If it’s possible to be a prodigy property developer, then Mike Spink was it. Certainly, he had a precocious interest in domestic architecture. At primary school, he would spend his out-of‑school hours drawing panoramas of the local terraces, noting “aspirational” add-ons. “Even then,” he says, “I knew when something looked out of place.”
It’s a talent he’s honed to an art in adult life, and today his unforgiving eye has enabled him to create a collection of houses that sit at the pinnacle of the UK’s property market. Currently, he’s offering – “marketing” is definitely not the word – Hamilton, a contemporary country villa in the grand manner for £80m, which even in the jaded world of luxury property is a stop-for-a-moment sum. Simultaneously, in London’s St James’s, a few steps from St James’s Palace, he has meticulously reinvented a Georgian house – now (discretely) open to buyers with a budget of £145m. The phrase “highest price ever paid” is seldom absent when Spink’s ventures are discussed. “He’s an exceptional developer,” says Paddy Dring, partner at estate agent Knight Frank, “who produces homes of exceptional quality.”
Spink is perhaps not what you’d expect from this profile: whippet-slim, fashionably bespectacled and jean-clad, he looks more like an architect than a hard-nosed businessman, and his untiring energy and buoyant enthusiasm would not go amiss in the fizzing tech sector. He, like the homes he produces, fits effortlessly into a new world of sophisticated global billionaires who present relaxed but demand perfection.
Spink, of course, did not start out with this objective in mind. The son of a mechanical engineer and a medical secretary, he grew up in a house between Hull and York, attending the local comprehensive where he excelled primarily at art, before going on to qualify as a surveyor. “I considered architecture, but it would have taken too long,” he says.
Studying, however, was always something of a sideline for Spink. At school, he took a Saturday job with an estate agent, photographing houses and putting up “for sale” boards. At university, he worked full time (so much for the decadent student life), selling homes in and around Oxford. By the time he graduated, he had a fully formed CV and was immediately hired by a leading commercial property company for its development business, MEPC. “I started in 1988, just after the Big Bang – and just before the property crash,” he says.
Some might have seen renting out business space in a period that left the City of London with tumbleweed-strewn streets and deserted corner offices as tricky, but Spink is a man who has based his career on seeing things differently to others. “The firm had 40 acres of empty offices straddling London Wall – within a year I’d let it all.” This, no doubt, has something to do with Spink’s persuasive charm but also relates to his willingness to listen. “What tenants wanted was flexibility. They didn’t want 25-year leases – so I convinced the company to reduce them to 10.”
Soon after, he was headhunted by BP to let the vacant buildings in its pension property portfolio, which shifted his postcode perspective and furnished him with a 110 per cent mortgage, allowing the purchase of his first home in South Kensington. It was a time when there was plenty to choose from. “You’d get a stapled A4 paper listing 100 repossessions and just be given the keys,” he says. Spink, of course, took an oblique approach, purchasing a basement flat, generally considered a property no-no. “Basement flats have a lot of attractions. They’re calm and quiet and this one had huge windows overlooking the garden,” he says. After a makeover, he sold it instantly to a young banker.
Three speedy renovations later, Spink realised his ability to revive, reposition and resell was not just happenstance, and in 1992 launched Coll Hill Spink, a residential property firm targeting young City types, generally Europeans. “They got what we did,” he says. What they “did” was take exhausted space (generally in stucco-clad Victorian buildings) and – undeterred by unwieldy layouts – transform it into up-to-the minute excitement. “One of the first houses we converted had inconvenient rooms on every half landing, so we took out the staircase and set it out in a much more logical way, introducing an atrium and a full-height stainless-steel staircase.”
In his first 10 years, Spink undertook well over 100 such projects, initially working in what might be termed the upper-middle market (£1m to £3m) and grew an office, which (now under the name Mike Spink Property) counts 15 full-time architects among the staff. He then took a leap. “At that point, our clients were often very wealthy, but for whatever reason, were buying relatively modest houses,” he says. “One man, for example, who could well have afforded £30m, bought a house for £5m, partly because he noticed the thread of the screws aligned with the hinges on the doors. I realised what we offered was higher than our marketplace.” This revelation transformed Spink into what is known in the business as a “niche developer” and the tiny perch he now occupies is the one that addresses the requirements of those for whom money is no object. Here, he is virtually unrivalled.
His first project in this new stratosphere was in Kensington’s coveted Upper Phillimore Gardens, where in 2006 for the knockdown price of £20m he purchased a “white elephant”, which had lingered on the market for two-and-a-half years. “It was relatively newly decorated but looked like a shopping centre,” he says. “It was, however, fundamentally fantastic – detached, pretty, with a large garden.” Two years later, after a complete remodelling and just six months after the global financial crash Spink sold it for £80m, at this point the highest price ever paid for a London house.
Spink’s focus had always been in the capital, but his own purchase of a 17th-century manor house in Oxfordshire opened his eyes to the potential beyond the M25. “It introduced me to the manor house owners’ club – amazing estates that are real works of passion,” he says. England, of course, has a distinguished tradition of grand country houses, but the wisdom in recent years has been that only London offered the gamble you couldn’t lose. Spink questioned the logic. “Certainly, there are fewer buyers in the country but – for the best property – there’s the same tight supply,” he says.
In this category he put Park Place, a Franco-Italianate mansion built for a Victorian paint magnate in the 1870s. Sitting in 500 acres of Berkshire, the tired château – “It featured in the film St Trinian’s” – came with a clutter of outbuildings. “Everyone assumed the value lay in cutting it up, but I wanted to bring it back together as a single house,” he recalls. “It was completely private within its own land – there were no public footpaths – and you drove up the original drive through an elevated meandering landscape.”
It was a bold decision. “Exclusive” in the context of covetable housing tends to mean Georgian or Queen Anne – but this was 19th century at its most fairytale. “The agents thought the architecture wouldn’t sell, but I felt it was right for the market, with high ceilings and lots of light behind a white stucco façade. It was just like the best houses in Kensington and The Mall,” says Spink. He was, of course, proved right. Having purchased the estate in go-ahead 2007 for £42m, he went on to sell the 32,500sq m house in sluggish 2011 for £120m – which remains a record-breaking price for a country house.
The sale, however, left him with plenty to do and on the 60 acres of the estate he’d retained, he’s gone on to create Hamilton – a contemporary classical country villa that pays tribute to Andrea Palladio, the great maestro of the Veneto. Square in plan, its expansive, beautifully proportioned rooms accommodate a circular enfilade around a central atrium, offering an exciting vista of Grade-II*-listed parkland and formal gardens designed by multiple Chelsea Flower Show gold medallist Christopher Bradley-Hole.
The house is stately but intimate and every detail has been carefully considered, from the way light shifts from shadow to brilliance in the dining room to the linen-lined cupboard doors. It also meets ultra‑high expectations in other significant respects with a hidden service road leading directly into the estate’s farm and working kitchen, so deliveries could never cloud the view – and a freehold title to a secluded stretch of the Thames (needless to say, one that never floods as “the estate is on the high side”). Property purchase in England’s cramped southeast almost inevitably comes with concessions, but Spink offers buyers the option not to compromise. At Hamilton, for example, just under an hour from London, owners will enjoy proper countryside (with deer) just 20 minutes from Heathrow, five from the nearest private airport.
In town, Spink’s buyers are, if anything, more privileged. Carlton Gardens is a contemporary reinvention of a classical Nash mansion near St James’s Palace, whose neoclassical façade now fronts 17,650 sq m of modern chic with a pool, parking and staff quarters. As well as its own private garden – the only one on the terrace – it enjoys an uninterrupted view of St James’s Park, shares its circular drive only with the foreign secretary’s official residence and is for sale at £145m.
Spink’s clientele includes heads of states and royalty – and, unsurprisingly, is largely composed of the ultra-wealthy (in one recent development of six apartments, all but one purchaser was a billionaire). Beyond that, they’re an eclectic mix. “We appeal to a mentality rather than a type,” he says. Strange though it may sound, clients are unified in the view that they’re getting value for money, often returning to buy again or to request Spink’s assistance with other projects. “The word quality is so misunderstood,” says Knight Frank’s Dring. “There are other good developers, but almost no one with Mike Spink’s depth of understanding of what’s underneath.”
Clients also respect Spink’s personal qualities. “He’s very straightforward to deal with. He listens and if there’s a problem he finds a solution,” says Dring. This is a characteristic that also endears him to planners and neighbours. At Park Place, for example, the heritage champions were delighted he intended to resuscitate a scarred period house, while in the Chilterns, where his own proposed new home raised concerns about despoiling an area of outstanding natural beauty, he carefully landscaped the gardens to protect the view. Today, the rare private commission by Stirling Prize-winning architect David Chipperfield lies like a streamlined silver ribbon in its picturesque rural setting worthy of Architectural Review’s plaudit “the best house in the world in 2015”.
Here, Spink and his Finnish wife Maria – former banker-turned-philanthropist – tend to their Dexter cows and Lurcher rescue dogs in contemporary splendour, but Spink is already contemplating new possibilities. “I always want to push standards higher,” he says. Few would dispute his right to the title “king of the grand contemporary house”– a fiefdom only likely to expand with the onward march of the super-wealthy. In another life, he would like to have been architect John Nash, mastermind of Regency London. There is, of course, still time.