Thirty years ago, they were sitting next to each other on their first day at Skelton Infants’ School, and they’ve been best friends ever since.
Now, they’ve swapped the classroom for the boardroom at the rapidly-expanding SDDE Smith Group – proud to still be based in their hometown yet having a national impact.
Dale is Chief Executive, Gary is Chief Operating Officer, and together they’re building something special. The group of multiple brands – ‘providing end-to-end client services for the real estate sector’ – employs more than 400 people and is committed to investing in the area where Dale and Gary were born and raised.
“Dale was the clever one, and I was the one always looking over his shoulder to copy his work,” smiles Gary, modestly. “It was me who got thrown out of class for chucking a rubber at someone, even though it was probably Dale’s idea!”
It’s easy to imagine their school reports: “Dale is a calm, quiet, and thoughtful boy who is sure to do well.”“Gary is an exuberant, rather loud, and impulsive child who needs to talk less in class.”
“We’ve never changed,” admits Dale. We’re totally different but our personalities complement each other perfectly.”
After meeting at infants’ school, the pair remained friends throughout childhood and started playing football together in the under-six team for Teesside Athletic, which became Redcar Athletic. They were both talented players, selected for Middlesbrough FC Academy, but, again, their styles were totally different.
“Dale was technically gifted, lean and quick, whereas I was never quick and more of the terrier-type,” recalls Gary.
After their education, they went their separate ways. Gary continued with football, playing for various clubs in the Northern League from 16 to 32, and ending up back at Redcar Athletic. Dale, however, broke his leg and went on to excel at golf, playing for England’s under-16 team, and earning a golf scholarship in America.
When he returned, he followed his dad, Shaun, into the motor industry, becoming the first to join the Vertu graduate scheme before moving to Scotland to work for Peter Vardy. He started as a marketing executive and was on the board as commercial director by the time he was 25.
Dale and his dad had also been building up a buy-to-let property portfolio, and they bought a bungalow at Saltburn. Called Burnsyde Beach House, it was turned into a holiday let, with Shaun doing the refurbishment, Dale managing the marketing, and his mum, Diane, looking after the housekeeping side.
It was the first piece in the jigsaw that grew into The SDDE Smith Group, with the business officially launched in March 2017. By the end of 2018, there were nine holiday homes – two of them owned by the family and the rest managed for other people.
Host & Stay – the first of the group’s subsidiary companies – was launched in January 2019, and it now comprises more than 900 luxury holiday properties.
Another piece fell into place a year later after Dale had a conversation with Jo Grey, who worked for a law firm and looked after all the conveyancing for Host & Stay. “We should set up a law business and do it ourselves,” he suggested. And, so, they did, with Grey-Smith Legal being established and starting to practise in January 2021.
While all this was happening, Gary, the son of a bricklayer, had become an apprentice joiner with Tolent Construction, and his strong work ethic saw him quickly climb the ladder.
At 19, he was managing the maintenance team at Redcar steelworks and he went on to project-manage a string of increasingly large developments, including Tees Valley Hospital, and the biggest biomass power station in Europe.
When Gary saw a Linkedin post, promoting a vacancy at Dale’s new law business, he contacted his old school friend to ask if he’d consider taking on his partner, Sammy, who was working for another legal firm but looking for a new challenge.
Not only did Dale appoint Sammy as a conveyancer – Grey-Smith Legal’s first employee – but he asked her: “See if Gary fancies launching a construction business!”
By this time, Gary had built a strong reputation in the construction industry. He had the knowledge, the contacts, and was known for getting things done, so the friends reunited to launch Woodsmith Construction in March 2021.
That first-year target for Woodsmith Construction was £1m turnover but, with Gary providing the drive as managing director, it achieved £1.7m. High-profile clients included Anglo American, British Steel, and Middlesbrough Football Club.
Styled, an interior design business, was added to the group portfolio in July 2021. “It made perfect sense for us to have our own interior design business, so we were in control of the look and feel of our properties,” explains Dale.
The next milestone came in October 2022 when the group acquired Cochrane’s law firm, doubling the size of Grey-Smith Legal, with offices in Stockton and Billingham being added to existing locations in Skelton and Spennymoor.
With the group continuing to grow fast, a more formal operating board was created at the start of 2023..
That move coincided with an asset purchase acquisition of ‘resicentral’, a business giving property owners, building managers and tenants affordable access to a range of smart technology and automation features, controlled through a single bespoke platform. James Baird, founder of resicentral, was made Group Chief Technical Officer.
Other businesses included in The SDDE Smith Group are:
Holiday Home Housekeeper, providing holiday home housekeeping services across North Yorkshire and Northumberland
Manhatten Property, an estate agency based in East Cleveland, with more than 25 years’ experience
Selwyn Hedgley, an estate agent that’s been established for nearly 50 years, with branches in Redcar and Saltburn
Co Stays – “revolutionising the future of hospitality”
Roam & Stay – providing luxurious motorhome adventures
– Investicity, offering an end-to-end property investment service
It all adds up to a very impressive success story. Of the 350-plus employees, 57 per cent are from Redcar and Cleveland, and revenue has doubled each year. Last year, turnover reached £16m, the forecast for 2023 is £30m, and the plan is to keep on doubling year-on-year.
“We’re a unique one-stop shop for the real estate sector, with each element of the group complementing the others, and we’re always looking for other services that would fit what we do,” says Dale.
In May this year, the group bought a Liverpool business, called Host So Simple, adding 100 properties to the Host & Stay portfolio. At the start of September, the purchase of a Canterbury business, Blue Fox Rentals, added another 30, and deals are in the pipeline that will add at least another 100.
So, what of the future? “The aim is just to keep on growing while doing the right things for our customers, staff and the local area,” says Dale, confidently.
Host & Stay is the core business and the ambition is to reach 5,000 properties by the end of 2025, partly through organic growth and the rest through acquisitions.
There is also a focus on achieving accreditation through the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) for all parts of the group, while an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy is also being finalised.
“It’s about getting the business in position so that it can go public in a few years’ time if that’s the route we decide to take,” says Dale.
But it’s not just about profits – it’s also about investing back into the local community. Over the last 12 months, £150,000 has been distributed in charitable donations, supporting 79 charities across Teesside. That grass roots commitment has now been formalised with the launch of The SDDE Smith Group Foundation.
The group has also become a major supporter at Redcar Racecourse, sponsoring the prestigious Straight Mile Series. And one of the proudest moments for Dale and Gary came last year when the group became the owner of Redcar Athletic, the club they played for as little boys.
They are now fathers themselves. Dale and his wife Rachel, who works in Host & Stay, have Etta-Rae, two, and Arete, four, while Gary and Sammy have a 13-year-old daughter, Maddison.
And underpinning everything they do is a newly defined group purpose: To push boundaries to create better places for people to live, work and stay.
“We’re so busy, we don’t often get chance to sit back and look at how much we’ve achieved,” says Dale (thoughtfully).
“But, hey, I definitely think we should be proud of how far we’ve come,” adds Gary (loudly).
Whatever their school reports might have said, the truth is that they are two extremely bright, likeable local lads who’ve done outstandingly well in a part of the world that remains their passion.
One thing’s for sure – no-one could ever write: “Must try harder.”
MEET THE SENIOR TEAM
Chief Executive Officer: Dale Smith
Chief Operating Officer, and MD of Woodsmith Construction: Gary Wood
Chief Technology Officer, and MD of resicentral: James Baird
People and Places Director, and MD of Redcar Athletic FC: Ryan McKnight
Chief Finance Officer: Steve Padgett
Group Financial Controller: Reece Ingham
Group People Manager: Sharon Coates
Commercial Director: Ben Duncan
Legal Director, and MD of Grey-Smith Legal: Jo Grey
To find out more, please go to www.sddesmithgroup.com
Want to work with WOODSmith? No matter the size or scope of your project, they can work with you to take it from concept to reality. Get in touch on 01287 221461 or visit www.woodsmithgroup.com to find out more.