£10m expansion at Custard Factory hints at greater ambition for Digbeth
Anna Blackaby speaks to Bennie Gray, the developer behind the Custard Factory, about the newest addition to his Digbeth empire and his “dynastic” ambitions for the quarter.
Bennie Gray likes to keep it in the family. His son Lucan was the force behind the redevelopment of Fazeley Studios – now home to the likes of Microsoft’s Rare Games – and his other son Tawny is responsible for the Green Man sculpture gracing the entrance to the Custard Factory on Gibb Street.
Tawny Gray is also behind a newly commissioned “floating sculpture” to hang in one of the courtyards in Zellig, the newest part of the Custard Factory which opened last week – and even Bennie has got involved in designing artwork for the building.
The redevelopment of Devonshire House, as it was previously known, breathes new life into the former Bird’s custard factory headquarters.
The £10 million development – which was part-funded by Advantage West Midlands to the tune of nearly £4 million – represents a natural expansion to the Custard Factory complex.
It adds 65,000 sq ft to the 120,000 sq ft provided by the Scott House and Greenhouse buildings, and will provide accommodation for small, and more established, creative industry companies.
Physically, it adds 101 extra studios and a space called Nomad where Custard Factory residents can get together, play pool, tap into the wifi network or see clients in meeting rooms created within a miniature indoor jungle.
But the frontage onto Digbeth High Street adds a new, more public, dimension to the Custard Factory – with plans for art galleries and shops, which it is hoped will stimulate the footfall the consumer-facing businesses in this part of town desperately need.
Bennie Gray – the mastermind behind it all – is not your run-of-the-mill developer. He doesn’t just care about breathing new life into old buildings – he has a genuine enthusiasm for the relationships that are built between the small businesses who set up shop in the space he creates.
“The whole point here is that however beautiful Zellig is – and I think it’s truly beautiful – it’s not the most important thing,” he said. “The most important thing is the working community – the idea that hundreds of creative enterprises can be in one place.
‘‘That could happen in a tent in Iceland. But it’s even better that we have rescued a very beautiful listed building as part of the process.”
And Zellig is only a fraction of Mr Gray’s ambitions for Digbeth – where he and his family own “acres and acres” of property, which one day he hopes will provide accommodation for more than 5,000 people working in the creative industries.
“The Custard Factory is enormous,” he said. “We’ve got many acres of Digbeth, if you include Lucan Gray’s project Fazeley Studios, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the potential for developing a place for creative enterprise.
“I see the Custard Factory working community continuing to expand to the point where there will be many thousands of people at work here.
“At the moment, once we’ve got Zellig off the ground, there will be 1,500 working in tiny enterprises – I think that could grow fivefold quite comfortably.