Yelo Architects are flying high, winning big project bids and the award for Professional Services at the Sussex Business Awards. but for founder and MD Andy Parsons, nothing matters more than having a happy and healthy workplace. Interview by Ian Trevett.
“I’ve always wanted Yelo to be somewhere where I want to work, an environment where work is good fun,” says Andy Parsons, founder of Yelo Architects. It’s not the first time I have heard such a statement, but in this case, the actions certainly match the words.
“Our philosophy is very much focused on ensuring our staff are happy and healthy. We don’t have a culture of long hours. In fact, my remit for business is to try and reduce stress as much as possible. When we take on clients, I will go with my gut feeling of whether those people are going to be the right fit for the office. We had a client a few years ago who made one of my staff cry and we stopped working for them straight away.
“We run meditation sessions on Thursday mornings, we have staff lunches and trips, we have a social event every month and we have a table tennis table. We have a tournament to encourage people to come in here and play. We encourage people to take breaks and go on holidays. We also support staff with courses, including degree and masters courses. We utilise the Brighton Chamber a lot for training and they are brilliant, they put on loads of courses for staff about how to present in front of groups of people or how to manage your time.
“The feedback from entering or winning awards encourages you to do even more. This year our whole remit is about health and wellbeing. January is aways a challenging month so we organised healthy treats like massages and acupuncture for our staff and reduced their hours for the month. It went so well we intend to carry on. We’re now doing a lunch each month which is focused on well-being, so we’ll have speakers on mindfulness, nutrition and sleep. It all feeds back and ensures that everyone’s happy and healthy.”
Andy’s passion for staff welfare is rooted in his own experiences as an employee before he struck out on his own.
“I always remember the first architectural practice I worked for. When my Nan in Devon became seriously ill, my boss literally handed me his car keys and said “Go, take my car and see your nan. Don’t worry about getting back until you are ready.” I just thought that’s brilliantly supportive. When I was working in London I was working under an ‘angry boss’, and you never knew what mood he would be in when you walked in each morning, which created a horrible work environment. I knew exactly how I would run my own company after these experiences.”
After graduating from an intense seven year course, Andy joined a local fi rm working for working on residential projects. After five years, he joined a London practice and took over the management of their Brighton office. It was the best of both worlds: “I was able to keep up with what was happening in London but I was also learning how to run an architectural practice at the same time.” It was all good until 2007.
“I had been there for three years and then the recession kicked in. Architects are always hit really early in recessions as we are right at the front line. The company closed all of their sub offices and moved everyone who was left up to London. I commuted for two years and absolutely hated it, and the trains then were a lot better than they are now! Also, I couldn’t see a long-term future at the place I was working at.
“Over Christmas I decided to leave, and after chatting to a client who promised me work, I decided to start my own business. I literally started the business from the end of my lounge. It was just me for about 18 months. I chose the name Yelo as I have always liked the colour and wanted something memorable and distinctive”
“I won a project for the Brighton Dome ticket office and decided it was the time to get an office and take the next step of taking on staff. I didn’t want to be a one-man band fighting for scraps; I intended to build a larger business, bidding for the big projects I was used to working on in London
“When it was just myself and Naomi in the office, we won a big project - One Hove Park, on the condition we could prove that we could resource it. I rang round all my architect mates, who were on short weeks or had been made redundant. I got all of them in to work for me for a period of six weeks and we just delivered this planning application. It got us noticed and triggered more offers.
“We now have a team of 15, which, outside London, is a good size for an architectural office. And we’re working over a really broad scale of projects.”
One area that Andy is keen to expand on is commercial work. “We’re working with Bison Beer, doing the Bison Arms, which is a crowdfunded seafront pub. That’s a really cool project. We’re also working with 64 Degrees restaurant and Oliver Heath is doing the interior design.
“We’re doing more vineyard work as well, that’s a nice niche – We’re really enjoying that. The wine industry is an amazing industry.
“We’d like to see more commercial work, particularly outside Brighton, in Sussex and Surrey. It’s hard for commercial in the towns and cities as the planning system is now set up to encourage more residential. We are seeing a lot of industrial or commercial in rural areas, often in converted farms.”
The residential side is even busier and the practice is currently working on two big projects: one of 200 flats and another with 180.
The firm is growing fast and they are very ambitious, as Andy explains: “Our growth curve is crazy – our turnover is almost doubling every year. Our market has been growing all the time as more and more people hear about us because we’re quite young still, so we’ve always got people coming in who are new clients.
“We’ve always worn a slightly bigger coat than we needed, and put things into place before we grow. We’ve always been set up to expand and in our office we have interior designers, architects and technologists. We also have a virtual reality specialist working for us as well, which is really unusual.
“In our office we’ve got Jo, the practice manager, bringing in all the systems. We’ve got a system which programmes all our work, resources and invoicing. We’re very digitally focused here. We also have an office manager, a finance director, a full time digital marketing expert – companies our size don’t normally have these things in place.
“I like the idea of serving London from Brighton. The Brighton brand is quite strong up in London anyway. Certainly when we pitch projects up there, they really like the way we work. However, we also see the need for another regional office. The plan is to expand in Sussex and Surrey and keep growing.”
With such ambitions, it no wonder that Andy need his team to stay healthy and motivated!