when I was playing goalkeeper and having to work doubly hard to save anything or getting shoved into painful scrums as a hooker on the rugby field!
One thing that didn't change during my teenage years was that I knew I wanted to continue the family genes in the property industry.
30 years of making things happen in property investment
After holiday jobs with the Post Office and behind the bar, my property career got going at the age of 18, literally in the trenches, digging foundations in the snow in January 1983 with some Irish labourers from whom I learnt some fruity language and very rude jokes!
I took a technical, practical degree, Quantity Surveying and Construction Economics at Salford University in Greater Manchester in the mid-1980s. I was relieved to get in after making a bit of a mess of my A-levels, with Es in maths and politics. Luckily, my A in economics saved me. My degree course included a year in industry in London in 1985. This gave me a real advantage in securing my first graduate job in the capital in 1987 for a developer called London and Metropolitan. A couple of years later they sent me to open an office in Paris, where I spent two exciting years. It was a hugely challenging opportunity that I relished and it gave me the added advantage that I learnt to speak French fluently.
In late 1991, I started with The Sunley Group, a housebuilder and commercial property company, at a time of deep recession when cashflow was very tight (the banks were all over us like a rash and it was a real baptism of fire). Over 15 years we acquired over 100 sites, secured planning permission and built thousands of homes in London and southern England, as well as owning and developing commercial property around the UK.
Sold just in time
Fortunately we got nervous about the market at the right time: by late 2006 we had sold almost all of our property and we'd given the money back to shareholders by the time the crash started in 2007.
After a couple of years advising and watching from the sidelines, I started buying back into the property market in 2009 near the bottom of the cycle.
In 2010 I joined CLS Holdings, a large multinational real estate group with over £1 billion of assets in four countries. I led the group as CEO until early 2014, when it was making over £70m a year in profit.
During my time in charge, the company grew strongly, the share price tripled and it was the top-performing property investment share on the London Stock Exchange. We took the group to the cusp of the FTSE 250 index, which it joined soon afterwards. We bought over £200m of property near the bottom of the market, carried out a rights issue, launched three bonds and increased the profile of the group in the City and property market.
Making it happen
Under my leadership, we won approval for a new square in Vauxhall, London, including a major mixed-use scheme with hundreds of private homes, both market-rate and affordable, alongside offices, hotels and a new hostel for the homeless. This project gave me experience of dealing with the politics surrounding property, involving consultation with the local MP and Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.
I led a successful campaign to have two new Northern Line tube stations in the area placed in Zone 1 rather than Zone 2, which will save residents money on fares, against the initial wishes of Transport for London. I sat on the regeneration board for Nine Elms, which liaised closely with City Hall to bring this major inner city redevelopment plan to reality.
I also led a referendum campaign among 250 employers in Vauxhall and won 90% backing for a proposed Business Improvement District, an initiative that helps employers improve the area where they operate and bring in new jobs. This is another example of how I can help local communities; ensuring things happen.
I left CLS and the public company arena to allow more time for other interests including politics.
I became CEO of the real estate business Quidnet Capital LLP in mid-2014, since then we've bought and managed around £500m-worth of commercial properties across the UK on behalf of clients.
It's the latest challenge in my 30-year career, over which I have also been on the boards of dozens of companies and joint ventures. I have a long track record of delivering strong results for shareholders, clients and other stakeholders, making the right judgement calls, knowing when to buy and sell, into and out of market cycles.
I have always been an active investor in companies and projects, a strong believer in putting one’s money on the table, having skin in the game. Investors like the way this aligns different people's interests and it really focuses the mind on making the right decisions.
I've also worked with many businesses to help them navigate the challenging process of getting developments built from start to finish. For example, since 2014, I have been advising Bathurst Developments, a family estate company building more than 2,300 much-needed homes on land outside Cirencester in Gloucestershire.
Northampton Academy. I have been a governor of this wonderful secondary school since 2005 and was also chairman for a time. You can find out more here about how together we turned the school round.
Uppingham School. I am vice-chairman of trustees and chair the finance committee at the school where I was educated.
United Learning Trust. From 2005-2010 I was a trustee of this educational charity, the largest group of academy schools.
Bernard Sunley Foundation. I'm involved in the charitable foundation set up by my grandfather in the 1960s. By 2013 it had given out more than £100m in grants, making it one of Britain's larger grant-funding charities. We are always on the lookout for new causes to support to improve quality of life, particularly for people who are young, disadvantaged or elderly.
Property is in the genes. My grandfather, my uncle and one of my three children are involved. But it hasn’t always been plain sailing.
In the 1950s, my grandfather dreamt up a scheme to knock down the Ritz hotel in London and replace it with offices. There was a desperate shortage of business premises at the time as lots of buildings had been bombed out in the war and not yet rebuilt and companies were expanding fast. The planners said no. Looking back, I can’t say I really blame them for not wanting to lose this London landmark!
My grandfather also had a few problems with the media in the 1960s. He was opening a major new development in Manchester and on the big opening night for the press the ceiling fell in on the assembled journalists in their black tie (yes, dress standards were higher for the media back then). It was all over national news and featured in various comedy sketches. “All publicity is good publicity” was my grandfather’s verdict. He could see the positive in everything: the glass was always half full. I've tried to learn from that!
As you’ll see from my campaigns page, I have been fighting for the causes I believe in for years and that has often included giving money. I believe it's important to have skin in the game if you can afford to.
I have donated money to various education charities to support schools in both the state and private sectors.
I also funded the research and production of my three detailed reports into aspects of the education sector covering academies and universities.
In the past I have provided funding to help a Labour MP who I have worked with on several campaigns. In terms of my longstanding euroscepticism, I have donated to various groups over the last 20 years including Business for Sterling in the late 1990s and Global Britain on various occasions. I once gave money to the UK Independence Party to help with the 2014 European elections, as they were clearly the most effective campaigners for a referendum on our EU membership.
My main political donations have been to the Conservative Party, to whom I have given money on many occasions over the last 20 years or so. I had been a member of the Conservatives for much of my adult life and, until April 2019, were the only party I had ever been a member of…
However, frustrated at the political class’s betrayal of the Brexit vote, I decided to resign my membership of the Conservative Party in order to become Chairman of The Brexit Party. Six weeks later, I was elected as an MEP for the Brexit Party and intend to stand for the Brexit Party in any future General Election.
Politics is a tough business
The country needs more successful people from the world of business and beyond to become involved in politics so we can improve the way Britain is run.
There are many reasons not to put your head above the parapet. Of course, politics involves some rough and tumble day to day. But it goes beyond that now. Aside from the grief I get on social media, I have experienced other disincentives.
After over 25 years of dutifully paying my taxes without a question being asked by HMRC, in January 2016 I was subjected to an aggressive inquiry from them, just as the referendum campaign was about to get into full swing.
It was the first time anything like this had ever happened to me and I couldn’t help but wonder if by becoming one of the first business people publicly and openly to support Brexit I had invited this extreme scrutiny on myself. Twice I applied to see my HMRC files, which I was entitled to view under the rules of the Data Protection Act. Twice HMRC refused, claiming exemptions applied.
Months had gone by without me hearing from them. If they had nothing to hide, then why would they not let me see my files?
Finally, after 23 months, HMRC finished their inquiry. After all that, they discovered that in fact I’d overpaid and was due a refund!
Old-style politics can be a dirty game, even in a great democracy like ours.
Football. You may wonder why someone brought up in the Midlands who went to university in Salford got to support Liverpool from an early age. Well, it’s a simple explanation really. My hero at primary school was a fan and so I just thought backing them was the coolest thing to do. The habit stuck.
When I was a student in the mid-1980s, we occasionally used to play football at Strangeways prison (the prisoners weren’t allowed away games. I wonder why!). The most brutal tacklers were the warders. I was the keeper and got warned that if I cared about keeping my bones in one piece on no account should I save a penalty.
Cycling. I love the endurance challenge of long-distance bike riding. I recently had my first major fall in front of an oncoming car, luckily in a built-up area where it wasn’t travelling too fast.
Helicopters. After leaving university I became fascinated with helicopters and just had to satisfy my curiosity and try flying them. I learnt that it’s a hard and dangerous occupation for amateurs. Some RAF pilots buzzed me on my first solo flight close enough that I could read the markings on their planes. I almost filed it as a near-miss!