Joe Darragh tells Michael McGeary how Mandale’s big break made them hot property…
A dramatic decline in the popularity of snooker was the cue for a change of direction that helped Mandale Group become the North-East’s largest privately-owned property developer.
The Tees-based company began life as the Pool and Snooker Centre, manufacturing snooker tables in a factory off Bowesfield Lane, Stockton, to cater for the sport’s spectacular boom in the 1980s.
“Former bingo halls all over the country were being converted into snooker clubs with 20 or more full-sized tables,” recalls estates director Joe Darragh. “Steve Davis was world number one for six years running and we were kept extremely busy.
“But everyone wanted to see Davis get beaten and as soon as he finally lost his crown – bang! Interest in snooker started to decline dramatically.”
Many of the snooker halls were turned into roller skating rinks or nightclubs and the company knew this was their cue to find a new direction.
“We converted our factory into offices and industrial units and found we were able to let them quite easily,” recalls Joe.
It was quickly clear they were onto a winner. They came up with the name Mandale because the company owned a showroom on Mandale Road in Thornaby, while the nearby Victoria Bridge in Stockton was adopted for its logo.
“We built offices on Teesdale Business Park during the Teesside Development Corporation days when Margaret Thatcher took her famous walk in the wilderness, and we were also responsible for most of the redevelopment of Hartlepool Marina,” says Joe.
“That helped us enormously but the important thing was diversifying. We bought up old industrial estates and converted them and ventured into shops in towns such as Stockton and Northallerton.
“If you name a business, we probably had at least one in our properties, from hairdressers to sandwich shops – we even owned a nightclub in Stockton.
“After that, we started looking further afield and created offices as far away as York and Newcastle, as well as building and selling apartments.”
Joe, 51, has been part of the Mandale story since the early days. His own big break came via a chance encounter with a former classmate in Stockton’s Bird’s Nest pub.
“I left St Patrick’s School in Thornaby in 1982 and went on a youth training programme at Head Wrightson’s foundry,” he explains. “We were pretty much treated as slave labour, but it toughened me up and got me into work mode.
“When that ended I needed to find a job and one night I bumped into a lad I knew from school who told me about a company who were looking for someone.”
If you think Joe’s face looks familiar, it could be that you’ve seen the cartoon version advertising available properties on billboards throughout the area, along with his own catchphrase – “Ey up!”
“A colleague came up with an idea of the character to make it more personal,” he explains.
“Instead of saying ‘Hello’ when I first meet people I have a habit of saying, ‘Ey up, how’re you doing?’, to give them something distinctive they will always remember me by. I didn’t really know I was saying it until I saw the cartoon character.
“I walk into shops and can see people looking at me like they know me from somewhere but can’t quite place me.”
Alongside the thriving Mandale Business side of the operation, the group also includes Mandale Homes, which is behind a growing portfolio of stylish residential developments as far away as Halifax and Manchester, as well as throughout the North-East.
Flagship commercial developments include the £31m restoration of Hanover Mill into 181 apartments and 50,000 sq ft of commercial space that is now a prominent feature of Newcastle’s Quayside, as well as the £24.5m redevelopment of a Grade II listed mill in Preston into a striking apartment complex.
But Joe’s current focus is on recruiting new tenants for two high-quality commercial schemes, the 25,000 sq ft Arkgrove Industrial Estate on Ross Road, Portrack, and Mandale Park, at Belmont Industrial Estate in County Durham.
“We’ve had Arkgrove for 30 years and decided to upgrade it to the quality businesses now require,” he says. “Expectations have changed and gone are the days when people were prepared to work in tatty industrial units. Everybody wants quality now.
“Mandale Park is on the 30-acre site of the former LG Philips electronics factory. When the firm went into administration we bought it and stripped it back to its steel frame, then converted it into industrial units as well as building some offices.
“The size of the units is completely flexible depending on tenants’ needs. We have let units from 2,000 up to 6,000 sq ft and we even have plans to build a 58,000 sq ft distribution unit. They’re being snapped up quickly and we’re on site fitting them out to the required specifications. Virtually any size can be provided.”
The wide variety of tenants already on the site includes a car parts distributor, a forklift truck supplier and a bathroom and kitchen company.
“There’s strong demand for the offices we’ve built,” adds Joe. “Severn House is already finished and fully let and we have two more office blocks under offer.
“We’re constantly trying to stay ahead and cater for what people actually want and need. If we find something isn’t working, we’re able to diversify into something else.
“When the technology boom took off about ten years ago and people started using mobile phones and iPads more, we found that companies were retracting and losing staff. Offices were being left vacant and we had lots of To Let signs all over the area.
“We realised the office market was shrinking, so we started selling some off and converting others into apartments, as well as buying vacant offices that we could make into apartments.
“We’re continually searching for more offices above shops to convert into apartments, which we think is a niche market at the moment. We recently completed a scheme at Forest Hall in Newcastle, a parade of tired-looking shops with a 20,000 sq ft former council office building above them.
“We converted the offices into one-bedroomed apartments and now it’s a beautiful building with ten very smart shops.
“We’ve stayed away from the high street but retained retail properties in side streets such as Dovecot Street, Ramsgate and Shipping Yard in Stockton.
“We’re realistic and understand what people can afford to pay in rent, which means that as well as having many large companies we have a lot of business run by local people as well.”
The company’s constant willingness to tweak its business model and constantly adapt to an ever-changing world has proved to be a highly lucrative formula.
So if you see Joe and ask him, “Ey up, how’re Mandale doing?”, he won’t be snookered for an answer. The response will be that they’re doing very well, thank you.