Special Report on Company Relocation: Armies of advisers help with costs and details: Professionals can take on the nitty gritty of upheaval. David Lawson looks at their role

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WHEN the chairman demanded a brief statement on all notice boards about that morning's press leak, the personnel department started a sweepstake. Which would come first - a strike, a deluge of voluntary redundancies, or an outbreak of guerrilla warfare?

The newspapers were right, said the four-line announcement. The company was moving operations to the other end of the UK and 'anyone with problems should consult Mrs Ellis'. The sweepstake had to be cancelled because all three timebombs exploded. The service engineers struck, half the department managers asked to leave and every notice was desecrated with graffiti.

But the final blow came when Mrs Ellis resigned. Twenty years as company secretary had not prepared her for a tidal wave of queries about buying houses, selling houses, recommending schools, finding new homes for cats, tracing bus routes and train services, calculating removal costs and moving allowances - and most of all - 'Why are we moving?'

Most businesses rarely pull up their roots and if they do it is usually a short hop. Wholesale relocation is so rare that they have little idea of the problems involved.

Yet there is a whole industry of advisers devoted to moving people and companies. Half a dozen groups do everything from buying employees' homes to finding them new schools. Most of the leading management consultancies offer location 'audits' which advise whether a firm needs to move - often coming to a different conclusion than the directors.

Then there is a small army of homefinders, ranging from the highly professional (usually former estate agents) to the highly dubious (sometimes former agents as well, but usually enthusiastic amateurs).

The idea of 'packaging' these services was imported more than 20 years ago from the US. But about 80 per cent of this country's relocators still go it alone - either through ignorance or in the British tradition of confidently braving the elements.

Pressure to control the soaring costs of relocation is growing. The dire property market has left companies paying for more than 35,000 homes belonging to staff who have moved, according to the Swindon-based specialist, PHH Homequity. These 'orphans' are a huge drag on resources, because companies have usually underwritten bridging loans for new homes. 'An employer with just 20 orphans could be paying up to pounds 250,000 a year in direct costs,' said Kevin Buckthorpe of PHH. The total annual cost is estimated at close to pounds 5bn.

PHH is promoting an 'express' deal for selling orphans where it charges a fee only if the home is sold within 90 days. This builds on a fairly common range of services among relocation groups, which offer to take over responsibility for moving staff and selling their homes. Generally they will provide a guaranteed price, set as an average between two or three valuers, releasing the mover as a cash buyer of a new home.

Some go further. Hambro Countrywide provides a crash course in negotiating the purchase of a new house. Its field officers make sure the old one sells as quickly as possible, cleaning windows, clearing the garden and dumping junk mail. 'There is nothing that blights a house sale more than neglect,' says a Hambro spokesman.

Counselling often goes beyond property matters. Staff will be taken round their new areas and given detailed information on local schools and shops. Psychologists are employed to caution on the dangers of uprooted 'trailing' partners, facing difficulty finding their own new jobs.

All this costs money, however. Companies will be charged a flat- rate fee per property, person or family for a specific period, plus the charges for finance, agency and maintenance. When a business is moving to cut costs, it can be tempting to try a DIY operation rather than watch further bills piling up. (see The package for packing up and going, page 34)

Most of the top groups have little need to convince large companies about cost and time savings. They are continually shifting around executives, and personnel offices usually have a retained relocator on the books. Large relocations also get handed over to specialists; BT has both Hambro and Hamptons handling thousands of moves over the next five years, and the Government is using the private sector to organise its dispersal of civil servants.

But the middle-sized movers are still reluctant to seek advice. Many are suffering from even minor moves and a lot more company secretaries may flee the over- ambitious plans of their chairmen.

Mrs Ellis, meanwhile, has fallen on her feet. She now runs the regional division of a relocation agency - and is bidding to take on her old firm's move.

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