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How and why Stewart Milne collapsed: analysing the numbers

By Daniel Gayne 2024-01-31T06:00:00+00:00

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The collapse of the well-known Scottish housebuilder has shocked many within the housing sector. As  Daniel Gayne finds out, the firm’s balance sheets over the past few years provide some clues as to what went wrong 

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Source: Shutterstock

Stewart Milne founded his construction firm in Aberdeen in 1975

The collapse of the Stewart Milne Group earlier this mont h left many in the industry scratching their heads. How such a large housebuilder could find itself in administration? And is its failure a bad omen for the rest of the housing sector? 

Building   took a look at the firm’s accounts going back nearly a decade to find out how this once healthy firm fell into trouble and discovered a homegrown crisis of dwindling assets rooted in the slump in the oil-linked property market around Aberdeen and the firm’s hesitance to buy land during Covid.  

The seeds of the crisis at Stewart Milne go back to the middle of the last decade in 2015, when the housebuilder was posting a profit of £5m and held £107m in net assets. 

There was, however, a bad omen contained within that set of accounts, with the north-east of Scotland market – the firm’s spiritual home – noted to be “experiencing challenging conditions as a result of the low price of North Sea oil”. However the company said it remained “optimistic” about the Aberdeen market despite the challenges. 

The following year (FY16) the firm attributed a drop in turnover to the “sustained reduction in the global oil price” impacting the north-east Scotland market. In FY17 it announced that it had decided to reduce investment in new sites in the region until demand recovered. 

It was not until FY19 that troubles in the north-east were reflected on Stewart Milne’s balance sheet. A drop in the price of oil in the middle of the 2010s had hit the Aberdeen property market and the annual accounts accordingly read: “The housing market has remained challenging since the collapse in global oil and gas pricing in 2015 and the company has recorded losses in this division since that time.  

“These losses generally stem not only from lower activity levels but also from the fact that land was acquired prior to 2015 and therefore held at a higher price than reflected in the current market. The group has therefore performed a full valuation of both our actively developed sites and also those held on the balance sheet but not under development.  

“In order to reflect current market positions and the group’s strategy regarding future sites, an exceptional operating charge of £42.8m has been recorded in this period’s profit and loss account, principally related to asset impairment.” 

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A drop in the price of oil in the middle of the 2010s hit the Aberdeen property market

From FY19 onwards, the firm was evidently in some trouble, posting negative net assets of between £48m and £61m in its final three sets of accounts. 

There was some progress made during these years to correct course. Liabilities were reduced from 2019 onwards after a strategic review in 2020 and 2021 which saw it pivot toward becoming a dedicated housebuilder.

The timber system division was sold to James Donaldson Group in December 2021 for gross sale proceeds of £66.3m. Using the disposal proceeds, the business repaid £61m of its debt facility to the Bank of Scotland, reducing this facility to £114.3m. 

According to a pro forma balance sheet presented with the FY21 accounts, had this sale been completed during the financial year, it would have just marginally returned the business to a positive net asset position of £41,000 (compared with the -£61.4m recorded in the statutory results). 

Meanwhile, a group subsidiary, Countesswells Development Limited, which oversaw the development of a new town in Aberdeenshire, was placed into administration in November 2021, resulting in a reduction of £86m to the group’s net debt, according to the pro-forma balance sheet.

In April 2022, the company was put up for sale, but the process was paused eight months later citing “uncertainty in the market” after Liz Truss’ disastrous mini-Budget. 

However, Stewart Milne’s efforts to reduce its liabilities, which were accompanied ultimately by a return to profit (FY22: £16.6m), did not keep pace with the decline in the value of its net assets. 

shutterstock_1788881507

Covid saw many housebuilders pause or reduce land purchases. For Stewart Milne, it could not have come at a worse time.

Successive write-downs in the value of stock from the October 2019 accounts onwards took a cumulative £89m off the balance sheet. A final write-down of £16.3m in the FY22 accounts was part of a group of exceptional operating items totalling £41.4m. 

According to the FY22 accounts, the business had also reduced its investment in land during Covid. The decline in the value of stock resulting from these two factors was the main cause for a decline in its total assets, which ultimately outpaced the progress made on reducing its liabilities. 

Stewart Milne Timber Systems

The sale of Stewart Milne’s timber systems business helped relieve some liabilities, but it was not ultimately enough to compensate for the fall in the value of the group’s assets

In its final set of accounts (FY22), the business posted negative net current assets (-£32.6m) for the first time in the period examined by Housing Today (FY15 to FY22), meaning its liabilities falling within one year of the end of the financial year outweighed assets that the company could quickly make liquid. 

Despite this, the directors of the company continued to believe in Stewart Milne Group Ltd as a going concern. After the year end (FY22), the company extended its credit facilities with Bank of Scotland through to 30 June 2024, providing the “necessary platform for the group to seek a new buyer” and allowing it to continue to acquire new sites to enable business growth.  

Stewart Milne’s auditor, KPMG, drew attention to the fact that “requirements of the company’s bank facility include the completion of milestones in 2023 in this sale process”, which was restarted in May 2023. 

The auditor also observed that “certain amounts owed by the company to related parties are forecast not to be called for repayment during the going concern assessment period”, noting that these two facts were material risks for the company. 

Nonetheless, according to the accounts, the business’ directors believed – “based on their evaluation and inquiries” – that the sale of the company and its refinancing would be completed in 2023 and that “until then, amounts falling due by the group to related parties will not be called for repayment”. 

But on January 8 this year, it was announced that Teneo had been appointed as administrators for the group. Teneo director Adele MacLeod said the “downturn in the UK housing market combined with an extensive sales process not resulting in any viable offers” had led to the decision.

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Stewart Milne, founder of the housebuilder of the same name

At the time, the business’ founder, the eponymous Stewart Milne, came out with a statement which said that two bids had been submitted for the company, one of which he believed could have “delivered a comparable financial return to administration”.

However it appears that the bank, which accepted neither bid and withdrew its funding, had finally run out of patience. 

When contacted by Building, Stewart Milne declined to comment.

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How does Stewart Milne's collapse affect the Scottish housing market?

After the house builder fell into administration this week, Insider asks whether other developers are also at risk

  • 09:29, 12 JAN 2024
  • Updated 10:50, 17 JAN 2024

Stewart Milne Homes Dargavel Villlage development

The UK housing market's problems have been well reported, not least on Insider's pages, but the collapse of Stewart Milne Group earlier this week was nonetheless shocking.

Only last summer the Aberdeen-headquartered group was put back on sale after posting a pre-tax profit of £16.5m from a turnover of £172.3m in the year to 31 October 2022. But house sales have since dropped by nearly 30%, with turnover also down by £48.7m.

Administrators Teneo blamed the wider market downturn and an unsuccessful sale process, while the eponymous founder noted that while two bids were submitted, "the bank [Lloyds] has not accepted either bid and withdrawn its funding", which left directors faced with making 217 staff redundant .

"I am devastated by this totally unexpected outcome of the sale process and struggling to accept it, given the profound impact it will have on employees, sub-contractors, suppliers and customers," added Milne.

Unite the union - represents more than 60 tradespersons at the company - reacted angrily that workers were given no notice of the change and is now exploring a protective award against Stewart Milne due to lack of consultation.

John Clark, Unite industrial officer, said the action was potentially illegal, adding: "It’s vital that the Scottish Government and the local authorities in which the company has a presence work with Unite to explore how we can find suitable alternative employment for the workers including on public contracts as a priority."

Hundreds of sub-contractor roles have been impacted, while trade roles working on the house builder's sites will also go. Teneo stated that options were being explored to work with other developers on the completion of unfinished sites, but it begs the question of how rival builders are set to weather the storm?

stewart milne yacht

The sector state of play

The day after Stewart Milne's administration, news broke of Merchant Homes Partnerships appointing provisional liquidators .

The house builder, established in 2007, specialised in the private and social residential sectors, and at its peak achieved £21m in turnover. But again, "challenging" trading conditions - with increasing costs, inflationary pressures, unforeseen delays to new contacts and a general downturn in buyer confidence - were blamed in a statement from Opus Restructuring & Insolvency.

While there are currently no suggestions that other Scottish developers are in such trouble, recent results statements have painted a mixed picture for the sector.

In September, Elgin-based Springfield Properties paused all speculative private housing development and announced that it would only build to order for the time being.

Results for the year ended 31 May 2023 showed that while revenue rose 29% to £332.1m, operating profit fell from £21.5m to £20m and statutory profit before tax was also down, from £19.7m to £15.3m year-on-year.

While it was a record year of completions - up from 1,242 to 1,301 year-on-year - in recent months there have been "significantly lower levels of reservations in private housing" due to demand being impacted by high interest rates, mortgage affordability and reduced confidence.

Springfield has turned to selling parts of its land bank to help reduce debt, with the latest deal for approximately 45 acres bringing in £4.2m.

Elsewhere, Harbour Homes - formerly known as the Port of Leith Housing Association - warned in October that the rent freeze and rising costs meant its new developments are not financially viable.

The organisation confirmed that it is stopping projects, stating: "As we do not know when external conditions will enable us to start again, we’ve been left with no choice but to advise colleagues in our development team that they are at risk of redundancy."

However, Cala Group recently outlined its intention to continue a site acquisition drive, having contracted 24 new sites - capable of delivering around 4,500 new homes - during 2023.

Chief executive Kevin Whitaker commented in December: "While economic factors have affected buyer confidence, we believe in the underlying fundamentals of the new homes market.

"There remains a steady demand from our customer base, for larger living spaces in the desirable suburban locations in which we build."

Taylor Wimpey said the housing market remains uncertain in the near term, as it enters the new year with a reduced order book.

Full year operating profit should still be at the top end of its guidance range of £440m to £470m, but total group completions - including joint ventures - fell from 14,154 in 2022 to 10,848.

Chief executive Jennie Daly commented: "Looking ahead, it is encouraging to see a reduction in mortgage rates, however, in the short term the market remains uncertain and the planning backdrop extremely challenging."

Persimmon this week stated that it enters 2024 with private forward sales ahead of last year, driven by the year-on-year improvement in fourth quarter sales. Private sales in the forward order book are up by around 11%, with a circa 4% increase in value to £499m.

The UK-wide group said it completed the sale of 9,922 new homes - down by a third from the previous year but ahead of previous guidance - with market conditions remaining "highly uncertain during 2024", particularly for first-time buyers and with an election likely this year.

Cala Group chief executive Kevin Whitaker

Wider market predictions

Responding to Stewart Milne's administration, the chief executive of home building sector body Homes for Scotland, Jane Wood, said that the country is in the midst of an intensifying housing crisis.

"It further evidences the wide-ranging challenges facing home builders, from the planning system to the cumulative impact of other policy decisions.

"The Scottish Government must now demonstrate that it fully recognises sector concerns and take urgent action to ensure that providing the new homes of all tenures that Scotland requires is prioritised and positively facilitated."

Responding to questions in Parliament from Conservative MSP Douglas Lumsden, Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray said he had met with Teneo and that he "made clear to them that I want to see every possible support to be offered to affected staff, contractors, suppliers and homebuyers".

A statement from the Scottish Government went on to say: "The combined challenges caused by Brexit and economic mismanagement by the UK Government have triggered various issues, including the rising cost of construction supplies, workforce challenges and increased mortgage costs.

"Despite the challenges, the housing sector has done incredible work to deliver thousands of homes in recent years and we will continue working with partners to mitigate these impacts in 2024."

John Boyle, director of research at Scottish estate agent Rettie & Co, said that it may take a long time for the supply chain impact of the Stewart Milne situation to clear.

"The Scottish new build industry has been disproportionately affected by the slowdown in demand caused by the sharp rise in mortgage rates from autumn 2022, as well as dealing with various supply and cost issues in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic," he explained.

New build sales were down 15% in Scotland in 2023 and new build starts fell by around a quarter in the year to September.

"However, it is very unlikely that we will see a domino effect of other large house builders going bust," Boyle noted. "Most now are well-capitalised and have been more adept at managing their costs since the industry got into real difficulties at the time of the 2008 crisis.

"Getting our SMEs back into the game has been a challenge though – many were wiped out in 08/09 and the cost of development land and finance and land act as a barrier to entry."

Gordon Nelson, Scotland director at the Federation of Master Builders, told Insider that he has heard countless examples from members of the impact of soaring inflation, high interest rates and the cost-of-living crisis on trading conditions.

"For many there are concerns that the news regarding Stewart Milne Group paints an unwelcome picture of the health of the wider housebuilding and construction industry.

"Within FMB’s membership, our SME house builders who specialise in small-scale developments continue to battle with delays in the planning system and accessing affordable finance.

"There is no doubt that the current environment is very tough for house builders - the Scottish Government’s statistics on new housing starts support this - however there has been a chronic under supply of new homes in Scotland for years.

"Developers, whether they be national, regional or local, know this - with large lenders beginning to cut mortgage prices, there are indications that demand for new build private housing will recover and rise in the months ahead," he added.

Meanwhile, there were upbeat words from Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey, who recently told the Treasury Select Committee that while some households were clearly facing difficult times, there was not the same kind of stress among homeowners that was witnessed during the global financial crisis.

"Repossessions haven’t spiked and falling rates from lenders coupled with a resilient jobs market mean it’s an improving picture for this segment of the population," he said to MPs, adding that the wider economy had entered the new year in better shape than expected.

The Midlothian homeowner has told of his two-year hell living in a Stewart Milne home. (Image: Edinburgh Live)

What about homeowners and buyers?

Under the macro economic outlook and the trading of property developers are the concerns of those looking to buy, sell or just continue to live in a new build house in the UK.

Search for any of the house builders listed above via social media and it quickly becomes apparent that many are unhappy with what's being delivered.

Our sister site Edinburgh Live reported this week on the 18-month 'hell' of living in a Stewart Milne property plagued by a long list of repairs that still need attention.

Paul Smith moved into the new-build property in Midlothian with his family in May 2022 and has been escalating his concerns with the company ever since.

"As an owner of a Stewart Milne home, I am not surprised they have gone into administration, they have been an absolutely awful company to deal with and it has been a horrendous experience from the get-go.

"I am now worried about the snagging list that is now extending over two years on the property, but also the street that I and my family are living on, and that is my biggest concern, especially about the warranty on the work that is yet to be completed.

"I think the houses are built OK, but they just need all the finishing touches to be fixed and I am fairly sure I will be the one to tweak all of the cosmetic snagging myself, and I am not happy about it."

Allison Briggs, a member of the Stewart Milne Victims group of Facebook, also contacted Insider to state that it has been growing in size over the last five years.

"HML Group, which Stewart Milne use for management, have left the houses and estates in a mess for years, so I'm not surprised it's gone bump.

"There's a sink hole on one of the road in Sandbach and they refused to do anything, so I got it on the Jeremy Vine radio show, and they repaired it, but now it's slowly coming back - I doubt they will fix that," she added.

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Stewart Milne Group: Where did it all go wrong?

And why did the company's bank abandon its support?

Stewart Milne.

North-east construction tycoon Stewart Milne should have been enjoying his retirement by now.

The former Aberdeen Football Club chairman had hoped to be spending a lot more of his time between homes in Aberdeen, Perthshire and Turkey.

And he had expected his pension pot to be boosted by around £7.5 million from the sale of a luxury mansion in Bieldside Aberdeen.

But the 73-year-old’s house remains unsold after more than 18 months .

And he’s just watched his business, Stewart Milne Group (SMG), collapse nearly 50 years after he founded it .

Mr Milne has been trying to sell Dalhebity House in Bieldside, Aberdeen, for more than 18 months.

SMG  put itself up for sale in April 2022 .

The sale process and Mr Milne’s retirement plans were put on hold for a while after the catastrophic mini-Budget introduced during Liz Truss’s brief reign as prime minister.

But last July SMG said market conditions had improved and it was speaking to suitors again .

The group also reported its best annual profits – £16.5 million from continuing operations at the pre-tax level – for almost a decade. Figures were boosted by a £48.1m gain from the sale of a £100m turnover timber systems business in December 2021.

Stewart Milne Homes' Charleston Cove development in Aberdeen.

SMG would have been in the red again – after losses of £13.1m in the 2020-21 trading year – were it not for the sale of Stewart Milne Timber Systems to Fife-based James Donaldson & Sons for an undisclosed sum .

But chief executive Stuart MacGregor and chief financial officer Fraser Park told The Press and Journal new homes in Scotland and north-west England were selling well.

SMG also reported a “strong” cash position at the year end, October 31, 2022, with £15.8m left in the kitty after the firm repaid £61m of debt to the Bank of Scotland.

Housebuilder’s bullish outlook

According to accounts lodged at Companies House, the bank later extended a £114m overdraft until June 30 2024.

SMG was bullish last summer about the prospects for a takeover deal, with bosses reporting a “serious level of interest” in the business.

So, what happened and why has the bank seemingly pulled the rug from under SMG?

Mr Milne insists there was a way forward for SMG

According to Mr Milne, SMG received two takeover bids amid “significant interest”.

He added: “The bank has not accepted either bid and withdrawn its funding, which left the directors with no option but to appoint administrators.

“I tried everything I could to find a way to achieve a better outcome for the business and the people who depend on it.”

According to Mr Milne, one of the bids could have delivered a “comparable, financial return to administration” and, crucially, allowed the business to continue to operate.

But the bank’s patience ran dry

But from the bank’s point of view, market prospects are no longer as rosy as they were in the initial post-pandemic phase, when there was a burst in property buying activity.

The cost-of-living crisis and higher interest rates have curtailed demand. Many parts of the UK have suffered a corresponding drop in house prices.

Bank of Scotland’s patience after years of relatively high debt levels at SMG wore thin.

Bank of Scotland logo.

A spokeswoman for the bank highlighted “several years of support and forbearance” as well as “multiple maturity extensions” to SMG’s borrowing.

Meanwhile, sources have told The Press and Journal profits at the Westhiill, Aberdeenshire-based housebuilder were just not big enough to keep SMG’s security holder on side.

We’ve also learned the two offers for the business, including one from Mr Milne, came much too late in the day to make them a “viable” option.

The business, we were told, could not be saved.

More housebuilding woes

SMG is not the only Scottish housebuilder to hit the skids recently.

Shares in Alternative Investment Market-listed Springfield tumbled on September 20 after it revealed a slump in profits .

It also warned of reduced market demand and announced a freeze on new projects.

Since then, Elgin-based Springfield has been focused on reducing its debt “to be in a stronger position for when normalised market demand returns”.

A key part of this are land sales to bring in cash without hurting the development pipeline.

A Springfield showhome.

Last month Springfield said demand for its private sector homes “remains stable but subdued” .

Despite the sluggish sales, the company was confident of meeting market expectations for the year to May 31 2024. Further down the line, it expects to benefit from increased demand for homes to support the new Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport.

Springfield builds homes in  Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and Moray, as well as on Tayside and in Fife and the central belt .

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IMAGES

  1. Stephen Milne, Riviera's Brand & Communications Director, in the

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  2. John Kerry Yachts During Egyptian Crises

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  3. Riviera's Stephen Milne with Natalie Imbruglia and Guy Sebastian on

    stewart milne yacht

  4. Unite exploring legal action after collapse of Stewart Milne Group

    stewart milne yacht

  5. Gran devastated as Stewart Milne house of horrors exposed with more

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  6. Classic Britain yacht

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COMMENTS

  1. Stewart Milne: The rise and fall of a housebuilding giant - BBC

    The collapse of the Stewart Milne Group has cost hundreds of jobs and left families across the country facing uncertainty over their new homes.

  2. How and why Stewart Milne collapsed: analysing the numbers

    Stewart Milne founded his construction firm in Aberdeen in 1975. The collapse of the Stewart Milne Group earlier this mont h left many in the industry scratching their heads. How such a large housebuilder could find itself in administration? And is its failure a bad omen for the rest of the housing sector?

  3. Rags to riches: How multi-millionaire Stewart Milne rose to ...

    With Stewart Milne announcing his retirement, we searched our archives to find Moreen Simpson's epic feature on the businessman's rags to riches tale.

  4. How does Stewart Milne's collapse affect the Scottish housing ...

    Stewart Milne's Dargavel Villlage development. The UK housing market's problems have been well reported, not least on Insider's pages, but the collapse of Stewart Milne Group earlier this week was nonetheless shocking.

  5. Stewart Milne - Wikipedia

    Stewart Milne CBE, DBA, DTech (born 23 July 1950) is a Scottish businessman and former football club chairman, from Alford, Aberdeenshire. Milne is a major shareholder in Aberdeen F.C., and joined the club's board of directors in 1994 to replace Dick Donald, subsequently becoming chairman in 1998.

  6. Stewart Milne Group’s collapse leaves staff and creditors in ...

    The collapse of the Stewart Milne Group (SMG) and its subsidiari­es with debts in excess of £350 million has sent shockwaves through the constructi­on industry. Among those affected are ordinary unsecured creditors, comprising suppliers, customers and contractor­s, who find themselves owed nearly £154m.

  7. Stewart Milne Group owed £189m when it failed – Daily Business

    Stewart Milne Group left a £189 million pile of debts to suppliers, customers and other creditors when it collapsed last month. Of the total, around £120m was to the two lenders Bank of Scotland and Homes England both of whom has first ranking security over the company’s assets.

  8. Stewart Milne Group went bust owing hundreds of millions

    February 23 2024, 6:00 am. Stewart Milne Group (SMG) and subsidiaries which are also in administration collapsed owing hundreds of millions of pounds. Ordinary, unsecured creditors including...

  9. Housebuilder Stewart Milne Group reports strong recovery - BBC

    The company, which was put up for for sale last month following the retiral of founder Stewart Milne, saw turnover from its housebuilding operations climb by £16m to £209m.

  10. Stewart Milne Group: Where did it all go wrong?

    North-east construction tycoon Stewart Milne should have been enjoying his retirement by now. The former Aberdeen Football Club chairman had hoped to be spending a lot more of his time between...