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Words:
Eleanor Young

Tim Bailey, founder of Xsite, believes the keys to success are balanced ambition and an enthusiasm to learn

Position: Architect and partner, Xsite, Newcastle

Age 51

Practice size 13 staff

Turnover £822k

 

How do you judge your success?

I was managing partner in a 50-strong business, so by some measures that’s a success. But the emotional component was missing. I was turning up to work to manage people, process and money. Since then two things have been sacrosanct to me. I want to always draw something and I want to make the place I live in better by the way we operate, fund, support and employ. It is my own social programme overlaid on a business model with other people’s money.

How are you making that happen?

I started Xsite 15 years ago. I pitched ideas to people, installations, front of house improvements, changes of image and brand. Some were at the city scale. It took off with three pivotal pieces of work which put me in a great position for future work advising on Dance City and Northern Stage, working with the Arts Council and City and a very long but funded competition for the Byker Estate which drove up our reputation. I do all the gash time that’s needed to prove a project stacks up. Then we are not paying cash and I am driving the ethic and character of the process. I also think it chimes with people when you are delivering your own work.

Where does profit fit in?

The profit motive is to make enough to remain active in business and as a citizen. It is important to earn enough but not too much, otherwise you are either not doing enough or not paying staff enough. My measure is: Can we pull earnings out of the office and make 20% on that? Mostly we leave the 20% in and make it work harder. It funds work in kind, as on the new YMCA drop-in space in the city where we funded our design fees all the way. One of the things that enables us to help other organisations to reach their potential like this is the way the business is organised around a tight geography – by habit more than design. Outside the region we only really work for clients in the north east.

We do our forecasts in cash terms for three, six and 12 months. And forecast work over three years looking at fixed, potential (including repeat) business and what’s next, which is an important question. We have done quite a lot of local authority workspace, and that is obviously going to dry up. So we pitched to various developers and one ‘got’ us which led to working on six listed buildings in the Stephenson Quarter, and now two new buildings as well. 

It is important to earn enough but not too much, otherwise you are either not doing enough or not paying staff enough

How do you set fees?

I have always wanted to feel in control of fees, even if I end up being negotiated lower. We base it on the balance of gut feeling (the project's worth, temperature of the client, whether we consider it to also be marketing), the old fee scale with its gross percentages and our best guess in time. We offer it as a lump sum but break it down so that no single part feels too big and each stage is reasonable. We do this for all sizes of client, from residential up.

Where have you learnt most beyond the practice?

I read a lot of business books: Good to Great, The One Thing, The Empty Raincoat, The Ten Day MBA, The Economic Naturalist. None give you the whole answer but they help you to refine the way you want to operate. I have taken up The One Thing – which is all about identifying what single thing you need to do next to help you reach your goal. You can know them but not do them. I try to do them – if not every day then usually on a Friday, when I reflect on the week. For example we used to have an annual office conference but let it drift on, now we have cut it to a couple of hours quarterly and it is really productive.

What is the next big challenge?

To find a new size for the practice. I am confident about a practice of 15, 20, 25 people and £1-£2.5m turnover. But do we need to grow, we are on the margins of small to medium sized and going up in size would ease some pressure. Is it about more £5-6m jobs or one £20m job? And what does that mean in PI and other hurdles? We don’t want to trip up.

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