Tony Pidgley, who has died suddenly aged 72, was a Barnardo’s boy brought up by gipsies who became one of Britain’s most successful house-builders as co-founder, managing director and later chairman of Berkeley Group, which grew to be a FTSE 100 company.
A rumbustious operator and a magnet for media attention, Pidgley focused Berkeley on the luxury end of the housing market, and in later years on imaginative brownfield developments in London and other cities. Known for his skill in forecasting swings of the property market, he also maintained an acute eye for design detail in his developments, down to the quality of bathroom and kitchen fittings. One rival house-builder called him “a titan of our industry”.
Anthony William Pidgley was born to a single mother on August 6 1947 and spent his early years in a Barnardo’s home until he was adopted at the age of four by Bill and Florence Pidgley, travellers who lived for a while in a disused railway carriage before settling at Hersham, near Walton-on-Thames, and later at Esher.
“It’s true my parents would be classed as gipsies but in truth they were just ordinary working-class people,” Pidgley told an interviewer. “They never went to school but that didn’t make them bad people. They could add up faster than I could and they had a lot of common sense.”
He lived with the family until his mid-teens, helping his father cut logs and do odd jobs, learning to drive and saving enough to buy himself a lorry. By the age of 19 he had a fleet of them and a successful haulage and demolition business – which he sold in 1968 to Crest Homes, a housebuilder based at Chertsey which became Crest Nicholson after buying the yacht builder Camper & Nicholson in 1972.
Pidgley was the firm’s youthful building director, but on the day of its 1975 annual general meeting he was summarily sacked by the company chairman after an altercation with another colleague.
A fellow director, Jim Farrar, resigned in sympathy, and the pair took themselves off to the Casa Romana restaurant in Weybridge – where the miners’ union leader Joe Gormley happened to be lunching amply at another table – to conceive a plan for the business that became Berkeley, a name chosen for its upmarket Mayfair associations.
A local bank manager lent them ?150,000 to build a first house. When it sold, they bought land to build more – avoiding the crowded mass market and concentrating on relatively expensive homes characterised by the dormer windows, half-timbering, cornices and open fireplaces that appealed to the Home Counties “stockbroker belt”.
Pidgley formed a highly effective partnership with the calmer, more experienced Farrer as his chairman until 1991: “He was the shining light of my life,” Pidgley once said. “He took the wildness out of me.”
Berkeley was listed on the Stock Exchange in 1985, outperforming rivals through the 1980s boom and multiplying in value seven times by the end of the decade. When recession loomed, the company reduced its land holdings and weathered the storm better than most.
Having shifted focus towards inner-city regeneration projects during the 1990s, it continued to ride the ups and downs of the 21st century property market, building upwards of 4,000 homes per year and making substantial impacts on the London landscape at sites such as Royal Arsenal Riverside in Woolwich, Oval Village and Albert Embankment.
There were also elements of soap opera to the Berkeley story. In 1991 Pidgley helped his son, also called Tony, to set up his own housebuilding business, Thirlstone Homes, which was later acquired by Berkeley at a generous price. Tony Jr became a Berkeley director, but resigned in 2001 and two years later launched an audacious ?1 billion reverse takeover bid for his father’s company – which was swiftly beaten off.
“There’s no major family rift about it,” Pidgley senior said three months later, “But he and I have agreed that we won’t discuss it with each other now.”
Tony Pidgley Snr stepped aside as managing director of Berkeley after passing his 60th birthday but remained a visionary force as chairman. Though long-term investors in the company’s shares had enjoyed handsome gains alongside him, he encountered some shareholder hostility for the scale of his remuneration: he had earned ?174 million over the decade to 2018. His personal fortune was estimated earlier this year at ?295 million.
In earlier days the Pidgley family lived in Berkeley-built houses, but their home in later years was a 16th century farmhouse set in 100 Berkshire acres, where Tony enjoyed gardening and playing chess, preferably at speed – “I don’t spend hours trying to checkmate you.”
He was appointed CBE in 2013. He was a long-serving president of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a member of several commissions on regeneration in the capital. He was also a major benefactor of the War Horse Memorial erected in Ascot in 2018.
He married first, in 1966, Ruby Williams, with whom he had two children, Tania and Tony Jr. The eventual break-up of the marriage attracted tabloid attention, to which Pidgley responded: “The press likes to paint me as hard and a womaniser but let’s be clear, I never left Ruby, she left me. Ask anyone you like: I was heartbroken about it.”
He married secondly, in 1999, Sarah Hill, a dressage rider, with whom he had two more daughters, Annabella and Jessica. Sarah?and his children survive him.
Tony Pidgley, born August 6 1947, died June 26 2020??