Software tracks lions, ice cream and rent bills

Copyright: David Lawson

Published in Property Week Sept 2009

Property managers are never satisfied. Offer the most powerful software since man was catapulted to the Moon and they will respond with a frown, a sigh, and the inevitable request for one more extra feature. But there aren’t too many who start by demanding six impossible tasks before breakfast.

  Tracking the maintenance schedules and rent demands on dozens of farms, pubs, homes and commercial properties may be routine for a large estate. Calculating supplies of ice cream, watching the weather forecast, registering visitors and juggling the number of temporary staff would also not shock a theme park. But handling both business streams is not so simple, particularly if each part of the business has its own accounting software. Even more challenging is ensuring managers have reports that can be checked before their cornflakes each morning.

   Given all that, along comes ‘one more thing’ no-one might expect to include in a software package. Can it keep track of our lions and tigers?

   Longleat, the Wiltshire landmark, might seem a software supplier’s nightmare: part safari park, part stately home, part farming, fishery and forestry business. And the complexity doesn’t stop there as it spreads across multiple sites including Cheddar Caves in Somerset.When the estate went looking for software, it specified a centralised system covering more than 50 departments and several property ownerships. This needed to provide information for the whole enterprise while maintaining segregation of legal entities. Automated reporting would be crucial to reduce intercompany processing, said David Hines, estate accountant at Longleat.

  The system also had to operate reliably under Windows Terminal Services and integrate business and property management.   Such demanding requirements must have sent a few software suppliers into hiding. But Hexagon Software Group had a head start as it had already proven successful integrating LandMark , one of the best known property management programs, with a central accounting system at Alnwick Castle, part of the Northumberland Estate.

    Similarities servicing heritage, tourism and property impressed Longleat but it took more than adding a big cat service to seal the deal. Hexagon had to design and write interfaces for existing electronic point of sale [EPoS], forestry, payroll and banking packages so data could be imported to the new system.  Changing software normally requires endless hours feeding in data, and every item of information needs validating to ensure there are no errors before updating. The automated interface was built to handle this bulk initial input as well as normal day-to-day operations. 

  Three years on, Hexagon’s involvement with Longleat continues as the system adapts to meet new business initiatives and challenges, said James Paul, Hexagon’s Business Development Manager.

  Hexagon also helped Longleat make a big improvement in management information. Its Desktop module provides on-screen reports so department managers can check income and expenditure with a click of a mouse and bring out the detail behind transactions.  Instead of raising queries after receiving monthly reports, they can see what has been credited or charged to their department on a daily basis. On-screen reports are also an important part of regular finance meetings with managers, as revenue can be compared with previous years.

   Income and expenditure can be analysed by ticket type, individual property, costs per staff member and department. Using daily reporting periods on Dream accounting software, managers can compare visitor numbers with the same day for previous years.  Integration with LandMark means that information on outgoings such as repairs can be analysed for each property. Managers can now see this data on-screen and have been made more accountable for their own expenditure.

   Through LandMark, rent invoices are automatically posted into Dream using the same pre-defined property code so information is mirrored across management and accounting systems.   Paperwork such as suppliers’ invoices is scanned and attached to accounting entries, making it immediately available at the click of a mouse. Longleat’s auditors can log onto the system remotely and analyse data off site. Real-time performance data is more readily available to finance department and business managers, which has enabled more and better historical analysis, said Hines.


 What relevance have lions, ice creams, caves and historic homes to the average manager with perhaps half a dozen properties in deepest suburbia? Few enterprises will be as complex as Longleat but even the smallest operation can roar with the right mix of software? Many property management suites include their own financial tools. That is useful if you don’t already have any but many firms are comfortable with existing accounting systems and want to keep them rather than learn something new.

 LandMark aims to integrate with mainstream software such as Sage or Dream, says James Paul, Hexagon business development manager. Small firms can also benefit from centralised controls. Paul uses the analogy of a home with multiple systems such as TV, satellite, DVD player and sound. Ideally all would be available from a single, integrated remote control.

  Landmark boasts some the biggest investors among its 100 or so clients but at an entry cost of around £10,000, is also accessible for smaller businesses.