A HOTEL GETS planning permission to build a twenty-bedroom extension.
But it’s on a small site surrounded on all sides by other buildings, with the only access through a narrow archway. Space is so tight that there’s little room to dig the foundations.
The neighbours, who originally objected to the application aren’t disposed to being co-operative, and there are various legal issues. And there is a deadline to get the project completed.
It sounds like one of those lateral thinking management training exercises, but this was a real-life scenario facing chartered building surveyors Whitefox. “A nightmare project fraught with problems,” says founder and MD Darren Frias-Robles, who managed to come up with a solution by thinking outside the box, after even considering “crazy” ideas like delivering prefabricated pods by helicopter.
“If the neighbours had wanted to stop the project they could have done, so we decided to involve them in the process. We negotiated with them to build a crane on their land and then we delivered flat-packed buildings and put the panels together on site. And we solved the problem with the foundations by using a system which gets around space issues by driving lengths of aluminium pile into the ground and then joining them together to form a single pile to the required depth.”
The upshot was an extension built on time, mollified neighbours and happy clients.
To be distinctive, every firm needs to be known for something, and it’s challenging projects like this that Frias-Robles has made his niche since the early days of Whitefox. He started the business in 1995, having worked as technical director for a property development company
and before that as a consultant for a surveying firm. Those roles gave him a valuable mix of experience of both consultancy, with its focus on legal and construction and processes, and client side, with all the commercial work, deals and negotiation.
When he decided to set up on his own as a consultant, joined by his architect father, they focused initially on residential property. But when that market slowed down, so did the workflow. “It was as though some unseen hand was slowly turning had turned the tap off,” Frias-Robles recalls. “There was lots of competition for what little work there was, and I
realised we needed to look seriously at what our unique selling proposition was and focus on that.”
The answer was to move away from conventional residential surveying – volume work where margins were tight and cheap competition abounded – and into the low-volume, high-margin work which constitute the difficult projects that other surveyors would shy away from.
“These were projects that had the potential to go badly wrong, and for us to be sued if they did,” says Frias-Robles. “But as a result, we managed to get some very good clients who lacked those skills in house – organisations like the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice – and the business just took off.” That niche of “difficult” projects is actually a good place to be in terms of job satisfaction, he says. “Clients respect us as we achieve results and add value so they are happy to pay our fees; and we get work from outside the area we would have been confined to if we were doing mainstream work, as there’s not so much competition.”
And all the time Frias-Robles was become something more of an expert in finding a way through contentious projects. Neighbours’ disputes and the Party Wall Act are bread and butter to him. “You often get people who are diametrically opposed in their views and that can cause heartbreak and pain and cost,” he says. “Our job is to find a way through these conflicts and competing desires and drivers, and reconcile them all so a project can happen.”
There are downsides to that niche, of course, not least that it’s harder to find surveyors who have the right mix of technical and people skills to deal with both demanding clients and situations.
Then there is the dilemma of how to scale up with such a specialism; Frias-Robles pragmatically accepts that it would probably also be more difficult to sell the business as a consequence; not that it concerns him as he’d be happy to have his staff takes over when the time comes.
Frias-Robles operated under his own name until 2016, when he rebranded to give the business a more corporate feel. “I didn’t want the business to be all about me,” he stresses. “I wanted a sound, recognisable brand that reflects that we are a group of liked-minded professionals.”
The name of the firm is derived from connotations of white (pure and good) and fox (wily and cunning). “That’s what we are,” says Frias-Robles. “It just felt right when I came up with that name after many hours of thinking outside the box. We operate at the same level as the larger consultancies we work with, and we conduct ourselves as you would expect a big firm to in terms of paperwork and processes and documentation,” says Frias-Robles.
“When you work with the MoD or MoJ, you need a good audit trail in place as part of your culture. They might ask you a question a year later about why a certain decision was made, and you have to be able to answer it.”
Frias-Robles says it’s important to ‘give back’ to the community from which a business is based or gets its work: he gives free advice to charities about premises-related issues and as a keen sailor he has helped the Sailability scheme, which provides opportunities for people with disabilities.
He doesn’t make a big song and dance about it. “I don’t like that social media thing where people tell everyone what they have done,” he says. “It can look like you are only doing it to get on Facebook, so I think you should just get on and do it anyway. The people you mix with will know what you have done.”
That said, Frias-Robles identifies marketing and self-promotion as a weakness for a business such as Whitefox and possibly his main barrier to success. “I know we do need to get some case studies out there about difficult projects that are genuinely interesting. If we were better at letting people know about what we are achieving, I’m pretty confident that we could get at least one more good commercial client. We picked up a seventy-bed bed care home project through an introduction, and it was a suggestion from a solicitor that got me invited to sit on the board of an NHS trust to advise them on a building project.”
He is a great believer that a reputation for expertise is a great marketing tool. He is a registered expert witness and is the Wessex chairman of the Pyramus & Thisbe Club, an organisation devoted to party walls [it takes its name from Ovid characters who are forbidden to marry but whisper their love for each other through the wall that divides their houses].
“We love to sit around talking about party wall legislation,” he smiles self-deprecatingly. “If someone was to google ‘party wall problems’, they could well end up, after some research, finding me. If you show that you are willing to share your knowledge, then when a project arises people will be more disposed to employ you.”
The addition in 2019 of a practice manager will help the firm fuel that marketing exposure, an area Frias-Robles admits he isn’t good at and finds it hard to devote sufficient time to. One of her roles is to feed interesting stories to an external social media resource, which will enable Frias-Robles to focus on fee-earning work rather than be distracted by the necessary but non-revenue producing marketing activities.
Taking this a step further, he ponders whether ideally he should hire an operations manager as the business grows. “I’m not alone in this thinking,” he says. “Some very eminent surveyors I know have concluded that they are their own most valuable asset so they employed someone else to run the business for them while they are earning the fees.
“The ideal business model would be a collective of motivated, skilled, well paid individuals who can be left to get on with things. That would suit me and it could become a great business.” But he’s prepared to be patient.
“I’ve learnt to take your time; things don’t happen immediately so take a step back and see how it plays out. And remember that the path you need to take might not be this one but the one over there. Then you have to be able to take your people with you: listen to everyone, understand what they need and think how you could provide it. My brother works for Disney; they are a behemoth company but they recognise that it’s a two-way thing between employer and employee.”
Most importantly, he adds, make time for yourself. “When I started, I was working ridiculous hours and I don’t do that any more because having head space as well as work life balance is very important. The idea that you have to flog yourself to stay ahead is an illusion. You can be successful without doing that. Every one of us should work out how to make the same amount of money we are making but have more time.”
As though to illustrate his point, Frias-Robles starts to clear his desk with a view to leaving the office. “I’m picking my son up from school and then we’re going sailing,” he smiles.
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Researched and published by
Researched and written by DECISION magazine