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Perspective: Lee Penson, PENSON

We catch up with Lee Penson – the Founder and CEO of renowned, multi-award-winning global architecture and interior design studio, PENSON. We’ve charted the firm’s continued rise – which, it would seem – even a pandemic cannot slow!

09/12/2020 6 min read
Accor Nest
Lee PensonHi Lee. How are you and the team in light of the pandemic?

We’re fine, thanks for asking. PENSON is very much a family business – but not in the sense that it is owned by a family, but because we are a team. We come as a family. We did everything we could to put everything in place to protect our guys – to look after them and their own families. I do think we’re one of the lucky ones – and I hope that continues, of course. I know that a lot of firms have been forced to shed a lot of people and are down to the bare bones. We’re in a good place – like I said, we’ve been quite lucky with the clients we have and the work we’ve got. I’ve learned from previous downturns and 9/11 to be cautious – always uber-respectful of the work we have, so we’re doing alright.

How do you feel the industry has changed since those early days of the studio?

It’s somewhat ironic to think that the first time we chatted – all those years ago – was in a pub in Merton that we converted into a workplace! Talk about full-circle, with what’s going on right now, with workplaces loosening-up.

We don’t need to all head into work at the same time in the morning anymore. How is it possible that all these people, who are doing different jobs, with different deadlines and different schedules, all have to be at work at the same time? I’ve been saying this for years – ever since I was commuting out of Esher. We’ve all been ‘busy fools’ for far too long. Similarly – and this is something else I’ve been saying for years – we don’t have to design workplaces with blue carpets and blue office chairs. That’s just lazy – you don’t need to do that.

Sports Direct

The one positive thing to come out of the whole COVID experience is that the whole routine of the 9-to-5 has been smashed to bits – life, family, fitness, mental health…the list of benefits that comes from not having to be in the office at 8.30 every morning is incredible. The freedom and the efficiency that has brought is, in my opinion, mega.

For the last three or four years, we’ve been saying that buildings now need to migrate, to become de-categorised. An office building doesn’t need to be just an office building any more. These buildings need to ‘multi-categorise’, multi-function, be more flexible, more efficient and offer more for the people who work and live in them. We’re still working around these buildings – rather than having the buildings working around us. That’s nonsense. That’s not how it should be. I see COVID as a big historical ‘reset button’ and truly hope things don’t go back to normal!

How have your own ways of working have changed in 2020? 

I myself was being a busy fool. With on average three international return flights a week, New York, France, Madrid and the odd meeting for a day’s workshop in Ibiza. Fun, exhausting, felt great but, actually, many inefficient hours. Let’s say I was busy ‘moving’ rather than working – in the same way I constantly tell my family to ‘stop emailing and do some work’.

It’s not so much about how we’ve changed the way we work – what we have done is work really hard to be nice people and to maintain and improve relationships with the people we’re working with. We are lucky enough not to pitch for work, we can choose what we do offline from the gravy train for our high profile, high net worth friends and organisations – clients, suppliers, across the board.

It’s how you emerge from COVID that really matters – everyone needs to get in the mindset of looking out for each other and, as I have always said, be nice to people on the way up and on the way down. Etiquette, for me, is everything in business. We’ve turned huge projects down on the basis that the client wouldn’t fit with that mantra.

What are you and the team working on right now?

A wide variety of work globally, really. In the UK we’re still working hard with The Hut Group (THG), Jo&Joe and other new hospitality brand creations – hotel rooms on wheels that can be delivered to most grid references and are also on the shortlist for things like a $1.5 billion project in China – although we haven’t secured that yet and I obviously can’t really talk about that right now. Watch this space!

Its always varied here and we’ve sustainably grown into a fully multi-disciplinary studio now. Something else I’m really proud of. We also develop our own buildings and have a few nice deals that are close to reaching planning consent, which ironically already adopt post-COVID routines in my decategorised way. Ironically, one deal of 150,000 sq ft is already fully pre-let on that basis!

Tell us a little about your continued work with the Hut Group

We’ve been working with them for over eight years now and we have become their one and only trusted architectural partner for all their really serious stuff – the big, high profile projects. We’re the executive architects for the new builds. We set out all the architectural vision, workplace vision and interiors. We’re obviously doing the THG HQ, and we’re also doing an ingenuity campus near Manchester Airport – everything’s near or on the airport.

We’re doing some game-changing retail, which touches on the high street problem, how people shop etc. It’s properly cool work. We even had a call recently, from a contractor, who told us that they were so happy to be working with us. They work with the likes of Zaha Hadid – and were saying that they considered PENSON to be in that bracket. That was a really nice moment. I have to say, having worked through three recessions now, I do feel that we are designing stuff that really is at that level. I’m really proud of the fact that we’re doing some great work – and it’s top, top profile!

We’ve masterplanned approximately 1.6 million sq ft of future phasing for the THG HQ. We’re building phase one right now – which is going to be a beautiful, visionary building. THG is an online business, so they’re continuing to grow and to recruit people. Their trading has gone through the roof – their only blip is upwards! We are enjoying a great long- term partnership, delivering highly visionary assets for a highly innovative group.

The Hut Group
And how are you finding the hospitality market right now?

We’re finding that the investment companies who own hotels – who have the asset of the actual building – seem to be bumping along quite happily. It’s the companies who operate hotels who seem to be really struggling – because their income has essentially stopped. It’s a real mixed bag. We’re launching into some fairly big rollouts across the USA and Europe with brands that PENSON has created after our proof of abilities through creating Jo&Joe with Accor – and the investors are currently sitting tight, and waiting until they can buy what they wanted to buy originally, but for far less money. The people I feel sorry for are small, family-run businesses who have put everything on the line to keep their little bar, shop or hotel going. It’s an obvious thing to say, but the hospitality market is having a really hard time right now! I’m sure once a vaccine is in place things will bounce back.

So what’s next for PENSON?

The future is all about being visionary – but ‘visionary commercial’. Pushing boundaries but also carrying on the journey of steady sustainable global growth without reactive fuss, peaks or troughs. What I have learned is that these values have certainly made our studio resilient throughout COVID.

What are you really missing right now?

I’m missing the fact that we should be having this chat, leaning against a bar, having a beer – and I’m also missing man-hugs! It’s fair to say that everyone needs some fun!

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