047 SME Surveyor Business Stories: Commercial Property

Wheeler & Lai Chartered Surveyors was founded in 2018 by Rebecca Wheeler MRICS and Sau-Wan Lai MRICS, specialising in the commercial property sector.

Rebecca Wheeler BSc (Hons) MRICS, qualified as a chartered surveyor in 2003 and has over 18 years experience in the property market, especially in landlord and tenant work, lettings and sales. She is based on the Isle of Wight where she also plays an active role in local charities and events.

Sau-Wan Lai MSc MRICS qualified as a chartered surveyor in 2008 and has over 13 years experience in the property sector. She believes that knowing the local market is just as important as the wider picture, and she specialises in commercial property management and valuations.

How it All Started

Rebecca Wheeler and Sau-Wan Lai had many years of experience in both the commercial and residential property sector, before they decided to jump into entrepreneurship and start their own surveying practice.

“We were both part-time at the time, and we felt that we probably had capacity to do something more, to feel more autonomous, and to have more freedom to explore. For us, it was getting the right balance, the right mindset, and the courage to do something. At the time, we had discussions about where we were, and that just wasn’t the right opportunity. So we decided, rather than doing something on the side, why don’t we take the opportunity to do it for ourselves, not as a side hustle, but in its own right. And we wanted more flexibility for our home life and just to be our own bosses,” Sau-Wan says.

Residential Vs. Commercial Property Sector

Rebecca explains why they decided to focus on the commercial property sector, and what type of services they offer.   

“Anything that involves a shop, office or industrial space is something that we can help with. Whether that’s valuation work, excluding loan security as we’re not on any bank panels or covered for any loans security work, then probate, capital gains, tax accounting, and any formal valuation that you might require. On the landlord-tenants and the professional side, we do rent reviews and lease renewals, and we get involved with property management. We try and stick with the commercial side of things, but sometimes if you’ve got a block where you’ve got the commercial and an element of residential, then it’s easiest for us to take on the whole thing, although we try to avoid the residential. We had many years of residential property management, and both of us made the decision before we started to maybe avoid evenings calls about broken light bulbs, and similar management queries, as it didn’t fit into our lifestyles at this stage. So focusing on just commercial property was where we wanted to be, and because it’s just two of us, we had to focus in rather than cover all avenues.”

Networking and Peer Support

Both Rebecca and Sau-Wan say that the biggest learning over the past two years for them has been how important networking is in the early stages of a business.   

“The big surprise for us,” Rebecca says, “was the amount of support we had from other surveyors, although it’s a quite competitive market. Where we were before, there was a small team and we had that network within the team. But my biggest learning has been how much support and advice we were offered, for example if we’ve got a trickier valuation and want to chat it through with somebody else that might have done a few more of those. There have always been open arms, and our peers have been very supportive, working jointly with us, so it’s also been a good learning curve. There’s a lot to business that we weren’t aware of as well, like the admin side of things. We are answering the phones and doing bits and pieces at this moment, but it’s working well. It’s been a great journey so far. We’re onwards and upwards and excited about what the future holds.”

“Networking has been a journey indeed,” Sau-Wan adds, “and we didn’t need it before in our jobs, we didn’t need to promote the business in that sense. But since we’ve set up, we’ve needed people to know that we exist as an entity. So we have thrown ourselves into networking, meeting people so they can put a face to the name, so that they can come and find us. While many people aren’t gonna look you up, and they’ll probably go to the bigger firms, actually there is support for the independent firms. One of the side benefits of meeting so many people is that we can refer an accountant or an architect to someone from our network who needs that service. Networking is something that we didn’t necessarily foresee, but it is certainly one of the big learnings, being able to build your connections so that you can benefit not just yourself, but others around you as well.”

Presenting Yourself on Social Networks

At the time of the pandemic, networking through social media has become very important, and we wanted to know how Sau-Wan and Rebecca have been handling that side of their business.

“In the beginning, we’ve found it quite tricky to present ourselves in a concise way. It’s still a learning journey. We first introduced ourselves as Chartered Surveyors, and not many people would know what we did. One of the default images was an old man measuring up and looking at defects on a building that might be crumbling. But that’s actually not what we do and not who we are. We now say we are commercial property advisors. We’re trying not to bombard people with our list of services, because that’s not interesting. We would rather give someone a fact and then say how we’ve helped a client, before we deliver a pitch,” Sau-Wan says.  

“It’s about adding a fresh approach, isn’t it?” Rebecca ads. “We’ve got clients that we used to act for, that have come and found us because they liked our approach. Also, some people need time to see how you’re doing when you’re a new company, to watch and learn from the outside and from what you put out there, and then they come and approach you. There’s freshness and something new in us being two female founders of a company in a male dominated industry that happens to be surveying. Here we are in year three, and I think people are now learning that, so we’re getting more and more inquiries and more returning clients, which is fantastic,” she concludes.  

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