Manchester United legend Gary Neville making his mark in property

Former Manchester United star Gary Neville says his interest in real estate development started from when he bought a plot of land for his first house at the age of 21.
Former Manchester United star Gary Neville says his interest in real estate development started from when he bought a plot of land for his first house at the age of 21. PHOTO: CATHERINE ONG ASSOCIATES

The excitement in his voice was unmistakable as football legend Gary Neville led reporters through the musty smelling corridors of Manchester's Stock Exchange.

He was enthusiastically explaining his plans to turn the heritage building into a glitzy boutique hotel - one of his several projects that also include tie-ups with Singapore listed developer Rowsley.

"It will also have a restaurant and bar open to the public. Gym, spa and an exclusive roof terrace for private member use. We already have the City Council's approval for the project, so construction will begin soon," he said.

Transforming the century-old building - acquired two years ago for about £1.5 million (S$3.2 million) - is but one of the property ventures led by the retired Manchester United captain as he continues to take big forward strides beyond the football pitch and into the business world.

A sporting great revered for his achievements with the Red Devils, with whom he won eight Premier League titles and the Champions League twice, Mr Neville, 40, is clearly enjoying his post-football days as an up-and-coming property magnate.

But his interest in real estate development started long before he hung up his boots in 2011, Mr Neville told The Straits Times in an interview in Manchester last month.

"I was looking for my first house when I was 21, and ended up buying a plot of land. When I looked at my architect's artist impression of how the new place would look, I thought - Wow! So I could turn this ruin into this?

"And I've loved every minute of it since. The excitement, the thrill. Picking furnishes, designing, going down to sites to see things getting built. And I knew that was what I wanted, to go into property development and give it as best a shot as I possibly could."

Hard lessons were inevitable along the way, but Mr Neville knew to pick himself up and stay on the ball. "The worst experience I've had was when I was 27, and building about 10 houses near Bolton. The contractor went bust halfway through. But I hung on, employed our contractors and finished the development with our own people.

"Over that period, every day after Carrington (United's training ground), I would spend my afternoon at the project site. I lost some £5 million to £6 million in the end, but that taught me so much about this business," he said, smiling, clearly relishing the challenge.

Now, with strong investor backing, he is ready to move up into the big league.

The Stock Exchange is one of two Manchester downtown projects he is spearheading. The other is on a 0.58ha plot right next to the city's Town Hall. He has partnered Singapore's property and architectural firm Rowsley to develop St Michael's, a mixed-use project comprising a five-star hotel, luxury apartments and prime office space.

Meanwhile, right next to United's home ground Old Trafford, where he had bled and sweated for his beloved club for 20 years, he - along with fellow Class of '92 alumni including brother Phil Neville and Ryan Giggs - built and launched Hotel Football in March.

The hotel is now 75 per cent owned by Rowsley.

As he grows in stature in the business world, Mr Neville said it matters to him that he succeeds on more than just his United fame.

"What you see today is what I have planned for. From the day I finished playing football, I knew what I would do the day after. My sole ambition after the end of my football career was to make sure that I didn't become known as an ex-Manchester United player.

"I don't want to live off the club. I want to create my own value in the rest of my life. The fame helps, I won't deny it, but I want to achieve things away from the football world - that's very important for me," he emphasised.

But what football taught him - the fighting spirit and the hunger for glory - will remain his guiding principles.

"At Manchester United, you are expected to win every match. Phrases like we might or we try our best, they don't exist. That's the same accountability I put on myself in this next stage of my career."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2015, with the headline Manchester United legend Gary Neville making his mark in property. Subscribe