Information: Secret of success is a hot property

A new database spawns a revolution in surveying
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The Independent Online
WHEN Michael Nicholson carried out market research for a computerised property information service in 1986, more than half the leading surveyors questioned said they would never use it. Some were so concerned it would damage their professional standing that they said they would sabotage it.

Six years later, every single one is a subscriber. Mr Nicholson's company Property Intelligence (PI) ranked 21st in the Independent on Sunday's list of fastest-growing UK companies earlier this year and, remarkably for a property-related company, it is looking forward to doubling its current pounds 2m turnover in the next five years.

The company's success is based on providing property professionals with everything they could want to know about markets, rents, rates, single properties or entire regions. An agent pitching for business in a new area could receive a complete briefing in minutes.

The information is garnered from published sources such as company reports, auction results, press cuttings and agents' details. Recently PI acquired the complete Valuation Office Rating List for all 1.7 million business properties in England and Wales. There are now seven gigabytes of information on disk, the equivalent of 2,000 novels.

Property Intelligence has been so successful that it has caused a sea-change in attitudes in the notoriously stuffy surveying profession.

'Initially, we targeted the smaller surveying companies with no research department,' Mr Nicholson said. Now the on- line service, branded as 'Focus', is received not only by surveyors but by retailers, pension funds, property developers and local authorities.

'Like most good ideas it was blindingly obvious - in hindsight,' he said. 'The majority of revenue in surveying firms comes from partners who know their markets extremely well. I had been managing Knight Frank & Rutley's Brussels office for six years. When I returned to the UK in 1983, I found myself with no base of knowledge and no way of acquiring it quickly.'

He soon realised that surveyors spend up to 70 per cent of their time gathering information, although their expertise lies in interpretation.

Having raised the comparatively small sum of pounds 350,000, Nicholson assembled a team of researchers and set about creating a unique property database. But the inputting process was far from smooth.

As a result of 'staggeringly poor advice from a firm of well- known management consultants, who recommended software that was untried on hardware that was going out of fashion', it took twice as long and cost twice as much as it should have. 'When we tested the system, people said it was too slow and it became apparent that it would not be flexible enough to allow us to develop new products.'

The day after launch, Mr Nicholson decided to install a completely new system at a cost of pounds 750,000, a brave step indeed for a company that was already 18 months behind schedule and half a million pounds over budget, with not a penny of income.

The episode illustrates two key elements in Property Intelligence's success; the determination to provide the best product possible and a belief in responding to the customer.

PI bombards clients with an endless stream of newsletters, seminars and questionnaires. 'It's the best way to deal with the techno-fear that exists even today among surveyors. We have to convince them that we are here to help, not replace them,' Mr Nicholson insists.

In a profession that he criticises as staid if not complacent, it is an uphill struggle.

But attitudes are changing, and according to Peter Gilbert, a director of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, this is in no small part due to Property Intelligence. He says PI helps surveyors to identify business leads and 'means that their job ceases to be the mere assembly of information. Interpretation becomes much more important: it will force surveyors to be more professional.'

He thinks better information means that prices will vary less, reducing opportunities for speculation, and surveyors will be freed to devise more clever ways to put deals together, which, in turn, will tend to stimulate market activity.

Michael Nicholson has already taken tentative steps into mainland Europe, and beyond lie the lucrative markets of Japan and the United States.

(Photograph omitted)