Michael Cooper
Published: August 10.2017

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Stick with what you know; know what you know; know what you don’t know; and know where to find the answer.

In this episode, Michael Cooper, Director and Head of Neighbourly Matters at Colliers International tells us what you need to know and where to find your answers. He tells us the frustrations of party walls and what happens after the award...



Transcription

Philippe: Hi and welcome to another edition of Party Wall PRO the Podcast. I’m very excited to have Michael Cooper with us today. Michael is currently a Director and Head of Neighbourly Matters at Colliers International with offices around the country.

Before that, Michael, you were with CBRE and Savills. He has over 25 years of experience and his knowledge is sought by many, including the RICS, who asked him to co-write the latest guidance notes for party walls. He is now also a London committee member of the Pyramus & Thisbe Club, if I’m not mistaken.

Michael: That’s correct.

Philippe: Welcome to the show, Michael. Very excited to have you here. So from your short bio, I see you’ve only worked with monsters. Colliers International, CBRE, Savills. Is that how you started?

Michael: No. Interestingly, I started post A levels. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life and I joined a very small practice of surveyors as an architectural technician and this was through an introduction from my father who was a civil engineer and suggested that the construction industry might be a path to follow. So that was where I started off.

Philippe: And from there?

Michael: From there, I realised that this was a good career path and building surveying at the time was very sought-after professionally because there were very few surveyors around. I think there still aren’t to a certain extent. Then I went back to university. I got a degree and I got very interested in party wall surveying during that degree of course, and fell out the other end and joined a very small practice and started specialising in party walls, long before I moved on to the big corporate organisations that you mentioned. So it was through choice that I went into party walls as a specialism. But I did spend a couple of years with other organisations, learning general surveying and then got moving along to get chartered.

Philippe: So from very early on, you were interested in party wall. That’s quite interesting because normally people don’t kind of tend to fall into it whereas that was your path. So it would be interesting to know the difference working with the Goliaths of this world as opposed to the smaller practices and what are the kind of pros and cons?

Michael: Well, I think there are advantages to both. My suggestion is though that when, in party walls in particular, we come across a wide range of clients and from small residential development straight the way up to large commercial developments. But the approach dictated by the legislation itself is one of consistency. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a large project or small project. The difference between working for a large organisation versus a small organisation, I think there are advantages to both. In a larger organisation, the pool of resources and knowledge is more readily available particularly in-house and that’s very useful even as a party wall surveyor. We often come across things that we’re not familiar with and we use other professionals to advise us in the administration of the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996. I think it’s quite advantageous to have those professionals sitting near you or nearby, that you can rely upon for that type of support. In a smaller organisation, you’ve obviously got to go looking for that type of information. It doesn’t mean to say it’s not available but it’s less readily available, should I say. But of course there’s also the disadvantages that come with a corporate structure and probably having to understand more internal law and how that affects your business on a day to day basis. It introduces an element for red tape. But I think from my own view, having worked in both, I’m a party wall practitioner. So I run a specialist team within a large organisation. I think that’s no different to running a small – a team within your own business or in a small business. Ultimately at the end of the day, we’re doing the same thing.

Philippe: In terms of workload, I guess in a smaller practice, you need to go out there and get work whereas in a big international corporation like that, you do get work from other departments as well.

Michael: That’s very true. Having said that though, my first corporate, for one of a better description, I was very much on my own and you have to still build up the confidence even within your own organisation. Other people will have clients and a client is a very personal thing, I find. It tends to be less corporate. Even within larger organisations, it tends to be individual contact and people within the organisation want to know that you’re good at what you do before they introduce you to clients. So nevertheless, I think you’re still building up a business within a business, whether you’re in a corporate or a small practice. It is about your own reputation. Whilst being in a larger practice does help for the introductions, clients are very – in the party wall world, they’re very used to using a particular individual for party wall, rights of light, or other neighbourly matters, and very reluctant to change. I think it’s convincing your colleagues and convincing their clients that you know what you are doing. I don’t think the work comes flowing in as much as you think it might. We still go hunting for it and we still have to convince clients that we’re good at what we do.

Philippe: So in terms of ratio, party wall support function of other departments versus standalone work, what would you say?

Michael: I would hazard to say that the majority of my team’s work comes through the contacts that I have established over the years. I’ve recently joined Colliers International within the last year or so and I think that there’s a recognition there, amongst the Colliers team that this is a very good service line. We’re introducing rights of lights services and other complementary services to neighbourly matters. I think that there’s a recognition there that we’re a growing brand within a brand. People are having a lot more confidence in us. So we’re going places, I think. Does that answer your question?

Philippe: It does. That fits in well with one of the questions that I wanted to ask you: let’s go back 25 years and what – how did you manage to get your first party wall instruction yourself? Not where you were working, where you got your first job per se, but as – you know, the first owner that came to you individually and said Michael, I need help with something.

Michael: Well, I had been working in the small practice for a number of years. Eventually I decided to sort of branch away from a very experienced and well-known specialist at the time and I went and joined a larger organisation. It was a client that followed me from an experience he had had with me as somebody else’s assistant strangely. He had the confidence to place an instruction with me as a named surveyor. I must admit, I had my own nerves at the time because moving from an assistant – albeit I was a senior surveyor, but still an assistant to a named surveyor into the role of being a name surveyor. I was quite concerned and I did as thorough a job as I could. Actually, we built on that relationship and he’s still a client now, I’m pleased to say. As part of his organisation grew and expanded, people joined and moved on and joined other organisations. They all remained clients to this day as well. So it was a great first job because it led to many, many more.

Philippe: So that was commercial. That was your first – it was not residential. It was commercial stuff.

Michael: It was a large house builder at the time and it was a job on the River Thames. It was a very interesting job. It was an awful lot that came out of it. I learned a lot. It was on the site of an old abattoir and before that, a candle factory and there are all sorts of issues with regards to contaminated land etc. large excavations had to take place, all of which were notifiable under the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996 on adjacent properties. It was really interesting and a real experience and quite exciting. It also brought in other areas in neighbourly matters, negotiation of licenses for access, over sailing for cranes, all of which we went into and delivered for the client at the end of the day. They got a very good development and I’m very happy with what they had. Strangely enough, that same client went on to instruct me on a small extension on his house. So it wasn’t entirely commercial development. But it led onto a smaller residential development as well.

Philippe: So how did you do to develop that from: there’s one client that came to you and to all the way to a sustainable practice over the years. What’s the next step?

Michael: Well, that was a struggle. It took time. It was word of mouth, the one client. As I said, people do work for him and moving on to other organisations. I think you have to deliver. You have to be professional. You have to stand by your own convictions and be reliable. But also it does help when you are starting off. You have the time to spend on every job and every client and that’s something that I press upon my team now is find the time to speak to your clients all the time. Keep them alongside. Make them understand that you’re there for them because when they have the confidence to use you, they will pass your name on to others and over the years, that’s basically how we’ve developed quite a strong presence within the party wall surveying arena.

Philippe: This comes back all the time. It’s consistency and there’s no kid of secret weapon to develop a fast-growing party wall practice, is there?

Michael: I wish there was. I think you have to demonstrate that you can do it. You have to learn to adapt. The legislation itself doesn’t change. But the case law behind it does and you have to stay in tune with that. You have to be on the ball. You have to recognise what those county court decisions or even higher court decisions mean in relation to the interpretation of the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996. You have to be forward thinking, forward moving, and also at the same time, clients expect you to deliver perhaps more than what is on the packet and they want you to advise when something else might be coming, that they haven’t seen coming and be ahead of the game. So there isn’t a magic answer to suddenly getting clients.

Philippe: You said that the legislation doesn’t change but the case law does. How do you keep on top of case law?

Michael: There’s a very good network of surveyors. There are various clubs and organisations and some are better known than others and many of us are members of a particular club called the Pyramus & Thisbe Club, which is, as the club suggests, doesn’t make you an expert but it gives you the opportunities to meet with your peers and discuss cases that have happened or even be enlightened on a case you didn’t know about and staying in touch with other surveyors and understanding how opinions are changing or even how construction is changing and how we interpret that construction with the definitions provided by the legislation. It really is a case of networking with your peers and at the same time with the legal profession and keeping up to speed with county court or higher court decisions and sharing that information with others, because you would expect to share it with others as well, and it keeps us all on our toes, keeps us all enlightened, and we don’t necessarily all have the same opinions. But at the same time, we can help to formulate an interpretation of some awkward pieces of legislation or awkward interpretations and maybe come to a more – shall we say – or a better supporting argument where there are more people involved that have the same view and we could put that forward perhaps to encourage a discussion or development of ideas.

Philippe: So once you are in the circle, you will stay updated. So how did you get into that circle? So, as a young surveyor or even someone who’s just interested in the area, what’s the best way to get that?

Michael: You can join the club. You don’t have to be chartered. You don’t have to have any qualification. You don’t have to have years of experience. Come along. Meet with more senior surveyors and they’re always willing to share an experience or two over a beer, but also I think it is a case of asking questions, be prepared to listen. Learn from the word of the wise. I remember when I first joined the club, I listened to many experienced surveyors and heard their experiences. Now, I form my own opinions. I don’t necessarily agree with them all. But it was a great starting point for me and it was a good way to learn more and this experiences really – it is all about experience and being a good party wall surveyor is experience. But there’s no reason why you can’t have the experience of others when you’re learning and still being very, very good. You may not have had those experiences yourself. But to listen to others and learn what they did in a particular circumstance and how to get around all the problems will stand you in good stead.

Philippe: What makes a good party wall surveyor?

Michael: Well, I start with graduates that are straight out from university and one of the criteria for me is that they must have an interest in neighbourly matters. They must be interested in party walls. Whatever that interest is, is a basic fundamental to do party wall surveying. You have to have an interest and you want to develop that interest. The starting point I would suggest is reading the Party Wall Etc. Act 1996. Give it your own interpretation and try understanding it. Then there are books that are available and being written by eminent surveyors and/or the legal profession and you can pick those up and read them. I would start with what we call The Green Book, which is published by the Pyramus & Thisbe Club. It gives an interpretation of the legislation itself via sections and then it’s application. We always start our graduates with understanding the basic forms, the form of notice, standard letters, standard documentation and then we do take the time to teach our graduates the purpose for various sort of sentences or phrases that we use in various lectures, why we use those phrases and how it came about. So we ask them to look at the history of party walls and we try and each them the history of party walls and an understanding of why we use certain terms or definitions to describe certain actions, et cetera, because it is – primarily it’s borne out of case law and understanding of what the works are, what’s involved, without wanting to preach the Party Wall Act itself. The Party Wall Act is there to afford one owner its rights to develop. But at the same time, making them look closely on what they’re doing and in the context of protecting an adjoining owner and ensuring that they are looking after the interests of the adjoining owner while having what they want, which is the development. We start our graduates with a job shadowing surveyors and more senior surveyors who will take the time to explain both the work and the application of the Party Wall Act. Then we encourage reading and CPD and turning up to events like the Pyramus & Thisbe Club, various other organisational events and CPD lectures. It’s another advantage I guess of being in a large organisation. We have the opportunity to have plenty of CPD talks. So we do encourage our graduates to turn up and learn more about the wider world out there and at the same time, focusing their attention on party walls and neighbourly matters.

Philippe: What makes a good – a lot of people have been saying that the knowledge of construction is very important because you can know the Party Wall Act inside out, but you need a practical element there. So are you looking for structural engineers and maybe a background in architecture and that kind of stuff as well?

Michael: Certainly we – for our graduates, we look for people that come from a background of a degree in surveying. I mean that’s not to say that an architectural degree won’t stand in good stead as well. But a professional qualification or professional degree and where there’s an element of understanding of construction and construction technique. It’s very important when applying the Party Wall Act that you understand what the works actually are and it takes a long time I think to learn the subterranean world. Party wall surveyors can call upon other experts to offer them advice and I often use an engineer who advises me on subterranean work. That’s not to say that over the years I haven’t developed a very good understanding of subterranean development. But nevertheless, my knowledge of certain aspects isn’t there and I rely upon other professionals to guide me. But I do need to know what questions to ask them and I think understanding construction is paramount to being a good party wall surveyor and the understanding of legislation is equally important. But you need to understand how buildings go together and the potential for an effect on an adjacent structure, because after all, I think our role as party wall surveyors is to mitigate the effect of construction and to warn both developing owners and adjoining owners of the potential effect and not understanding construction, not understanding what drawings are placed in front of view, not understanding what you’re involved in would be a very grave mistake.

Philippe: So you’ve been doing this for 25 years. You’re obviously enjoying it. But the flipside, what is the frustrating side of being a party wall surveyor?

Michael: Probably one thing sums it up: We’re there to resolve a dispute and a dispute – the term “dispute” in its very nature is something that suggests two neighbours at war. The neighbours don’t need necessarily to be at war. They’re looking for you to come in and advise, protect property and protect assets. I think some surveyors do take it personally and think that we’re there to create a dispute. I think that’s a frustrating thing. I would suggest that many surveyors need to understand that the role of the appointed surveyor is really there to look after the properties and make sure that the committed works are managed correctly and the works are permissible, first of all, within the legislation. But then also to understand that we’re not at war with one another. We’re both on the same side and we’re administering the Party Wall Act and we’re there not to create further disputes. We’re there to resolve the disputes at hand. I think that’s one of my frustrations - surveyors sometimes look too far beyond the actual instruction. I’m keen to ensure that when I’m involved, that we look very closely at what we’re there for. We do advise clients on matters that are outside of the act but we don’t necessarily become involved with them, unless the clients wish us to, and we’re not there to create further disputes. We’re there to resolve the dispute or resolve the matters at hand. So my biggest bugbear is having surveyors run off tangents. They don’t deal with what they’re supposed to be dealing with under the Party Wall Act.

Philippe: So other surveyors basically.

Michael: Well, no. I mean it’s probably unfair to say that. It’s often clients don’t understand the role as well. I think that it’s very easy for neighbours that don’t see each other and don’t understand what the works are, who don’t know how to explain – to go off on tangents and I think it’s very important for party wall surveyors to recognise where these tangents can go – can come in and help to guide the client away from conflict and point of resolution of dispute. It’s very important I think in our role as party wall surveyors that we administer the act with an even hand for both owners and correctly – as the Party Wall Act advises and not be led by a particular client or to go off on tangents where we don’t need to be. Deal with the matters at hand and get it done properly and professionally.

Philippe: Do you have an example of a case that went horribly wrong?

Michael: Horribly wrong? No, fortunately. But I would suggest that there are occasions when construction techniques that are awarded are not necessarily followed and as a party wall surveyor, we’re not there to enforce the awards that we make. I think we’re often seen as a policing organisation. We’re the person that people could run to and say, “Well, the chap next door isn’t putting the temporary works in.” Unfortunately, the legislation doesn’t lend itself to being policed once the award has been made. It’s for the owners to seek enforcement of the award and that has to rely then on the legal profession and injunctions and other various sorts of nasty mechanisms. I think it’s when the award isn’t followed, either by an owner or by a contractor, that things can go horribly wrong. We are making an award after all that is robust and it should be followed, and that’s when it does go wrong, when it’s not followed and that’s when it ends up in litigation. And with litigation comes all the horrors and expenses Nobody wins in litigation. It’s the cost and the expense involved with it and that is really when awards are not followed and nobody wins when that happens.

Philippe: So to conclude, the listeners are the people who are interested in starting a party wall practice or who are interested in joining a party wall firm. A word of advice for someone who wants to start a practice from scratch. Where should they start in terms of even education and then where to go from there, how to get access and maybe get their first instruction without scraping the Land Registry website obviously?

Michael: Certainly not scraping the Land Registry website. Cold calling is really not on either. I think first of all, the knowledge of construction and a background in construction is essential. So don’t start trying to think that you’re a party wall surveyor or any other type of surveyor, without being qualified in some way or at least having a good level of experience of construction and construction techniques. Don’t offer you are a party wall surveyor when you haven’t got that type of grounding because you’re not in my view. A party wall surveyor does need to have construction knowledge. Where you learn that is obviously through development in the career and normally starting with a university degree and moving on to a professional charter or qualification with the RICS or the RIBA. That’s a good starting point. Learning construction is first. Moving on to party walls, it helps to have some experience perhaps with another organisation, setting up practice on your own, when you’re a chartered surveyor means that you can actually go out and practice any field of surveying and I wouldn’t recommend doing any field of surveying. I certainly don’t touch certain aspects of surveying in which I don’t have training or experience in. Stick with what you know. Know what you know and know what you don’t know. But know where to find the answer is my advice to graduates. I would also say it’s important to recognise your limitations and even in the administration of the Party Wall Act. I call in as I said other professionals sometimes, like an horticulturist for instance when I need advice on whether or not a tree dies as a consequence of digging up an excavation, or an engineer when it comes to all sorts of investigations and loading capacities and so on. So I think you need to understand the limitations. How you go about growing a business, I would say it’s reputation. Do a good job and keep the clients informed and one of the biggest mistakes that we have now with ever increasing technology is not picking up the phone and not informing clients the steps that we’re taking and it’s very easy for us to go quiet for two months and the clients get disgruntled with the fact that we’re not telling them we’re doing something, thinking we’re not doing anything when we are actually flat out. We need to keep clients informed and I think if you are setting up your own business or start a new – any profession including party walls or building surveying is understand that at the end of the day, we’re there for our clients and we’re there for their needs and for their developments. We need to sort of keep them appraised of what’s happening. They don’t understand our world. We’re there to help them, guide them through what can be a tricky process.

Philippe: So you mentioned technology. Quickly, any tools that you recommend, not our tool obviously. What kind of technology do you actually use on a day to day basis?

Michael: Well, it’s strange. I mean technology has developed considerably. We take condition surveys on dictaphones but now I can speak into my phone. I have my phone translate that to Word document. Print it out almost word for word. Technology is certainly enhancing the way that we work and it’s adding value. But at the same time, it can hinder the way we work, if we don’t use it wisely and too many people send emails too frequently without consideration and quite often repeating themselves and typos, grammatical errors abound and I think we need to slow down a little bit in the use of technology and start talking to one another again. But it is helping certainly with digital age and cameras, et cetera. When I first started surveying, we used to have to print out thousands of photographs and took ages to stick into the reports. Now we can send it all on a disk to the client. It’s very helpful. So, yeah, I’m for technology. But don’t let it take over and make communication on a face to face or one to one basis with your clients.

Philippe: Well, thank you so much. Who do you think I should interview next?

Michael:There’s a young lady called Keeley Matthews at Malcolm Hollis. She’s now a senior surveyor I think. I’ve known her for a number of years. She has an excellent way with clients, very good communicating skills and I think that she would be a good advocate for the profession and for party wall surveyors and she is a very good party wall surveyor.

Philippe: Great idea, because I’m looking for more women to interview. Michael, thank you so much for your time. It’s great to have you and enjoy the rest of your day.

Michael: Thank you very much. Take care.

Michael's firm: Colliers International UK

Leo Scarborough
Published: June 26.2017

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How to promote yourself in a saturated party wall market, with Leo Scarborough.

Leo Scarborough gives us his views on the state of the party wall services market and how to build a party wall practice in a competitive environment.



Transcription

Philippe: Hi and welcome to another edition of our podcast. I’ve got Leo Scarborough with me, founder of Surveyo.co.uk I’ve been in touch with him for some time now. Good guy. So really, really excited to have him on today. Leo, welcome.

Leo: Thank you.

Philippe: So just tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you start in the surveying business?

Leo: Good question. Father’s advice. My father has been a massive influence on me. He’s a floor layer by trade and I wasn’t particularly a great performer at school, got my GCSEs didn’t get too much in the way of A levels and started out on a career path in the restaurant business. I was a barman, wanted to follow my dad into floor laying and he just dissuaded me. He let me do a few hours, a few days with him, kept me on for a bit and then sat me down and said, “You got to back up your ideas, son.” The barman job was great. It was a great payer at the time, at the age of eighteen it must have been and there’s kind of a ceiling to it. The ceiling is the amount you can earn. So sat me down and said it’s time to get re-educated. So having left school with little to no A levels, I’d spent a year in the industry doing bits and pieces. He got me work experiences with various numbers of his contacts and I started life then as a quantity surveyor. I got myself on a course first. On a part-time course and then found myself a job, the hardest way possible actually. 100 CVs, three interviews, one job offer and that’s where I started. So yes, started up as a quantity surveyor and soon realised quantity surveying wasn’t really where my passion lied and ended up as a building surveyor in a multi-disciplinary practice. It was quite a small practice, so I couldn’t get lost in the conglomerate of big companies. Not for everybody. It worked for me. But had to learn pretty fast and got started to take on various complex and senior roles from an early age and it really did kind of spur me to pick things up quite quickly.

Philippe: That’s the advantage of being in a smaller firm, right? You’ve got responsibilities at a much earlier stage.

Leo: Nowhere to hide as well. My boss was a really supportive man. He really lead me down that direction. He never pushed me but the work ethic that I adopted was certainly to push myself, to push myself as much as possible. He allowed me to do it. There were some really rookie mistakes I made in the early days. But actually he allowed me to make them and then, in a very professional way, came and scooped up the pieces, reset me, and allowed me to go off again, having learned my lesson.

Philippe: How and when did you decide to do it alone?

Leo: Well, good question. The actual decision and I always knew probably from when I started my career, maybe within 12 to 18 months, that I was going to be self-employed at one point. It wasn’t a rebellious thing against the hierarchy. It wasn’t the fact that I wasn’t getting supported. It was just a need to be able to prove myself. It was a need to have the potential to earn more. Money is not a driver for me. My family is. So again, a driver from when I was a young boy was always to have a family. Actually you start to add things together. The driver for me at a young age was to have a family and you start to put things together. You say, well, I want a family. I’ve got to buy a house. To buy a house, you’ve got to have a deposit. I’ve got to earn this plus live. Actually, it’s a very simple element of math. I need a house in this area that costs this much. I need a deposit of this much. I have to earn, et cetera, et cetera. So with all of that, I knew I had to be self-employed at some stage because the ceiling on an employed person wouldn’t give me the lifestyle I wanted. I’m not saying that’s all about money. For me, I can buy myself some time. I get time with my family.

Philippe: Mindset is quite an important thing. Because it is pretty scary to leave a good paying job and just start from scratch. Do you remember any of that?

Leo: I always had that from the start. I always knew that I wanted to be self-employed. There was the scary part when it finally came to a head. I got my degree after five years. I was on a five-year part-time course as a building surveyor. Not just party walls, but a plethora of building surveying tasks and jobs based around projects rather than valuations or anything like that, which is more project-based, contract administration, party wall, drawings, planning permission, that sort of thing. Then once I’d met my wife and we got married, I then came out of building surveying for a bit, went into contracting. I helped manage a small building firm and then went on to a slightly larger company doing project management and contract management work, all on the contracting side. It came to a point where I was moving too often. I wasn’t satisfied. It got to a point where I’d stayed with a small building firm for about 3 years, 3.5 years. I then skipped to this other place, slightly larger firm as a contracts manager. Spent only 11 months there and I just could not satisfy myself. So during that time, first child came along and me and my wife spoke and we had enough savings and we had our income and it was kind of a now or never. So in terms of scary moments, I wouldn’t say scary. I would say considered. Knowing that my CV looked pretty awful at the time, because I had skipped around a bit, I felt now is the time to give it a go. I wanted to move. I didn’t know where to move to. I interviewed for several companies before I decided to go on my own after this 11-month period. That was it. Self-employed and now probably wouldn’t look back. There are always options but I wouldn’t look back.

Philippe: So from a practical perspective, how did you get your first instruction?

Leo: I had an overlap. Although I had this period of time where I spoke to my wife, I always had something going on in the background. I’ve always had a plan B. There’s always something to move on to. I’d actually built up a layer of clients just doing some private work. Bits and pieces in the evenings, weekends, and that kind of built up and up, to the point where me and my wife made the decision to go it alone based on the clientele I had. Then kind of in the first month, hit the marketing pretty hard. But more by luck than judgment. I was actually recalled back to my previous employer to do contracting. That kept me going for the first eight months. After that, there was no need for it but it was mutually agreed that I’d stick around for eight months and then after that, the client base was there. It built itself.

Philippe: Sounds easy.

Leo: Yeah, yeah. Of course, yeah.

Philippe: If you had a word of advice for a young surveyor who actually wants to do what you did, where should he start?

Leo: Young surveyor. I would say educate. There are several trainings I’ve had over the years and the hardest lesson I had to learn was that it doesn’t come easy. Going back to those hundred CVs, before I started out on my career: 100 CVs, 3 interviews, 1 job offer. I was waiting... Waiting for something to come across my lap and it just didn’t happen. It just did not happen. As soon as I got my head around the fact that I actually had to try, that’s how I ended up on an HNC course before I actually got a job. It was because I had to plump for something. I had to go and get educated. I had to try again. I had to reinvent myself. I was too accustomed to earning some money by that point. I felt I couldn’t go back into fulltime education but there are so many different options now. You need a good employer to help you along the way. But there’s an element of fortune. I wouldn’t say luck. I think you make your own luck. But you’ve certainly got to get out there and as soon as you realise nothing is going to come crashing on your lap without you trying, then that’s the way to do it. Also I would say to any trainee I’ve had or any young surveyor is to go out there and get some work experience. People feel that you try something you want to do forever. I would almost look at it in reverse. I would go out for work experience to find the things that I don’t want to do. Even if it’s three days. Three days here and three days there, a weekend, kind of come and help you, et cetera, et cetera, just to see what it’s all about, just to give a test.

Philippe: That’s a good quote. Get some work experience to realise what you don’t want to do.

Leo: As I sit here now I know what I want to do when I grow up. I still don’t. I found it very difficult to sit down and say this is me forever. But you do what you need to do with the information you’ve got at the time.

Philippe: You were talking about marketing before. How do you market yourself as a surveyor?

Leo: Again, a learning curve. In a surveying profession or a service profession, I would say you’re selling a service. It’s not like I’m making something. I can go out and tell. I haven’t got TVs that I make and that I can sell out the back of my van. I’m selling my knowledge. I’m selling my professionalism. After doing a bit of cold calling and a bit of Google Ads and even Facebook, actually what I needed to do was go out and network and press hands and show my face and say this is me and be professional and approachable. For me, having worked through my professional career, up to the point where I went self-employed, I had an address book full of contacts. It was a case of going out, telling people what I was about. Being quite – not arrogant but being forthcoming about it, saying I’m ringing you because I want some work. I’m ringing you because this is who I am. I’ve done work for you before. You know me. I’m now self-employed. Again, one of the learning curves for me was that it took – I still work on it as a kind of rule of thumb. By the time you’ve asked somebody for that work or met somebody initially and told them what you could do, I say it’s 12 months from pressing hands to getting work. You sell yourself. You sell your relationship. You sell your professionalism, but 12 months from pressing hands to getting some work. That’s normally how it works.

Philippe: And for someone who has no black book of contacts, if you were to advise someone to go out there and get your first client, what would you tell him?

Leo: Relationship-driven. There are various marketing associations out there that will help develop. So I actually joined a networking company called BNI when I first started out. The learning curve in that 12 months. I didn’t just get to know to get contacts. I also got to learn how to be professional as a company. So all of the company aspects, the presentation, the standing up, being approachable. Even silly things like how to submit your VAT return. What to do with all the bits of paper you accumulate over a daily basis. I found that worked really well because I felt I was actually achieving something, to be out there, networking, publicly networking. So again it’s – I’m not sure – for me, Google Ads and Yellow Pages and things like that didn’t work because you’re trying to tell a name on a bit of paper that says “party wall” below it or contract administration or building work or whatever you want to do, window cleaning, plumbing, electrical. The market is saturated. If you look at it, the market is saturated. You type in “party wall surveyor,” I’m not the first one that comes up. Several people – you interviewed some people using your software. I’m the first people to come up. I’m going to be on the first page. But realistically, I don’t attract that much work through cold calls. Negligible, if anything. All referrals, all referrals.

Philippe: Yeah. How could referrals be improved?

Leo: I would say through work ethic. So if you look at the Party Wall Pro software for instance, that gives a very good professional basis to get those referrals. If you’re slick and if you are organised, and if you know what you’re doing at the tap of a button, then it’s certainly going to help generate more referrals. As a party wall surveyor, I see several clients a week, several adjoining owners, several surveyors working for the adjoining owner, or the agreed surveyor. I would say to meet those people and be professional and slick and know what you’re talking about and be reactive rather than on the back foot you can be proactive. It’s certainly going to help to generate those referrals.

Philippe: Talking about party wall, how did you get from what you did before and into slowly into party wall because a lot of your practice now is dealing with party wall. How much of your practice do you focus on party wall?

Leo: Probably 60 to 70 percent. I found that there were a lot of people out there that didn’t know what they were doing in terms of party wall. There seems to be a need for it. You’re feeding off of building projects all the time. So it’s not necessarily a facilitator. But it’s something that a lot of building owners or adjoining owners or even architects don’t necessarily know much about. A lot of architects will be able to produce the notice, send it off. But if they get anything other than a consent, they find it very difficult to manage, especially if they’ve got several projects on at one time. So for me, it led from a simple need. All of a sudden, I – I don’t know. I got 10 party wall projects in the space of a month, where we’ve only been kind of getting one or two before and it was a simple thing for me to go out and build upon.

Philippe: You make it sound very simple, everything.

Leo: Really?

Philippe: Yeah. I should dig a bit deeper. So in your kind of day to day job, what kind of tools do you use?

Leo: It’s all diary management for me. If it’s not logged in my diary, it doesn’t get done. To be honest, I even saw one earlier that I’ve – since I’ve clicked on the iPad, I realised there’s a photographic schedule last week that should be out the door. But it’s not in my diary. I don’t know why. I haven’t looked in my diary but it’s not in my diary. It is now but it will be. But everything for me is generated from my diary: hours, miles, jobs, where I am next, where I was last week, where I am tomorrow. All driven from there. Then everything kind of filters down. My whole filing system is built off the back of my diary.

Philippe: And in terms of the schedule of adjoining owners, before Party Wall Pro, how did you do it? All your adjoining owners, all the details and all?

Leo: Oh, just hard-filed, every time, everything. Like I said, live from my diary. So if I was working on this today, that would mean going to my filing cabinet, getting out my files, having a pile. Sometimes the files never got quite put away and they linger about and there are Post-it notes and various reminders. I mean in the morning I would have 20 reminders off my phone. It’s impossible. If you worked 20 hours, by the time you got into one job, finish that, put it down, picked up another one, you’re not going to complete 20 jobs in 20 hours. It’s just sometimes impossible. So all the reminders in the world just didn’t quite help me achieve my workload.

Philippe: So how is life now with Party Wall Pro? Let’s do a bit of self-promotion.

Leo: It’s slick. It just – rather than having everything on my diary, I still use my diary that says today I will work on this. But a very simple – I forget where your numbering system is, but the ones or whatever the filing number is are very easy step by step processes where your job is at the hit of a button, what notices are live, what notices aren’t, where you are. Party Wall Pro is great if you feed the information correctly into it. So the building owners, the adjoining owners, all the surveyor’s names. So for instance before I came in this interview, it reminded me that I needed to upload the building owner’s permission, the signed letter that says that I have been awarded the project and a very simple reminder but I’ve gone, yes of course. I went to my briefcase. It’s in there. Scanned it, uploaded it. It’s there forever. It will never get lost. It can never be misplaced. It’s not kept in a filing cabinet in my office where I’ve had to then answer the phone when I’m out and about and can’t quite get a hold of it because it’s in there. Party Wall Pro. The next thing is an app. That’s what we need. But just to have it on the go, open my laptop, hotspot. There you go. That’s where we are. That’s what we need to do.

Philippe: All right. So there’s no going back for you then.

Leo: I don’t think so. Not at all.

Philippe: So back to the real purpose of this interview, if you had to give just a word of advice for any young surveyor who wants to maybe develop his or her party wall practice a little bit more, what should he do?

Leo: Number one, educate. Get out there. Learn as much as you can. Read. It’s not the most exciting projects in the world. Not the most exciting subject matter. There are a lot of good books. There are a lot of good case studies. All the complexities of it. It’s process-driven but it can be quite hard to navigate sometimes. So number one is educate. Number two is experience. If you aren’t sure, if you want to adopt some more complex party wall matters, then get out there. Get shadowing. Get a bit more education. Get a bit more experience and just see if it’s something you want to do. It’s not all about enjoyment. But you’ve got to be able to enjoy it. You’ve got to be able to invest in it in order to succeed and really you need to get out there and absolutely identify whether or not that’s what you want to do.

Philippe: Are you looking for anyone?

Leo: Leading question. Currently no. But with the aid of Party Wall Pro, I’m sure there will be some need for it in the future.

Philippe: Great. So last question, who should I interview next? Any names you can think of off the top of your head?

Leo: I would say a guy called Barry Martin But he’s – I think he retired last year. But he was – he had been doing it a long time. It would be good for you to get some investment from the older guys, just to see what it looks like at the end of a career. Even like Rob Martell. Rob Martell and partners in Berkhamsted High Street, they are a good practice. They were set up in the 90s, traditional building surveyor and quantity surveyor in practice. Probably one of the few. I would try them. Rob Martell but I’m not – again I’m not even sure. His name comes out but I haven’t met him.

Philippe: All right. OK. I will look them up. Thank you so much.

Leo: No worries, Phil.

Leo's firm: SURVEO

BNI UK: https://www.bni.co.uk

Jack Norton
Published: February 19.2017

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How to build a practice with no cold calling, no cold emailing or active marketing.

Jack Norton tells us how he joined Andrew Schofield to build a new firm that is rapidly growing. His recipe to exponential growth? Simple: never say no to a networking event or CPD session.



Transcription

Philippe: Welcome to another episode of Party Wall PRO, the podcast. I’ve got Jack Norton with me today and Jack Norton is a director at a relatively new firm called Schofield Surveyors, started by the famous Andrew Schofield and you are specialising in party wall, rights of lights, general neighbourly matters, right?

Jack: Yes, that’s it, neighbourly matters.

Philippe: So tell me, how easy or difficult was it for you to make that jump, to start a new firm like that with Andrew?

Jack: I was very lucky because I worked with Andrew at Delva Patman Redler when he left. It was May last year. He set the firm up, which started trading in June and I joined Andy later in the year, end of October. He is a thoroughly experienced surveyor with a very good following of clients and surveyors. So for me, I’m a lot younger than Andrew, it was relatively straightforward because of Andrew’s contacts. So he really carried us through the first few months. My contact base is much smaller than Andy’s. The first few months were slightly worrying because all of a sudden you have two surveyors to feed, working off one surveyor’s workload. By the beginning of 2016, work really picked up and, eight or nine weeks ago, we employed a new surveyor. So there are now three of us. So, we’ve built the way we wished to.

Philippe: What’s the long term goal there? Is it to continue recruiting and growing the practice?

Jack: Yes, we would love to grow the practice. The ethos is that ,first and foremost we are building surveyors and we’re building surveyors that might specialise in doing some party wall work. But we are building surveyors first. So we don’t just deal with the application of The Party Wall etc. Act 1996, we deal with associated neighbourly matters. We do building surveys, dilapidations, mixed with expert witness work on party wall. Also party wall projects gone wrong, boundary disputes and general construction disputes. So in relation to the staff we employ, we wish them to share the same ethos. No doubt we will continue to do a lot of party wall work.

Philippe: So for you Jack, personally, how did you get into this? How did you decide to become a surveyor and then specialise.

Jack: I had a bit of a false start. I went to university to do naval architecture and realised that wasn’t the career for me. So I dropped out of university the first time and got paid to go sailing for a bit and the classic: “I have an uncle who’s a building surveyor with a practice down in Sussex” happened. So I did a bit of work experience with him, enjoyed my time there and then went to Reading to do a building surveying degree. From there, I went into a very good firm of surveyors Daniel Watney, who are a multidisciplinary firm but have a very strong building surveying department. I got chartered there and then moved to Delva Patman Redler and I am where I am now.

Philippe: Delva Patman Redler is a niche firm. What made you decide to go for that particular niche?

Jack: I had a broad spread of everything at Daniel Watney and I particularly enjoyed what are deemed professional aspects of surveying i.e. dilapidations, party wall act work. But I had done nothing on rights of light and boundary disputes. Personally, I didn’t really enjoy contracts administration work. So it was an opportunity when Andy and Alastair offered me a job to step away from the contract admin and learn some things from some very reputable surveyors. That’s how I stepped into that professional side of work, which was exactly what I was after.

Philippe: So do you remember your first client?

Jack: First client? Yes. I was at Daniel Watney. It was in relation to a contracts administration job actually. It was acting for a trust, in Wimbledon - I was picking up a job which had previously gone wrong and it was a very steep learning curve. I absolutely remember it!

Philippe: So now as your role as a director, besides your bread and butter work, do you do any business development?

Jack: I learned off Andy and Alastair at Delva Patman Redler and we were all doing that all the time. Alastair’s and Andy’s ethos is getting on with people and quite honestly, we did a good job and the reputation just follows. We do not actively market and all the work we get comes from recommendations. The website we have is very simple. Just a very crude page. So everything is about business development all the time really.

Philippe: So if you had to give some advice to a newbie on starting a party wall practice, where should he start?

Jack: Well, it’s tricky. I think too many people start too soon and you’ve got to have the experience of working for a bigger firm to be able to operate by yourself, to have that client base and have that reputation. I was very fortunate because of Andy’s experience and reputation. So I was coming from an office where debate and education was encouraged all the time and that’s exactly what we do now. We’re always talking about everything and fleshing out ideas. If anyone has anything which they wish to discuss at the office it almost grinds to a standstill and we flesh it out. So people starting on their own, unless they are experienced in their own right, must find it very hard. It’s all about having the right people around you. I think that’s the key I suppose.

Philippe: So what kind of new challenges actually do you encounter now? Now that you’ve set up your separate business?

Jack: In terms of work, professional work?

Philippe: Yes.

Jack: I’m doing a much wider spread of work than I did at Delva Patman Redler. It’s going back to building surveying. I have a trickle of expert witness instructions coming in which was new for me. You see some weird and wonderful situations with those. I am doing a lot of mediation and have been to a lot of mediations as well. I can see that as a route to go down. Alternative dispute resolution and mediation might be interesting in the future. Quite widespread I suppose.

Philippe: Do you have your own client base as well?

Jack: When we left our previous firm, it was done in the best of relationships and we’re still very close with everyone at Delva Patman. Some people followed me off their own accord and the client base continues to grow all the time. Andy and I have our own workspread. For party wall jobs, for example, Andy will be named on his jobs and I will be named on mine. We’ve now got somebody who is helping us out.

Philippe: How did you build that client base of yours?

Jack: It has come through never saying no to a CPD session and just meeting people. So the Pyramus and Thisbe Club is a fantastic platform to meet new surveyors and other professionals. But I think probably most of my clients have come from work. It satrts with doing one job for them, they like me and they use me again. Or my name is recommended to people and my client base slowly grows as a result of that.

Philippe: So the first building owner or adjoining owner that you acted for in a party wall matter. How did you manage to establish that relationship? Was it through an architect?

Jack: I think it was probably through an architect actually. It was a very small residential job. I think he was a brother-in-law of an architect. You never know, there’s always a client around every corner. You just do a good job all the time and get on with people and if you’re any good, the reputation follows.

Philippe: That’s what I want to try to drill down into. You say there’s a client at every corner. How do you get to that corner? It seems obvious with hindsight, it seems easy. But you must have had, at some point in your career, a situation where you’ve told yourself “I need to build my own client base”, right? And what was the first kind of action that you took to make it happen?

Jack: I think it’s my reputation of going about work and recommendations. As I said, we don’t do any aggressive marketing or we don’t cold call. We don’t send random emails to people. We go to the odd networking event and these are a good platform by which you can meet new professionals and clients. But we’re in a very fortunate position where a lot of work is just coming to us and no active marketing is required. It may be at some point, but presently we’re fortunate it’s not needed.

Philippe: So networking events and P&T club meetings, getting along with your fellow surveyors..

Jack: Architects and solicitors, they all hold networking events all the time and we try never to say no to an invitation. Go and meet new people and that’s about it.

Philippe: So you mentioned that you had just recruited someone and – so how do you go about in recruiting the top people?

Jack: It wasn’t easy. We decided not to go through a recruiter. So it was LinkedIn and just spreading the word across surveying contacts and the chap we found is a qualified architect who has worked for some very reputable practices who wished to get chartered as a building surveyor. So we got the correct set of work to get through his APC and he’s fantastic because the important thing is he understands construction and understands drawings which is very good for clients. The Party Wall etc. Act 1996 is something that can be read and learned. It’s applying that to construction that is skilful and he has got the construction knowledge. That’s exactly what we’re looking for. But very hard to find. We were looking for quite a while. In the end, it came through a personal recommendation.

Philippe: Recruiting the right people seems to be a problem in your industry. So if I wanted to join your firm, what do I have to do?

Jack: Well, we are all about the surveying and the construction. So it’s having the background in surveying really. So we’re after people that like buildings, want to understand construction and then are interested in applying The Party Wall etc. Act 1996 to those situations. I mean, after all, The Party Wall etc. Act 1996 is a dispute resolution tool for construction issues. So you can’t resolve a dispute if you don’t understand construction. You see, people try to do that without this fundamental understanding and they don’t do it smoothly. So I think we really value the surveying and construction experience.

Philippe: So now, down to the more nitty-gritty of your day job itself, what kind of tools do you use to make your life easier? Anything that you can’t do without?

Jack: Well, we are fairly basic in our setup. We log on to a cloud system, so I can work anywhere. I can log on in a coffee shop to the cloud and I can work on what is basically my desktop access with my files and it’s quite mobile. We don’t have any kind of specific programs that we use over the basic Word, Excel, etc… Time sheets, we operate on Excel and party wall trackers and schedules and information, etc… is all done in Excel.Time sheets, that might be something that we need to get software for in due course. Quite a simple setup.

Philippe: That’s light. That’s good.

Jack: I think as the numbers grow you then need more complex systems in place. But with only three of us at present it’s quite straightforward.

Philippe: So this time next year, how many people will you have?

Jack: This time next year, it would be nice to have another one or two surveyors and continue to grow our workload. We seem to get a steady supply of the same type of work. We’ll continue building on that. We definitely would like to continue to grow next year.

Philippe: And your practice, your personal practice as such, is it more commercial, more residential?

Jack: Both to be honest. A lot of adjoining owner-owned party wall work. I think Andy and I both prefer commercial projects work. They tend to be more interesting and it is nice working with a commercial project team. The way that a lot residential jobs are procured, designed, build, contracted etc… makes them much more demanding than commercial projects and harder to control.

Philippe: You’d think that commercial projects would be more time-consuming.

Jack: It might be more time-consuming but it’s easier. If you get a commercial project with a decent team they design things properly. On a residential job, you get an owner of a house who might go to somebody saying: “make a new design and build me a basement.”

Philippe: The level of professionalism makes it more enjoyable because it’s easier.

Jack: Yeah. I would certainly prefer it.

Philippe: Have you noticed a change in party wall work over the last few years? Some people have been saying that it’s a little bit more contentious than it used to be.

Jack: I think if you ask a solicitor or barrister they have more cases now than they ever used to. There certainly seems to be more third surveyor referrals than it used to. Opinions vary as to why that is. But I think more people are now doing party wall work than they used to back in the days. The people who used to be the original party wall surveyors were thoroughly experienced surveyors that dealt solely with the application of The Party Wall etc. Act 1996. Now you get people who aren’t surveyors. They know very little about construction but their title is a party wall surveyor and they apply The Party Wall etc. Act 1996. I think simple logic dictates that without that experience and knowledge, you’re more likely to get yourself into problems.

Philippe: So is more regulation the answer?

Jack: On who should be a party wall surveyor?

Philippe: Yes, for the profession.

Jack: Yes, that would be a very good answer. For example, The Party Wall etc. Act 1996 doesn’t define party wall surveyor. If The Party Wall etc. Act 1996 did, I think – well, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do their job. But I think the process might be done better. It’s a big fault in The Party Wall etc. Act 1996.

Philippe: Is that being discussed?

Jack: Well, I mean people have for years been trying to get amendments to The Party Wall etc. Act 1996. A lot of people would like to see it amended.

Philippe: That’s interesting.

Jack: I mean Andy, has contributed a huge amount to the Boundaries (Resolution of Disputes) Bill. There is nothing at present for the boundary disputes and they’re trying to pick up on some faults of The Party Wall etc. Act 1996. One of which is who can apply it. Who can be the surveyor. Whether that will get through who knows, but it’s an example of other people seeing it failing too.

Philippe: Yeah. Obviously over the next years I think Parliament will be busy with other things. Who do you think I should interview next? Any idea?

Jack: Have you interviewed Alastair?

Philippe: I have.

Jack: Anyone else?

Philippe: Other people in the pipeline. I don’t want to mention any names because I don’t know how I’m going to release them.

Jack: All right. OK. Well, I mean if you look at who is commonly coming up as surveyors, they’re all going to be thoroughly experienced people and very interesting to interview. So Alastair, David and I suggest the people involved with the Pyramus & Thisbe Club. Actually Ashley, Andy, David Reynolds …

Philippe: On the kind of the younger end of the spectrum, Ashley obviously.

Jack: Yeah. Ashley is – definitely worth interviewing. I mean he has worked with Andy for a long time.

Philippe: Yeah, he helped a lot in developing our tool actually.

Jack: OK. I think – what he was doing for a while. He’s a great surveyor. It could be very interesting to talk to him. Steve Parker would be quite interesting as well.

Philippe: OK. That’s a lot of names.

Jack: It’s a lot of names, isn’t it? It will be interesting to get an array of surveyors of age and experience I suppose for what you’re doing.

Philippe: Yeah, yeah. Actually someone mentioned I should interview some architects as well to get the kind of point of view from the architect and see what kind of party wall surveyors – what the qualities they’re looking for in a party wall surveyor. That will add a lot.

Jack: Yeah. No, interesting spectrum I suppose and possibly if you can get to talk to them. I suppose some big commercial developers. I mean they go for it time and time again. They’re the people who are choosing surveyors. So it would be interesting to see what they look for when they are choosing.

Philippe: Yeah, that’s true. If you’ve got any names, send me an email.

Jack: OK.

Philippe: Good. Great. Well, Jack, thank you so much for your time.

Jack: No problem.

Philippe: Nice talking to you and I hope I will see you in one of the P & T meetings.

Jack: All right. I’m always there.

Philippe: Great. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Jack: You too. Bye now.

Philippe: Bye-bye then.

Jack's firm: Schofield Chartered Building Surveyors

Nicky Major
Published: December 9.2016

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The evolution of party wall surveying with Nicky Major.

Nicky Major, our first female guest, tells us how she became a Fellow of RICS, how party wall surveying has changed over the past five years and how consistency is key to building a party wall practice.



Transcription

Philippe: Welcome to another episode of Party Wall PRO the podcast. I’m very excited to have Nicky Major with me, my first female guest. Very exciting. And, so yeah, Nicky Major, one of the equity partners at Scott Davidson who started her career 20 years ago in Dorset, before coming up to London about, what, 12 years ago? Nicky’s practice focuses on high-end residential and was recently elected as a fellow of the RICS. So how does that feel?

Nicky: It feels great. It feels really good. I mean as you have alluded to there are not many female building surveyors which is my profession as well as a party wall surveyor, and there aren’t as many female surveyors out there and to be elected as a fellow, for me, personally I feel tremendous. It’s fantastic. And it’s a lot of hard work and… but I’m glad I did it. And not only just to feel good in myself but to show a lot of male surveyors out there that actually women can do it. So, I’m quite chuffed with myself.

Philippe: When you say hard work, how, what do you actually need, sorry… my ignorance, but what do you need to do to in order to be elected as a fellow?

Nicky: They recently changed application beginning of last year, so I was on the cusp of the new type but generally what you have to do is you have to prove, I think it’s 5 subjects out of (they give you list) of 20. And so you pick your 5. And obviously I specialize in residential high-end party wall matters and I also run my own practice, so I can pick the 5 subject matters. So what you have to do you have to write an… only 800 words about particular subject matter and… which is quite difficult when you got to squeeze every pertinent issue in there. And then you have to get a client or a colleague to say yes, that’s true and she’s not lying and I can verify that. So that’s what you have to do. It’s quite difficult because of course you have to find people who can verify that and choose them wisely so I chose couple of fellows and that’s what we have to do. It sounds easy but it’s not. It’s quite difficult.

Philippe: Well, congratulations!

Nicky: Thank you very much. Thank you

Philippe: One of the few women in the industry

Nicky: Yes

Philippe: How did you decide to become a surveyor? How did you end up going into that line of work?

Nicky: Well, it wasn’t a decision, actually. It was so, very briefly I did a very random selection of A Levels, as you do. I didn’t have any clue as to what I wanted to do at school. We didn’t really have great advice so I did random set of A Levels and I had no idea what to do. Rather than go do a 4-year degree in something I didn’t really know what I wanted to do I thought I’d stay home and do a little HND and as part of that I had to do work experience of whatever subject that I chose and was literally a case of opening a prospectus of a polytechnic as they work back then. Finger in the air “I’ll do that course” and I happened to fall on building studies. As part of that, like I said, I had to do work experience and a friend of a friend of a friend worked in a surveying practice and said come do some work experience with me. So I did. It happened at the right place at right time. The assistant building surveyor at the time had left. I was thoroughly enjoying my work experience and they offered me a position on the basis I did my building surveying degree by web distance learning. And thereafter become chartered so that’s what I did. I mean back then, building surveying was not that common so only a few polytechnics did the course and living in Bournemouth, the nearest polytechnic believe it or not was London. So I didn’t actually want to commute daily to London. Oh, it wouldn’t be daily sorry, it would have twice a week. And, so I did the distance learning course which meant that you had to hold down a full time job and then do about 20 hours a week study.

Philippe: Alright.

Nicky: So there we go. So that’s random set of events that led me to building surveying.

Philippe: And so you started doing more commercial work and then switched to residential.

Nicky: Yeah, so what I did probably 70% commercial, 30% residential back when I was training. And let’s be honest, residential houses in Bournemouth are not very interesting. And so I’m a commercially trained surveyor with a residential bias back then. Then I decided to move to London, bright lights and all of that excitement. And an opportunity arose and I took the plunge, went to London and fell in love with obviously the London architecture. That’s when I immersed myself in residential surveying, so yes commercial trained I know, but now I know a lot about high-end residential in and around London.

Philippe: So is it a choice people have to make from the start, residential vs. commercial. Is there’s… is there’s a skill set that is different?

Nicky: I don’t think it’s a choice. I don’t think you need to make that choice. When you start your degree obviously you learn everything. But there is a vocational part of your degree that you ought to immerse yourself but I don’t think back then you needed to make a decision. And for me it just happened to be going with the flow if you like. So, so the multi-disciplinary practice meant that I learnt bit of everything and it did just happened that they are more commercial. I suppose today, the surveying of residential and commercial are completely different especially from a construction point of view. So, yes you then… I supposed towards the beginning to middle of your career you need to make a decision, whether you’re going to choose - commercial or residential. Some surveyors do both with the help of software for party wall surveyors. Some surveyors do a bit of everything and which is great. And building surveyors you can tell your hands to a lot of different disciplines. It just so happens I happened to now be a residential surveyor but there’s no reason why I can’t go back to do commercial. Or even… I mean, sometimes I do a bit of commercial surveying. Now, I do some dilapidations, I do some offices in the West End. So I don’t think it’s a decision you make, I think it’s a case that you have to learn not on the jobs as the wrong word but evolve with the jobs that you take on.

Philippe: So you came to London and an opportunity arose as you said and your first client do you remember?

Nicky: In London?

Philippe: Yeah

Nicky: Yeah, it was… it was a mad little lady and she had... she had a damp problem. And I was literally day one. Day one, I was taken to this property with one of my colleagues. He took me to the property and said “right this is the client and she’s got a basement that is very very damp. I’ll see you later, goodbye.” We had to deal with the Party Wall issues, chemically injecting a damp proof course, sourcing quotes, getting damp specialists in and dealing with the little mad lady… So, that was my very first client. And then I had some funny party wall surveyors on the other side who thought “oh, there’s a little girl! We don’t like women. We’ll make her life hell.” but it was a quick learning curve. Bearing in mind I came from as an associate director in my previous job I did have a lot of practice in dealing with difficult people, so it wasn’t so bad. But yeah, little mad old lady, in Pimlico as it happens.

Philippe: So you joined Scott Davidson from a… another firm where you were an associate director already?

Nicky: Yes, yes.

Philippe: Meaning you already had a practice that you then brought to Scott Davidson? How does that work?

Nicky: No. What happened was previous to Scott Davidson, I was with what I called the big boys, so large commercial multi-disciplinary practices. And I was with a briefly a big firm in the west end, though when I joined them it was more of a stepping stone to be honest. And previous to that I was with a large practice making my way up the rank so you know from an assistant surveyor to building surveyor to senior surveyor then Associate Director. But I found moving from Dorset area into London you have to take a bit of a… a drop in your position to get in London until they… if they like trust you, prove your worth. And make it up the ranks, so yes I joined having been in fairly senior positions before in the commercial practice.

Philippe: And so what is interesting. So the kind of the big boys vs high street firms . What’s the.. if you would recommend a newbie to follow a certain path what would you say?

Nicky: Ah, so a newbie having... let’s say the newbie having just become chartered, I would say join a big boys because they will give you the broad experience that you need to… as your foundation. The big boys will do every single discipline that a building surveyor will do from… landlord and tenant issues, dilapidations, construction, design, build specifications and party walls, rights of light and boundaries, they’ll do everything. So as a newbie recently graduated and recently chartered, I would say join the big boys. Get that experience under your belt. Yes it’s going to be hard work. Yes, it’s going to be daunting. Yes, you’re going to be scared but it will… it did me good because you get thrown into the deep end because you don’t half learn quickly and even for someone who’s recently graduated doing their APC, which is a two-year assessment you have to do to become chartered. I’d always say join the big boys. They can give you full depth of experience every time. Only when you know… you got 5, 6, 7 years post qualification, education PQE, then… then you can think right to make money what can I do let’s be honest, it’s all about making some money and enjoying your job. And then… then you can start thinking about niche practices but always as a new graduate even as a new chartered surveyor, join a big boys definitely.

Philippe: Okay. Makes sense. Good advice. So, jumping back to you what we are saying before so you joined Scott Davidson. You started your practice then from a scratch in Scott Davidson

Nicky: I joined Scott Davidsons and Scott Davidson had… it was up and running in the 80s. So they started their practice in the 80s. And I joined Nick Scott. The “Scott” in Scott Davidson. Mr. Davidson wasn’t around, he left and I also joined Mike. Mike had been there for 15 years at that time. So, I joined a small medium practice that had a good reputation so I was very lucky and to join this practice. And… and you know, they said, come join us on the basis that, you know, if you do well, you know, there’s a future for you here. In other words, you… you will become a partner eventually. It was very daunting I have to say because they made it clear that while we are a very good practicing a very good reputation, we are expecting you to either A. bring clients with you or B. generate your own clients. And… and having never done that before obviously with the big boys you simply get given the work that you do or not. And to generate your own business, clients, customers, very daunting, especially having been told you’ve got to get out there and network and that was horrendous. And I still find it horrendous. I don’t mind working but I have to do it if you want to get business, it is as simple as that. So yeah, so when I joined Scott Davidson it was like completely different. Completely different.

Philippe: That’s very interesting. Where did you start when you were told okay you have to bring in some clients. What’s the first thing you did?

Nicky: Got a coffee. No, joking. So, I mean I was given some clients obviously. I got the jobs that nobody else wanted. Let’s be honest you know. Here is the mad woman in Pimlico for example, nobody wants her. “And you can deal with her.” But you make the most of what you have given. And so I thought right okay what I do I will do the best I can with the clients I am given. When, for example I do a party wall job, I make sure I am uber efficient with the other party wall surveyors. I get my name out there with the other surveyors so they know who I am. And in terms of building up clients, customers, business, if for example, I go pick up the keys from an estate agent, I make sure I give a business card. I make sure I meet the estate agent in question, have a good chat with them, give some personality, and just make sure they know who I am. And so, I work with clients I am given. And then I keep in contact. Keep in contact and then eventually, bit by bit by bit they remember you. And they say I remember Nicky, she is the one that said hello, she’s the one that spoke to me and she was the efficient one. And eventually you will then pick up clients word of mouth, repeat business, recommendations. And… and that’s how I started from the bottom of the pile and just keep on at it, keep working keep working and make sure that people remember you. Phone them, email them until they say “let’s give her a referral to shut her up”.

Philippe: I have to say, I remember because we met… we met at a P&T lunch a while ago and I remember I was sitting next to you and you got this energy about you that people will remember you, so I guess it works. And, but, in terms of networking, any particular events that you have to go to start showing your face somewhere.

Nicky: Yes, there are business forums. I mean there is a forum called “Women in property” and so I started off going to those forums – women in property. And met a few people there and gave business cards. Other things, the RICS events, mainly that’s surveyor-esque so you don’t get many clients. Solicitors tend to have drinks evening and things that you get yourself invited. You must be invited you can’t just turn up. They are very good because they have builders, architect and things like that. And it’s just basically making sure that you are aware of what’s going on. Estate Agents, particularly around Christmas time, do cocktails in their offices. That kind of a thing. And also what I tend to do as well… I mean long gone is the day when you would have a long boozy lunch with clients and people unfortunately, I remember back in the day when on a Friday you wouldn’t go back to work after lunch. Unfortunately people don’t want it that way anymore. Some do but most don’t, so I find, a meeting for a light lunch, meeting for coffee and that sort of thing works. But I digress.

Philippe: It’s a long process. There’s no really a shortcut, isn’t it?

Nicky: No, no, and this is what I keep telling my colleague. He joined us couple of years ago and he’s desperate to get a good client base. I said to him I’ve been here 12 years. It’s started to happen to me a couple of years ago, that was 10 years ago and it’s a long, long hard process. And you just have to keep at it. Keep at it. Keep at it. And the minute you stop people will forget about you. Because when you stop people just forget. It’s a long, long process not a short sharp solution. There are a couple of small practices that I know who the principals are retiring and so do you want to buy the business and I say well, for it’s all about goodwill. People go to you, Mr. X, not your practice. So you can’t buy that. When you retire, yes naturally they will go elsewhere, but you can’t just buy practices and take on from where they left off. It’s doesn’t work that way.

Philippe: Yeah, you need a transition period.

Nicky: Transition period and also they have to trust you. So yeah that is a long process.

Philippe: And, so in terms of party wall work and software for party wall surveyors, how much of your practices is focusing on party wall work?

Nicky: It depends on the state of the economy to be honest.. Before things happened... most of our work, I’d probably say 65% of our business was building surveys on the residential high-end for purchases. People buying property. And the rest party wall work. Following certain events, things have changed because there aren’t many transactions happening. So we are now able to turn our attention to party wall work. Now I would say 75% of our business is party wall work at the moment. But because we are small and dynamic we are able to fluctuate between building surveys and party wall work. But that is all we do, building surveys and party wall work.

Philippe: And so party wall work, is that as a result of your existing relationships or is it a part of the business that you can focus on developing?

Nicky: Bit of both. I have a lot of good relations with a lot of architects and a lot of builders. And it’s those who mainly recommend us as party wall surveyors. They are the existing relationships and then… and then from those jobs you can now work it and for example meet the builder, if you were referred by the architect, make sure you meet the builder, who may recommend you for his next job and then so it continues. You may construct a good relationship with the surveyors for the next property. Under the Party Wall etc. Act 1996, there is a mechanism whereby surveyors can appoint you if the owners don’t appoint their own surveyor, so if you get on with another surveyor you might receive further appointments from them. So I think it’s working with what you’ve got and expanding with what you’ve got. Architects are a funny fish actually, they have their preferred surveyor and they won’t deviate unless you prove yourself. It’s always good to start from someone you know rather than going cold.

Philippe: So, if you want to start a party wall practice the best way to start is try get some architects to get you some work with or without a software for party wall surveyors.

Nicky: Absolutely, so for someone who wants to start a practice from scratch, get a friendly builder. How you get a friendly builder I have no idea but somehow you get a friendly builder. Find a friendly architect. It might even be called calling, popping up at their office, dropping by building sights. I know it’s difficult. I hate doing it but it’s the only way to start. Get on board with a builder and say to them “look give me a chance, this is what I can do for you”. Perhaps reduce your fees to begin with, and make sure you do a really good job and then they will eventually recommend you for other jobs. But, start with a friendly builder, friendly architect and hopefully you should be okay.

Philippe: That’s great practical advice. So party wall work itself, what do enjoy about it? Or what do you dislike about it?

Nicky: Party wall work, and this is no secret. All surveyors, all good surveyors know this. Party wall work has changed massively over the last 5 years or so. It used to be enjoyable, it used to be a case of...I mean going back a bit... not many people know this, I’ll explain: Party wall surveyors are… we don’t have clients. Once somebody appoints us, whether it’s the neighbour or the person who does the work. The adjoining owner or the building owner. Once they appoint us we can’t be disinstructed because we are appointed by statute. So the law appoints us. So we work for the wall, if you like. Not many people are aware of that. So we are impartial. And we can’t start arguing with other surveyor for the next door neighbour because we are meant to be the same. We are meant to be singing from the same hymn sheet. So five or so years previous, that’s exactly what surveyors used to do. We used to meet up. We used to agree what work needed to be done, did the schedule of condition. We were both very friendly, very happy. Resolved everything, produced the award and works could get started.. Nowadays, and I have an idea why but I would not say... so many surveyors think it’s them versus you. Let’s see what I can get away with. Let’s see what we can get for you Mr. client. Oh sorry you’re not my client. You are my owner. So that makes it very contentious and very confrontational. And most surveyors don’t like confrontations and that’s why we are surveyors . We like buildings and we don’t talk back. So it’s become very confrontational and very difficult especially with basements. Personally I think basements are fine so long as they’re designed correctly. But a lot of surveyors think that they’re the devil incarnate and you shouldn’t have a basement. And therefore, they want to make your life as difficult as possible. So, unfortunately paryt wall work, at the moment, is quite confrontational, very difficult and with it, fees are going up and up and up despite the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 saying that fees have to be reasonable,; it’s an enabling act; building owners are allowed to develop their land and their buildings; but still, the adjoining owners probably with advice from their party wall surveyors think that they are not allowed to develop their land. So it’s not as enjoyable as it used to be. Having said that, there’s still a lot of old school Party wall surveyors who are professional, know what they are doing. And it is those jobs that are very nice and easy and you get satisfaction. And I like it when a big stack of awards land on my desk and I can sign the awards, send them off with my fee accounts. So yes, I think that the Party Wall etc. Act 1996 needs to be updated. I mean it only came about in 1996 which took over the London Building Act, but I think it needs updating to quash a lot of this unnecessary aggression and me vs you.

Philippe: I would actually love to hear what reasons you think have started this confrontational approach? Is it just a general attitude of people? Or breed?

Nicky: Basements have always been dug for many years but I think the press covered a couple of incidents involving basements, I won’t mention a name, and the press decided to focus on basements saying it’s the worst thing ever and said “look they cause houses to collapse”. Okay one or two houses had suffered from damage that have been in the news but they are in the minority. So I think the press hasn’t helped. The other thing is that you don’t have to be qualified to be a party wall surveyor. Anyone can be a party wall surveyor. Anyone. Unlike a building surveyor where you have to be chartered. So there is no governing body governing party wall surveyors. Anyone can. And I think a lot of people have decided to become party wall surveyors and they don’t really understand the Party Wall etc. Act 1996. It’s an enabling act, you don’t have a client, you have an appointing owner...And that is it. So I think it’s a combination of: people who are new to party wall surveying don’t understand the act and I think all the hype surrounding basements. I think that’s probably a lot to do with it. To be honest. I think there ought to be a body that has to be put in place to monitor party wall surveyors that you have to be a member of. There are two clubs, dominant clubs at the moment : the Pyramus and Thisbe as you know and the Faculty of Party Wall Surveyors. If you are a good party wall surveyor you will be a member of either both or one and that’s good especially the faculty because the faculty you have to sit an interview, you have to answer questions and things like that.

Philippe: So it’s stamp of approval. So any owner who wants to appoints a party wall surveyor try to see if there is a stamp of the P&T or the FPWS on there.

Nicky: Yes, absolutely

Philippe: And so in terms of the day today, party wall work? Any tools that you use? Any software for party wall surveyors? Obviously I need to bring that up. Anything to make your life easier that you use?

Nicky: I would love a machine, if you can invent one, that will help with the schedule of condition. Software that will take the photographs, print it on the paper and have everything in order. Schedules of Condition for every party wall surveyor are dreadful. I mean they take forever to do. What you do is you usually dictate into your dictaphone. “There is a crack on the left of the window”. Take a photo. Brilliant. “There’s a crack to the right of the window”. Take a photo. Brilliant. But invariably what will happen is, when you get back to the office your secretary can’t really understand your dictation so you get all sorts of funny words. Then you look at your photos and it’s a sea of white walls with no cracks because of course a camera doesn’t really pick up a little crack on a white wall. So you are looking at your photos and you’re looking at the words and you think oh my goodness this is gonna take me weeks now to try and resolve what on earth have I done. So if you invent something for schedules of condition: put the photos, put the texts and spit it out the other end, brilliant!

Philippe: Okay, done. Who should you I interview next? Last question.

Nicky: Architects.Interview an architect. From a party wall perspective because they invariably… they have the initial contact with the person you wants to do the work. So they get to speak to the client, let’s call them a client because they are the client of the architect. And they speak with client direct. They understand the client and then it’s the architect in some situations who picks the party wall surveyor and I would be interested to know what an architect looks for in a party wall surveyor and what an architect expects from a party wall surveyor. That would be interesting.

Philippe: Good point, yeah, yeah, I like that.

Nicky: Yeah

Philippe: I’ll drop you a line to ask if you have anyone that you can introduce me to.

Nicky: I do

Philippe: I’m sure you do. Nicky, thank you so much.

Nicky: No problem

Philippe: I’m sure you do. Nicky, thank you so much.

Nicky: No problem

Philippe: It’s great great chat and I hope I see you in person again soon.

Nicky: Absolutely, alright, well thank you very much

Philippe: And yeah, speak soon

Nicky: Okay

Philippe: Bye Bye then.

Nicky's employer: Scott Davidson Chartered Surveyors


Links mentioned during the interview:

Lee Kyson
Published: November 2.2016

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How to build a sustainable party wall practice in 2 years, with Lee Kyson.

In this episode Lee tells us how he managed to build his successful party wall practice from scratch in only two years. He gives us the one marketing tip that helped him kick start his business and tells us how to go about growing it into a sustainable party wall practice.



Transcription

Philippe: Welcome to another edition of our podcast and today I’m really excited to have our champion user, Lee Kyson on the line from Kyson Building Consultancy. I said, champion user because you’ve got about a thousand new matters on Party Wall PRO, which is pretty exciting, but it’s not about you using our software anyway, it’s not about self-promotion, it’s more about you. Can you talk a bit about how you started, where you started, and how you got into surveying in general?

Lee: Well, basically I come from a trading background and I’ve spent all my life in construction. I’ve been used to having people working for me, building and renovating properties, much of my work was as a plastering contractor with mostly plasterers working for me. However, that was always on the physical side and as I’m not getting any younger, I decided I needed to try and make a change, but at the same time put the experience I’d gained to use. One day I was actually preparing a quote for a builder, to get some building work done on his house and while I was around there he was telling me he was having problems getting a party wall surveyor, and I was, vaguely familiar with the [Party Wall etc. 1996] Act, I just look into it and found out lot more information. I attended the course run by the faculty of party wall surveyors and started off working basically as a party wall surveyor, but just as a sideline and now it seems like it’s taking off and it is most of my work now. Philippe: So, you started your practice from scratch completely.

Philippe: So, you started your practice from scratch completely.

Lee: Yes!

Philippe: That’s interesting because you are the first one. Normally people come from surveying practices, where they’ve done a little bit of party wall and then decided to set up their own practice or are still with bigger firms. That’s quite interesting: out of nothing, you started. So, how did you get to grow it, because obviously, that first client was one thing, but then how did you take off from there?

Lee: I think originally, I advertised heavily, wherever I could get some adverts in I would put them in and, I’ve probably spent an arm and a leg on advertising but it just brought… Let’s just say it wasn’t a very good return rate. It gradually got the foot in the door and gradually, I would get one customer then another and then it would gradually lead on to getting more and more customers. I say customers… but under the party wall act, they are not customers or clients but owners and for the sake of clarity we just refer to them as customers. But it just gradually advanced from there, an architect would bring me up and then I manage to maintain all future contacts with that architect and then gradually another architect came on board and I manage to keep in contact with them and managed a continual flow of [LOST CONNECTION].

Philippe: I think I’ve lost the connection there.

Philippe: Welcome back. You were explaining, how you got from your first customer, to building a bigger practice. You started advertising. Where did you start advertising?

Lee: I put an ad in Yell, because you can always do a freebie one in Yell. I also used another couple but I have to be careful what I say, because they weren’t very successful as I never actually had a single response from them. They were affiliated with local authorities for different areas. They weren’t successful. I think mainly it was Yell and I gradually managed to get a lot of responses from Google, and I did pay for some ads on Google, but then I gradually let my client base take over.

Philippe: Who did you target, on Google? Was it architects and project managers?

Lee: I think it was basically, “party walls surveyors”, but that was a paid for ad, [click to pay] and I think it cost a lot of money very quickly, so I knock that on the head which I knew it would do. I also think I wrote to a lot of architects and it’s just a question of sending it out, some information to other people. But because it was a sideline I wasn’t as reliant on it, as my main source of income. I was still doing building works, so it didn’t matter if I just got one party wall inquiry for that week and I carried that out. I wasn’t dependent upon it. So, it built slowly and it got to where it is now. It now keeps me going for most of my time. I do dispute resolution as well. I think between the two, I am very busy.

Philippe: That’s interesting. If you were to give some advice to someone who wanted to use advertising, the best thing would be to try and get directly in contact with architects.

Lee: I found that, although it’s difficult because everybody else has tried it before, so they’ve already got a base of party wall surveyors or they have a particular company that they work with. What I did was I experimented with targeting on Yell and I worked out what the best areas were. I actually paid for party wall surveyors in East London, in North London and the areas around, so that I had those areas and I was on the primary listings. It cost me quite a bit but it was a good return, for what I was paying out, because if someone searched “party wall surveyors East London”, my name would come up, if it wasn’t the top one it was within the top three. That worked quite well. The other one I think was Local Surveyors Direct, where you just pay for each lead, as they come up, but sometimes you are one of six or seven and you don’t stand a chance but, you’ll still be paying for that lead but that still had a good return. The other one, I get quite a few inquiries from RICS. I just became a chartered building consultancy recently, although I am a chartered member of the Chartered Institute of Building myself. I am now registered as a Chartered Building Consultancy within the CIOB. It’s possible that I might start getting inquiries from the CIOB. I do get inquiries through my membership with the faculty of party wall surveyors [FPWS] and occasionally from being a member of the Pyramus and Thisbe Club. There are areas where people can check your credentials. Where there are surveyors that have no credentials, no affiliations, but trall the planning portals and write to the adjoining owners. Which is one way of getting buyers, but I think a lot of the people I talk to, they tend to say we get the less we just bin them, because they take them a lot of time of what they have, because there are a lot of people who follow that route have left a bad reputation.

Philippe: How would you say your "acting for building owners and adjoining owners" ratio is? Is the majority of your work coming from building owners?

Lee: It used to be. Much of my work was originally working on behalf working on behalf or acting on behalf of the building owner and the adjoining owner would then appoint me as the agreed surveyor. I would say probably 80 percent of my work was as agreed ­surveyor. Probably about 20 percent was working in junction with another surveyor. In the last six months, we’ve had quite a lot of the inquiries whereby, I started taking on appointments for the adjoining owner, especially whereby the building owner carried out work, or they commenced work without serving notice. I’ve been acting on behalf of the adjoining owner, sent a letter to the building owner requesting that they appoint the surveyor within ten days or if they refuse that I would appoint one to act on their behalf which I have done on five or six occasions in the last few months. That seems to be a it of a trend. A lot of people won't take those on because they don’t believe the process can be started without a noticed being served. I think there’s another school of thought coming out on that.

Philippe: Coming back to your practice, now you run your party wall practice on a full-time basis?

Lee: Sometimes, it’s more on a full-time and sometimes you just get quiet times but as I also do dispute resolution as well, that can be quite time-consuming and at the moment I’m preparing a referral for a building contractor, for adjudication and I’m also studying for masters in construction law at the moment. I got my first year out of the way and I have my second year to go and that takes care of any spare time. My party wall workload tends to increase more and more. Sometimes I think, great I have a couple of days off next week I can get on with some studying but then someone will ring up and want something done. It’s always the last moment. Quite often they are people that come through architects that I know who they’ve told their client at the beginning they need to a party wall agreement in place. They don’t bother and leave it until the last minute, just as they are about to start and the adjoining owner says “what about a party wall award” and then they all stop, and they panic to get it all started.

Philippe: Typical. In terms of the workload, when did you get your first client? When was that?

Lee: Probably just over two years ago.

Philippe: Two years only? It’s snowballed pretty quickly. You’ve stopped marketing then? Because you get too many referrals now ?

Lee: I still get my Yell ads, because they pay for themselves.

Philippe: That’s nice.

Lee: I think that’s probably about it, I keep those ones going. Then I got my affiliations with the various organisations like I said I’ve managed to build my client base.

Philippe: That’s pretty handy. How did you keep on top of things?

Lee: With great difficulty. I got my partner, she is going to help me, she will keep on top of things hopefully, performing paperwork wise.

Philippe: How do you keep on top of things? That’s what a lot of busy party wall practitioners say, that, it’s actually difficult to keep on top of stuff.

Lee: I used to find it quite difficult. As you know, I am an great advocate of Party Wall PRO. That helps me to keep on top of everything because I can set my notices’ dates all automatically. I haven’t got to serve a notice and then make a note of it somewhere in the hope that I’ll remember, if haven’t had a response and in three weeks I’ll get a call from a rather irate building owner asking me what’s happened. I find that’s great!

Philippe: That’s good to hear and…

Lee: The other software I use is Word, Microsoft Word for generating letters but most of the work I do is with Party Wall PRO.

Philippe: How did you do it before? So you use spreadsheets?

Lee: I originally used spreadsheet, and I had one tab in a workbook for each particular notice and I had one page would be setup with all the details and once I put the building owner’s name in, that would then be carry through the particular point in each worksheets, you just to click on a particular worksheet and print it up and send it.

Philippe: Now okay.

Lee: It’s quite well, but wasn’t a very tidy way of proceeding with the work. I then did with Microsoft Word where I think I got a word document, which is about eighty pages long with all different aspects of the act within it. At the beginning I’d be putting all the details and then it changes it all through the document by way of using it as a bookmark and cross reference. Once I’d put it in bookmark it would changes the name each time and carried it through. It worked quite well, and you can do quite a nice and tidy document with it, but it still doesn’t keep control of the document. It’s my biggest problem because I’m not the tidiest of people. I tend to keep a lot of things in my head rather than writing down and make a list, like lot of sensible people do it. [Laughter]

Philippe: If you had to… because it is actually pretty amazing with that in two years you’ve built your practice from scratch and now you kind of are at the point where work comes easily and you can live from that. If you have to give advice to a young surveyor who has an interest in party wall matters, what would you recommend he or she starts with?

Lee: They need to start gradually and don’t expect everything to come to them. You’ve got to put yourself out and, not just make yourself known but also put yourself out for people. I accept that even if they call me, if you need anything even weekends. I just accept it and just get on with it because at the end of the day they’re my clients and put bread and butter on the table. There are days you can take off because you don’t get any work or the burden. You’ve got to put yourself out there, you’ve got to be honest with people, and you’ve got to give them a good service. If you can do that, and also even if you don’t know the answer to what they’re asking, don’t be afraid to ask advice somewhere else from someone more experienced and then you get back to them with the answer, because they’ll always appreciate that you’ve come back to them with an answer. Also, I find that with young surveyors, don’t always accepts what somebody else tells you. Use the advice and do your own research, form your own opinion of what you are answered to what a particular problem could be. Base your answer on that. So, make sure that you understand what you’re talking about rather than answer from the basis of what somebody has told you and make sure you understand what you’re asked.

Philippe: Where do you go if you need an answer?

Lee: I tend to ask various members of the faculty that are more experienced than me. There are plenty of people that are all helpful. There is the faculty of party wall surveyors, and party wall forums on LinkedIn. People often put questions out there that they are not sure of, and the questions aren’t always from, people who don’t really know anything. Lot of questions are from experienced surveyors, because a lot of these issues do have two sides to them. YOu might have 50% of the people who have got one idea and 50% got something different. Somebody will put up a question and you’ll think well, that guy is been doing that, twenty-thirty years, but they’re not afraid to put a question to the floor on the forum and get other people’s opinions.

Philippe: Now, that’s a good place to start.

Lee: Also to read the Party Wall etc. 1996 Act, if you read the Party Wall etc. 1996 Act and read it properly, don’t put words into it, because sometimes people will tell you something and you might find that they are putting a particular word in. It could be that they may say “may” instead of “shall”. There is a big difference in the meaning. You have to read it very carefully but form your own opinion.

Philippe: Education wise you said that you took the faculty’s course. Is it two three day course isn’t it?

Lee: It’s a two day course but I think there is some a new course that is a level three course, I can’t think which one there is now, but the faculty got details of it. You can actually get qualification now, for party wall surveying. A lot in my qualification, has come from years of pulling apart and rebuilding what most party wall surveyors looked at. I have had vast amount of experience from that point of view, but I think for someone starting from scratch you just have to be you. Take it slowly, and don’t be afraid to seek advice.

Philippe: Okay. So educations read the Party Wall etc. 1996 Act, start slowly, and if you want to market try Yell, it seems to be working best, and take it slowly and try to learn from many experienced. Reach out to the community. I think it’s true, it looks like it’s a very tightly knit community, the party wall community.

Lee: They are. Most of the surveyors I know, they’re all helpful, if you have a querry, they’ll do their best to give you an answer. If they don’t know, and they quite often like it, if you have a question they’re not sure of, because they go seek advice. It can be an ongoing thing. There are things where I’ve asked for advice. Someone has come back to me and told me I’m completely wrong, but I relooked at what I was doing and decided that I was on the right track and carried on, with my point of view. You just need to have faith in what you’re doing.

Philippe: Perfect. One last question who should I interview next, any names on top of your head?

Lee: Try Ken Power. We’ve done a few party walls together, because we both have similar views on 10(4) appointments

Philippe: Okay.

Philippe: I’ll reach out then.

Lee: He’s a very knowledgeable guy as well, he teaches on the Faculty course aswell. He helps run all the Faculty forums.

Philippe: Good person to know.

Lee: Yes.

Philippe: Perfect. Lee, thank you so much for your time.

Lee: You’re Welcome.

Philippe: Nice talking to you and definitely stay in touch.

Lee: Yes.

Lee's company: Kyson Building Consultancy


Links mentioned during the interview:

Alistair Redler
Published: September 30.2016

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Three steps to becoming a great party wall surveyor, with Alistair Redler

In our first episode Alistair tells us how to build a reputation and what skills are needed to be an efficient Building Owner surveyor. He also shares some tips on how to start a party wall practice and why you shouldn't do it alone too early.



Transcription

Philippe: Hello everyone! Today we've got Alistair Redler with us from Delva Patman, Redler who is the man when it comes to party wall surveying and he has been in the business for how long now, Alistair?

Alistair: Well this from 23 years, since starting work probably about 28.

Philippe: 28? How did you?-- so tell me-- from the start how did you get into surveying.

Alistair: By accident, almost! I left school with lousy A levels, did 3 years doing manual labor work and a cousin of mine who's a structural engineer and now senior partner of a large firm in the South recommended that I spend some time with him seeing what engineers did. And having decided that surveying looked more interesting than engineering, I went into it. I decided that was a good call--it was all I could do. So basically, just, it was a good lifestyle rather than a choice.

Philippe: Right, so how did you, from there, go into party wall matters? Did you start straight away with just focusing on party walls or was it just general surveying and then?

Alistair: No, ah, sort of. A colleague; and there was a couple lectures on party walls that I thought were interesting. It was interesting that there was a specialization that was relatively straightforward and at that time, very boutique applying to only in London. And I quite liked the idea of it. As I got into surveying and working, I found I liked the professional end of surveying better than construction and design. So I got into dilapidation surveys, and party walls and to a certain extent repair works rather than design works; very much my field, I am not a designer at all. So, the party wall work, and I used to get as I could from the firm I was working in. And eventually, in '92, I thought I'd apply to a firm that was more specialist and applied to a few firms including Delva Patman and got the job. So, I wanted to be more specialist and do rights of light as well so it was a deliberate attempt to get into this field.

Alistair: Delva being extremely experienced and very very capable.

Philippe: And then, and then, from there on, how do you-- how do you actually start building your own practice? Because it's --, it's like, with my background as a lawyer you work in a law firm with a partner that hands you the work, and without questioning it. But you don't really have time to go in and seek your own instructions, your own clients. So how did you go from, from working for Delva into slowly getting your own client base?

Alistair: I think you do it just by working, actually. I think it's about personality, but I think it's about working. I have -we, we, as a practice do almost no marketing. No active marketing, no classic marketing. No cold calls, no taking people to lunch twice a week, no -you know--, no marketing budget effectively. We manage to do the job, when we do the job, we think very well; we do it our way. We do it very well. That, backed up with doing lectures and articles, and just helping people out. It's amazing, that one of the best ways of getting a name around is for your rivals to speak well of you; in party wall world particularly. And other negotiating fields like dilapidation and so on, because if your rivals speak well of you, not only do they want to negotiate with you, because well it may not be the easiest ride, it will be a fair and honest one. But, the clients can't also go to the same people, there's a conflict, so you get the contacts that way as well. So basically you're doing the job best you can.

Philippe: So that "best you can", is that just going above and beyond what normal people would deliver and bill for?

Alistair: It's difficult, you just got to know what you're doing. And you've got to be right in knowing what you're doing. There's plenty of people out there, who think they know what they are doing; who are very high-opinion of themselves, and it's not shared by their compatriots in the way that they think it should be because they are not as good as they think they are. It's difficult to call that one, I think, actually, an honest and open approach to yourself, and dealing with colleagues well; whether they’re in your firm or outside your firm, because in party wall world people in other firms are colleagues too, and or should be treated as such. You actually learn from them, feed off them, and you learn together. An example in party walls is the amount of case law recently that clarified matters; there was a bitter dispute between party wall surveyors like right to access under Section 1, like foundation details. There were surveyors that I highly respect that were completely wrong on those points by the way the courts turned out. However, I could have been completely wrong, too, if a different judge had been hearing the case. I think that the fact that the case comes in people understand the facts in such detail, they accept judgement because they understand where it is coming from. And between us, we work together. And to say, there is very little quarreling about it either, you get on with the job. So in other words, you build your knowledge, your reputation off other people as well as doing it yourself. You have to read the books, you have to pay attention, but certainly having an opened mind is critically important. I think, especially as a younger surveyor, you need to work very well with the people around you.

Philippe: So do you remember your first client? The first person that came to you?

Alistair: Yes, in fact I did my year out, my summer year, at the Property Services Agency. It was the government property department so I didn't have a client there, really, we had a few people we worked for. But when I graduated, my very first job was Barclays’ Bank on the highway in East London. I was sent out on my own to prepare a full specs on decoration and repair, which I would never do for a very young graduate now. So that was my first one. It kind of went alright. I still don't know whether we needed to replace all the loose lights but it got down anyways. It looked good!

Philippe: How did you get it? Was it through the person you were working for at the time?

Alistair: I worked for a firm based in Crystal Palace, really nice firm. It suffered badly in the recession that followed. And my team leader, basically, put the associate in charge and said 'right, here's one for you, go and do it.' So that was it. And he had back-up, of course, someone who read the specifications and looked at photographs so you had the back-up when you got back.

Philippe: That's always helpful.

Alistair: Oh yeah, absolutely!

Philippe: And, so if you had to give some advice to someone who wants to get into the party wall business and such, how do you start a practice from scratch? Or how do you, for people who act mainly for adjoining owners, people who scrape the land registry portal-- how do you get them to get on the other side and start acting for more building owners?

Alistair: Well the first thing I think is critical is the party wall surveyor should not be an instant specialty. It really isn't. I think you're a surveyor first and then a party wall surveyor second. I talk about my first one being an external repair of a building, a large commercial building. I did a few years of a lot of construction work. Not necessarily the stuff we do with party walls now; I didn't do any household work or basement work, for example, but I did construction work, and we have a policy here where we prefer our surveyors --it doesn't allows happen-- but we prefer our young surveyors to come from a firm with a good surveying background. We find they make the best party wall surveyors because they know what they are talking about and they know the profession at a wider level. For example, they understand the client's requirements better, they understand costs better, they've applied law on a wider scale than just party walls law. So the answer for people who are the ambulance chasers is there are too many out there now, who go straight into party walls thinking 'there's a nice easy number to do,' as I indeed, thought when I was at college. But I think you just get the practice first. To be a good building owner surveyor, you have to know what you are doing. You're acting for developers; you're acting for big developers. You're not just talking about a household building owner. You're talking about a project team that could be 20 to 30 people around the table. You need to understand what the team wants from you. And I think the party walls surveyor's role is to get off the critical path as fast as possible. You are not the most important person in the room; in fact, you are one of the least important people in the room. Or at least you should be one of the least important people in the room. You've got structural engineers who design massive structures. You need to just tell them what you need for the party wall bit of their work and get it and use it so you can move on with your party wall process. You need to understand the client's requirements. I'll give you an example, a surveyor could spend ages arguing over a finite bit of detail on basement or over the adjoining owner's staircase but I've got a job in the West End at the moment, that while it was in the demolition phase delays were going to cost £10 million a month. You don't want to be holding up that job because you think the other surveyor is charging an extra £1000 too much. So it's understanding the concept of that that makes you a good building owner surveyor and the best building owner surveyors are the ones who the clients can rely upon to know what they need from them. That's the difference. To be a know-all party wall surveyor is fine when you are actively joining owners and pleasing them; it isn't the job when you are acting for a development where you are just one cog that has to make the development work. And I think that's a big difference -- and that's -- people who are dismissive of the specialist firms and wonder how certain names out there get those names don't really realize how well those people --and I'm talking about main rivals of mine-- how good they are at doing just that job. And how good they are at delivering and organizing and, indeed, persuading other surveyors and being reassuring to adjoining owners at the same time; it's quite a big role. It's an important role to build, and that's how you build a practice. That's why people come back to you without you marketing. And that's how you find people who phone you up and say 'I spoke to my lawyer and he said that I should phone you,' which, again, is what the top firms get-- a number of firms get-- it is the way in which you do that. So the answer is to be --it's not to know everything about the party wall act or to be the surveyor who finds the problem. It's being the one who can get the answers and make it work.

Philippe: There is quite a wide skill-set, you've got to be able to do project management, you got to be able to make yourself small when you need to be, and dig yourself up in other circumstances. So what are the other kinds of skills that someone should develop or work on if they wanted to get their foot in the door?

Alistair: Yeah, on the technical side, there's personality and style and there's technical. Personality, one of the things that I would say to all those surveyors is to be relentlessly nice to everybody, literally. There's no reason to be unpleasant to anybody. If they send you some stupid comment, reply nicely explaining why they are wrong. If you're right, they'll concede very quickly, for example. But to get there, in the first place, you have to be right. You have to know what you are talking about. You need to read, you need to know the books, you need to know some of the case law. But I wouldn't get hung up on it. I think quoting case law in normal correspondence is a sign of weakness, personally. You should be able to explain why something is without 'it's because of "x" case', unless you need to. Unless you're pinning down or steering somebody towards a principle that is in one case rather than another. I think you need to know your construction. You need to look at the drawings. An example, for a building owner surveyor, is there is a big tendency to --especially those on fixed fees-- to push a bundle of documents across to an adjoining owner’s surveyor and let them sort out what they want out of that bundle. That is not acceptable. A building owner’s surveyor has to know what they are seeing; they need to understand what they are seeing and they need to approve it themselves before they pass it along. And the reason they need to do that partly, is so they understand the project they are on, but they learn. They go back to the team and say 'what is this detail', 'why have you done this?' 'is the foundation a bit slender?' And they'll explain why it isn't and why they've designed it that way. You learn on the job doing that. Interestingly, one of the best meetings on site I ever had was on a job in Kensington where we were acting for a very large and very very expensive house with overseas wealthy clients on my side. And we were concerned about movement; there was a big basement being dug. And a young engineer, young structural engineer gave the party wall surveyors a 20 minute masterclass in geo-technical movement in the site hub. It was brilliant! It was aimed at surveyors so it had no maths in it. It was all about pictures and impact; how it works. And it was very effective. Ever since then I can talk more intelligently about basement geo-technical movements. It's amazing! And I was pretty experienced then when I had that and it was still valuable to me. So you don't know it all. For a young surveyor, it's listening to other people and work. And I think the other thing is don't rush into setting something up too quickly. You can set up a business at 25 and do quite well out of it actually. There's a big value in working with other people for some time, and getting the experience of your colleagues, and how they work, and what they know. And when you set up a firm, or when you go into a specialization, or you go into a big firm to set up your own specialization team up-- which is what some people do-- you can do it well because you know what you are talking about. It goes back to the basics, you need to be a good surveyor first.

Philippe: So there's no way around 'work your way through it' basically?

Alistair: I think the other thing is there are jobs in the property industry, in surveying; there are two types of building surveying actually, there are two extremes in building surveying: there are people who do one job at a time in very great depth and they are, for example, the project managers on the very complex projects and then you get the other extreme where people handle 100 to 150 projects at a time in a lot of small bits; and that is the busy party wall surveyor. So you need to be able to handle that, you need to have the mindset that holds a lot of information very quickly. I'll give you an example, sometimes as a third surveyor sometimes I have to vet adjoining surveyor fees when it comes as a third surveyor referral. And I look at it and every couple of weeks there's half an hour down for reviewing the file and catching up with something. Well, it's not really very acceptable. You haven't got a brain that can hold that information even if you've done a hundred things since. Hold most of the information so you know what you're looking at when it arrives. You shouldn't be charging, for example, the fees that some people are charging for doing that. If you charge a high fee, you should be able to do that very quickly.

Philippe: So that actually brings us nicely into what kinds of tools do you use to make your life easier and to try to empty that brain?

Alistair: Yeah, not enough probably. I think being on top of the work-load is the obvious one. That's where the mobile devices now make such a big difference. The use of iPads and smartphones and so on is useful. We do trackers for party wall work, a simple spreadsheet that has the details on it of who everybody is, who the surveyors are, and comments. We use different details for different projects. Some projects we need to send the clients a spreadsheet every couple of weeks; it has to have something new on it. Other times, it’s used for just an aide memoir of "who's who." But we largely rely on the surveyors doing it for themselves and work the way they do best within the framework of the systems we have in the office.

Philippe: And any tools you wish you had?

Alistair: Well the biggest problem with-- it's very easy in party wall surveying to be reactive-- so you always wait for someone else to respond. I think the tools that are always useful, is to know when you should be chasing things, and not just relying on other people doing it or telling you. You should be chasing or responding to it so they don't actually have to be chasing you. I think that is one of the main ones. As we go through very busy cycles, people will tend to deal with what is forced on top of their list; and you need to be on top of the list. So I think it's reminders-- some people are better at it than others; they just do it their own way.

Philippe: So I guess in party wall jobs “no news is bad news”. It means that you need to do something about it?

Alistair: It is, it is. And of course it's how you do it as well. You have to be careful about over automating things. For example, the use of the 10 day notice, in my experience, we hardly ever use it here, hardly ever even jokingly use it because people do tend to take offense. You can write to somebody and try and get a quicker response off of them by sort of a polite request. But most of the time, --if no news-- if you've forgotten to chase someone and it's become critical on the project then you've got problems on your hands. That's when you rely on your personality. I've got one of my colleagues, who have just been on holiday, and did what I always had to rely upon which is call in favours in the last 10 days before you go away and we had awards going out, several awards going out every day for the last four days before she went off and completely cleared the workload because she is highly regarded and people will always help her out. So that actually, is one of the advantages of doing this -- you can get things done quite effectively. But it also just showed that everything was on top and capable of being completed too.

Philippe: And so, to kind of conclude -- so I'm a surveyor, I've done it for 5 or 6 years, I've got an interest in party wall matters, where do I go to try to get more involved in it? Should I join the P&T club?

Alistair: Yeah. I'd definitely join the P&T club. There's no barrier to entry. Apart from being a professional in the construction. I would do talks. The P&T club does the Theodore Bullfrog talks which are the junior-based ones. They are not normally full, they are very cheap; only about £12 for a decent talk, free food and drink, and it's a good way to network young surveyors of similar experience and more experience, which is particularly useful. You can't under-emphasize the importance of talking about these things with your peers, not just your superiors. I think that is critically important. I think someone here can speak to me and get an answer but if they speak to one of their colleagues at their same level, they'll end up with more of a debate and discussion and then someone will get the book out and have a look. You can get a lot of depth. It can be as useful. So I think they should do that, I think they should decide where they are working or what they are doing. I mean I got a lot of my good experience working in a general building surveying firm and then in a multi-discipline surveying firm getting quite a lot of the party wall work but with good clients and that got me the experience without having to do full-on party walls and nothing else. That lead me into what I'm doing. I don't think someone should necessarily think you have to go and work for a firm like ours straight away to get all that experience. I think you can get it with a wider range and then build that specialty as you know you want to do it. But by all means if someone has a year or two of experience and wants to for a specialist firm and they know they want to, then that's absolutely fine. The other thing to watch out for, of course, is if you come to a firm like ours, or some of our rival's, without special construction experience getting charted is very difficult. We have great clients, really good work, really good experience with very good teams, best architects, best engineers, but that's not the same as doing it yourself and going through an APC. So, and I would say to anybody, no matter how tempting party wall surveying is and how lucrative it may appear, if you're going to get a good, well-paid job, you've got to think about whether you'd want to go through your career not having got charted or having to go back and do it; and I think it's worth having it. And also, by getting charted, you have done what a firm like ours needs to know that you're going to be a competent surveyor doing the job. So, well we have surveyors who aren't charted and they do a perfectly sound job; I think people should aim get charted first, and then target firms like ours for where they come to after that.

Philippe: How easy is it for you guys to find the right people?

Alistair: Not always that easy, funnily enough. If people really want to come to our field there's --we're competing with the other firms, when they're looking-- there are people who are worried about being a specialist, even if they're good at it. And it's getting the right people; there are plenty of people who think this is what they want to do, or they're the perfect person, but their CV isn't good enough; it just isn't right. If you got too much of the wrong-side experience-- you know, I happen to think having consultant experience is more important than client side for our particular way we work with our clients. So you have to find that as well, but that's just us. So we sometimes have difficulty. The hardest thing is getting the young, well-experienced surveyors because they're gold dust. Someone just charted with a good range of experience is always going to be in demand because of what they can bring. That said, we have a full team at the moment; we've recently just taken someone else on. So it's going quite well.

Philippe: That's good! Great, well thank you Alistair so much for your time. And I'm sure I'll see you around.

Alistair: Brilliant! I look forward to seeing you.

Philippe: Well, bye then!

Alistair: Take care now!

Alistair's firm: Delva Patman Redler

Links mentioned during the interview: Pyramus & Thisbe Club