Yoo founder John Hitchcox on opening Olympia London: “I’ve probably been in training for this for the past 40 years”

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There’s a joke that John Hitchcox likes to crack whenever he opens a new development. ‘What’s the difference between a doctor and an architect?’ asks the founder and chairman of property investment group Yoo. ‘A doctor gets to bury his mistakes.’ Ba dum tss.

Whether the joke lands to stifled sniggers or looks of bemusement will depend on where his latest development is located – since its inception in 1999, Yoo has worked on homes, hotels, branded residences, theatres, markets, restaurants, gardens, towers and schools in 29 countries across six continents – and how good a job the interpreter has done at translating the gag. Sometimes it falls flat. What Hitchcox is trying to say, and has been saying since the very beginning, is that Yoo isn’t your typical developer. Yoo cares about what it leaves behind.

“I call it ‘place making’,” says Hitchcox, who, on the day of our Zoom call, is preparing to open a restaurant at his best-known UK project, the celebrity-hangout in the Cotswolds that is The Lakes by Yoo. “We create spaces that bring like-minded people together in well-designed buildings,” he says.

Those buildings might be high-rise luxury studios, like the ones Hitchcox launched in India last year; they could be holiday villas, like the ones currently under construction in Vietnam; they might be lakeside apartments, like the one from which Hitchcox is talking to me today; or they could belong to billionaire-pound redevelopments of entire neighbourhoods, like the gargantuan regeneration of Olympia London, a site that Hitchcox acquired in 2017 for £296 million. What unites each project, says Hitchcox, is a conscious effort to think about how “the built environment can be used to improve people’s lives.”

“We started this trend of bringing in designers, and interior designers, to residential buildings about 30 years ago,” says the 61-year-old, whose primary residence is a five-bedroom Victorian townhouse in Notting Hill, complete with a swimming pool and recording studio (Hitchcox plays the guitar, saxophone and piano, and once considered a career as a musical conductor). “We helped introduce that trend to many parts of the world.”

Hitchcox’s foray into the property game was a clapped-out doer-upper in Caterham, Surrey. Having grown up in nearby Forest Row, East Sussex, where he attended the experiential learning Michael Hall Steiner Waldorf school, Hitchcox was 19 when he asked his mum for £45 to buy a suit to impress the bank manager. Having secured a 100 per cent loan against the £19,200 house, Hitchcox spent £13,000 turning the property into two flats, flipping them eight months later for £19,000 each. “Originally, I only had £7,000 for the renovation,” Hitchcox laughs. “I discovered the meaning of cost overruns and time overruns on my very first project!”

Flats became the foundation of Hitchcox’s success. In 1991, he teamed up with fellow property developer Harry Handelsman to co-create the Manhattan Loft Company, buying former factories in Clerkenwell and Southwark and converting them into New York-style loft apartments (it was the Manhattan Loft Company that would later overhaul the Chiltern Firehouse and St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, although Hitchcox had by then left the company).

While Hitchcox was importing the concept of loft living from across the pond, over the Channel Philippe Starck was ascending through the ranks of the luxury design world. They met, at Hitchcox’s behest, in Starck’s office, a house on the Seine, and hit it off immediately. “Still, to this day, I can’t speak highly enough of the man,” says Hitchcox, who, incidentally, had just gotten off the phone to Starck when I logged onto our meeting. The pair founded Yoo in 1998, starting off in branded residences and going on to create what today claims to be the world’s ‘largest residential design and development brand’. “I’ve been working with Philippe for the past 30 years,” says Hitchcox. “He is the most professional, focused, creative person I’ve met on this planet.”

Starck isn’t the only star-designer with whom Hitchcox has worked. For The Lakes by Yoo, a new-build estate of waterside cabins and cottages that according to Hitchcox is now worth almost £1 billion, Hitchcox recruited the talents of designer doyens Jade Jagger, Kelly Hoppen and Anouska Hempel. Kate Moss, a close friend, was also invited to design a cabin.

“The concept of The Lakes was a little bit mad to begin with,” says Hitchcox. “We had bought an old barn in East Grinstead because I really wanted the kids to get a bit of country. Every Friday, we’d get in the car and I’d spend two hours driving through the traffic with the kids in the back and it would take forever to get there.” When they did eventually arrive, Hitchcox discovered that the rural idyll wasn’t so idyllic when you don’t know anyone there. “So I had this idea of moving to the countryside en masse with a group of likeminded mates.”

Hitchcox, who was originally looking at a plot in Ashdown Forest, near Pooh Corner, had all but given up on his dream when he received a call about the site of a disused quarry near Lechlade, Gloucestershire. “Most of my mates thought I was mad buying a bunch of fields. They said, ‘who’s going to go down there?’ We’ve ended up building 11 lakes across nearly 1,00 acres, planting half a million trees, building 170 houses and have created a real sense of community.”

A lot of people have asked me that. I actually see my role as being way more important, politically and socially, than being an actual politician.

John Hitchcox, founder and chairman of Yoo

That crowd, says Hitchcox, is largely West-London based, cash-rich, time-poor, and includes Kate Moss (godmother to one of Hitchcox’s four biological children), Simon Le Bon (best man at Hitchcox’s third wedding, to former communications director Phoebe Vela), Jade Jagger and Take That’s Mark Owen.

“The concept was a little bit hippy-ish,” says Hitchcox, “a nod to my Steiner upbringing, I guess. But now we’ve got a 400-member sailing club here, we’re building a little hotel, a restaurant, and some more apartments and cabins.” Prices for the four- to six-bedroom homes that litter the estate, which can also be rented, sell from between £2m and £7m. “It’s been a fantastic journey. I’ve really, really enjoyed it.”

All going well, next year Hitchcox will cut the ribbon on Yoo’s biggest development to date, indeed one the biggest construction projects currently underway in Europe – the revamped, repurposed Olympia London. “I’ve probably been in training for this for the past 40 years,” says Hitchcox. “When we acquired the site the thesis was ‘don’t change it much from its original concept’. The venue wasn’t very well served by hotels, so let’s put a couple of hotels in there, let’s put a new music venue in there, let’s build a performing arts school, let’s really celebrate everything that Olympia is about.”

True to that ambition, Hitchcox has so far signed-up 02 Arena-operator AEG, which has agreed to manage a 4,400-capacity live music venue, and hospitality giants CitizenM and Hyatt, both of which will be opening hotels on the 14-acre site. “I feel incredibly blessed with this project,” says Hitchcox, whose Yoo group is working with Deutsche Finance International to finance the £1.3bn scheme. “We are in the best city in the world, right at the end of Kensington High Street. We have inherited these fantastic Victorian buildings. If you levelled it today, you’d never get a convention centre built there, the finances just wouldn’t make sense.”

Thomas Heatherwick, the design luminary behind Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross, was enlisted to provide the masterplan, which will also see the creation of 550,000 sq ft of office space, 100,000 sq ft of restaurants and bars, and a 1,575-capacity performing arts theatre. “It’s a beast,” says Hitchcox. “We are aiming for between 10 and 12 million visitors a year. Las Vegas is about 42 million a year, by comparison. We want to be the place you come to see the best car show, to see the best technology show. We could work with the fashion world; we could look at doing things like the Met Gala.”

There was a time when work would take Hitchcox away from his family for more than 200 days a year. He’s far more content these days, he says, splitting his time between Olympia – “it takes me about four minutes to get there on my bicycle” – and The Lakes, a 90 minute blast, traffic playing ball, in his hybrid Range Rover.

If the trials and tribulations of spearheading one of Europe’s largest regeneration projects at a time of historically tight labour markets and spiralling interest rates are taking their toll on Hitchcox, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. He’s a Duracell bunny during our interview, beaming ear to ear when telling anecdotes about Starck and celebrity friends James Blunt and Pink Floyd’s Guy Pratt. One hour into our chat, he reschedules a meeting so that we can continue to talk.

Still, there must be some things that get John Hitchcox’s goat. “I hate being ripped off,” he says. “I absolutely hate it. I offset it by calling someone that I know will give me some good news.” What gets him down? “Cost overruns and time delays.” What brings him up? “Quality. If you’re going to do something, do it properly.”

On the morning of our interview, the Bank of England had raised interest rates to their highest level for 14 years. Lenders were removing mortgage products, withdrawing deals for new borrowers. How’s the economic outlook from Hitchcox’s point of view? “I think we’re in a much more dynamic economic cycle than we’ve ever been in. I put a plan together at Christmas for no sales. It was a pretty dumb plan. But after going through the Liz Truss thing and increasing inflation, increasing interest rates, I thought there’s only one thing that’s going to do – cause a property crash.” Why does Hitchcox believe that’s not happened? “Because we have such an inefficient system of delivering planning in the UK that the supply side simply hasn’t caught up with demand.”

Should the government be doing more to tackle property prices? “We need to provide more rental property otherwise we’re just going to push prices even higher. We know most of the council leaders in London and they’re all saying there’s a real shortage of supply. You’ve got interest rates rising, you’ve got a shortage of supply, you’ve got huge demand, 10 people for every flat, which causes a huge inflation spiral. The surprise is that despite interest rate rises and inflation, house builders, us included, are seeing a normal year.”

On the economy, Hitchcox sounds ministerial. Has he ever considered politics? “A lot of people have asked me that. I actually see my role as being way more important, politically and socially, than being an actual politician. What’s the lifespan of a politician these days? A few years? A lifespan of a project like Olympia runs into hundreds of years.”

Back in February, the yet-to-be-finished Olympia London hosted a party on behalf of high-fashion sports label Moncler Genius. Attended by Naomi Campbell, Pharrell Williams, Justin Bieber and Alicia Keys, the event saw a reported 10,000 people queue in the cold to get in. It spoke of the level of ambition Hitchcox has of the West London site. Four decades into the development game, what continues to fuel those ambitions? “I’m dyslexic,” says Hitchcox. “So it helps to do things you really like doing.”

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