When something or someone is described as unique, a lot of pressure rests on that person or business to live up to its billing and not be ordinary or even mundane. One quick look at the portfolio and services offered by consultants LK2, and you quickly realise that it’s an entirely appropriate description of the company created and developed by its Managing Director Dale Lui.
From humble beginnings, the Nettleham-based company now boasts a unique blend of services in architecture, building development, and the sport and leisure industry, with offices in Lincolnshire and London.
The business was developed by Dale, 53, from his bedroom 22 years ago, with turnover in the first year a modest £10,000. Fast forward two decades and annual turnover stands at nearer £2 million, having increased dramatically through the company’s diversification in recent years.
The growth is all the more remarkable and impressive considering that architecture wasn’t an immediate passion for Dale, but something he grew to love.
While studying at the Hull School of Architecture, Dale met fellow LK2 Director Andrew Kitchen, who has been at the company since its inception. The two were reunited at Benoy Ltd in Newark but even at this point, architecture still took a back seat.
“Music is my passion and it always has been,” Dale says with a smile. “When I was at Benoy, I used to be in a group and we used to go out gigging about three times a week. The guys used to pick me up from the office at 4.30pm and we used to go down to Sinfin in Derby, Northampton, all across the Midlands. I would get back about 3am and be back in the office by 9am, so it was a bit of a challenge!”
After being made redundant at Benoy and giving up the bright lights of Sinfin and Northampton, Dale created his own company – Dale Lui Architectural Designs – brought his old colleague Andrew on board as a partner, and the two have not looked back since.
A key breakthrough
While the core of LK2 remains its architectural specialism, the burgeoning sport and leisure side of the company is what seems to get Dale most enthusiastic and passionate.
A key breakthrough in the development of this side of the business came by delivering the Lincolnshire FA building next door to LK2’s offices on the Deepdale Lane enterprise park in 2010.
Dale set up a sports development company following this project and in the years that have followed, he has forged strong relationships with the FA and Sport England.
Following the success of the Lincolnshire FA scheme, LK2 has 15 similar buildings on the go all across the country now.
Another project Dale speaks with great pride about is the £6 million sports complex in Stamford completed early last year. The sports centre included a new stadium for Stamford AFC, plus various sports science and teaching facilities, a sports hall and 3G pitch. It was the largest FA funded project aside from the national football centre at St George’s Park near Burton.
More importantly, the scheme acted as a springboard for the FA’s parklife initiative, revitalising grassroots football facilities in England. Former FA chairman Greg Dyke gave the project his seal of approval, recommending it as a model to be adopted around the country.
Such was the success of the Burghley project that LK2 is now delivering the first two parklife initiatives in London.
The number of staff employed by the company has also nearly doubled over the last three years, due in large part to the success of its sports arm. To cater for this expansion, Dale set up a London office a couple of years ago, bringing in experience from the FA and a former head of the Football Foundation for nine years.
Despite his close links to the beautiful game on a professional level, Dale perhaps wisely confesses that he is not a football fan, describing himself as “more of a rugby man”.
“Creating a destination”
Central to Dale and LK2’s vision is about “creating a destination” for people to go to, which matches their expectations and is not just restricted to more traditional activities such as football, cricket and rugby.
Key projects delivered by the company in recent years include refurbishment of the retail outlet scheme at Xscape leisure complex at Glasshoughton in West Yorkshire, complete with a snow slope, bowling alley and surf simulator, plus cinema and restaurants.
A project Dale is especially proud of is LK2’s £20 million shopping centre refurb in Ipswich. This development will see a Pure Gym, 12 cinemas, and numerous restaurants created.
“It’s all about creating a destination where people want to go. I have a little lad who’s 13 and is not interested in playing cricket, football or rugby anymore. He wants to go BMXing and trampolining, and so we’re injecting a lot of these sort of things into our commercial projects now.
“We’re now revisiting a lot of those outlet centres and retail parks that are a bit tired and old, and trying to make them destinations.
“Moving forward, we’re looking at developing more multi-million pound schemes, upwards of £20 million.”
National projects, local focus
Although LK2 has delivered significant multi-million pound projects right across the country, Dale is keen to focus on the strong relationships the company has forged with both Lincoln universities over the last few decades.
The company takes on at least two graduates from Lincoln every single year, giving them a hands-on grounding in the architectural business – not “sat by desks doing pretty drawings”, as Dale puts it.
However, the relationship LK2 has with the local education sector stretches far further than merely taking on graduates.
Dale is particularly proud of the company’s close ties with Bishop Grosseteste University in uphill Lincoln, who they have worked with for the past 16 years.
Over £9 million worth of projects at BGU in the last five years have been developed by LK2. Just last month, city councillors granted planning permission to a significant expansion of the university, with a new teaching block to be doubled in size.
All of this links into Dale’s belief that consumers and customers are now expecting more from the services they use, with universities now no different to multi-million pound leisure facilities that LK2 has specialised in.
“The education sector is now better understanding the requirements of students. Students have to pay a lot of money in tuition fees and there is an expectation that you get something for that.”
Opportunities to grasp
Like many companies, LK2 was hit hard in the years following the global financial crash. At the peak of the recession, some of the directors were not paid for large periods of time, to ensure that staff continued to receive their wages.
Only the company’s own developments kept them going, as work from outside dried up.
As a new potential financial storm is on its way following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, Dale is more upbeat about how his company can adapt and prosper while others flounder.
“We’ve changed our attitude to how we do things. We now engage and work closely with a number of national architects. If there’s an area of work we come into and we don’t have the specialism or experience for, we go to another and help them deliver us the project.
“We now generate around 60% of our own work through our unique blend of services.”
Regarding Brexit more specifically, Dale has been meeting clients from Europe just this week in the sport and leisure industry.
“Our profile is massively expanding in the sport and leisure industry, and to have people travelling all the way up to little old Lincoln from Italy and Germany for a couple of days is extremely positive.
“We’ve held meetings these last few weeks mainly in the sport and leisure industry who are actually taking a very positive look on this, and we’re doing the same. I think it’s an opportunity for us to revitalise what we have, and it something that we’re looking to grasp with both hands.
“I know some of my major retail clients are a bit concerned. I think the downturn has been down to not knowing what’s been going on and what the future holds. But I think the way that we’re trying to build our business now through our unique blend of services means that we’re looking to create a recession-proof service.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 91 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.