Baroness Michelle Mone and her husband Doug Barrowman have launched a flexible office space in Aberdeen in what they expect will be the first in an international chain of workplaces called Neospace.
Doors have now opened on Neospace in Aberdeen following an £18million investment led by Ms Mone and her husband overlooking the River Dee.
Ms Mone, who spoke exclusively to the Press and Journal, said the building offered a new concept for workers and entrepreneurs as they approach a new era of “hybrid working” following the pandemic. She also called it a “labour of love” during lockdown for her and Mr Barrowman, in what they describe as their first collaborative project as married couple.
Neospace in Aberdeen is based at the building formerly called Riverside House on Riverside Drive. The 55,000sq ft building has been completely refurbished and features a gym including a bike suite, steam room and sauna, a golf simulator, and a juice bar, as well as more traditional things you might expect in an office space including conference facilities, training rooms and hot desks. All the facilities are available on a flexible basis, meaning no one is required to sign lengthy rental contracts.
“These long leases for five, 10 or 15 years are a thing of the past,” she said. “What is good about Neospace is if you are a start-up business it is flexible and you can grow or if you are a bigger company you can use it to downscale a bit.”
Speaking via Zoom from her home in the Isle of Man, the Baroness, who was made a life peer in 2015, said: “I love Aberdeen.” She recalled how she travelled to the city often in the earliest stages of her career when she worked for a beer company before founding her famous lingerie firm, Ultimo. “Even before I started Ultimo I used to visit Aberdeen when I was running Labatts. Aberdeen and Glasgow were my most profitable areas,” she said.
Mr Barrowman acquired the building in 2013 – at the height of an oil price-driven property market boom – for around £14million through his company, Aston Property Ventures. It was the largest building in the couple’s commercial property portfolio when they decided to make it the first Neospace. Ms Mone estimates the couple’s Scottish portfolio reflects over £100million in investment.
We are big investors in Scotland, I don’t think many people know that.”
“We are big investors in Scotland, I don’t think many people know that,” she said. Ms Mone was born in Glasgow as was Mr Barrowman, and she said the couple travel often between their homes in London, Scotland and Isle of Man. “We have buildings in Aberdeen, Stirling, Edinburgh, Ayr and loads in Glasgow.
“We could have opened this up anywhere but because we are both Scottish and we looked at the biggest building we had in Scotland.
“We are all or nothing. That is what the two of us are like, we just do it.”
She admitted that the investment was a “gamble” but one she is confident will be a success. She envisages it will be rolled out across other properties in the couple’s portfolio or to other landlords looking to adapt their office properties to something more suitable to post-Covid work patterns. She added that the couple plan to grow the concept organically, first across the UK, adding: “We’d love to grow it internationally”.
We are entrepreneurs and we have always taken gambles here and there.”
“Will this be a loss for Doug and I? We are entrepreneurs and we have always taken gambles here and there. I don’t think it will be – before you know it, it will be oversold.
“We have ideas about other buildings we have in Aberdeen and if landlords want us to do a Neospace, they can contact us. We do need it to work – I hope the people that live in Aberdeen will love it and the effort we have put into it.
“A lot of people have been saying ‘why are you investing in Aberdeen?’. The oil trade is going down and they are saying that would be the last place some of our friend entrepreneurs would invest in. But we have taken the risk because we believe in it. I’m not saying that Doug and I are going to change it all, but if people like Doug and I come in – £18m is a lot of money – then others will follow. It just takes a few to start something.”
Once travel restrictions continue to ease, Ms Mone said she and Mr Barrowman plan to spend more time in the Granite city where their efforts will focus on using Neospace to grow Aberdeen’s entrepreneurial culture.
She said: “Doug and myself have our own office there as well. I’ll be hosting some women in business events and we will also host some events together.”
She added that Mr Barrowman, whose Knox group of companies is estimated to have assets worth about £3billion employing over 350 people, will be chipping in to provide the refreshments.
“He said he’s going to buy the wine and cheese, that will be nice,” she added.
She said the project “grew arms and legs” during the pandemic, exceeding an initial budget plan of £500,000 as the couple considered how the pandemic has changed the proposition for bricks-and-mortar and also what would have appealed to them when they were building their businesses.
“Doug loves golf so we said let’s have a golf simulator. I said let’s have a steam room. I love a bike studio so let’s have one of those. And we need healthy juices. It just grew arms and legs,” she said.
“I am so proud of Neospace, which has been a real labour of love born during lockdown. We need to work on wellbeing and life balance – that is what Neospace does.
“I remember going all day at Ultimo and you didn’t have anything to eat that was healthy, you didn’t have the chance to work out for just ten minutes or get rid of your frustration and hit a few golf balls.
“With both of us being entrepreneurs we both know what we would have loved when we started.”
Ms Mone worries that Scotland’s entrepreneurial culture has “died a death a little bit”. Part of the inspiration behind Neospace came from her independent review to help increase business start-ups, which was commissioned by then Prime Minister David Cameron and published in 2016.
“Doing my government review, those suggestions were brought into Neospace, like entrepreneurial nights where it’s all about the networking and people not feeling lonely. This is more than a space it’s a community. It is growing that community so they will eventually do business together as well.
Scotland used to be incredible for entrepreneurialism but I think it has died a death a little bit. Maybe projects like this will bring that sparkle again.”
“Scotland used to be incredible for entrepreneurialism but I think it has died a death a little bit. Maybe projects like this will bring that sparkle again.
“When I started Ultimo there was that massive spirit and lots of networking events. I don’t really see many of them – yes, because of the pandemic, but even before the pandemic I didn’t see a lot going on that was going on when I started.”
She said she has relished taking on the project with her husband, whom she married just late last year after the Covic-19 pandemic had forced the couple to postpone the wedding date three times.
“It has been fun doing it together with Doug and we have a good team as well. We are very much the same – we have the same passion. But I know what is not my area and where to get involved.”
When asked what she has learned during the pandemic she said that spending time family and friends – as well as the couple’s three new new cocker spaniel puppies – is an important part of creating a better work/life balance.
“For me personally it’s wanting to spend more time with family and friends. It helped us both realise that. Having more time for the two of us as well – for example, Friday morning we work but the afternoon is ours, we make time to take the puppies out and everyone else can, quite frankly, wait.
“The 21st century concept of Neospace is work, rest and play. When I started my business it was all work. There was no rest at all and certainly no play – none whatsoever.
I lost 21 years of my life dedicated to Ultimo and three kids. I’m not complaining – that was then, this is now.”
“I lost 21 years of my life dedicated to Ultimo and three kids. I’m not complaining – that was then, this is now. It is fascinating how all of us can work now – we are getting that work/life balance.”
Aimed at businesses that are embarking on taking a hybrid approach to work as the UK emerges from lockdown, Neospace in Aberdeen offers 78 tech-led private offices, 20 co-working “flexi-pods” and nine meeting rooms, supported by additional break out spaces and collaboration hubs. Costs start at £30 per for a day pass or £150 per month for a hot desk or a premium desk for £450 per month.
To find out more about Ms Mone’s latest venture, visit www.neo-space.com