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“Banging the Drum for Folkestone”: an interview with Josh de Haan

 From my first meeting him in his office in Tontine Street, it is plain that Josh De Haan is absorbed and enthused by his work, by what is happening in Folkestone and his contribution to the town’s regeneration.  This focus on work is something he has inherited as he says “My car journey back to the King’s School on Sunday evenings with my father was usually a lecture on what was happening at Saga or the state of the economy, when I would perhaps rather have talked about rugby.”  Others would confirm this handed down capacity for hard work “If you asked my wife I think she would say that I am cut from the same cloth as dad.  Unfortunately (and she would say unfortunately) there is a workaholic side to me but I don’t think that is a bad thing although I should probably spend a bit more time with my four children.” 

His hard work has certainly paid off in Folkestone with the opening of Rocksalt and the Smokehouse on the Stade in partnership with Mark Sargeant and the reconstruction now taking place of the old Pipers club building in Tontine Street, which will house the Headquarters of his Internet Company – View and his other businesses – businesses which will by that time, including the restaurants, be employing nearly seventy people in Folkestone. 

The journey toTontine Streetstarted after he studied marketing atNewcastleUniversity. From the start Sidney De Haan felt that Josh, his eldest grandson, should move into Saga, perhaps eventually managing it. This was not however the view of Roger De Haan who “did not think anyone should have the divine right to take over Saga. Eventually my father did offer me a job but I had to start at the bottom so I worked in telesales for a year on a salary of £7500, which was hard and an eye opener. I slowly moved up but I knew very early on that I was not particularly comfortable working for the family firm. I wanted to break out, go and do something on my own.” 

“After leaving Saga I worked for a small publishing company in Londonin charge of their marketing which is where I became interested in the potential of the internet. At the time there did not seem to be anything that catered for the Londonmarket, though by the time I started the dot.com boom years had arrived.”  But Josh and his partner, brother Ben,  survived the eventual shakeout with the well respected View Group – an online entertainment guide to London, covering restaurants, pubs, bars and nightclubs, deriving income from advertising, ticket sales and reservations.  With a “What’s On” guide, reviews of current cinema releases and forums where users can discuss current issues affecting the UK capital or interact with others, it has expanded to take in all major UK cities and New Zealand, where Ben De Haan runs a franchise. 

At present there are separate sites for each city but, as Josh says, “the endgame for us, in the terms of the city guides, is to have a one stop portal that covers the whole country as opposed to individual web sites for each city or town. The idea would be to have an entertainments guide all under the one portal (www.view.co.uk) where people could access information for their town or city maybe to include Folkestone one day.”

 The business was first based in Sandgate but then moved to Ashford where, as Josh continues, “I was ready to buy a rather soulless stainless steel office building inEurekaPark. I thought Ashford, with the high speed rail link, was the next big thing but my father, after meeting me there, started to persuade me that Folkestone might be a better option. In the end he convinced me and, viaShearwayIndustrial park, we settled here. Moving to this part of the town has been brilliant. It is edgier and the town offers my staff so much more. You can see the changes happening and it is ever so exciting. I am banging the drum for Folkestone with all my friends and family to try and persuade them to do similar things”. 

With the Rocksalt and the Smokehouse up and running, Josh’s attention has turned to the renovation of the Pipers building. He is frank about his talks with Shepway planners, “We would have liked a modern building but being in a conservation area the local council and English Heritage were quite tough on what we could do. So we have been forced to keep the façade against my and the architect’s wishes. Doing this has increased the cost of the build significantly and I think most developers, with any sense, would probably have walked away. So it will be a modern building, though the façade of the first floor and above will be kept with an additional office floor and terrace. Though the ground floor is classed as retail, we are seeking to change that to commercial/office space so there will an entrance hall with two offices on either side” Though he does not say this, without doubt he could have bought a plot of land, say at Shearway industrial park, and built new offices for far less than it will cost him to convert the Pipers building but, by absorbing the extra costs, he has chosen to contribute in this way to Tontine Street’s regeneration.

 View, the restaurants and other companies – Rocksalt Recruitment, an agency that will provide high quality staff for the hospitality industry and an estate agents price comparison website – will take the top two floors while the remainder of the building except one ground floor unit will be leased out. Josh continues “This unit will become an incubator space where we will provide a desk, super high speed internet access, a telephone and other facilities, including mentoring and advice,  for people who are thinking about setting up businesses and want a base to work through their ideas in an environment that is positive and forward thinking. From the ground floor an embryo business might then move upstairs, continuing with mentors who might be my marketing or IT guys or I am certain I can call in favours to bring in other people I know who will   help. I really want it to be a positive dynamic place, a hub for enterprise in Folkestone.”

 Josh’s fresh ideas and enthusiasm for Folkestone and its regeneration permeate the whole interview. With regard toTontine Streethe says “What this area needs is people who have got money to spend in the town.  The knock on effect of that is that I think there should be a change of tack in which some shops are turned into business spaces, the employees becoming consumers in the shops, restaurants and cafes. We have business meetings which bring people into the town and reintroduce them to the area. They are all incredibly impressed with what is going on, often saying things like “We haven’t been to Folkestone for years. Hasn’t it changed?”  When they’ve been here once, they often come back and talk to their friends and colleagues about what is happening. There is a lot in Folkestone to be upbeat about and we have to make sure people find out about it”

Nick Spurrier