Pioneers integrate technology and real estate

Copyright: David Lawson 1996

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A stone should be laid at the base of the Canary Wharf tower etched with the timeless dedication: 'Many thanks to Keith's mum.' All those high-powered bankers and overpaid newspaper scribblers are now in  luxurious surroundings  because of a determination that  her boy would not waste his life.  'I had an early interest in electronics but she said there was no way I would end up a TV repairman,' says Keith Noble. So he got a 'real' job - as a surveyor. And almost 20 years later he produced the first development analysis for the Docklands site.  It was on a computer, of course. Noble is a self-admitted, fully-paid-up anorak with a passion for electronic whizzery. It lasted through a long career as an investment analyst - mainly at the top level with Grant & Partners - and now as a specialist software supplier with BoE Systems.

  The combination of hobby and job was sparked back in the Seventies when investment clients started demanding  more than a few scribbled figures to back up outlay that could run into millions of pounds. 'I thought  I could write the software to produce better appraisals,' says Noble.  Much to the bemusement of his partners he bought an early Sinclair Spectrum and started producing  spreadsheets. By the end of the decade the big chance came when G  Ware Travelstead asked for an appraisal of the  Canary Wharf site. 'That earned us enough to buy our first PC,' says Noble.

  He never looked back, although the path led in  directions mum might never have approved. In 1991  Noble left  Grants to take a masters degree in  information systems and then started BoE Systems with fellow-student Richard Stevens, supplying the latest versions of those early appraisal programs.  'I suppose you could say that I was going through a mid-life crisis at the same time as the industry,' says Noble. He  wanted a change of direction and fancied a stint at university.

 'I missed all that after getting only four O-levels.' Then 30 years to the day later, he passed an A level in maths to get on the MA course. He even got into the RICS by the back door by  qualifying as an auctioneer and riding one of the many mergers between professional groups in those years.  But this exempted him from the first degree normally necessary to enter the London School of Economics.

 Property was also facing the need for fundamental changes at this time. Investors were coming under increasing pressure from financial backers to provide more sophisticated and for   esoteric measures such as internal rates of return and discounted cash flows to justify their purchases and developments. Many surveyors did not - and still can't - understand what an IRR is, says Noble.

  Even today, they can provide figures to try and justify a project but find it difficult to  discuss consequences if  targets and other factors are altered. Often the problem is shunted off to specialists in  valuation departments and the front-line representative has to wait for an answer.

  Noble saw   a market niche  occupied by brokers who do most of their business on the phone rather than high-powered valuation surveyors. When selling this way, they need quick answers about consequences of valuation and development variations over time. Few clients are impressed with a promise to call back later,

 'The problem is, you can't scribble out various calculations for an  IRR. It is a complex, iterative problem and  needs a computer.' The focus on this quick-fire-solution, and an unstuffy outlook on life,   lies behind the  the firm's name -  BoE, or  Back of Envelope.

  Breaking into a market can be tough. Market leaders like Kel and Circle have a virtual stranglehold on big consultancies after making a head start long before Noble had left his previous life at Grants. But being a latecomer can have its advantages. The  big suppliers were  locked into Dos-based systems developed in the Eighties and are only now switching to Windows, which most agree is essential for enabling less sophisticated users to handle computers.

  BoE jumped straight into Windows (and now Windows 95),  avoiding heavy development costs. It also went for a more 'cheap-and-cheerful' approach. The firm's are a development of those first attempts on the Spectrum long ago and  would not appeal to a property company or a backroom specialist. They  demand far more intricate and  highly detailed analysis. But these are not the prime targets.

  Prime users include  brokers who finds more sophisticated programs difficult to handle. Smaller firm are also ripe for exploitation, as they are usually unwilling to pay heavy up-front costs and  annual  maintenance charges. 'Perhaps we identify easily with small firms because we are one,' says Noble. He is about to expand out of the few rooms in a flat overlooking London's Marylebone Station but has no intention of adding more costs by taking on more staff.

  The next threshold is an integrated property desktop suite.  This would  allow BoE's appraisal, management and rating programs to be carried on a single screen, enabling users to drag-and-drop elements between each one - another quick-fire technique which can be welcome when the client is shouting for information down a telephone.

  Behind the  practicalities of  establishing this niche market, Noble's long  voyage of discovery from  customer to  supplier has produced  some trenchant views on the way the industry is handling its own mid-life crisis.

 'Everyone seems to be  worrying about the future: how they will cope when inflation no longer covers mistakes, how they can promote property when rents are not soaring, the possibilities of being sued for getting calculations wrong and  the loss of work to more sophisticated professionals like accountants. And they  expect computers to provide all the solutions.'

 It all has a horrible similarity to the Eighties, when big firms brought in mainframes, he says. 'We still get people coming in to see us asking about systems that do not do what they want. One problem is that they did not know what they wanted in the first place - other than to solve all problems at a touch of a button.'

  That burden is too heavy for a mere box of wires and chips. Computers have opened the way to complex calculations of risk and return but they give a range of answers to each problem, not a single one. 'You cannot just throw money at technology. There is no substitute for the professional ability to interpret results,' he says.

  In fact the computer could prove a threat rather than a solution to one section of the industry. Noble is dismissive of much of the hype surrounding the Internet, which he sees as too uncontrolled and full of rubbish to be much use at the moment. But it will eventually put surveyors out of work.

 'In the long term it will replace brokers,' he says. 'It has the potential to be the perfect market. with information easily available at the touch of a button.

 'The investment market is a tight community with very few players. It is highly suitable for an online marketplace where deals are done based on the information which requires no intermediaries like agents.'

 Eventually, he sees the development of tighter systems on the Internet, with access limited to specialists, resembling  wide area networks. Brokers will have to consider new roles, however.

   'After all, there is no real need for agents now, as funds and property companies all know each other,' says Noble, who speaks with the authority of someone who dealt in this market for almost 20 years. They exist  only because of inertia, associated services provided by surveying firms and 'as a target for blame if things go wrong.'  One hope is that they can find a wider role, acting as intermediaries for other services and interpreters of complex information. But they  should consider what happened to the stock market when it went electronic, he says. The whole sector changed to remote dealing and commissions were slashed.


Pub encounter changes course of business

A few years ago Richard Faulkner bumped into a customer in a pub. Not unusual for a local operator, but potentially embarrassing this time as she had just withdrawn her property. Agents are nothing if not thick-skinned, however, so he asked why - and changed the course of his business.  It was merely because she had not heard anything for some time - a common problem among small agents, who spend much effort for little reward on property that bounces between firms. 'We just  don't have the time to keep ringing customers. We are too busy trying to sell,' says Faulkner.

  He immediately set up a system to ensure that hundreds of letters are sent out every couple of months - and the transfer rate almost disappeared. This would have been no less cumbersome than phone calls, however, except that Faulkner was already harnessing the power of a computer. It started when he set  set up business as a novice with his father, Jeff, a couple of miles south of central Manchester in 1987 - and again the spur came from letters. 'I couldn't believe that agents spent so much time and effort on repetitive operations,' he says. These included brochures and all the standard information  sent  out at various stages of the selling process.

 He bought an Amstrad 1512   and began to burn the midnight oil, learning to create and link databases, spreadsheets and wordprocessors, so information could be transferred easily and printed. That was also his  biggest mistake.   Faulkner is enthusiastic about encouraging other small agents to harness the microchip but not waste their time trying to be anoraks. They should invest in ready-made software designed for estate agency and customise it to their own needs. It took six years of hard work and prevarication  before  he took the plunge and adopted a package provided by GMW - 'and all for the sake of saving a few hundred pounds'

  At the same time he upgraded to a 486 and bought a colour printer to help  churn out hundreds of copies of the regular newsletter. Brochures also went through a revolution. The Property Misdescriptions Act had led to a massive weeding out of all the detail which could lead to problems. 'And that left a lot of white space on every A4 sheet,' he says.

 But this fitted an idea he was working on to  use the  computer to group similar types of property on each sheet rather than rifling through files for individual brochures. 'Buyers could decide which property interested them, so we no longer risked missing one they might like.'

  The computer proved invaluable in another way. Photographs are the bane of every agent's life. Just taking them and getting the prints can be a bind; sticking  one to every brochure a labour-intensive burden. A Primax hand scanner costing only 100 pounds enabled Faulkner to take one and store it in the computer. This could then be merged with text information and reproduced on each brochure.

  But things are now moving even further forward. Faulkner recently bought a Dycam digital camera which feeds individual shots directly into the computer. 'I can take on a property, get out to photograph it and have it into a brochure within three-quarters of an hour,' he says. Such speed may not be vital to selling but is another way of preventing commissions slipping away when a client rings up after two weeks and a brochure is still not ready.

  Faulkner has also learned not to let a stomache-churning, up-front price put off progress. The camera and software  came to more than 1,000 pounds. Even more will  go out soon when he upgrades to a Pentium and a  colour laser printer.   They are all necessary, he insists. Just sticking a photograph on a page meant it cost at least 10p. Scanning cuts that to a fraction of a penny - which adds up when you are producing a couple of thousand a week. Time is also valuable. A brochure page with colour picture currently takes five minutes to produce. The new equipment should churn 15 of these out in the same time.

  It is this hard-nosed judgement of technology as a business tool rather than a piece of electro-whizzery that  Faulkner preaches to small operators - an apt message for someone who managed to get through the recession and study for an  MBA. 'My biggest cost is labour, and this saves staff,' says Faulkner. he has  recently opened a second office, this time in the more up-market Chorlton, and runs both with one person in each. That lady in the pub would probably agree. She came back: 'And we sold here house,' says Faulkner.