FOUR years ago, twins Chris and Rob Downham from Sheffield were at their lowest point.
Victims of the property market crash, they went from 50 staff in a large office back to just the two of them working from home almost overnight.
However, they have picked themselves up and have just won a prestigious award for a new venture they are working on in Bulgaria.
The GeshaView resort had its origins in the property boom and, having survived the turmoil of the last few years, is set to open in six months. The twins bought the site in 2004 when it seemed the property market could only ever move in one direction: Up.
“Chris and I had always invested in properties since we came to Sheffield Uni together,” said Rob, 37. “We decided to buy rather than rent and that got us into property investment.
“We set up our own businesses in finance and for some reason thought, ‘Let’s have a really big challenge – something overseas’.”
At the time, Bulgaria was being touted as the next big resort for holidaymakers. The twins’ contacts in the country advised them not to go to the main coastal and ski resorts, where a lot of cheap housing was being built, and instead to focus on the beautiful, rural interior.
“We spent a week over there and went round looking at all sorts of options, from buying 20 apartments to an old house,” said Rob. “On our last day, we went to this old completely derelict stone house.
“We went up through a very over-grown back garden and fought our way through trees and forest and ended up with a stunning view across the hills and countryside.”
Back in the UK, they began making plans for the site. Because sewerage, electricity and all other supplies would have to be connected, it made sense to build more than one house, so they began to look at numbers up to around 50.
However, that volume of properties needed the associated facilities: restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment, none of which were nearby. Suddenly, they found they were planning to build 150 houses complete with conference facilities and everything you would expect on an all-inclusive resort.
“I don’t think any of us had a really good think until we started digging holes,” said Rob.
“That’s probably a combination of our entrepreneurial naivety and our general optimistic outlook on life.
“Everything we had touched, business-wise, had gone well.”
Suddenly, things went wrong.
“By September 2008 when Lehmann brothers went, we had six different businesses around international finance, UK mortgages, property sales, all property finance related,” said Rob.
“We had about 50 members of staff. Every penny we had earned between 2004 and 2008 we had either put unto the project in Bulgaria or had put back into the business. Within a month, everything collapsed. A lot of companies we were in business with collapsed.
“People owed us a lot of money. We stopped making sales. People stopped buying houses. We went from 1,000 inquiries a month to about 20.”
Despite the twins’ best efforts, all 50 staff had to go, and they found themselves leaving their homes to rent a house together – along with their wives and children.
As well as solving some of their financial problems, it meant they could spend more time with their families and it proved a winning formula: they all still live together now.
“We’re now in a position that we are building things again, but we’re building it on the basis of some of the lessons we’ve learned.”
GeshaView is set to open in the summer, with one third of the properties owned by other investors and the remaining two-thirds to be leased out by the twins, giving them a steady income.
With a provisional agreement already in place with Bulgaria’s largest conference organiser, it seems likely the pair will soon be in a position to begin investing elsewhere.