By Alan Gordon, senior partner of DM Hall LLP.
I suspect that for any new role, 33 years should be ample preparation. But taking over as the senior partner of DM Hall, one of Scotland’s leading independent firms of chartered surveyors, on 1 January 2020 now somehow feels like having been unceremoniously dropped in at the deep end.
Most of my first 11 weeks in my new role was spent visiting our various offices around the country, familiarising myself with areas of our business that had not previously been a significant part of my day to day experience.
I was brimming with new ideas, and it was becoming increasingly clear that implementation of these would require careful prioritisation and planning. Our management committee was keen to get going and drive improvements with strategically targeted investment to meet our growth objectives.
Somewhere in the background, people were talking about a virus emerging from south east Asia, although there was no suggestion of the grave impact this was about to have.
All sectors of our business were experiencing a promising start to the year: markets had a new- found confidence following a lengthy period of malaise brought about by seemingly endless political and constitutional machinations.
The outlook was good, our challenges were becoming clearer, and we were all looking forward with some cautious optimism to a period of growth and development.
On a personal level, I was encouraged by the support of our management committee, the talented and loyal group of DM Hall partners, as well as our dedicated staff, who serve the company and our customers with such care.
Almost overnight, however, our priorities took a dramatic turn. Lockdown measures, introduced by the UK Government on Monday 23rd March, abruptly suspended the property sector, and limited our activity to little more than negligible levels. We were immediately thrust into survival mode.
Having been around as a firm for 123 years, we knew we had a strong brand and a viable, solvent business. We also have a fantastic team. We reverted to a crisis management mode and have been meeting daily using video conference technology to stay “on the front foot” throughout, leaving absolutely no stone unturned.
For almost three months now, our entire focus and attention has been directed to preserving both our business, and the jobs it supports. We have adapted quickly to new communication methods and our daily meetings have helped us react quickly to a series of rapidly evolving problems.
As for many businesses, The Coronavirus Job Retention scheme and other Government measures have provided an important lifeline and has given us vital breathing space. We have used this time to make careful preparations for a return to work, with the safety of our staff, our clients, and the public at the forefront of our priorities.
Planning for unknown future workflows and an unspecified return date brings about significant challenges; the property market, however, is resilient and it has proved this time and time again. I recall sitting on the DM Hall management committee through the 2008/2009 financial crash and subsequent years when there were undoubtedly some dark days. I am in no doubt that managing our way out of the crisis will inevitably be a bigger challenge than managing our way in.
Both as an economy, and as a firm, I am confident we will emerge strongly from this crisis, possibly in a different size and shape, but markets will function again. Everyone has a part to play in our return to business activity: investors need to be satisfied with returns and lenders must feel confident about their exposure to risk. Market sentiment can be fragile and, for good or ill, media influences the psychological climate. Ill-informed speculation is unhelpful.
Responsible reporting, and particularly in the world of social media, responsible “commentary”, will be important in allowing confidence to flow back into the market.
At DM Hall we are ignoring superficial distractions. Our mantra from the outset has been to make sure we focus on controlling the controllable, taking advice from experienced, trusted advisors along the way.
There has been a lot of talk lately about “flattening the curve” of the virus. Speaking for myself, as curves go, I am in no doubt the learning curve I have been propelled upon in my first few months as the senior partner of DM Hall has been a good deal steeper than I bargained for.