HappyChristmas for Savills Hepher Dixon

Copyright: David Lawson – first published Property Week May 2007

Once upon a time two surveyors decided it would be great fun to set up a planning consultancy. Fortune also played a role, of course: you can’t live on laughter. Demand for advice was soaring as new laws tumbled out of Westminster and developers realised that consultations should take place early rather than waiting until an application was posted.  Soon a lot more people joined the party thrown by Roger Hepher and Peter Dixon and by last year their little get-together had grown to 80 staff scattered around four offices. A national spread has been vital because clients increasingly want local expertise to cope with variations among hundreds of councils

  These aren’t in the most magnetic locations: even the head office is in Milton Keynes. So why did they attract an influx of talented young planners? How did such a young outfit, set up only in 1995, rise to award-winning status so quickly? And above all, why change course and join the big guns at Savills?  Pretty much the same reasons behind the rise and rise of Hepher Dixon, planning consultant: fun and fortune. Let’s look at fortune first, as it will strike a chord with hundreds of small firms surfing the property boom.

   The firm was expanding at a rate of 30% a year but there comes a point when you can’t grow further without help.  ‘We were keen to move into new areas like urban design, social housing, mixed use and sustainability but we were hands-on planners and realised we needed corporate managers, as well as capital, to grow any more,’ says Peter Dixon.

  There was no shortage of suitors. Roger Hepher said when the merger with Savills was announced that from the firm’s birth its mission was ‘to be the natural choice for the most complex and challenging planning projects’. When this was achieved, big names came knocking on the door.  Engineers, surveyors and other planning consultants all wanted such kudos but a takeover went against the ethos which had attracted a host of bright, young newcomers. Focus on demanding schemes meant they were given a far more challenging role than they would low down in some conglomerate.

  Scope for new experiences was also a powerful magnet.  The firm is highly diverse rather than specialising in one sector, so staff can work in a variety of areas. On the downside, however, there is less scope for climbing the tree in a small firm - which comes back to a need to grow.  Then along came Savills. ‘If we had to merge, we couldn’t think of a better partner,’ says Dixon. ‘It may sound arrogant, but given the strength we perceived in our own brand, we could not have joined forces with an organisation that was not one of the market leaders.’

  Yet the key to consummation was that other, less definable factor.  ‘We all came into this job to have fun,’ says Dixon. That does not mean cartwheeling around the office with underpants over your head but avoiding organisations where bureaucracy can choke the life out of every day.  ‘The Savills culture suited our own and the promise of a devolved management structure encouraged us to think that we could pursue our own business objectives,’ he says.

   The property giant had its own planning section organised along similar lines of semi-autonomy across nine offices. And amazingly for such a wide spread, there was no overlap. Savills head of planning Richard Shaw says it was clear early in discussions how well the businesses would fit together.  Under his combined planning team, claimed to be the largest in any UK property services firm, Leeds-based Dixon now looks after the North while Hepher concentrates on the South from Milton Keynes. 

  But both are increasingly becoming involved in national discussions on projects coming through because of the merger. Dixon was nervously looking at his watch because he was off to plan a joint pitch with Savills department heads for a major company seeking advice on its surplus land portfolio.    Savills has also filled gaps in its national coverage through Hepher Dixon’s presence in locations like Cardiff and Milton Keynes. Where both have offices, crossover is expected to bring them closer, although Dixon picks out an early mark of unity in Leeds. ‘We had a joint Christmas party,’ he smiles, before rushing off to help cement the partnership with another big deal.  

1980s - Roger Hepher and Peter Dixon meet while at JR Eve

1995 – Set up Hepher Dixon – quickly expand to 80 staff in four offices

2006 - Winner of the Mayor of London Award for Planning Excellence and  Best  Project Contributing to London’s Future for Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and commended for the Brit Oval

2006 – Announce merger to become Savills Incorporating Hepher Dixon