Transforming properties and building communities

Kirtley Co is raising the volume on its property activities around the North East. In an exclusive interview with Portfolio North’s Business Editor, Alex Kirtley talked about her role and how the family business is evolving from humble beginnings.

Alex Kirtley acknowledges she is a reluctant PR ambassador for the family business – but there is no doubting her passion.

As MD of Kirtley Co, Alex – and her sister Toni – recently invested in a rebrand and embarked on a fresh approach to marketing to reflect the changes taking place across the business, founded by her father 40 years ago.

Kirtley Co. is something of a hybrid – commercial landlord, property developer and business owner. It offers a range of property services including restorations, and renovations across Sunderland, Teesside, Durham and the wider North East.

It’s the owner and landlord of the iconic Mackie’s Corner – one of the flagship projects in Sunderland’s ongoing transformation. An eclectic mix of popular local businesses now occupy the space including delicatessen Fat Unicorn, menswear specialists Master Debonair, Bou-chique and The Black Door Hairdressing.

The firm also owns and operates flexible workspaces in Middlesbrough, industrial and self-storage space in Peterlee, Sunderland, Leechmere, Deptford and Southwick.

“We’ve tended to quietly go about our business,” she said. “But the investment and changes in our property portfolio meant we needed to alter things and be more proactive with our marketing. And so, we have the new branding, website and partnership with Portfolio North.”

She added: “We’re going through an exciting time at Kirtley Co., as we continue to be a dynamic business which adapts to the needs of the market and business operators. There’s huge regeneration underway in Sunderland and Tees Valley, which we are proud to be playing a part of by offering high quality commercial and serviced work space during a time of transformation across both counties.”

The company has invested heavily in renovating Queen’s Court – now Kirtley Co. Middlesbrough – a building situated just a short walk from Middlesbrough town centre. She and the team are busy marketing easy-in, easy-out flexible workspaces ranging from 110sq ft to 1500 sq ft.

Alex said: “We pride ourselves on connecting great people, great businesses and great places using our experience and knowledge in property to advise and support the businesses which create a home in our spaces. We get to know our tenants and their business aims and vision so that we can support them in achieving their goals and create the perfect place to start or grow their business

“It’s a new era for Kirtley Co. We’ve said goodbye to our last caravan storage customer in Peterlee to make room for a new client and have redeveloped our spaces.”

She’s still a little hesitant when it comes to putting herself and family out there, into the spotlight. She seems more comfortable rolling up her sleeves and getting stuff done. She’s someone who understands the idea of good, old fashioned ‘graft’ and putting in a full shift.

At 34, Alex seems to have been grafting since her early, formative years. Even during her school years, she spent her free hours following her parents and sister around sites within the property portfolio and helping with odd jobs. She stepped into the business at 16 and has been working her way into the MD role ever since. The company is a genuine family business where everyone has a role and mucks in.

Her sister Toni, 32, handles finance and the management accounts, a vital role in the company. Her father, Henry, 63, remains busy working on projects along with her mother Jill. Both have been hands on in the business since Henry bought the first residential rental property in Sunderland 40 years ago. It’s a cottage that has emotional meaning for the parents and is still retained within the property portfolio.

Alex’s partner Paul, a mechanic for 18 years, joined the family business in 2019 and spends much of his time with maintenance matters alongside Mick, a finish joiner. Alex added: “We are lucky enough to still have George and Cliff around on site to pass on there knowledge to the next generation.”

Alex, who somehow finds time to bring up three children, said: “As a firm we pride ourselves on being a family run business with proud roots in the North East of England. We live in each other’s pockets and speak about the business every day. It can sometimes be hard to pull back and relax. We need to find a better work-life-balance in the coming years.”

The pandemic and lockdowns proved to be a critical period for the family and business. “We had never stopped before,” explained Alex. “Some of our tenants suffered and went out of business but we were incredibly fortunate. It gave us valuable time to reflect and look more closely at how we ran things and what direction we should be going in. It has changed everything for the better.”

This period allowed Kirtley Co to review and alter several things. Business rates were reviewed and in one case an annual saving of £30,000 was secured. Staffing was slimmed down, and it was acknowledged there needs to be greater use of technology and how to better utilise time.

Going forwards, Alex hopes her parents can slow down and find more time to enjoy the fruits of their hard work.

In terms of the business, there is a strong likelihood the company will become fully commercial focussed with less residential properties in the portfolio. The goal is to have all properties fully occupied within the next 18 months.

There’s a fresh commitment to marketing now and perhaps in the coming years Alex, alongside sister Toni, will be more confident being in the spotlight and speaking up about the successes of tenants and the family business.

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