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A Christmas message from our Chairman, James Blake – our founder reflects on fond memories on the business as he embarks on his semi-retirement..

James Blake's Surprise Party

As the end of the year is nigh and our Chairman, James Blake, will be taking a step back from the business, although still on hand for training, advice and support. Our Founder reflects on his fond memories and how it all began here at James Blake Associates (JBA) and the seasonal winds of change that brings us to this point in time and looking to the exciting chapter ahead…

“I had a dream from the start – right back when I was a schoolboy, unsure as I was, just what career I might want. I loved science and art, and nothing the school careers office offered seemed at all exciting and it seemed very limited too – i.e. the merchant navy, Barclays Bank or the local joiners. My Dad arrived home from work one day, and said to me:

‘James, I met a man at work today who did a job that would be right up your street: a landscape architect‘.

This was none other than landscape doyen, Clifford Tandy. That was the lightbulb moment! I was amazed that there was the perfect job combining art with science, creating outdoor spaces and places for living, which fitted my interests perfectly for painting, drawing and natural history. This would be the career for me and with such a profession, I hoped that I might be happy, make a difference and be successful, and perhaps one day, even write a book on it. So, I have to thank my Dad as the dream was held firm and became a reality.

However, be that as it may, I’m sure you probably want to hear some of the funny stories of events that have occurred along the way. Since, as they say… “a day is a long time in politics,” the inescapable reality of business, too, is that it has always had as many ups and downs as the ‘Big Dipper’ in Blackpool. The highs – winning a new job or new client; watching cherished team members grow with the business. The lows – paying the bills through the various recessions when finding work is tough. But as we know, what doesn’t kill you not only makes you stronger, but also more agile, resourceful and resilient.

Before JBA was but a twinkle in my eye, after graduating from Manchester Met, London was calling. Louise got a job teaching at Newham Comp’ and I did a year out in Lewisham BC, mentored by Bunny Guinness (of Radio 4’s Gardener’s World fame), and my first proper job at Tower Hamlets Council as a landscape officer.

London can be fun, but the city life started to lose its appeal. I yearned to see the seasons changing and a return to more rural roots, where we could raise a family, and be close (enough) to the in-laws and outlaws. So, we left Tower Hamlets and set up James Blake Associates (JBA) – which was just me and an Amstrad 1640 with daisy-wheel printer and a floppy disc!

There began a journey that has been the greatest of life lessons, surely tested by adversities on a regular basis. After a year and all going to plan, along came the Nigel Lawson recession, a £3k tax bill and just £30 in the account to pay it. My beautiful daughter, Imogen, was born and, being the apple of my eye, I wanted to give her a great start in life. I remember a pivotal moment, when I phoned McLean Homes and was put through to Design and Planning Manager, David Hill, who said in his soft Irish accent; “Good day to you James, that’s so odd that you should have called right now – as five minutes ago, I dismissed my landscape consultant. So, when could you come in?” I said I could make it in about 15 minutes. He said “Great – I’ll put the kettle on.” And that’s how JBA’s focus on housing first started.

Yes – it’s been an eventful, highly demanding and high pressure journey from the start, but we got through it and not so long afterwards, the apple of my other eye, was born, the very loveable and learned – Dr Josh.

To make ends meet, I did some teaching of landscape and garden design at Otley college to fill the gaps, and there weren’t any textbooks to refer to on the core principles, so I thought I’d better write one from my notes, and to my utter surprise Gower agreed to publish it!

The business grew like an acorn seed, sprouting new shoots – and from those early beginnings, it has led to this moment, having gathered together the very best of people, and who have blended to create a super team with shared values and a strong bond and work ethic.

We have hired so many great people over the years and developed skills inhouse that help make us stand out from the rest. This included developing our own inhouse landscape software, LandmARC, which has benefitted our clients over the years and utilised to develop many major landscape schemes across the UK. By 1994, my secretary was swamped and persuaded me she needed an assistant and knew of someone she’d worked with previously – and that was Viv, still with me today – after all these 26+ years together at JBA.

The sapling whip of a business grew into a feathered tree (if you’ll pardon the pun)!. In housing, I soon realised that we were only as good as our last job, and that also meant that we were also only as good as the last contractor who built our last job. I had worked with Urban Forestry on a forestry scheme, and found them so refreshingly straight, knowledgeable, and good at what they did, so I set about trying to persuade their boss, Ian Choules, to do a Bloor Homes job. Of course, they did it brilliantly. Between us, our order book continued to rocket in the local region and beyond. This was a real turning point for us. To this day, Urban Forestry remain the benchmark for competent implementation – and it was a proud moment this month to share the stage with them when they won the BALI Principal Award for building our design for Botesdale Recreation Ground here in East Anglia.

As the new millennium dawned, we moved into the newly built offices in the Deacon’s builders & undertakers’ building in Lavenham (a very traditional pairing in Suffolk), and the JBA tree branched out again with a team of ten. Recruiting back then was much easier than today, with plenty of talented graduates and year-out students coming through from the universities. As the demand for arboriculture increased across our growing portfolio of clients, we created our own inhouse arboriculture department and so our multi-disciplinary approach continuesto play a key role in our ongoing commitment of growing the business and achieving our overall strategy. We also welcomed the merger with JP Associates recently, so the arb’ team continues to grow from strength to strength.

Elzbieta joined in 2005 and later, Paulina joined JBA as graduate landscape architects. Their sharpness, effort and output quality has strengthened JBA’s reputation to this day. We have enjoyed working with many wonderful, talented, creative, and committed individuals, along the way and our senior leadership team exemplify this and the increasing team members across the business and across the country.

Our teams span across our multi-disciplinary services and based in the north, south and east of England covering projects for clients nationwide. Our inhouse expertise covers landscape architecture, planning & strategy, urban design, ecology, biodiversity net gain, arboriculture, weed eradication and land adoption I am proud of how well everyone works together, and it has very much helped shape the business it is today.

When we have had to weather uncertain times, like any tree faced with adversity, it can enable renewed growth in the spring sunshine. One of those key moments inspired JBA to establish the Ecology Department. Sam Wanner and her team have built a rock-solid reputation. They are a pleasure to work with and provide an incredible skill and expertise – and for Biodiversity Net Gain – there is none better, but their service is always delivered in such an upbeat manner, with both a positive attitude and a sunny disposition whatever the weather!

When the going gets tough, the tough get going! We have overcome challenging times with the economy, but by putting our client’s needs to the fore, combined with a can-do attitude and endeavour, we can continue to meet the ever-evolving demands of business, and stay ahead of rising trends. Collectively, we remain steadfast in delivering quality of service for our clients and delivering greener, more sustainable schemes nationwide.

I am proud of how so many graduates or early career professionals, like Sam, Paulina, Abby and Ella, have started their careers here, returned here and become successful here, as Heads of Departments, Associates and Directors and now Ella is CEO. I am excited to see what you can all do with the solid foundation that has been achieved.

I have every confidence in everyone in the business – now and going forward, and I have no doubt that you will have your own challenges and journey of growth – but from a fantastic base the team can take the business forward from here to new heights.

I am immensely proud of the discovery of difference we could make to our clients – demonstrating how, promoting a greener, more sustainable approach to the retention and design of landscapes, not only increases net biodiversity, but actually improves their bottom line profits too.

I can be confident in that, whilst I am semi-retiring, my support and advice is never far away if and when needed.

Trust, respect and united values and goals, are the foundation stones to all good relationships, trust being earned, and built, brick by brick – slowly, requiring patience, understanding and forgiveness on route, but are much more easily lost than built. Focus on the solution not the problem and look for the win:win especially when developing people. Revisit these values regularly (one and all) to keep your bonds strong.

You need your trusted colleagues to get you through tough times and keep you focussed on the job in hand, and I have benefitted from some excellent trusted relationships, and from the very best of EA’s, Natalie – a rare diamond – and I have been truly privileged to work with her.

Whilst retaining a considerable interest in JBA and OASIS, my semi-retirement will divert a little more time to my myriad of man-cave hobbies – i.e. gardening, painting, fishing and walking my Australian labradoodle – Tess of the Doodlevilles, with Louise, on Holkham beach and follow my beloved Ipswich Town FC!

Finally, I have to say, quite unequivocally, that I could not have achieved any of what I have achieved, without the stoic love, guidance, patience, strength, insight, mentoring and motivational coaching that I have benefitted from, and from my wife, life partner and alter ego, Louise. Without her constancy, her love given so graciously through good times and bad. She realigned my focus and direction, decision-making and learning at every occasion and together we make a great team.

We all get by with a little help from our friends and having been privileged to work with many wonderful clients and colleagues, creating life-long friends along the way and we look forward to the next exciting chapter for the business.

On that note, I would like to thank you all for your continued support and contribution to JBA’s story and wish you all a Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

James Blake's Surprise Party