Anna Blackaby speaks to Bennie Gray, the developer behind the Custard Factory, about the newest addition to his Digbeth empire and his “dynastic” ambitions for the quarter.
Bennie Gray likes to keep it in the family. His son Lucan was the force behind the redevelopment of Fazeley Studios – now home to the likes of Microsoft’s Rare Games – and his other son Tawny is responsible for the Green Man sculpture gracing the entrance to the Custard Factory on Gibb Street.
Tawny Gray is also behind a newly commissioned “floating sculpture” to hang in one of the courtyards in Zellig, the newest part of the Custard Factory which opened last week – and even Bennie has got involved in designing artwork for the building.
The redevelopment of Devonshire House, as it was previously known, breathes new life into the former Bird’s custard factory headquarters.
The £10 million development – which was part-funded by Advantage West Midlands to the tune of nearly £4 million – represents a natural expansion to the Custard Factory complex.
It adds 65,000 sq ft to the 120,000 sq ft provided by the Scott House and Greenhouse buildings, and will provide accommodation for small, and more established, creative industry companies.
Physically, it adds 101 extra studios and a space called Nomad where Custard Factory residents can get together, play pool, tap into the wifi network or see clients in meeting rooms created within a miniature indoor jungle.
But the frontage onto Digbeth High Street adds a new, more public, dimension to the Custard Factory – with plans for art galleries and shops, which it is hoped will stimulate the footfall the consumer-facing businesses in this part of town desperately need.
Bennie Gray – the mastermind behind it all – is not your run-of-the-mill developer. He doesn’t just care about breathing new life into old buildings – he has a genuine enthusiasm for the relationships that are built between the small businesses who set up shop in the space he creates.
“The whole point here is that however beautiful Zellig is – and I think it’s truly beautiful – it’s not the most important thing,” he said. “The most important thing is the working community – the idea that hundreds of creative enterprises can be in one place.
‘‘That could happen in a tent in Iceland. But it’s even better that we have rescued a very beautiful listed building as part of the process.”
And Zellig is only a fraction of Mr Gray’s ambitions for Digbeth – where he and his family own “acres and acres” of property, which one day he hopes will provide accommodation for more than 5,000 people working in the creative industries.
“The Custard Factory is enormous,” he said. “We’ve got many acres of Digbeth, if you include Lucan Gray’s project Fazeley Studios, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the potential for developing a place for creative enterprise.
“I see the Custard Factory working community continuing to expand to the point where there will be many thousands of people at work here.
“At the moment, once we’ve got Zellig off the ground, there will be 1,500 working in tiny enterprises – I think that could grow fivefold quite comfortably.
“We’ve got the scope to do it and have got a very good track record. But at the moment the one thing that is completely unpredictable is the funding.”
The other thing that sets Mr Gray apart from most developers is what he described as a “dynastic” approach to property development.
“I’m looking at it for the long term and to some extent it’s a dynastic thing – I have many children and grandchildren too. And I think that being involved effectively with the creation of a city – even a bit of a city – is a privilege and a pleasure. I hope we can keep it going forever.”
Despite the hints of empire building, he rejects parallels between the landed estates of previous centuries, or the paternalistic approach of the Cadbury family in Bournville.
“It’s very different,” he said. “We are not in the business of assembling land.
“We are trying to work with the relationship between people and buildings and the spaces within buildings and creative activity.”
Mr Gray is confident Zellig will fill with tenants, despite ongoing uncertainty in the economy, and he points to the success of the creative businesses already resident in the first phases of the Custard Factory.
“This isn’t a new speculative thing – it’s another layer of something that’s been established for 20 years.
“On the whole, the lifeblood of the Custard Factory is to do with a young almost unpredictable energy and talent and all the energy that comes out of that. I think this is simply more of the same.
“I believe the demand to become part of this creative working community is such that there could be a dozen Custard Factories in Birmingham.”
In the past he has warned about the “Detroitification” of Birmingham – and he still believes there is no room for the city to become complacent about supporting would-be entrepreneurs, despite the spending constraints local and national government will inevitably face.
“I think that to reduce the resources being put into making it easy and possible to encourage people to get on their bikes is economic suicide,” he said.
“It’s a constant battle. The more you can harness the energy and the creative talent of young people, the better it is for any city. If we lose one terrific company it’s a pity.
“It seems to me that Birmingham is particularly good in terms of throwing up good ideas and energetic thrusting people. Birmingham as a city does need to work harder on keeping those people in Birmingham.
‘They do a certain amount but frankly whatever they do is never enough. It should be regarded as a semi obsession.”