IN this week'S SME Focus we hear from a shareholder in one of the many businesses in Scotland that stand to benefit from the recovery in the property development market that seems to be under way.
Name: Martin English, managing director
Loading article content
What is your business called?
Where is it based?
Our largest office is in Glasgow. We also have offices in Edinburgh, Manchester, Belfast, Inverness and Perth.
Who does it sell to?
Our clients range from individuals through to some of Britain's most prestigious public and private sector organisations. The list includes Land Securities, Haliburton, St Andrews University, NHS Scotland and Scottish National Heritage.
What is your turnover?
Last year's turnover was over £6 million with profits increasing again from the previous year. Forecasts indicate a further healthy rise in turnover this year, with the potential for profits to return to pre-recession levels. That is obviously very encouraging and will allow us to invest further in our people and infrastructure.
What service does it offer?
We're a multi-disciplinary practice, offering services in architecture, town planning, interior design, landscape architecture and urban design and we have extensive experience in the healthcare, education, commercial and retail sectors.
How many employees? 140
When was it formed?
We've been in existence for 160 years and can count Charles Rennie Mackintosh among our previous partners.
Why did you take the plunge?
I grew up in Aberdeen and studied architecture at Scott Sutherland in the city.
To be honest whilst architecture was always there in the background, I didn't have much information on which to judge whether it was a profession that would suit me. Of all the people I knew, only my uncle worked in architecture; he was clearly a talented guy and I suppose he was my inspiration, so it was a bit of a leap of faith for me, but a good one.
Architecture is all about buildings, a process which extends beyond the image stage.
There's a frustration studying architecture that your creative ideas are never brought to fruition. On my first year out in practice it was like the lights being switched on - working as part of a team to deliver great buildings. The process is a potent mixture of creative flair and commercial realism, as soon as I entered that culture, I was hooked. The first project I worked on was recreating a stone façade in a small building in Lanark, working for a very supportive architect, Bob Morris. He taught me a great deal about how to conduct myself and progress in the right manner.
By investing in the business, through becoming one of the shareholding directors in 2001, I share the risks and responsibilities. It's a privileged position but one which I take very seriously, it's this responsibility which motivates me to do the best job I can.
What was your biggest break?
I threw myself into the responsibility of running the Perth office and shortly after that leading on the opening of our Inverness practice. The management side is essential but it is a bit of a double-edged sword as it takes you away from the parts of the job that really inspired you in the first place.
What was your worst moment?
As with many other businesses in our sector coping with the recession over the last few years has presented me with some of my worst moments. There's no hiding place in the teeth of recession. You need to keep standards high (if not higher) than ever; focus on directing procurement time to where it's most likely to deliver a return and downsize where you can. The loss of too many good people, for example we lost 12 people in 2012 alone, is the hardest and most painful episodes of all our careers and certainly not something that you ever envisage you will have to be involved in when you start out on your career. We managed to focus on promoting the business domestically and overseas and we've weathered the storm. With over 30 new appointments in the last three months we're back on the front foot.
What do you enjoy most about running the business?
Nothing beats the buzz of bringing concepts on paper to life. Many projects amount to hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment and thousands of man hours to deliver.
What do you least enjoy?
Although I enjoy seeing young people develop and progress through the business, there's no doubt that the training for architecture is long and tough and it can take a while before people start to realise the rewards for that investment. I hate to see people falling out of the profession and we need to work doubly hard to cultivate the next generation of talent and an environment which will make the profession rewarding for them.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
Recently we've been focusing on a recruitment drive to get us ready to maximise opportunities as the upturn continues. These new recruits include three new divisional directors across the education, health and commercial sectors to help strengthen where we need it most. We're picking up on encouraging signs in the domestic market, especially across commercial projects.
We're focused on growing turnover and profit margins and to do this we need to keep supporting our reach across the country. I can't escape the feeling of responsibility when it comes to succession planning. The business has been handed on through the generations for 160 years and we're mindful of developing people to a level where they can take on the mantle.
What could the Westminster Government and/or Scottish Government do that would most help?
One of the major frustrations in our industry are the cost, complexities and variation on how public-sector work is procured.
There is a lot of work underway to simplify this and that will be warmly welcomed.
In general terms there have been improvements from central and local government on improving the planning processes although the benefits have not been seen across the board so further improvements and more clarity would be good news.
What are the most valuable lessons you have learned?
Don't be complacent. It's essential that we keep listening to what clients are saying and responding. We habitually solve problems as part of our project process and it's vital we share those lessons across the business.
How do you relax?
I spend time with my family and I like to get out running or cycling in and around Perthshire. I find it greatly cathartic to forget about things for a wee while.