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In conversation with Toby Benzecry, Modus

Having enjoyed almost 30 successful years as the Co-founder and CEO of Modus Workspace, Toby Benzecry tells Mix about his journey, Modus at 30 and how he sees the future of the market.

26/04/2021 5 min read

Hi Toby. How are you?

I’m very well, thank you. All the better for having received my first dose of the vaccine some time ago – privilege of age.

How did you start your career in the design industry?

I studied engineering at Cambridge and specialised in manufacturing. Out of university I was hired as a production engineer in an electronics factory that made aeronautical equipment. I guess my first spaceplans were of assembly lines. In my mid-20s I joined a management consultancy firm, but within three years or so I realised that I needed to do my own thing. I left them to start my own business, providing strategic advice to companies going through some kind of transition. One of those was an architectural practice, and that’s really where it all started. It was 1990.

What led you to start Modus?

In late 1990, through my architectural connections, I was asked to get involved in the relocation of a large company in London – acting as a consultant to help them manage their transition. The project made me very interested in how this business might perform differently in its new space, and whether it was possible to tell in advance what the effects would be. In discussions with a friend who was a professional project manager, we decided to set up a business to help companies make the most of relocation events. Modus was born in December 1991. Do the maths – we’re 30 this year!

Initially, we only intended to act as a consultancy, but our clients really wanted to be able to procure their entire projects from us, so we hired a designer and within months had become a contractor. By the end of 1992 we were a design and build fit-out company – although I’m not sure we thought of ourselves like that. To be honest, I’m still not sure – once a consultant…

What do you feel sets Modus apart from the rest? What’s the secret behind the longevity and continued industry recognition?

This is a really interesting question and I’m flattered that you feel that there is something different about us; and indeed, that we’re generally recognised as standing somewhat apart. I think this must start with the prevailing culture of the business, which I suppose reflects my own personality and values, and those of my longest-standing colleagues. Since we hire in our own likeness (thankfully not literally), these value-sets become persistent.

Because of our roots in consultancy and design, our approach is much closer to what you would expect of an architectural practice that had decided to become a contractor. We are not transactional in any respect; we want to do work that we’re proud of and for clients who will come back time and time again. We say to people we hire that they should join us to do their best work; and we genuinely mean it – we will not sacrifice standards for profit. As a result, we’ve been working with some customers for almost 20 years, and our level of repeat business means that we have the smallest sales team in the industry for a company of our size.

Tell us about your Tenant-Ready programme.

Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in the serviced office and coworking markets. We have been quite dominant in designing and delivering centres for these businesses in the UK since the early 2000s. Companies come to us because we understand their drivers and know how to operate within frameworks. Our mantra is that if we make a client’s centre more successful, they will sell the space more quickly and then buy more from us. It’s simple.

Tenant-Ready is our term (it actually is – we trademarked it) for pre-fitted space; it could be provided by an operator or a landlord – the key thing is that the tenant doesn’t use their own capital and the installation could see a number of different occupants, and therefore needs to last. We have assembled a team that specialises in this sector and can deliver large, complex projects throughout the UK and Europe, at speed. We go far beyond the usual role of D&B contractor by getting involved in everything from initial brand positioning to boosting the space on our own social media channels.

How has the pandemic affected Modus?

I decided after the credit crunch to put as much into the balance sheet as possible when the sun shines, in case of another rainy day. It’s been quite wet recently, but I get to sleep at night because of the reserves we’ve built up. I would not say we have been unaffected, but we’re also fortunate that we had a reasonable amount of contracted work to see us through 2020, and our order book in 2021 is pretty good. Our people continue to amaze me with their resilience and dedication – we didn’t miss a deadline last year, except where it was physically impossible to get to a site because of high-rise lift restrictions.

This might be a silly question, but how are you finding the market right now?

Last year the pandemic was hugely disruptive to normal markets and the occupier Cat B sector is still very quiet. Landlords have been investing throughout however, and operators with liquidity have seen an opportunity for a land-grab. Some large multi-site occupiers are using this period to carry out workplace transformation projects that would otherwise be highly disruptive. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a marked upturn in enquiries, so – barring unforeseen setbacks, such as vicious new variants – things are definitely getting better.

Where do you see the future of the UK real estate/design market? What trends can we expect to see post-pandemic?

Businesses have to decide how their physical space supports their brands, their cultures, and their operations. They should design and equip their spaces to suit. That might mean more collaboration space and fewer desks, but not necessarily. It might mean no change at all, or even dispensing with the office completely. Companies should definitely not seek to redesign themselves according to the diktat of worker polls. 

The office is certainly not dead, and I think that businesses are remembering why it was important that their people could congregate and collaborate in the same physical space – but perhaps not five days a week. However, this says nothing about who pays for the creation of their office – and this is perhaps the dominant driver for businesses like mine because it dictates who our customers are going to be.

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