Inside Business: Just hours away from new offices

Roger Trapp on the flexible, cheap and fashionable option
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The Independent Online
Just around the corner from London's Victoria Station is what seems to be the headquarters of a thriving business. Set back from a busy street, the well-kept building boasts a smart reception area while executive vehicles are packed into a car-park.

In fact, this building is HQ to not one but many businesses and it could well represent the future of the workplace. Vigilant House is a business centre that serves as a home for small firms of all types as well as a branch for larger organisations.

The idea is not unique. Thanks to the promotional work carried out for the leading office services providers such as Regus, the concept of the serviced office has caught the imagination. Businesses are free from all concerns about the running of their premises and even such matters as administrative support and coffee-making.

But citib@se, which operates Vigilant House along with other centres spread round the country from Edinburgh to Bristol, sees an advantage in offering "a sense of community".

"What we're trying to create is a community where people feel comfortable," says David Joseph, who runs the company with Ian Read. "It's an engineered product. It doesn't happen by itself."

Whereas the serviced buildings operated by the likes of Regus - which is thought to be considering a pounds 1bn-plus flotation in the autumn - tend to be quiet, citib@se managers en-courage clients to talk to each other as if they were working together rather than running separate small businesses.

Staff at citib@se are encouraged to organise activities to "oil" proceedings. But the starting point, says Mr Joseph, is employing nice people: "Glum faces giving out go-away messages tend to put off clients."

Mr Joseph and Mr Read came together in 1988, when Mr Read was managing director of the financial firm that originally operated the Vigilant centre. Mr Joseph bought into it. They have steadily expanded the company since then, largely by "being fast-moving and energetic, paying attention to detail and keeping close to small businesses".

Citib@se has also sought to make itself attractive to fledgling firms by stressing that its services cover a range of activities at a rate that can make the difference between survival and failure. For example, a citib@se building can save a business millions by cutting about half of its running costs and about 70 per cent of its start-up costs.

This last factor is especially important because while citib@se has some large clients, it primarily aims its services at small businesses.

The centres - while well presented and equipped with the latest information technology and telephone equipment - are generally more low-key than those found elsewhere. But through offering flexibility and immediacy - if there is available space in a building, a new client can be up and running within hours - the company has expanded to the point where it is the country's fifth-biggest operator, running 11 centres and generating a turnover of more than pounds 5m.

There are plans to take that figure, which received a boost with the recent acquisition of six sites from Birkby, to 15 by the end of this year and to 25 by the end of next.

"It's a very interesting entrepreneurial business," adds Mr Joseph, claiming it is like selling chocolate bars. "It's marketing product every day of every week. You're testing it each and every day as new customers come in."

That said, though, he and Mr Read acknowledge that the key to satisfying customers is in the service, especially the telephony. Modern developments mean it is possible for some clients to use a centre's secretarial and administrative services without having an actual office in the building. Calls are just taken and diverted to the individual's mobile or to his or her home, explains Mr Read.

Developments like this - and the change in the attitudes towards commercial property caused by the last recession - suggest to the citib@se management that this sort of service is here to stay.

"People soon realised that a lease was no longer an asset, and the mindset changed," says Mr Read.

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