The client's dinner party is going rather well. A weekend of tutoring by the children enable you to nod wisely each time talk turns to web sites, e-commerce, clickthroughs and remote hosting. Then disaster strikes. 'What does it mean to us if you evolve into a metamediary?' asks the head of the biggest name on your books. Time stops. The room sways. Faces blur. The kids did not mention meta-thingies. A 12-year-old far down the table breaks the silence and pipes on for hours without using a single recognizable word. He is effectively promoted over your head before the pudding course. An alarm bell rings constantly and you awake in your own bed sweating with fear.
Mark Leslie is happy to explain meta-thingies without recourse to a giant technical dictionary even though he is stuck in Aberdeen for the day. An Internet link pipes his picture down to a portable computer screen in London. This is one small example of the technical advances which will become an everyday tool for professionals, but it is the way they are used which could shake the industry to its foundations. 'We are looking at proposals which will fundamentally change the way we do business,' he says. 'There are no boundaries.'
Leslie is no 12-year-old, but the computer picture still reveals a frightening absence of grey hairs for someone planning an industrial revolution. In fact, he is not even the youngest member of an elite team set up by Chesterton to take the group into the 21st century. Throughout all its financial turmoil and drastic restructuring, the firm has continued to pioneer technology such as remote computing and the Internet. It was among the first to create a unified listing service for commercial property and built an intranet linking regional centres before some had PCs at head office. The firm has recovered to produce 65m pounds a year in fees and half its business is expected to be related to e-commerce in the near future.
All that energy is now being focused through a small group of experts with an average age of less than 30. Despite such youth, however, one is already an MBA and another will be soon. Inevitably, colleagues have dubbed them the 'E-Team'. But this is not some back-office think-tank of geeks. Plans have already emerged for an internet service to sell electronic facilities management at discounts of up to 40%. Further down the line are proposals for an insurance exchange, property management and automated benchmarking, all carried via the Internet.
'This goes beyond e-commerce,' says Leslie. 'When you buy cars, you go to one place for the car, another for the insurance and yet another for the spares. That is a metamarket. Property is the same, involving services ranging from finance and insurance through building services and agency. Professional firms have traditionally been intermediaries in one or more of these areas. The hope is that in future they will become metamediaries, combining all these service.
Such ideas are not new. Every firm has its quota of youngsters bursting with ways to change the world. The difference is that Chesterton has given a handful of its rising stars the chance to put these into practice. 'Everyone knows markets are going to change,' says chief executive Michael Holmes. 'We tell our clients this every day, so we must be ready to change ourselves. But no-one knows how they will change, or by how much.
The E-Team is Chesterton's scouting party, he says. 'They are our outriders, sniffing out potential new business ideas. They are young and creative but that youth means they would not normally be expected to have the weight to carry through into business income streams. We will sit them down with the old boys to work out a method of capitalising on those ideas.'
Marketing director Graham Downie heads up the team, while an accountant, Mark Finn, will prepare business plans for each project. This ensures they 'keep their feet on the ground' but Holmes emphasises that there will be a direct line of communication to ensure ideas are not stifled by traditional conservatism. 'They will report direct to me and I will take the proposals to the executive board,' he says.
The brief is to:
- explore new ways of increasing efficiency by doing existing work electronically;
- find new ways of offering existing service to clients;
- discover new markets in the e-commerce explosion
Plans for an online facilities management exchange have already been through the system after approval by the FM divisional MD and then the main board. The company holds high hopes for emulating the US, where it is estimated that almost a quarter of all purchasing will be done online by the year 2003. Andersen Consulting found that more than 80% of FM firms anticipated using the Internet and almost 60% felt it would create new services - perhaps setting the scene for metamediaries.
Downie says the property industry faces a conflict of ideas on which way it will develop. 'Prophets of doom like John McMahan of the McMahan Group say intermediaries will disappear as occupiers interact directly online. Other commentators like Nicholas Carr of the Harvard Business School say the opposite, and intermediaries will capture the profits.'
This uncertainty has opened a wide brief for the E-Team. It is not Leslie who decided there are 'no boundaries' to limit their proposals but Holmes. 'Nothing is prohibited,' he says. 'Anything and everything will be considered.'
FACILITIES MANAGEMENT - Sarah Pearce moved across from Workplace Management to establish buyFM.com which aims to tap the bulk buying power with 3,000 suppliers to save costs for clients. 'We are looking at potential savings of up to 40%,' she says.
RESIDENTIAL - Carl Williams gave up a high-flying agency role with Chesterton Residential to investigate possibilities for an on-line property listings service. He is looking at introducing innovative ideas from the US.
COMMERCIAL - Mark Leslie, a graduate of the in-house MBA programme, brought an interest in IT strategy to the team. 'We are already a multi-disciplinary practice and have an extensive regional network, so we have a head start in bringing synergies which add value for clients across the country such as in property management,' he says.
CONSULTING - Tom Ground, the baby of the team at 26, came in from Katalysis, Chesterton's FM subsidiary, with an architecture background. He is looking at setting up an online benchmarking system. 'Clients will be able to punch in figures to test how efficiently they are using their space. This could be very useful to local government, where they are under obligation to produce best value,' he says.
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