Sunday, 24 May 2015

Engage brain and open your mouth!

My life has been turned on its head over the past few months. I’m told; what doesn’t destroy you makes one grow. I hope so!

I have quit my Mayfair office, the yacht in St Katherine Docks is for sale and it’s time for a new challenge.  In saying goodbye to London and hello Sherborne it brought back memories of my second seismic change of direction in April 1981. The first, leaving Yorkshire for London, is for later.

After six years as a physical education teacher and a worn out rugby body I decide to retrain as a Chartered Surveyor, as you do.  I knew nothing about property but my brother was a builder and I had two mates who were already training.  I enrolled with Reading University (College of Estate Management) to sit my professional exams.

Problem!  The minimum entry requirement was two A Levels and I had one; Geography grade C.  I didn’t work at school. At Loughborough I scraped a Certificate of Education, not a degree, coming 115th out 120 and the last four failed.  The RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) said as a mature student (What! Mature at 28!) they would swop my three years doing no studying at Loughborough for the missing A Level.  

I had chosen the five year route to qualification whilst working full time. The Goddess was also four months pregnant! 

It’s amazing the number of men who change jobs when their partner is pregnant. Did you?

Next I had to get a job.  Easier said than done! One much esteemed firm (now called DTZ) replied with ‘when we want a trainer for our partners’ gym, we will let you know’.  The last laugh was mine when I scored the try to beat them in the semi-final of the National Surveyors’ Rugby 7’s.

After sixty or so letters (no email in those days) and only one interview, I finally got a break.  I was offered the position of trainee surveyor at Donaldsons Chartered Surveyors in their Gloucester Road management department on £4,000 pa. This was half my previous salary as head of physical education at St Marks Comprehensive School Fulham, where I was on a formal warning for taking my kids to play rugby on a Sunday, instead of taking them to Church.

Donaldsons head office was in Jermyn Street, world famous for men’s shirts and home to Fortnum and Masons.  Every wanabee surveyor (I didn't care, I had a job) eyed promotion to head office as their ultimate goal.

I bought a shiny brown briefcase and wore a suit for the first time since my wedding day, three years earlier.  The Goddess dropped me at Kings X station to catch the Piccadilly line to Gloucester Road.

I was shown into in a room with five others, an old Victorian lounge, in days gone by.  When someone left, (still happens today) the rest of the office completely asset strip the workstation of anything better than theirs, and move desks.  My desk was just inside the doorway with my back to the open door. Panic setting in already.  I took off my jacket and placed it on the chair. I could feel my heart starting to thump, I needed to just keep a low profile.  Five faces were staring at me as I sat down.

The bloody chair collapsed!  I grabbed the desk for support, the leg broke and there I was flat on my back with a broken chair, table leg and the desk balanced on my chest. Five faces turned away, heads shaking as the sound of contained amusement filled the room.  The joke rebounded as I had a brand new desk and chair delivered by lunchtime.

I had to speak letters into a microphone (not quite the same as shouting through a megaphone at a bunch of rowdy teenagers) attached to a tape recorder on a lead. I took the tape down one floor to Kim and it came back as a letter, with my name on it to sign and send.  It felt good.  Also great because I still hadn't learnt to write properly.  Tiggy has just muttered ‘you still haven’t’.  Who the fuck is Tiggy? That’s for later.

I was given 30 blocks of flats to manage with porters, gardeners, lifts and communal central heating. It is no joke having a boiler, providing hot water and heating to 42 flats in Kensington, break down on Xmas eve and was beyond repair! Especially as section something of some Housing Act says I have to get at least two quotes and follow a set consultation process before proceeding.

My client, the freeholder of said flats, calls me and gives firm instructions. I tell him I am sorry but can’t agree to what he wants.  We talk and reach an understanding on how to proceed.  Phew, that was scary!

Roger, our team leader and, and top of the list for promotion to head office, lays into me in front of the others. He shouts ‘that’s not how you speak to clients.  You disagreed with him, you put your own point of view forward. You must show the client total respect at all times’. I was deflated, said sorry and thought this job is not for me.  In those days the client dictated what happened and, as they were ultimately paying the wages, the surveyors often agreed. Me being wet behind the ears and only having the manual and college notes to refer to, had yet to learn the rules.  I never did learn those rules despite many a ‘cash’ offer from clients.

Back to my new job. Rodney, the management department Partner, was my real boss.  He was a Lancastrian lad from a poor background who taught me how to survive in a world of seemingly clever people. Rodney was known for his drive and determination and was not averse to speaking his mind.

One afternoon I walked into his office and said ‘I have a problem’.  He sent me away saying; ‘look at your problem and come back when you have at least two solutions for us to discuss.  The third solution of doing nothing you have already overcome by being here. Well done’.  I have used his words ever since.  I think it’s called experiential learning.

He took me to a residents meeting to discuss the three yearly painting of the windows which were required under the strict terms of the lease. This block (52 flats) had two sets of opposing residents associations.  Old Money Association wanted the windows painted in the summer when they were out of town at their country residences.  New Money Association preferred the autumn when their garden parties, with pimms and cucumber sandwiches, were over.  Each association had barristers and lawyers.

After almost three hours of arguing, all very politely of course, Rodney stood, called for silence and asked “do all your windows open?” General nodding.  “Do any of them leak?” General shaking.   “Good, I’m going to put the lease in my bag and leave it there for three more years.  Please don’t ask me to get it out again.  See you all next time”, and left.

I followed in his coat tails as he was muttering ‘that was close, it’s almost closing time and no-one paints their bloody windows every three years anyway’.   We scurried across the road to the nearest watering hole and settled for a pint of Fullers ESB.  I have used it so many times (the lease bit not the pub) in my surveying career.  Sadly Rodney succumbed to the dreaded C in his prime.  He was God in my book.

It was a steep learning curve but I seemed to thrive on the challenge. After eighteen months I was handed a new client and his property to manage. It comprised a terrace of seven buildings in Garrick Street Covent Garden, newly acquired by the Jermyn Street investment team. It tied in with an urgent college essay I had to write on how to manage a similar investment. I used the Garrick Street property, stating how I would let one bit, combine two other bits and change three units from retail to a wine bar and two restaurants. I also sent an adapted copy of my essay to the client.

The Jermyn Street investment partner was livid. I was summoned to his office and told to sit down. He towered over me ranting ‘how can some unqualified upstart tell my client what to do’. I was dismissed in no uncertain terms.

Word of my encounter spread, the client liked my report and asked me to implement it. Parts of head office were in stitches as ‘some unqualified upstart’ had made the investment partner look a fool. Six weeks later I was invited for a beer, with a different partner from head office, at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall. This place was, is, serious opulence, full size marble columned swimming pool in the basement with sun loungers, gym, dining rooms and even a snooker room. Members were called Sir. Women were not allowed beyond the 'ladies room' at the entrance and could not become a member.

I had no idea I was about to become a regular for the next two years and get called Sir! Wow, I was offered the job my line manager Roger had been quietly cultivating. I grabbed it with both hands and even had tea in Fortnum & Masons to celebrate.

The investment Partner retired early. Roger, my line manager, was never promoted and left. I attended his leaving do and reminded him of our first encounter whilst looking deep into his eyes and smiling.

When, six years later, I established Lamberts Chartered Surveyors the owners of no’s 2-12 Garrick Street, Covent Garden were my first client. I managed the site with love and affection for the next five years before selling the investment. I once crawled over a snow covered 1m wide ledge, six floors up, to unblock a gutter when I couldn't get a builder.

Over the 11 years, since sending my college essay to the client, I made over £70,000 in fees from the property. All because I had engaged brain, opened my mouth, talked into a machine, signed the letter and had the belief in myself to send it to the client.

I had a meeting last Wednesday with Abbey 104 FM, Sherborne’s local radio station. I'm going to be a DJ. Hardly seismic but watch this space, it’s time for challenges new!

And the point I am making is:

 Never be afraid to; Engage brain and open your mouth!

 Have a good week.


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