CEO interview: Rod Jenner, Managing Director of Dowdeswell Estates
PUBLISHED: 10:31 06 September 2017 | UPDATED: 10:31 06 September 2017
From Balcarras schoolboy to being the Beckhams' go-to property developer, Rod Jenner, Managing Director of Dowdeswell Estates, still manages to keep his feet firmly on the ground
Driving along one of the main routes into Cheltenham it’s not immediately obvious something quite remarkable is under way.
But in just a few years’ time, a low-key industrial estate in Charlton Kings, previously known as The Barlands could be completely transformed into an aspirational shopping destination, championing artisan food and drink and offering access to nearby countryside for family adventures.
The ambitious project, which could take three to five years to complete, will capitalise on the site’s enviable position as a key gateway into the town.
The company tasked with the transformation of the 10-acre site, now known as Dowdeswell Park, is Dowdeswell Estates. While the firm of building contractors has only been up and running for just over three years, it has a staggeringly impressive portfolio, having worked on some of the area’s most impressive properties including nearby Dowdeswell Court and No 38 The Park, as well as numerous celebrity homes.
It won a Considerate Constructors Silver Award last year at the National Site Awards, which rewards the UK’s most considerate sites for the contribution they have made towards improving the image of construction.
The man at the helm of Dowdeswell Estates is managing director Rod Jenner, 41, a former pupil of Balcarras School in Cheltenham.
On a drizzly day, Dowdeswell Estates’ unassuming, temporary offices at Dowdeswell Park don’t do justice to the creativity brewing inside. While at the moment it may look like any other industrial estate, plans pinned to the walls hint at the exciting new proposals which are taking shape at the London Road location.
The site was bought by Superdry founder Julian Dunkerton in March last year and is in the early stages of planning, with aspirations to have a food market with a large organic offering where people can come and enjoy delicious food and watch artisan bakers and other bespoke producers of food and drink at work.
“We’ve been working on this a year now – it’s going to be something quite special,” Rod hints.
Family-run Sibling Distillery has already moved to Dowdeswell Park along with its sister company Battledown Brewery and held a relaunch party for guests with live music and tastings of its award-winning beers and gin.
Dunkerton’s Cider, founded in Hereford by the late father of Julian Dunkerton, is already manufacturing on site and is due to start bottling in September, with a new shop opening in the autumn too. The development, situated within the Cotswold Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and bordered by 200 acres of woodland, will also become home to the new head offices of Dowdeswell Estates.
So how did a former Cheltenham school boy come to hold such sway on property development in the town he grew up in?
Meeting a like-minded client with a passion for innovative development was a turning point. Julian Dunkerton is the investor behind The Lucky Onion, a group of design-led hotels, restaurants and country pubs in the Cotswolds, whose portfolio includes elegant townhouse No 38 The Park, as well as No 131, The Wheatsheaf Inn in Northleach and The Chequers in Churchill.
No 38 The Park is an impressive building, on the edge of Pittville Park, which was transformed into a stylish, luxury destination by Rod and his team in 2014.
“I’d done lots of smaller projects but the first big project I did was No 38 The Park,” Rod says.
“I was the contractor and Julian was the client. That was him just testing me,” he laughs. “It was like he was thinking, ‘I can see something in him, I’ll give him that challenge’.”
Together they envisaged what is now one of Cheltenham’s coolest hotels featuring 13 bespoke bedrooms, a stunning drawing room, light-filled dining room and cosy courtyard garden.
Julian was obviously impressed with the results and quality of work, as he awarded Rod the contract to renovate his home, Dowdeswell Court, soon afterwards.
“When we get together we make things on a different scale,” Rod says.
“Unlike Dowdeswell Park, Dowdeswell Court was all done behind closed doors, so it was very much a private space.
“Julian and I have a great relationship where I instantly understand what he’s envisaged and then can go and make it happen.
“If I think back on it now, and how we got to the new property, it’s amazing. But you don’t get the chance to think about it, you’re always looking forward, how to do the next thing, you know?” he adds.
The work at Dowdeswell Court uncovered a need for major renovations which involved installing a completely new estate-wide infrastructure, including a high-grade broadband installation to every room in the house.
Every detail of the house was carefully thought through and meticulously planned to provide both functionality with a quality finish and aesthetic, making this project truly unique and unrivalled.
To comply with the Grade II listing, everything that was salvageable was lovingly restored using an array of techniques, both traditional and new, including roof beams, stone balustrades, flooring, windows, cornicing and window shutters.
A pond was also relocated to fit with the exterior landscaping developments and all the works were carried out around the schedules of protected wildlife on site such as bats in the attic and newts, so as not to disturb their natural habitats.
The project took five years and Dowdeswell Estates’ reputation is now soaring, especially with its expertise in working with listed buildings. Rod thrives on seeing crumbling, 300-year-old buildings being brought back to life.
As a specialist in listed building restoration, luxury construction for the retail, hospitality and residential sectors, he has his eyes firmly set on Cheltenham’s unloved Regency and Georgian buildings.
Restoring original features, such as cornicing and sourcing sympathetic, high quality materials and bespoke pieces of furniture from around the world is all part of the service.
The firm has worked with Yiangou Architects in Cirencester and Cheltenham-based RRA – the appointed architects for the Dowdeswell Park project.
Dowdeswell Estates also has a pool of craftsmen at its fingertips, whose skills and knowledge are invaluable. Once its headquarters is up and running, the company hopes to launch an apprenticeship scheme to train young people to continue these time-honoured trades.
Rod says: “They are dying out but there is a need, because we have clients like Julian, who do buy these big houses which are run down and have the money to do them up, all with a view of protecting them in the future.”
As well as Dowdeswell Park and numerous residential projects, Rod is heavily involved with the expansion plans for No 131, The Lucky Onion’s Georgian townhouse hotel overlooking Imperial Gardens. The hotel and restaurant, which opened in 2013, has plans to double in size with the addition of No 133, due to open next year, which will add a further 11 bedrooms, a communal sitting room, larger restaurant and extended outside seating area.
London is calling too with many high net worth individuals requesting his services. But with the development of Dowdeswell Park on the horizon, subject to planning consent, the firm won’t be deserting Gloucestershire any time soon.
Rod still lives in Cheltenham and is proud to own a Cotswolds-based business which plays its part in the community.
He has recently joined the board of directors of Gloucester City Football Club, along with Wendy Edwards, company secretary of Dowdeswell Estates and former company secretary of Superdry.
Gloucester City owner Eamonn McGurk first sounded Rod out about the role 18 months ago.
When the appointment was announced Rod said: “Eamonn and I have always had a great working relationship and when he first mooted the idea and told me his vision for the club, it was never a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.
“I’m now on board to help him not only deliver the stadium, but his vision of making Gloucester City the best club in the South West.
“We’ve seen meteoric rises in football in the past 10 years with clubs like Swansea, Blackpool and Hull City go from the fourth tier of English football to the Premier League and we want to emulate that success,” he added.
“It might sound like wishful thinking but why can’t it happen for Gloucester City? The first part is to deliver a stadium that the players, fans, staff and the City of Gloucester can be proud of.”
Dowdeswell Estates is also busy working on a new Music Room for Balcarras School this summer after Julian made a substantial donation towards the redevelopment which is being built at cost.
“It will be nice to see how it’s grown since I was there,” says Rod, whose team includes many former Balcarras pupils too. “I think a few of the teachers are still there. It’s always nice to do something close to your heart.”
The long-term vision for Dowdeswell Park is to create a link to nearby Dowdeswell Woods, so families can get close to nature. Education initiatives will also enable pupils to undertake field work to support their studies. This part of the project could take up to another 10 years to come to fruition.
Since school, Rod spent a decade working in food retail before he decided on a change of direction 10 years ago, ironically because he didn’t want to work weekends anymore. It was when he was sat in a site office for six months that he realised that was what he wanted to do.
“I thought ‘I can do that, it’s easy’,” he laughs. “It was about getting the opportunity and taking it.”
Over the last few years, Rod has nurtured his negotiating and management skills to pull off the projects of people’s dreams – his colleagues say he has almost a sixth sense to be able to interpret and execute exactly what people want, with an acute spacial awareness.
He admits his new responsibilities mean he is on call for his most demanding clients, although he does still try to keep those precious weekends to himself.
Do they include the Beckhams who have reportedly bought a £5m Grade II listed barn conversion in the Cotswolds? He couldn’t possibly comment.
“It’s nice being your own boss,” Rod concedes, whose own house is a mere 30 years old.
“I’d like a new house, but I haven’t got time to build one because I’m busy building everyone else’s,” he laughs. “Although, it’s quite nice to come home, walk in and not have to think about building at all.”