By Nadia Crandall.
The Primrose Hill Business Centre, located in two lovely late-Victorian buildings, sits at the curve of Gloucester Avenue, a short walk from Chalk Farm station and from the shops of Regent’s Park Road.
Frank Carson, an octogenarian, has owned and run the enterprise for almost forty years. When he first came across the buildings, they were empty and semi-derelict, backing onto dilapidated railway sidings. But Frank sensed an opportunity. Together with his partners, he took on a lease and began renting the space for self-storage units. It was very much a family affair. His children remember working alongside the builders as they painted and carried out basic renovations.
It rapidly became apparent, though, that there was increasing demand for flexible workplaces and by 1983 Frank had obtained planning consent to convert the storage facility into offices. So began one of the first co-working spaces in London.
Over the next few years, Frank bought out his partners and purchased the buildings outright. Primrose Hill Business Centre now has approximately 10,000 square feet of accommodation over several floors, with 33 rentable units, which range from around 90 square feet through to 600 square feet.
With occasional dips, most recently associated with Brexit uncertainty, the Business Centre’s occupancy rates have been high, demand far outstripping supply. And once tenants arrive, they seem reluctant to leave. Frank’s first client, the Gorilla Organization, arrived thirty-five years ago and now occupies the largest self-contained unit at the front of the complex. And many other tenancies go back for a decade or two. What is the magic formula, I wondered?
With no mortgage on the buildings and no external investors, Frank and his family have the freedom to run the business exactly as they choose. From the start, they embraced a ‘shabby chic’ aesthetic. This is no sleek, modern interior, but rather a labyrinth of stairs, corridors and offices, punctuated by the occasional pot plant, antique framed mirror, or exquisitely painted door that one or another tenant has decorated. The effect is warm and welcoming with a homely atmosphere that everyone clearly treasures.
With high occupancy rates, long-term tenancies, excellent word of mouth and plenty of repeat business, there is little need for a marketing budget. Costs are low and carefully managed, allowing for a relaxed and straightforward approach to tenancy agreements. Tenants commit to six months, beyond which there is a two-month notice period. Space is available at competitive rents, usually around £5 per square foot. This includes most costs, with only telephone, fax and photocopying charged on top. The Business Centre can also provide accommodation addresses and is happy to receive mail and phone calls for former tenants.
As I walked around the building, it was quickly apparent that relations between tenants and landlord are warm and easy. Frank and his son are in the building most days to attend to any concerns, and they make a point of getting to know their clients. While a commercial focus is important, the Carsons are also aware that they have a responsibility to the immediate and extended community of Primrose Hill.
For those who choose to socialise, the Business Centre hosts a summer party in their charming courtyard and a Christmas lunch each year at the Princess of Wales pub. They are also planning a monthly beer and pizza evening, where tenants can meet and exchange ideas. The Carsons believe that businesses flourish through cross-fertilisation, so that they can all hire staff, source fresh ideas or commission web designers and accounting services within the same complex. The family is proud of the young businesses that they have helped to launch.
Staffing adds to the ambiance as well. The receptionists are amiable and often multi-talented. The Carsons joke that they only hire people who, as singers or instrumentalists, can also contribute to the musical entertainment at their summer parties.
And finally, the tenants themselves bring with them fascinating histories. The Business Centre is home to a remarkable mix of people: from a Labour peer, to a famous rock musician, from physiotherapists to psychotherapists, from media celebrities to magazine publishers, from literary agents to visual artists.
Jennifer Silverton has been in residence since 2002 with her company Ready Steady Go, which works with pre-school children. Over these eighteen years she has moved from a tiny space to a larger three-person office; she loves the community, the summer party and the friendly, accommodating landlords.
John Berlyne runs a science fiction literary agency, Zeno, and has been a tenant for nine years. He loves the location, the feel of the place and the opportunity to work in solitude ‒ while enjoying the parties when he has time.
Cara Minton owns several businesses, including property, packaging and Minton Water (which has just been sold); she tells me that she loves the view from her cosy office.
A successful enterprise is one that remains responsive to changing market conditions. For the Carsons, this means ensuring that their offer is competitive, while maintaining a refurbishment schedule to keep the interiors fresh and fit for purpose.
And for the next generation, Frank’s children, the vision is robust: to maintain the mix of interesting and creative tenants, to support a vibrant atmosphere and to make a contribution to the community.
“I love it here” is a phrase that I heard repeatedly from tenants. What better accolade is there?