Vebra Aims to Cross into Commercial Property
Copyright: David Lawson - first published Property Week Feb 2005
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Searching for new offices was a revelation for Stephen McCluskey. Within days he was engulfed by expensive brochures, many completely out of the range he set for price, location and facilities such as parking. ‘Most went straight in the bin,’ he says. A trawl around web sites was almost as depressing. ‘They seemed to be a much lower standard compared with residential.’
He should know. As managing director of Vebra, he claims to run the most popular home marketing web site in the UK. That might surprise the average homebuyer, few of whom will recognize the name. But most will have used it without realising. Vebra is a ‘wholesaler’ of information to big operators like RightMove and Fish4Homes as well as individual agents. It is built on software which is a byword among smaller residential agents, claiming 20% of the market.
McCluskey’s now wants to make similar inroads into commercial property. Bitter experience as a potential tenant confirmed the feeling when he joined the firm a year ago. There is no technical reason why the two sides should not use similar management and marketing software. ‘It is more of a cultural chasm,’ he says.
That will raise cheers, chills and some disbelief among professionals who spend their lives walking the brink of this gap. Hundreds of small agents would welcome better tools to handle commercial property. Big firms have a range of similarly big names scrambling to sell them listings, management and accountancy packages, but the average small outfit seems to rely on a jumble of Excel spreadsheets, Access databases and Outlook contact lists, says Beverley Sczech, product manager for commercial property software at Vebra.
This approach is looking increasingly threadbare. Smaller investors are queuing up as property offers better returns than alternatives and self-invested pension funds take off – particularly since buy-to-let housing became oversubscribed. Occupiers are also more active, stimulated by shorter leases and a closer inspection of property costs. This should be a potential boost to the cabal of established software houses fighting for new business in what is a relatively small market. Competition with a powerful newcomer may send chills through many a sales director.
Some analysts doubt whether there is room for another player. Every year a new name emerges – often from abroad – only to disappear under the weight of apathy from potential customers. ‘People are growing more cautious after going through the pain of switching programs and finding little improvement,’ says management change adviser Andrew Waller of Remit Consulting.
So why does Vebra believe it can succeed? Partly because it has already quietly bridged the cultural chasm. Around 50 firms across the UK are already using versions of its EstateCraft marketing software amended to suite commercial property. Meanwhile a version of Premise, designed for managing residential blocks, has been developed for business property. Premier extends the functions to include information such as lease details, retail zoning, fee disbursements and tenancy schedule reporting.
But one critical aspect will be price. The first port of call for private investors and occupiers is often a local firm. Many small residential agents have begun to drift into the commercial market. But most recoil with horror at the prospect of up-front costs around £25,000 and hefty annual support fees for specialist software. Vebra is aiming at less than £5,000, depending on the type and scale of service, says Sczech.
It helps to have two decades of experience, gaining the trust of residential agents now dipping a toe in commercial. McCluskey also boasts the firm can easily compete in technical terms. Vebra was an early innovator of text messaging, integrated printing and virtual tours. Pictures of buildings can now be sent to mobile phones. It has recently signed a deal with Google which recognizes that brief internet property listings do not always contain the information users want. For instance, keying a term like ‘wide open spaces’ would throw up property close to a park.
Whizzy technology is not an end in itself, however. All these innovations came from response to agents’ demands. ‘There is a huge danger in going off into clever areas without considering whether this is what buyers want,’ says McCluskey. ‘Software development can be a huge black hole.’ Relationships and confidence are crucial. In his first months in the job he noticed that most complaint calls were not about technical issues but customer service. There was also confusion because the firm had three help desks handling different programs.One typical small client confirmed the weakness, deserting to a rival software supplier a couple of years ago after requests for changes were brushed aside.
‘It is too easy to lose track of the fact that the customer knows best what they want,’ says McCluskey. One early improvement has been a system which enables support experts to go remotely into customers’ systems over the internet to sort out technical glitches.
What is Vebra?
The name may be relatively new but the foundations go back 25 years. The firm was created in 2000 from a merger of Craft Computers, set up in the early Eighties in St Albans, and and Solex, a York-based firm established in the Nineties. Their core programs, EstateCraft and Solex, covered similar markets and established a leading role handling sales, lettings and management information for a network of smaller residential agents. A management buyout just over a year ago brought in Stephen McCluskey as joint owner and managing director to look for a new business focus in the 21st century. He started life as a software writer but spent the last decade helping firms refocus and grow through PA Consulting. He has joined technical director Iain Hamilton and finance director George Ayliffe running 90 staff, 2,700 agency customers and 8,500 users
EstateCraft and Solex Homeview still serve the marketing side of the business. These match buyers and sellers and integrate information across networks. EstateCraft, which has now been developed for ‘front office’ commercial property business, is geared to firms needing continuous updates while Solex transfers data between branches for those who need this less frequently.
Premise is aimed at property management, handling areas such as accounting, service charges and anarrears. This can be linked to to EstateCraft.
Premiere adds extra functions such as lease particulars to cover commercial property
Vebra.com is the hub of operations. Listings are automatically updated to agents’ web sites and consumer services such as Rightmove. It contains almost 150,000 properties worth more than £30bn fed from more than 2,000 offices and receives more than 10m viewings a month.