Dickens' great expectations despite hard times for Alba

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PAUL Dickens is smiling again, albeit rather tentatively. But just a few months back he was at the door of despair.

The collapse of the Peter Walker construction group in April was threatening his multi-million pound flagship Edinburgh property project. Even before the failure, problems with unpaid sub-contractors linked to Walker were creating difficulties.

The transformation of the former Bank of Scotland training centre in the Grange was on a knife-edge and the threat of the project's collapse and the implications for his business, family and his staff were constant companions. Today, however, he looks back and describes the situation as a "blessing in disguise".

That's because the problems led to an opportunity that Mr Dickens says might not have arisen for his Alba property business had Loanhead-based Walker - one of Scotland's oldest construction firms - not gone under. While recognising the effect it had on the group's 376 axed workers and the knock-on effects for hundreds of small contractors the firm had, Mr Dickens has made the best of an otherwise difficult situation.

Two years ago, his New Alba property development firm snapped up the former training centre in one of Edinburgh's millionaire heartlands for 3 million. He committed another 3m to the conversion of three main sandstone villas, a coach-house and a scattering of modern villas that he envisaged would lead to luxury homes that would be in great demand. Then Walker collapsed.

"The project was already running over a year late and then the main contractor went bankrupt. That made selling the rest of the properties difficult," explains Mr Dickens.

At that stage, the project was about two-thirds complete. And while the problems in front of him were real, through New Alba's successful sister venture Alba Residential, a portfolio of 50 flats in Aberdeen were sold to finance the remainder of the project.

"I have to say I was down, it was murder," Mr Dickens recalls. "For about 18 months things were really difficult but my family helped me through. For years I had so much enthusiasm then the tough times came and I don't mind admitting I felt it. But I now see it as a blessing in disguise."

That's because the problems at the Grange could act as an answer to an observation Mr Dickens made at his Alba Residential subsidiary.

He said: "Because we are big in the Edinburgh residential letting market we noticed the corporate letting market was really taking off. Among the letting enquiries we were getting were more and more from the corporate end of the market, which is a reflection of the way the city has become."

With a half-finished luxury homes scheme on the table, the original selling plan was partly abandoned and a number of properties were turned into luxury serviced apartments.

"We sold some of the properties and kept the rest to use for short-term corporate lets," explains Mr Dickens.

Retained were the three original blonde sandstone villas, the coach-house and two of the modern villas, and Alba Executive came into being as the third string in the Alba group bow.

The properties are aimed at a variety of top-end lets, either to companies sending staff to Edinburgh, or tourists coming to Edinburgh's various festivals, having romantic breaks or even businessmen on a rugby or golfing jolly.

The experience is not cheap, with prices (based on two sharing) ranging from 700 a week for the one-bed coach-house in low-season to 1950 a week for the four-bedroom upper villa over the Festival or Christmas/New Year.

And Mr Dickens says that, for the moment at least, "there's nothing else in the pipeline".

"We'll look and apply the lessons learned and see what happens," he adds.