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Property firm looking ahead to better times

IN this week's SME Focus an entrepreneur whose father became a big name in Scottish football and property circles calls on banks to do more to help speed up the economic recovery.

ON THE UP: Iain Mercer says he would like Governments in Westminster and Scotland to put pressure on banks to get their houses in order.
ON THE UP: Iain Mercer says he would like Governments in Westminster and Scotland to put pressure on banks to get their houses in order.

Name: Iain Mercer.

Age: 35.

What is your business called? The Almondale Group. We are a commercial property business with interests in investment and development. The portfolio covers retail, office, industrial and research and development premises and is spread across Scotland.

Where is it based? Edinburgh.

What is its turnover? Group turnover has been in excess of £1 million per annum for the past five years.

How many employees? Three.

When was it formed? Some of our property holdings date back to the late 1970s and our companies have gone through various guises over the years. The Almondale name was formed in 1994 and we became a group in 2001.

What were you doing before you took the plunge?

Prior to real estate I was a radio journalist but my degree was in business, so when the opportunity arose to get into an entrepreneurial business I decided to grab it.

My early interest in journalism and, subsequently, business and the real estate/construction industry was very much driven by the businesses and other activities of my late father, Wallace Mercer.

Wallace was a very successful businessman and was renowned in Scottish football for his 13 years as chairman and owner of Heart of Midlothian FC. At one stage he was considered the most recognisable person in Scotland after Graeme Souness, so I had grown up in a very high profile family synonymous with football and property. He took over the club in 1981 when he was only 34 and he and mum invested virtually every spare penny they had at the time (about £300,000) to rescue Hearts from pending bankruptcy.

During the 1980s and 1990s he built-up the Dunedin Property Group with funding from Life Association Scotland and took that business from zero to £150m on its balance sheet. He ran that in tandem with the football club prior to selling out of both and then, a few years later, starting it all again with me.

As a young boy I used to sit in the engineers studio as dad pre-recorded his programme on Radio Forth in which he would interview famous people who were passing through Edinburgh, such as Sean Connery and Billy Connolly. In my final year of school I spent six weeks as a labourer on the redevelopment of Tynecastle Stadium, giving me hands on insight into how things like foundations are put in place and how buildings become a reality.

How did you raise the start up funding? The group of companies has been family run and I am the second generation so the start-up funding happened ago long before my involvement. But, I was involved in the setting-up of the Cosmopolitan Investments part of the group part-funded from the sale proceeds of my father's shares in Heart of Midlothian FC. He sold out in 1994 to two local businessmen for £2m. Cosmopolitan is now the direct development arm of the group.

What was your biggest break? In 2007 Cosmopolitan bought what was a vacant office building on the Bankhead Estate in Edinburgh called Birch House. We spent £820,000 buying it and the same again redeveloping it into 10,000 sq ft of high quality office space, so it was quite a big position for my first speculative development. About six months into the project Northern Rock collapsed and our own lender, Bank of Scotland, was starting to become concerned about the letting prospects of the building. Our big break came, however, when a Norwegian oil and gas firm called Petroleum Geo-Services decided to enter into a pre-let agreement on the entire building; what a result! We managed to complete the development without exceeding the budget shortly before the credit crunch really started to bite, but it was a close run thing. Although the building fell vacant in May last year we have managed to re-let 60% of it in less than nine months.

What was your worst moment? Losing my father when I was 27 and not having his advice and experience to turn to any longer. He had a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on, so for that to be suddenly gone was crushing. His death obviously had a huge impact on my mother and the rest of the family, too.

What do you enjoy most about running the business? The autonomy and flexibility it gives me and doing deals with people and businesses. Also, creating value out of a redundant property and bringing it back to life. I enjoy being out and speaking to people which is vitally important; you just never know where the next conversation will lead to and what opportunities may arise from it. We make the effort to go out and speak to our tenants on a regular basis in what is still a challenging business climate.

What do you least enjoy? Attending meetings which have little or no point to them. I try to avoid them wherever possible.

What are your ambitions for the firm? We are right at the bottom of the economic growth curve and the only way is up, now. I hope to be able to build on the strong foundations we have put in place during the downturn to grow and develop the business. Ultimately, I would like to get back to direct development work because that is where I see our core skills lying and we have a very strong track-record in that area. Much of that depends on occupational demand and being able to borrow again.

While occupiers are starting to return, many of our biggest banks are still very reluctant to lend on property. Until there is a material change to that and the purse strings are loosened it is going to be a slow recovery. However, I think we have used this period wisely, streamlining areas that needed some pruning, ensuring that our portfolio is asset managed as efficiently as possible and striving to be well positioned when the market does eventually return.

What are your top priorities? Ensuring that I learn from experience and use any errors I have made as a catalyst for doing better in the future; striking a positive work/life balance between business and family and trying to enjoy what I do.

What could the Westminster and/or Scottish Governments do that would most help? Put more pressure on the banks to get their house in order and start lending to SME's.

What was the most valuable lesson that you learned? Cash flows don't lie.

How do you relax? Spending time with my wife and two children, running/general exercise and watching Hearts although that has been far from relaxing this season!

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