A successful property developer should know the business from the foundations up. Alison Tilley spoke to Southern Entrepreneur Spencer McCarthy of Churchill Retirement Living – who can certainly claim that.

‘From the age of 13, I was working on a building site,’ says McCarthy. ‘Every Saturday I’d ride my bike from Milford-on-Sea to Lymington. I earned £2.50 per morning as a tea boy and got paid monthly.’

One of three sons of John McCarthy in McCarthy & Stone, building was in the blood.

“My brother Clinton and I both left school without any qualifications. The head of year told my dad ‘Your sons, academically, won’t come too much. Send them off to become apprentice bricklayers.’ But my father was a carpenter so we followed in his footsteps and went to Southampton Tech to learn carpentry.”

They were put to work on site, building their skills from the muddy footings up. There was never any question of an easy ride. “My father had come up through the ranks and wasn’t about to allow his sons to swan their way through the business.”

McCarthy returned to the Tech for an HND in Building Studies and moved into quantity surveying, land buying and sales and marketing.  But eventually he and his brother left McCarthy & Stone. “It was a big organisation with a lot of politics and the nepotism aspect was always going to come into it.”

They found a plot, a £65,000 bank loan – and then further good luck arrived on four wheels.

“On the day we put up the for-sale board someone drove by and stopped to ask about it. We told him we were building a

three bedroom stone and thatch cottage for £185,000 and he said ‘I’ll buy it!’ We arranged stage payments with him to fund the build – so never actually needed that bank loan.”

Working from an office in Clinton’s garage, they went on to build another 24 cottages or barn conversions until 1999 when their outlook shifted.

“I came across a site in Romsey and we got planning consent for a retirement development of about 35 units. We sold them all within eight months. So in 2000 we decided to sell off any sites not suited to the retirement market and properly focus on one and two-bedroom retirement flats.”

It was a shrewd move. With an ever burgeoning market, Churchill plans its complexes to a specific template, for a specific client. “Our classic customer is a 79-year-old widow in a three or four bedroom property whose children have moved away and who is feeling a bit alone and vulnerable.”

With dedicated lodge managers and regular social events, the developments aim to provide comfort, security and community for over 60s. Multiple awards won in recent years – including WhatHouse? Housebuilder of the Year 2016 – suggest this template is working well. Churchill

Retirement now has a smart riverside HQ in Ringwood and five regional offices across the UK. Its 100th development opened in Chelmsford last December.

As much as this, McCarthy values the Sunday Times Best 100 Companies To Work For award picked up in 2016. Churchill’s 500 staff enjoy dress down or pizza Fridays, rewards scheme partner discounts, days off on birthdays and £250 Mothercare vouchers for new parents. An employee recognition scheme – Churchill Heroes – doesn’t hurt, and The Churchill Foundation provides an additional feel-good factor with £250,000 raised for assorted charities in its first year. Among the staff is one of the McCarthy brothers’ daughters – getting a similar grounding to their own.

But it’s not just about family. McCarthy has mentored someone who perhaps reminds him of himself back in the day.

“He’s a young signwriter who drove past our site in Penzance and wrote to me, asking for an opportunity. He left college without qualifications; he’s dyslexic (like me). I introduced him to a bank manager; now he does all our signage. He’s amazing.”

Entrepreneurs know entrepreneurs.