Ambition has been the cornerstone in the business life of Grahame Whateley - and new property developments in some of Britain’s major cities are high-rise testimony to his success.
Sitting in his large office at Castlemore Securities at Halesowen, Graham politely responds to my questions, underlining a calm approach, as he talks about his rise from £3-a-week surveyor.
Now, at the age of 64, he can rightly claim to be one of the leading entrepreneurs in the UK, with a list of business interests reading like a route map of opportunities spotted and pursued - and turned not just into building developments and successful businesses but impressive profit streams.
Today he owns all the share capital in unlisted property investment firm Cedar Group, which has net assets of £100 million-plus.
He has a substantial share holdings in stockbroker Arden Partners and is non-executive chairman as well as a substantial shareholder in aerospace component and Formula One supplier Commatech Holdings, which has grown to five factories with annual sales of more than £40 million.
Graham is also non-executive chairman of sales finance firm Liquidity, which has a book of loans and advances of more than £17 million, and he holds a large investment in publicly-quoted business Hardie Oil & Gas, an oil and gas exploration company.
At the top of the list is Castlemore Securities, the largest privately-owned independent property development company with net assets of more than £250 million.
In the last financial year, pre-tax profit was £6.1 million out of annual sales of £105 million. Castlemore saw growth in net assets of 33.3 per cent.
Grahame is proud that he served his articles for four years and remembers that his insurance stamp in those early days was 10s 7d.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, he was out collecting rents - varying from 18s 9d to £1 2s 6d - with the senior partner. He had started to learn his profession.
His father died when Grahame was seven years old, and that may have been at the root of his drive for success. He was brought up by his mother in Moseley.
By the time he was 22 years old, Grahame was becoming well known and he started the firm of surveyors Riley, Whateley and Co in Cannon Street, Birmingham.
It was at this point that Grahame admits he was "extremely fortunate". In the early days of his new venture, he had for sale a lock-up newsagent’s business at Darlaston.
The business was advertised in the Birmingham Evening Mail and almost immediately the newspaper hit the streets with the first advertisement he received a telephone call.
"The caller said ‘Mr Whateley, if that newsagent’s is as you have described it in the advertisement then I will buy it. I am going to the shop now," recalls Grahame. "The shop was as I had advertised and the man who bought it was a Mr Dillon. It was part of the early formation of the Dillons Newsagents chain."
This bit of luck resulted in Grahame thinking there was something further in the Dillon link. The money was readily available for Mr Dillon. He had a financial arrangement with Old Broad Street Securities, the merchant bank arm of Barclays.
"I looked for other businesses for Mr Dillon," says Grahame. "I earned fees for this and I became extremely close to him. I sold lots of shops to him at jolly good commissions."
But Grahame had to ensure that the shops he offered had a minimum turnover of £800 a week. That was more than 40 years ago and a large sum.
"It was the newspaper bills he was after and, if they contributed £250 to £300 a week, Mr Dillon would put managers into the business," says Grahame. "I can’t claim to have started the Dillons business because there were other people like me who were instrumental in finding and selling businesses to him."
Hunting down businesses for someone else made Grahame think about forming his own chain of newsagents and he contacted six merchant banks to look for finance for the project. He had five refusals.
One of the merchant banks, The Birmingham Industrial Trust, agreed to back his ideas "and before I knew where I was," says Grahame, "I had my own chain of newsagents - ten or 12 shops. Again Mr Dillon rang me up and said he wanted to buy me out".
For the first time in his life, Grahame had capital, but it was not a large amount of money. Nevertheless, it gave him a chance to move in a different direction and he knew that petrol stations positioned on the left side of the road coming out of shopping centres were a viable proposition.
Grahame had to find a site and started his search. He eventually found a site on the Kingstanding Road which had been put on the market by the Co-operative Society and the asking price was £20,000.
"I knew by instinct that if I could get planning permission it was worth £150,000," says Grahame.
"But there were two problems - firstly the road was a single carriageway and, secondly, something in my favour, if it became a dual carriageway I would get planning permission.
"I went into the planning offices in Birmingham and to my great pleasure I found the council had plans to make the road into a dual carriageway.
"Once the council let the contract, which they did, I knew my site would be very valuable."
Grahame offered £18,500 for the site and, with a little bit more effort, he reached the asking price of £20,000.
"I did not know what to do," says Grahame. "I knew it was worth more with planning consent and I went to see a leading surveyor, who told me that in the wildest dreams it was worth £30,000."
Grahame bought the site for £33,100 and, with planning permission for a petrol station, he sold it to Total for £147,000. At 22 years old, he had done a deal which gave him "a huge amount of money".
This gave Graham a second opportunity to change direction with his new cash assets and he had soon purchased land in Browns Lane, Solihull, which on one side was bound by Lady Byron Lane.
Again, the value of the land would increase with planning permission and, after a lengthy period of time, it did get planning consent. By then, Grahame had a total of 13 acres of land in Browns Lane. He had also taken an option on four acres in Tamworth Lane at Shirley.
"Everyone had been knocking on the door of this piece of land at Shirley, which was owned by a lady who kept pigs. She had become too frightened to move, but she took a shine to me," says Grahame. "She gave me an option on the land and I told her that I would help her to move to her dream house, which I did. Her husband had died and she lived in dour surroundings. I got the four acres and I put other options together and ended up with 20 acres."
Graham duly received planning permission for the land and sold it to Greaves Estates for a substantial sum. He was paid through three instalments from autumn 1973 to spring 1974.
The money came to him in a recession and at a time when property was rapidly falling in value "but, although the market was getting into difficulties, I was running straight into cash".
So how did all that make him feel with more than £1 million in cash and assets?
"Talking about it now it makes it appear very easy but you do not get planning consents and options overnight," says Grahame.
"I have always enjoyed my work and never felt that getting up a 6.30am and going to the office was a burden. I still work Saturdays and Sundays.
"My grandfather was a coal miner and I am proud of that. What I do today is nothing to what he did, dropping one mile underground and walking to the coalface. What I do is a piece of cake."
Although Graham’s Castlemore Securities has not charted its course through Birmingham’s property development renaissance, he is 100 per cent behind Midlands professionals and, whenever he can, he uses Midland engineers, solicitors, quantity surveyors and other professional advisors.
"I never thought it was an achievement to reach that first £1 million and I never revelled in it. I was determined that I would use the capital to grow the business - that was what I did," says Grahame.
"That money took me to the next phase and out-of-town retail shopping developments were just starting to appear.
"Old cinemas, garages and warehouses were being converted into retail centres in 1975-78. Retailers could not get the space they required in the high streets. They wanted to develop a retail warehouse with a car park in front. They were desperate for more space. Today we can see how far it has gone."
Grahame created equity in his business through the profits and when he made a share issue of 40,000 shares he ensured he owned the lot of them.
"I was always very keen to own and control my own business and be my own master, beholden to no one," he says. "Today I own no shares in the business. They have gone into my family trust, which I decided to do ten years ago."
There is no group, they are all separate companies.
Grahame has been trading for almost 40 years, but he decided to move in a new direction about seven years ago when he invited one of the partners at KPMG in Birmingham to join him as a financial director. There were now two financial directors.
"We needed this arrangement, hence the engineering operation, the invoice discount business with Liquidity and the stockbrokers and from that I have spun out all sorts of other activities, but property is still our mainline business," says Grahame.
One of the largest acquisitions on the book is 500 acres of land at Stanton, near Ilkestone, which at present is an industrial site.
He cannot run all the businesses he has and pays tribute "to the excellent team I have around me".
While Castlemore Securities has a £60 million development of shops and flats at Mere Green, Sutton Coldfield, its imprint on Birmingham development has been light.
But big developments have been undertaken in London’s Holborn, and Waverley Gate in Edinburgh, next to Waverley Train Station.
The Holborn development is Castlemore’s first in the City. The site was acquired about seven years ago for £30 million. Two businesses are competing to take the building at a record rent - more than £55 per sq ft.
Now Grahame is at home in the stratosphere of the big developers and he is aware that banks would not loan him such huge sums of money if they did not think it was going to a professional team.
Major sums are involved in the development of Temple Quay Central at Bristol, which comprises offices, a hotel, retail and restaurant space and apartments and this huge development has been based on knowing how to finance the situation through the banks.
There are other Castlemore Securities developments on smaller scales, but whatever the size, do present market conditions make it a risky business?
"If you want to call this situation a recession, it would be my fourth," says Grahame. "Property is such a long-term business that one cannot judge it in the short term. Whatever the financial climate, we are still developing."
And one piece of advice to prospective property developers?
"It is essential to tell the banks what you want and control the situation without banks controlling you. That is an extremely important point."
It’s a policy that seems to work.