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George F White land agents move with the times

Maximising value for clients who work, live or invest in the rural economy is the key focus of independent land agents, George F White.

The roots of its business are firmly planted in the agricultural sector, however, it now comprehensively services the residential, commercial, leisure and energy sectors. Its niche area is the rural economy, but it has expanded its business beyond its traditional boundaries.

JP van Zyl and Hugh Fell

Hugh Fell, managing partner, explained: “The concept of maximising value is easy to grasp when considering the sale of a property – getting the full and proper price.

“However, it requires a bit more thought with regard to the other areas of work that we do.

“Providing strategic business advice is all about seeing the holistic full picture, understanding the ‘angles’ and providing comfort that the way ahead is clear and fully understood.”

The role of the modern-day land agent is very different from the traditional role seen on TV programmes like Downton Abbey – the genteel tweed-clad image is no longer applicable to focused rural businesses.

Hugh continued: “Farms and estates today are sophisticated businesses that have diversified into a wide range of areas of operation and can often have complicated legal structures.

“We have developed our business to be able to advise on all those areas and to add value by looking outside the box.”

Consequently, George F White is now divided into 13 different business areas operating across five different sectors which, when combined, provide an extensive range of services to the rural economy.

“We still offer all the usual services – valuations, property management, landlord and tenant, and property agency and acquisitions – but our role as land agents is much wider now, offering strategic business management, expert witness and dispute resolution, project delivery, business/wealth management, succession and advice on renewable energies.”

The business has come a long way from when Hugh first joined.

He explained, “As the fourth son of a Lincolnshire farmer I got the ‘bullet’ and was sent to the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, where I trained as a land agent. I then went to work for Savills in Herefordshire but soon wanted to start my own business.

“George White was a family friend and had set up his own business in 1979 and after spending an interesting day with him up north, he ended up offering me a job and then a partnership after six months. I’d been to Northumberland once in my life before that!

“I brought my experience of working with a large national firm and their systems to the table, which added to the goodwill, hard work and knowledge of the area that George had already established.”

The pair forged a reputation as tenacious land agents and the firm grew quickly over the coming years. They established offices down the A1 corridor in Alnwick, Barnard Castle, Wolsingham, Bedale and more recently Shiptonthorpe (East Yorks). The company continues to have an ambitious growth strategy and employs 100 people.

“When you look back at how we grew the business, it is interesting to reflect on the key challenges we had to face at the various stages of its growth. I remember feeling a huge responsibility when we took on our first qualified assistant and then an in-house accountant – both seemed giant steps at the time.

“As we grew, we attracted bright young people who were energetic and enthusiastic. George and I knew the challenge was to grow the business to create some ‘blue sky’ opportunities to help them develop their careers with us.

“From an early start, we decided this was not going to be a lifestyle business – we have always run it as a truly profitable business, focused on a tight financial business plan, that has the ability to generate cash and grow.”

Another turning point for Hugh was in the late 90s when he attended an inspirational talk by an executive from Disney. Listening to the motivational speaker made such an impact on him that he joined a leadership programme organised by US management training firm Vistage.

Hugh recalled, “It changed my perspective on how to run a business. Until then I knew how to be a chartered surveyor but had no formal training in business management.

“The programme was designed for 12 CEOs from a wide range of companies. We met once a month with a guest speaker, and were able to discuss and debate a range of topics. The group was from a wide spectrum of industries – pharmaceutical, automotive, professional services. It was very helpful to listen to people from very different companies, but interestingly, most of the issues were similar for all of us.

“Ours is a people business. We focus on maximising value for our clients and understanding that everyone is an individual so their needs are different. It is vitally important to employ the right people.

“We sell our time and expertise so our reputation is key and we must focus on recruiting the right people and developing them. The value of our business is entirely tied up with our people, they represent the company and our reputation, so we need to attract the best.”

Hugh explained: “The terms HR and marketing leave me cold. We have a ‘head of people’ instead of an HR manager and her job is to help our people identify and play to their strengths so they can develop roles in the business that will provide tangible personal development for them, and help drive the business forward.

“Not everybody can or indeed wants to be a partner, but everyone who works for us needs to be happy in order to effectively deliver value to our client base.”

Hugh is of the opinion that many companies spend far too much time and money on unnecessary and ineffective marketing.

“Before 1990, the word marketing wasn’t even on the agenda. I think in the early 90s the accounts showed a marketing cost of £80! It has changed radically but we believe it is all about communicating effectively with our current clients, potential future clients and our professional colleagues in the legal, accounting and financial sectors.

“We are constantly looking for topics of real interest and new knowledge – pushing at the boundaries and exploring. This ‘knowledge’ thing is big for us – internally we know we have to research and share information, store it, retrieve it and pass it on to clients when they need it.”

The experience and expertise of the team has helped strengthen the firm’s position as one of the leading firms of chartered surveyors in the North of England.

Hugh has more than 30 years’ experience in the valuation of rural property and developed a national role – he was a previous chairman of the rural valuation group and was a former member of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) board of valuation standards at national level. Dispute resolution is one of Hugh’s specialist areas and he was appointed the UK’s youngest arbitrator in 1995.

“I know from my experience as a mediator how damaging disputes can be for a business. They are incredibly draining and can stop a business moving forward.

“Employment law is an area where businesses need professional help and we turn to Jean-Pierre van Zyl, at Square One Law, as an extremely practical and commercial member of our support team to help us look for solutions and pro-active management”

Not only has Hugh specialised in dispute resolution, but he is also very involved in the area of succession planning and is a consultant to a wide range of SMEs and individuals.

He said, “The value of land has doubled in the last five years. Since the downturn in 2008, owning land has become a far more interesting investment for people who never dreamt of ‘farming’. There is something inherently comforting about investing in something that you’re confident is still going to be there on Monday morning.

“People can farm it themselves or have it managed for them – one thing is for sure; the world’s population will always want food!

“The challenge for most family businesses is passing the wealth down to the next generation. Helping guide families through that process and at the same time seeking to add value, is a core part of our business – development of new land uses in energy, leisure, building or just new working practices is what we are about. The fact that farming is an incredibly tax-efficient way of passing wealth down to the generation just adds to its attraction.”

Another specialist area that George F White is gaining a leading reputation is in water value. The firm is at the cutting edge of thinking in regard to the valuation of water as a separate resource.

Hugh is currently chairman of the Rics working group on the valuation of water and is involved with the production of formal guidance notes on its value, which will have a significant impact on the property and financial sectors.

He explained: “When you look at water there is a wealth of material on the environmental and social aspects, but a complete dearth of information about the financial element. There is no existing approach to valuation that withstands detailed scrutiny. The water-value team is leading the debate on how to develop a methodology that will stand up to rigorous interrogation.

“Water can be an asset or a liability. Flooding shows us how water can really devalue property and land, but very little work has been done to show how much of an asset it can be as well.”

Jean-Pierre Van Zyl said: “I have worked with George F White for many years and it’s really impressive how they have strategically grown the business and focused on helping their clients make the most of the ever- changing opportunities available to them as landowners.”

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