041 Surveyor Business Stories with Malcolm Hollis

Malcolm Hollis is Professor of Building Surveying at Reading University and Director at Hollis Consulting Ltd. A leading authority on building surveying, he has worked throughout the UK, Europe and the Far East, and he remains a practising building surveyor specialising in the diagnosis of defects in buildings.

Professor Hollis is also a well-known broadcaster and lectures widely on surveying and dilapidations. He has written several books and contributed articles and chapters to a wide range of publications. More recently, he has been hosting free webinars for learners, students and trainee surveyors via The Surveyor Hub – gratefully received by many during lockdown 2020.

Starting a Business by Accident

Although Malcolm Hollis claims that most of his career has happened to him “by accident,” he has been very open and ready to take opportunities where they emerged. One of them was taking over the surveying side of his former company Trefoil and starting his own business. At that time, there were just seven or eight people there, and Malcolm’s company today has over 50 offices around the UK.

“What motivated me? I was moved by accident – somehow you have to work, the work was coming in, it needed to be done,” he says. “Because the two directors have left and gone to live abroad, it was there, so I carried on with it. “

When asked whether he’s been seeing himself as a businessman or a surveyor, he says:

“As a surveyor. Having the business was something you coped with. You tried to make sure the cash came in. The work was never a problem. I’d been very fortunate that in all of my career, it had been a case where the work was coming in. And it got wider from just doing inspections of buildings to investigating, and that was the part that I liked. You asked why I got into surveying – it was just an opportunity to be nosy, to go into people’s property and poke around, and they didn’t stop you.”

A Surveyor-Collector

While doing inspections, Malcolm started collecting interesting objects left behind by previous occupants.

“There were a lot of buildings which were being vacated at the end of the tenancy or end of the lease. I did the inspections to see if those have been emptied. It was just amazing what was left behind. There is the card of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, his Army-Navy card. There were also occasions where the houses still had the speaking tubes. So from the basement servants quarters to the upper bits, there was a tube, and if you wanted the servants to do anything, you blew on it and out came a whistle at the nozzle, and that was the way of knowing that somebody was trying to get you. It was back in a different period, but what was left behind were medals, sculptures, there were also paintings.”

Surveyors on TV

Many surveyors know Professor Malcolm Hollis not only through the books he wrote but through TV shows he was involved in, where he brought surveying into the public domain. A notable show he did was ‘That’s Life’ with Esther Rantzen, where he was an expert surveyor hiding in the cupboard and watching over other surveyors who might do their job badly. We asked him what impact this had on the industry, and what reactions he received for appearing on that show.

“Looking at the surveying industry back then, it was badly dealt with by the judiciary. Surveyors who were doing mortgage valuations were being held to be liable for not having done a survey, and that was one of the big things. When I was running Nationwide Anglia, I was still involved heavily in the litigations that were going against surveyors, and it took some time to get the distinction clear between a building survey for house buyers report and a mortgage valuation. Sadly, that was a period when surveyors had a bad time, not always because they’re doing the job badly. But I still think that, in terms of the work that is probably being done even now, people are very good at seeing the cracks, but not good at saying what that means, what’s the consequence. Construction, condition, consequence – is really the whole basis of doing a survey. And the consequence is still something which people don’t punch home as well.”

“As for the reaction from the industry,” he continues, “I think there was a lack of comfort. Who was I to do this? But there were a lot of RICS committees at that time, I was trying to be involved in making the changes, and I was instrumental in some of those. But I don’t think it was necessarily thought of as a thing I ought to be doing – we’re professionals, we’re not television people.”

Recognition for Surveyors

Malcolm believes the surveying profession is still not sufficiently recognised for why it is so important, particularly in terms of residential surveying for consumers, but also in terms of fire safety and overall building regulations.

“I don’t think we get as a profession the recognition that I’d like to see. If I could change one thing as I retire, it would be to make sure that there is better recognition for surveying. We should think of it as a public service that we’ve provided, we’ve protected people against the bad builders, we’ve protected them against poor construction. But where are the MBEs, OBEs, knighthood in our profession? I don’t think they happen. And I’d like to see that better understanding of what the profession has provided,” he concludes. 

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