I wasn’t expecting to be able to get into the Ollie Dabbous pop-up at Chelsea Barracks, timed to coincide with Chelsea Flower Show. But then I wasn’t expecting to be interviewing the man with the longest title in the property industry, Richard Oakes.
The pop-up, sadly now closed, was a thing of delicate loveliness. Using the produce in the kitchen garden, Dabbous prepared dishes with (surprise) a botanical theme, to match the pairing with the show over the road. Richard has tasted the food on offer four times by the time that we have our lunch but he is not complaining. We both have a cooked and raw candy-striped beetroot salad, with marigold and pistachio, on a bed of soft cheese, the colours jewel-like, the taste subtle. Beetroot and cheese is such a cliché these days, but not here.
I ask whether Dabbous is going to be taking up the reins here when it opens in 2020. Richard gives nothing away. Watch this space. Until then, you will need to go to Hide, in Mayfair to see what Dabbous can do. And he can do a lot. He comes out to talk about the food. He remembers me from the time I ate three of his chocolate soaked brioche desserts at one sitting. I am not ashamed.
Richard’s official title is Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, Europe and America, Qatari Diar. At the moment, much of his time is taken up with delivery of the first phase of Chelsea Barracks, although he is also involved with working on the former American Embassy hotel development, and various European projects, in case delivery of the £4.5bn Chelsea Barracks scheme wasn’t sufficiently challenging.
Richard does admit to a little touch of “imposter syndrome” wondering how a down-to-earth boy from Leicester, who didn’t go to university or through the conventional agent sausage-factory, ended up dealing with sales and marketing for some of the largest and most high-profile schemes this side of the Atlantic.
I ask him and he says he doesn’t know, but hearing his story, it seems clear enough. Not someone to leave his career path to chance, there are numerous examples of ambition, drive and not a little risk-taking.
There is often a turning point in people’s lives, the “sliding doors” moment. Richard’s came quite early. Having volunteered during his last year of school for an educational trip to Trinidad and Tobago, paid for by Leicester Council – those were the days – he returned to some disappointment on the O-Level front.
“Don’t worry”, said his father, “I’ve got you an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator”.
That was the point, the fork in the road, where he realised he wasn’t going to do what his father had mapped out for him and was instead going to take the path of more resistance. He also formulated his first five year plan.
As we talk about the fork in the road, my fork is making light work of the turbot en papillote
As we talk about the fork in the road, my fork is making light work of the turbot en papillote, a dish of poached halibut, some new potatoes and mussels in a deeply fragrant nasturtium broth. More flowers, more flavour.
As I continue to avoid the bread, Richard talks glowingly of his apprenticeship at Redrow, where he was trained under a thorough mentoring system. He was quickly promoted to head of sales and marketing then went to Crosby Homes and reached senior management. If the journey had stopped there, it would have been a fairly classic trajectory.
Battersea Power Station was the next stop on his personal ladder of high-profile, difficult projects
Then came an opportunity to work for another larger-than-life property icon, Tom Bloxham. He speaks warmly of his experience at Urban Splash and says he could quite happily have stayed there for the rest of his career. A call from a head-hunter changed all that. Battersea Power Station was the next stop on his personal ladder of high-profile, difficult projects.
After Treasury Holdings went into administration, Richard got the opportunity to work with Ballymore, with Sean and John Mulryan. Not a walk in the park, dealing with the post-Nama fallout.
Whilst at Battersea, he managed put together a little black book of London-based contacts, which stood him in good stead when another head-hunter picked up the phone, this time on behalf of the Qataris.
The job needed someone who wasn’t your conventional slick sales bod. They wanted an all-rounder; someone who could navigate the delicate path between the history of the site, a sovereign wealth fund owner and a high profile and sometimes controversial scheme. Someone who could just get the job done.
“A salesman loves being sold to” says Richard, “and they knew what they wanted”.
It wasn’t an obvious opportunity for Richard, who’s keen on being his own man. Working for a sovereign wealth fund wasn’t something he’d ever contemplated. But then he’d managed to navigate the big personalities at Ballymore and Urban Splash and the drama of the Treasury era at Battersea.
It’s not often you get a head of sales and marketing sitting on the board of a major Sovereign Wealth fund, and it seems to me that Richard’s title doesn’t quite convey the breadth of his role.
Without obvious ego and charming without it feeling at all forced, Richard is someone who is equally at home on the terraces of his beloved Leicester City as he is in the rarefied atmosphere of the inner circles of the super-prime buyers he has attracted to the development.
“Chelsea Barracks is not a development that you market in a conventional way; less show and sell, more show and tell”
Richard has been instrumental in devising the sales strategy for Chelsea. “It’s not a development that you market in a conventional way”, he says, “less show and sell, more show and tell”. The idea is to explain the opportunity to be part of a new community, one that is open to the public, based around the idea of garden squares, with a restaurant bang in the middle. His idea, of course. Not all garden squares are based on Bridget Riley-inspired stripes. So far, so different.
His eyes light up when talking about the chapel. He sees it as the link with the wider, less fortunate parts of the local community, across the river and an opportunity for the residents to make a real difference and connect locally, by becoming patrons of the trust set up to run it. He is a trustee and will remain so.
I decide to jettison the diet to try the Jasmine ice-cream with blueberries and the daily home-made ricotta. I don’t think about the carbs in the meringue layer. It’s worth the carbicide. Richard hits the sugar jackpot with his orange-blossom doughnut. I gaze longingly. I still regret not trying the clafoutis, upsold by the chef himself.
Richard has been doing this job for five years. He’s had a five year plan at every stage of his life except for now. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the project, which could stretch out over the next decade. This is a role that could, if he chooses, be his last, but I suspect it won’t be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him move back to his beloved North-West, perhaps mentoring less experienced developers or, who knows, even becoming a developer himself.
Richard Oakes, Qatari Diar
- Home: Nantwich
- Relaxation: Taking his two sons to watch football at Leicester City and mowing his paddock. You will not be surprised to discover that he likes a neat border.
- Favourite saying: “Shy people starve. Be clear about what you want.” He’s not backwards in coming forward.