030 SME Surveyor Business Stories with Michael Holden

Michael Holden FRICS (MBA, FCABE, FNAEA, FARLA) is the Managing Director of an independent family based chartered surveying practice, with offices in Lancashire, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales.

Michael was elected to the RICS Governing Council to serve between 2017-2019 on the mandate to promote the independent practitioner. He was the technical author of the 2012 RICS practice note on building surveys and was a member of the RICS product development group which published the guidance note on residential surveys published in December 2013.

During his career, he has been involved in 200+ projects that ranged widely in nature, such as City Campus at Salford, sea defence engineering schemes at Brora, Eric the Viking!, the Wick Project, or Blackburn Railway Station and other community and infrastructure projects.

He has taught real estate in higher education at HE level in the UK for nearly 15 years. Currently he is a visiting lecturer at The Hague University of Applied Sciences and also delivers CPD with some of the leading practitioners in the UK.

Working in the far North of the UK

Michael has so many stories to share from his career that spans over a few decades. He speaks with great respect about all of his role models throughout his career. At one point he got a job in the far north of Scotland, and we were curious how that experience was for him.

“I remember when I was interviewing for the job near John o’Groats, the interview room was like an old atomic energy building, and around a big container ship out in the harbour. I got the job and I liked it up there, it was a challenge,” Michael says. “It was a property management job, I did 200 projects of all shapes and sizes, like environmental renewal, or 100 craft workshop units up and down Caithness and Sutherland. It was quite a fantastic place to live, though very remote. Prince Charles visited us once as well.”

The Most Important Project 

When he got asked once what the most important project that he was involved with was, he chose the “96 Pound” project in Loch Eriball.

“All I really did was authorise a 96 quid spend on behalf of the local enterprise company. There weren’t any jobs created in return, it was for the school children doing this county primary. Councillor Francis Keith from Highland Regional County was involved in that. It was in ’93 and Ms. Thatcher was out for power, and she wrote to me and said ‘Thank you for being innovative.’ I’ve still got that letter from Margaret Thatcher, and I don’t know how she found out about it. But iit was literally 96 pounds, and that project meant more to me than anything, because it was about sacrificing for the community, bringing kids along and them understanding history. I think they wanted to hear about the 12 million pound project or whatever, but it’s about people, place and prosperity, and prosperity is not just about money.”

Scaling a Private Practice at the Time of Recession

Michael runs a family based private practice, with the three of his children being now involved in the company.

“There’s thirteen of us and that brings all sorts of responsibilities like VAT returns, PII, we’ve got to have a policy for this and a policy for that, and still retain that family practice. The core feature of our practice is trust and respect, it’s professionalism and having a good time as well.”

However, when he started the practice, he didn’t think he would have that many people in the firm.

“I just grew with it. I got an MBA from Reading and I’m doing my PhD at the moment. It may seem chaotic, but it’s a proper planned growth, with being fleet footed, being able to change direction and look for new ventures.”

Protecting the Surveying Profession at the time of COVID-19

COVID-19 brought difficulties to sustaining the practice though, and Michael used the unexpected extra time to protect the surveyors’ work.   

“The lockdown was just surreal, what happened was really weird, and I just thought to myself, well, I’ve been there before, I’ve been laid off a few times in my career. If it goes horribly wrong, I’ll just pop up somewhere else. And so I’ve volunteered for the Red Cross, and I took the time to revamp the practice again, to strengthen our terms and conditions, because that’s a big thing for our small surveying practices. We’re getting hammered for the claims, because the Level Two is seen as a guarantee for some reason by our clients. So I’ve strengthened all the terms and conditions of Japanese knotweed claims, for instance. We had six attempts at us in six years, and I took every claim very personally. They’ve all been vexatious, and we’ve got to do something about it, in terms of always protecting the client but protecting ourselves as well.”

How Technology Breathes New Life into Survey Reports

Michael is involved in video surveys and he loves the dimension that technology brings to surveying.

“The last job I did for a client who’s based in Scotland WAS a video building survey, and they said it was brilliant that I could present it to them almost like David Attenborough – a bit of a settlement crack here, a tiny spotted dampness there, all in front of their eyes.”

There are a lot of lay people out there, and survey reports can be the most boring documents in the world, even though you may have spent three days writing it up and two days on the property. Marion concludes that it’s a surveyor’s job to not just write the report in plain English, but also to sell it and bring it to life with photos and videos. And that’s where technology can make a real difference for a small business.

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