Paul Million (yes, it is his real name, coming from two rogue Scottish brothers a couple of centuries ago who changed their name from McMillan to Million to evade their pursuers) has gone from staring through windows as a bored schoolboy in Barnard Castle to putting them into the homes that make up his property projects all over the North East.

The combined to-do, pending or underway list is impressive and makes my mind whirl when I think how much hassle it can be just to extend your kitchen….

  • A maternity hospital about to go into planning for a 21-bed aparthotel.
  • Former restaurant in Barnard Castle in Planning.
  • A medical centre in Gateshead to turn into a creative space and treatments centre.
  • A payday loan shop to turn into three HMO flats (House of Multiple Occupation) in Gateshead.
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  • Four Micro Serviced Apartments in Darlington town centre.
  • Two eight-bed HMOs.
  • A bank in Spennymoor to convert, probably into single apartments.
  • Flexible space and co-working environment in Darlington.
  • Four-bed HMO that was knocked back for and eight-bed and a BTL (Buy To Let) to refurb.
  • A set of industrial units which he has just sold
  • A piece of land in Low Coniscliffe possibly for one, two or three dwellings
  • Four identified future land opportunities in and around Darlington.

He talks in the same way as he seems to develop – with skill and fervour as if he has a deadline looming that keeps creeping closer to him. But the schoolboy has very much grown up now and is in full control of something bordering on an addiction to raising the bar in the rented property market. This guy was never going to be shop manager or a steelworker.

He says: “I went to Abbey Juniors and my school report said a lot of stuff about looking out of the window and ‘Paul’s a nice lad but if he would only apply himself….’.

“This isn’t official – just a little bit self-diagnosis online - but I did a test for ADHD that didn't just say I had it, it said you are ‘totally ADHD’. But I see that as an absolute blessing because I think it's part of what drives me towards running networking events and helping people behind me on the ladder.

The Northern Echo: Property developer Paul MillionProperty developer Paul Million (Image: Press release)

“It gives me a great sense of wellbeing to impart my ‘don't do this, because I've tried it and it didn't work’.

The Millions weren't a wealthy family, but Paul’s dad did have a sports shop in the town called Horace Armstrong so he used to ‘force me’ to work there on a Saturday.

“Then he got a big inheritance from his dad and thought ‘I’d better spend it on that lad’s education or who knows where he will end up,” Paul explains.

“So I went off to Barnard Castle School and I enjoyed it and respected my teachers - I liked to have a laugh with them and got on well with them all.

“But I didn't really apply myself there academically so I was an average kid at school not doing too badly in my exams, but not particularly brilliant. I'm just not the type that can read a page or read a book and then get an A in the exam the next day and I was quite jealous of some of my friends that could actually do that - so I left them to be the solicitors, accountants and scientists.”

Despite that aversion to textbooks, when he left school and went looking for the fulfilment that had eluded him so far, he was hugely influenced by The Midas Method, a book by Stuart Goldsmith that examined self-belief, controlling the subconscious mind and how it can ‘transform your life’.

Paul’s mind isn’t often settled – life’s too busy and interesting – but this younger version of him was hooked on the book and a phase of self-examination helped him to go down the gears and choose a path. For him that meant the Forces and seven years in the Royal Navy which honed the work ethic that drives him today.

“Despite coming from an academic environment that I didn't really enjoy I did a little bit of ‘self-harming’ in a way by then going to marine engineering college for three years but I thought I'm never going to fail anything again, exam wise so I went through my whole naval career just putting the work in and pushing myself forward.

“I wasn't the sharpest tool in the bag but I was certainly that bloke who would be dragging other people around the assault courses and trying to take positions of responsibility. At the end of it I went to Admiralty to see about getting a commission but they let me know there was plenty of competition from much brighter minds than mine.

“I was about to pass my exams for Chief Petty Officer and then on to Warrant Officer, but I didn't want to be in gas turbines and diesels and Auxiliary Machinery for the rest of my 22 year career so when they started shrinking the size of the Navy at the time I took redundancy - knowing by then that I wanted to be in business.”

I wasn't the sharpest tool in the bag but I was certainly that bloke who would be dragging other people around the assault courses

He was living in Darlington then and taking every resettlement course he could find at Catterick to build up his own foundations, but by that time the property bug had started to take hold as a sensible investment for the future. Paul had three house and added a fourth from his £17,000 redundancy money and hoped to be able to take the rent he was being paid and ‘travel around the world and do fantastic things’.

That is the sort of flexibility that property can give you - the ‘passive income’ we would all like. But ‘passive’ isn’t a word you would normally associate with Paul Million, so he went into business with his dad to build up some capital for even more homes.

He admits his life was ‘just absolutely work, work, work’ but it was an essential focus for that 100mph mind and it gave him the success he needed to remind himself that he was making progress all the time and had made the right decisions, from school to Navy to dad.

He admits: “It was the drive within me that replaced what I thought was my lack of academic success.

“I used to sit at the landlord's meetings as a young man and look up to the people who had 60 or 70 properties or maybe 100 flats and - this is where the mindfulness methods helped me - I used to think ‘if you guys can have 60 or 70 properties, then I can as well, and that became my goal.

The Northern Echo: Paul Million at one of his projectsPaul Million at one of his projects (Image: Newsquest)

“For my first property, I had a house on Harding Terrace in Darlington which the guy sold to me for £33,000. I needed a mortgage and there was someone else offering £36,000 for cash but the seller went with me because his circumstances were such that he needed the deal to take a while. He chose me and I felt a little bit of a lucky kid there.

“So I was coming home on the weekend from the Navy and my mum and dad and grandfather were helping me out with the refurb to get me on my way and build up my skills. By the second house I was asking about joinery and plastering and by my third property I was fairly knowledgeable about what was required.

“I was the labourer, but always keen to learn from the bottom up.”

His preferred method now is to ‘grenade’ properties, which means buying ‘something I wouldn’t let to a chicken’ and taking it back to the bricks, but back then it was more of a careful step-by-step approach until a tipping point was reached and it became a career of finding the right plots and properties, sorting the permissions and personnel and finding the tenants who would give him the income but not the hassle.

“Originally I thought I needed to get to 12 houses to go full time, then that became 24 and then it actually got to 40 and that's when I could actually afford to do it as I wanted.

“It's bizarre how many buy-to-lets you actually need, so that's when I started thinking about the right strategy to be able to get good cash flow because I was spending so much on refurbishments and other activity.”

One of the biggest gambles he took - although he didn’t know it at the time - was to invest in land at Yarm Road in 2008. He had found a piece of land for £80,000, borrowed the money from the vendor to buy it and got planning permission for industrial units.

“I went to the bank and said here's my 220k piece of land, would you like to lend me £600,000 so I can build 16,800 square foot of units and they said yes…. just as the world started to collapse financially.

“I had managed to get to about 45 lets by that time - with two, three and four-bedders and I thought right, I'm a proper property developer. Before I was just a bit of a house basher and a landlord but now I was standing on my lovely piece of land with the frames going up, then the banks started collapsing.

The Northern Echo: Paul MillionPaul Million (Image: Newsquest)

“I thought I might have knackered everything I've worked for over the last 15 or 18 years, but managed to get through with the help of a good local agent, Carvers and I got them all rented out to some fairly good people.

“Now I have just sold those because I took an offer that I couldn't refuse. I rang my business partner and said ‘I can get that for our units would you sell?’ and he said ‘absolutely’. I said good - because I've already said yes.

“Through it all, one lesson I pass on to people at the networking events I run now is ‘look to be a tortoise in a tank, not a hare in a hurry’. Take it slow, don't buy as I did with 10 or 14 houses a year and have houses sat there doing nothing while you're refinancing and all of that kind of stuff.

“Economic conditions can make a fool out of the wise man and I know now that I've been quite lucky over the years considering the risks that I’ve taken and while it’s put me in a good position now if I had my time again, I would have taken it slower and I would have smelled the roses a bit more along the way.”

Passing those messages on, from the tortoise in a tank to the best use of grenades, is now a mission he holds very close to his heart, hosting and visiting networking events where deals are done and careers are launched.

“I've only been networking for three years and find it so very, very valuable,” he tells me.

“I don't make money from them, just pretty much break even but the ability to bring your knowledge and some good speakers into the room to bring a focus to the North East, it just feels like a hobby to me, as well as a bit of a validation for what I’ve done.

“I'd love to have written a business plan for being able to help kids from school who were the creative thinkers but who don't really feel like school was for them. There's a lot of kids out there that didn't find in themselves what I found, but that doesn't mean that you can't operate through intelligence. I believe in emotional intelligence and that EQ beats IQ, because some of the biggest business leaders like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson operated with emotional intelligence and leadership, not just IQ.

“That means there is a path for people who were like me at school, and if I can find a way of encourage young would-be developers then that’s my time well spent.”

With all that experience to impart, his take on the rise of the region is important. With the Treasury move, the railway station, the Hippodrome, the airport and so many more landmark projects, Darlington has to keep pushing forwards and have a plan for the future.

The Northern Echo: Paul MillionPaul Million (Image: Newsquest)

He is immersed in the property infrastructure that is supporting all those weighty new arrivals, so can we make the most of our time in the spotlight?

“I've seen this a long while off with things like the train station development that there's been a buzz about Darlington for a lot of years - and now you see the likes of Victoria Road being developed.

“I've got buildings that are going to complement the rise of Darlington, like a HMO that we're getting a lot of inquiries for from the Treasury and four micro apartments currently being developed which I think will be full straightaway. The town has a certain confidence about itself that it didn't have five or six years ago.

“Unfortunately, you're always going to get that dichotomy between some people who don't want the town to be developed or they've got something negative to say about all these people from outside of town coming in.

“But then you've got people like me that want to share this town and see where Darlington can go. There's such a great ambition in the town - it's an absolute blast for me and as a landlord I feel really lucky in the North East especially after Brexit and then COVID. The North West four or five years ago until now is having some great capital appreciation as was Birmingham before that, but I think the North East is catching up and is in a good position.

“I don’t want to say it’s protected, but it feels to me like the North East and Darlington are in their own kind of ecosystem because of the amount of interest focussed here. They are the last bastion of the cheap deal and the high yield even though we might not have the GDVs that some of these other areas have.

“That's an interesting point for me if I think of maybe selling off my HMO portfolio because there are a lot of people with a lot of money flying around, willing to find good streams of income.”

If he ever pauses, his own dream home would be a farmhouse somewhere outside Darlington with enough space for some workshops. He had held a piece of land at Low Coniscliffe that was intended for that, but planners got in the way, so the farmhouse dream remains.

My outlet would be having all of my machine tools in an environment where I could just potter away and make furniture.

“The planners wouldn't allow me to build what I wanted to build on that particular plot, which irked me a little bit. I had designed a beautiful Georgian looking house and I was going to build it with either reclaimed bricks or handmade, but they wanted me to use more of a what I would call a wimpy brick and a wimpy style. It just didn’t do justice to the house and I knew I wasn’t going to live in a big house like that. I want to build something how I wanted it, so I’ll probably end up selling it.

“I miss having my own workshop. My outlet would be having all of my machine tools in an environment where I could just potter away and make furniture.

“I would also like to think about having a separate business for ethical land and buildings sourcing because quite a few people come to me and say I've got this piece of land, I've been into planning twice with it and I'm sure it should get it, but obviously there's something that hasn't gone right.

“I'm no planning consultant but a lot of people are going for planning with architects and they need to go into planning with planning consultants. There are all sorts of really exciting permitted developments that you can actually exercise at the drop of a hat and the local authority can't stop you so it's really powerful.

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“Ideally, I'd like to at least take a two-year break to take stock and have all of those holidays that I haven't had over the years - if I get away to Majorca for a week or two weeks with my family once a year I'm doing really well but really I should be taking them on safari.

“I'd like to get everything finished, get the cash flow sorted and get some more capital appreciation over the next few years and then just get in a campervan and be able to travel around Europe.”

I’m not sure that will happen anytime soon. Paul Million is a man who started analysing himself and what he wanted out of life, took advice and looked for role models and planned his path to property.

His work and high standards can be seen all around Darlington and he is in a strong position to influence how the town now responds to such a strong spotlight – do we get blinded by it or does it show us the way?