Officebroker takes on the world

Copyright: David Lawson

Published: Property Week Oct 2007

There must be something about the water in Tamworth. How else could a couple of novices in this stress-driven business build one of the country’s top agencies in five years but still look like chirpy teenagers?  And how can they flourish from a Staffordshire market town rather than joining the movers and shakers in London?

  ‘Have you heard of the internet?’ asks joint MD Jim Venables, a youthful 36, almost bemused by such presumption.

   Leading client Tom Stokes, chief executive of Evans Easyspace, shows a similar lack of surprise at the way online brokers have taken over the industry. A huge gap ignored by conventional agents was perfectly suited to a system where tenants search online for short-term space without the intricate legalities of conventional leases.

   But Venables attributes a doubling, then redoubling, of annual turnover over the last few years to more than a network of computers. He and business partner Andy Hayward, a venerable 40, got into the business five years ago because they saw a different gap in the market.  When hunting space for their two-man recruitment firm, they found brokers merely passed queries to landlords, when they really wanted guidance through the blizzard of choices. More research revealed that landlords were just as annoyed by torrents of time-wasting unsuitable leads.

  The Tamworth Two adapted their recruitment training principle of real people offering advice on complex choices and the rest is history. It was a tough first couple of years, although that was because they launched into the teeth of a recession.  Since then business has exploded.

   Today around 50 advisors man the lines, each using intimate knowledge of a local market to guide inquiries to – or away from - business centres. Landlords would normally seethe at occupiers being turned away but not in this frenetic market, where small tenants – often with little idea of what they want – can be more trouble than they are worth. Conventional agents often feel the same.

  Online firms like Officebroker, Instant Offices and SoS have grown exponentially to fill this gap.  Venables and Hayward have done so more quietly than others, partly because they are away from the incestuous London scrum and partly because they only got around to joining key networking group the Business Centres Association last week.  Yet they impressed sector giant Regus enough to be chosen as leading UK broker last year based on deals and revenue generated. 

    This is hard evidence of how the internet is transforming the property industry. Online brokers are also becoming as flexible as the space they shift, extending from pure offices to include anything from workshops to management agreements, where landlords outsource surplus space to be run as business centres.

   Stokes has one nagging criticism, however: names have not changed to reflect shifts in the market. A large number of tenants for the mixed space that Evans provides are put off by the ‘office’ in each broker’s name.  ‘This is another gap here which should be filled,’ he says.

    Venables has other things on his mind than names at the moment, however. World domination, for instance. Dallas became an unlikely twin for Tamworth last year as Officebroker followed other online brokers abroad.  Unlike some operators, however, this is not about handling cross-border demand but taking on the Americans in their own back yard.

   How scary is that? Opening shop in a country where serviced space was invented must tell on the nerves.  Not at all, insists Venables. In many ways the UK is ahead of the US, he says. The total market might be bigger but London has more choice per square foot than even Manhattan – which comes back to the need to filter potential occupiers. That approach has been successful enough to draw in more than 200 US landlords. Asia is next on the agenda. Venables can’t see why the same business plan won’t work there – and provide some interesting trips. ‘It’s fun being international,’ he says. ‘You get to see so many new places.’

   So, stressed out agents. It’s not Tamworth water that keeps the wrinkles at bay. Have fun to stay young – which is probably easier said than done at the moment.   


   Keeping a provincial base does not mean Officebroker refuses to recognize the importance of London. In fact it is about to publish research revealing  Paddington Basin, Kings Cross, Marylebone and Clapham among the UK’s top 40 markets.  But it is confident about handling them via regular visits and staff knowledgeable about their geographic areas. The survey also reveals there is life outside the capital, with Brighton, Bromley, Chelmsford and Folkestone high on the list.  And there is plenty of life further afield. Provincial centres such as Liverpool, Gateshead and Glasgow are up there as well.