Wave 105 are just one of hundreds of companies who started at Hampshire Workspace in the thirty years since Sylvia and George Dibben founded the serviced offices business at Southgate Chambers.
Here George talks about the history of Winchester’s oldest serviced office business
How did you come to start Hampshire Workspace?
Thirty years ago, I needed an office. At that time the property market was such that landlords wanted you to sign quite long term leases- five years and beyond- and were looking to tie tenants up
financially with guarantees and the like. That didn’t seem to me sensible because I didn’t know what my business would look like in a month, let alone five years. I didn’t want to tie my capital up keeping some landlord comfortable when I needed it to start up and work my business.
With my wife Sylvia, we started to look for a building suitable for ourselves and others who might be in the same circumstances. That’s how we came to find Southgate Chambers in Southgate Street Winchester and started the business of Hampshire Workspace aimed at people who had a similar requirement to mine.
So a flexible contract was a key component?
There is a big difference between a five year lease and a three month commitment. We offer a simple agreement without lawyers’ fees and things like that. People don’t always understand that it is intentionally that way because it is the provision of a service and not the provision of a fixed amount of space, so it is very much a temporary agreement. That flexibility is really important because it means if your business grows for a period of time, you can take on more space and then you can shrink back down again if you need to, which is very difficult if you take on a fixed space.
In practice we’ve had one or two people who’ve been here for long periods of time. One stayed here twenty years.
In the early days, what services did you provide?
People hadn’t the ability to produce their own correspondence- they hadn’t got laptops- so they were used to working in the traditional way of having secretaries, typists, people to do the fetching and carrying.
The potential candidates for our offices were quite likely people who had been made redundant on quite substantial redundancy packages. For people who’d worked inside quite large businesses to have to find postage stamps and do their own filing and that sort of thing was a complete nightmare. So we addressed their requirement with the provision of a central facility for typing, reception, phone answering, photocopying and telex. We had five typists working for us. Nowadays, with everybody doing their own typing, we only have in effect one half of a typist.
I should say, whilst we had the concept together, Sylvia has been responsible for the execution of the business and its development and growth and reputation.
Has it been a successful business model?
We were the first in Winchester to provide serviced offices. Others have come and gone during the last thirty years but we are the only ones to have been here the whole time.
We expanded the concept to other parts of the country. There were many owners of property at that time who were being assailed with costs on empty buildings, so they embraced someone who came along and said we can make a success of your building by using it for serviced accommodation. We opened businesses in Stoke On Trent, Newcastle, Gosport and West London and took over a business in Bond Street.
How has the business changed in the last thirty years?
The whole workplace environment has become much more mobile. Mobile phones, laptops, small printer-cum-photocopiers and other devices remove the need for central services because people look after themselves. However there is still the fundamental business of providing a reception, mail handling and an office cleaning service. There are also things which are needed from time to time. For instance, when people go on holiday or are absent, they need their business to be looked after, so the range of services is still there when people want to use them, but as an occasional rather than permanent cost.
The thing that hasn’t changed is that people working on their own need other people, they need a shared experience, an occasional laugh around the water cooler or something like that. That is one of the things we have always provided.
Have you always offered Virtual Offices?
The newer ideas tended to come from London. In the early days, we did some work with a firm in Regent Street who had developed the virtual office concept. Up until that time, we had offered accommodation addresses which were really for people who weren’t yet ready to take an office but wanted the prestigious postal address and telephone number that went with our building. As time went on, it evolved into the Virtual Office concept that included mail processing and call handling and it has proved very popular. We recently added hot desking to the package.
Could you pick out any notable events or clients from the last thirty years?
Wave105 was born here. It was the brainchild of a chap called Steve Harris. He and a friend of mine called Peter Nicholson were putting together a bid for a commercial radio franchise and I got involved in the fundraising for it and became company secretary and a director. During the bidding process, we and the others involved occupied offices here in Southgate Chambers until we had a permanent base for the radio station.
We also had a Chinese taxi operator here at one time and I remember we stood in on the radio for him from time to time. One memorable business was an agricultural subcontractor- the tractors used to be parked in the car park opposite in the mornings and we had Wellington boots outside the front door.
Today our clients include a doctor, a solicitor, an architect, recruitment specialists, IT people and a marketing consultant.
A version of this interview has appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle