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Putting a price on his practice

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It is, it would seem, all about succession policy. This is the reason that Norman Foster has, for the last three months, been in talks with an elite group of financial advisors in the City of London to find a way of flogging his legendary practice, Foster and Partners.

Foster - who has commissioned a company called Catalyst, which describes itself as an ‘investment boutique’, to assess opportunities in the Square Mile - apparently believes that looking to private investors is the best way of ensuring the future of his enormously successful practice after he steps away.

While no-one close to the deal is allowed to officially comment on the behind-thescenes negotiating or the motivation for what will be the most important financial deal in British architectural history, there is no shortage of high-level spin-doctoring.

It’s all a bit different to the genteel manner in which the likes of Hopkins, Grimshaw and Rogers have handled succession planning in the last few years.

One thing that is for certain is that Foster is not retiring. Other absolute certainties are that his interest lies in private money and that the huge practice is valued at the extraordinary figure of £500 million. Foster wants to see his practice grow - to become a truly global brand on a scale way beyond what we are currently familiar with.

This, it seems, is because Foster is convinced that the architecture business is consolidating, and to survive in the decades to come, practices are going to have to become very, very big.

The ambition being bandied around the Foster camp last weekend was nothing short of extraordinary. ‘Getting 20-30 offices around the world within 10 years, ’ was one astonishing suggestion.

However, the story as it stands lacks clarity. Does Foster want to sell outright? Does he wish to float Foster and Partners on the stock market?

If so, what proportion of the company might be up for grabs? And what is the timescale for this?

The spin doctors are not keen on answering these difficult questions - possibly because no-one knows the answers. What they are keen to do is ensure that this financial story does not impact on the ‘Cult of Norman’.

‘Norman isn’t going anywhere for a very, very long time, ’ one key source has told the AJ. ‘This is a just a way of ensuring Foster and Partners will continue. [The practice] has been running for some 40 years and we are trying to make sure that it continues to make a major contribution for another 40 years.

‘What [Foster] does recognise is that consolidation is happening, and he doesn’t want to sit back in some kind of retirement in Switzerland and watch his company be gobbled up. He is insistent that [Catalyst] must find a way that Foster and Partners will continue to exist and contribute in the way that it has done in the years gone by.

‘Norman is 71 now and he’s not going to be around forever. He also wants to ensure that the talented design staff are financially rewarded and want to stay with the business. The average age of the young creatives in the business is 32 and he wants to -nd a way of keeping them on and happy.

‘If I was a young architect working for Norman right now, I’d be extremely pleased, ’ the source adds.

But a former senior employee laughed outright at most of these suggestions, remarking with confidence that ‘there’ll be a lot of people who work for Norman with the jitters now.

‘No-one beyond those that are very near the top had any idea that this was on the cards, ’ he adds. ‘They’ll be in shock.’

One business-orientated architect who claims not to be remotely surprised that Foster had turned to the City is Stewart McColl, owner and driving force behind the takeover-hungry SMC Group.

He says: ‘There has been a rumour about this in the market for some time - for at least three months. It seemed to me that it was inevitable that Foster had to do something like this.

‘The directors couldn’t do a management buy-out; they’d think they couldn’t afford it.

If they all took out loans against their homes then they might. But I don’t think they have the guts.

‘I don’t really think the practice is worth £500 million either. There’s a chance that Norman might get it if he stuck around for a while, but if it’s a straight trade sale then there’s no chance. I wish him well whichever way it goes, ’ McColl concludes.

Interestingly, and some might say importantly, McColl refuses to comment on the suggestion that he might have approached Catalyst or Foster himself with a view to some kind of deal. Watch this space, it would seem.

But this is undeniably speculation. One long-term architecture watcher responded to the news with a lot more certainty: ‘Norman’s just after his £100 million nest-egg’. It may seem cynical, but it could just be right.

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