As Black Cat turns 5 years old, founding director Stephen Barnes reflects on his career in the commercial property industry.

I walked into the office this morning for the first time in several months and since the start of lockdown. The purpose of my visit was to take some time away from my home work setting and teenage daughters with the intention to reflect and write about what Black Cat has achieved as we approach our sixth year, the direction of the business and perhaps more importantly how I see the future of Building Surveying and the wider Property Industry as the world moves forwards.

I am not sure at which point everything seemed to come together, but I find myself for the first time counting how many ‘cats’ we now have and there appears to be twenty one of us, across three office locations with ongoing conversations regarding two other regional locations. We are incredibly grateful for the support we have received from our clients and the commitment of the team in doing what they do in the way that they do it. We have managed to record all of the data and statistics from day one which you may have seen from time to time as we share the “Cats Stats” as a fun informative way of letting people know how we are getting on. Most of our communications are done in a graphical form, as those who know me will know that I am more of a picture person and perhaps less articulate in writing (but here goes)!

I have flirted with the idea about writing about my experiences of previous places of work as it tends to be a bit of a taboo subject, but equally I thought it would be interesting to reference where some of the ideas which underpin the business have come from and how different businesses and experiences have influenced the Black Cat model. What follows therefore is my personal account of the great, the ok and the not so great aspects of those businesses I have experience of, and I am probably breaking all sorts of rules in doing this but here goes:

DTZ / Now Cushman and Wakefield (1998 – 2001) – On one hand, it doesn’t feel appropriate to reference what was then DTZ. I can’t really recall what aspects we may have taken on board in the formation of Black Cat. My time at DTZ was limited to the role of a graduate, but I suppose work ethic and a “yes, not a problem” attitude is important and something which seems to be missing from those at a similar level in todays profession.

On the one hand I was that busy learning how to be a good building surveyor (that may be debated by some) but the reality for the first year was certainly quite different. I had a rather long commute for the first 18 months from Manchester to Leeds, as despite living in Manchester only the Leeds office had a graduate opportunity. I managed to convince them of an intent to move to and live in Leeds and that was enough to land the job in an otherwise impossible market.

The length of my commute was 90 minutes in rush hour or 45 minutes before and after. When driving an old MKII fiesta, previously abandoned in the office car park some months before and without heating, 45 minutes was preferable in the depths of winter on the M62. I tended to arrive in the office by 7:30am, make a round of teas before then meeting with the rest of the graduates to open and distribute the post. It was a great way of meeting people and getting to know the other departments. The arrival of email took away this basic and most important function of the graduate!

My mornings were typically spent taking Director’s cars for services and delivering packages and it was a privilege to be passed the keys to a new Alfa Romeo or in the case of the big bosses a Mercedes S Class (a bungalow on wheels) where you would ‘carefully’ drive the car from A to B and complete the task without any detour whatsoever.

If you were lucky, in the afternoon, you would get to spend a couple of hours copying and folding plans from the drawing office using the heliographic copier in the basement which relied upon an ammonia copy solution! Over time you may graduate through the various tasks to be allowed to amend a few drawings on a drawing board with a razor blade. It is interesting isn’t it, that today graduates want a £1 million project and they prefer to avoid rush hour by getting in late.

It is no surprise therefore that Black Cat do not currently employ graduates. Now that isn’t because we don’t have an ammonia copying machine, sufficient post or cars to be serviced, but we do believe there are better places for graduates to learn their professional skills in large corporate firms. I spent a number of years within both Savills and CBRE where we employed and trained many graduates and those firms have excellent well-established graduate training schemes that are brilliant.

What is telling however is that two of the Black Cat Team, have come from those early days. Kevin Cramer was Ben’s APC Supervisor and we were delighted when Kevin decided to join the business back in March 2016. Eric Roberts, who was head of department (The Big Boss) back in my graduate days then also joined the business in September 2016. These are people who we have the upmost respect for and, having had a role in training us, it is fitting that we now have the opportunity to work alongside them again. We continue to actively seek key people at the top of the profession from these businesses as frankly there is not a lot they don’t know.

Savills (2001 to 2010) – I found Savills to be a fantastic business to work within. They had a very entrepreneurial approach, one I probably enjoyed the most with some fantastic characters that you immediately had a huge amount of respect for. Many of the ideas we adopted for Black Cat were taken from the Savills model around sharing profits and the team ethic. Savills, for me, remains the best company for individuals to learn their trade, deal with impressive clients and to develop their ideas. Everyone should at some point in their career try and work for Savills and it is perhaps no surprise that some of our day to day management documents are very similar indeed.

Savills staff for me, worked harder and longer than any of the other corporate firms I was lucky enough to work for. One simple reason that Savills were so successful in motivating their staff was that they shared in the success of the business through year-end bonuses and share incentive arrangements. The latter benefit was the source of funding that I invested in Black Cat when I finally sold my Savills shares on leaving CBRE.

I recall undertaking portfolio surveys around the M25 and setting off on one particular morning where I would take half of the surveys working clockwise around the M25 and my manager, then head of department, picking up the other half working anticlockwise with the challenge of who would get them done first! Ten hours later we both drove into the hotel car park at exactly the same time and we would repeat that for three days often spending the evening then dictating the reports so that they could be typed up before we arrived back in the office in three days’ time. When we established Black Cat, we wanted to recreate that competitive, team approach with the same levels of enthusiasm.

Savills was a great deal of fun and in the early days I recall long afternoons drinking, in rather upmarket wine bars, with cigars with the talk of sports cars, client entertainment and team challenges that many will never have experienced. It is no surprise therefore that we have already seen some epic Black Cat team trips to race yachts around the lakes, to climb the odd ‘hill’ and nights out all of which have been memorable for various different reasons! I would say we have managed to recreate the same sense of team and almost a family that I experienced all those years ago at Savills and it is fantastic to be a part of.

The Savills teams, in the day, worked hard and played hard working up to a frenzy at year end as we sought to punch well above target to maximise the bonus pool. The model however had some flaws.The year end, at the time, coincided with Christmas and whilst our families were at home, many of us worked long hours and even weekends as we sought to increase our year-end figures often to the detriment of family life. That period of frenzied activity was then followed by a three month long period of uncertainty as we eagerly awaiting the individual announcements of how our efforts may have converted into bonus payments.

I was always lucky enough to have had a close relationship with my line manager and those relationships often went some way, I am sure, to securing a better than average bonus which I was thankful for, whilst others may not have been so lucky. What stood out however was that there was a lack of transparency and no set rule or calculation for one to follow and relationships were perhaps more important than they should have been. It was also apparent that around that time of year there was negativity around how other departments, or even individuals, may have been rewarded, which was not particularly constructive. We wanted to overcome the same issue at Black Cat whilst adopting similar mechanisms of reward.

Having experienced the above, when developing the Black Cat model we made the decision that the whole team, at a particular level, would be remunerated with basic pay equally and that the whole process would be completely transparent. The team can see first-hand how their work ethic and fee
income relate to their bonus. Perhaps more importantly they can also see payments made to all other members of the team across all levels. Its been quite liberating, as for the first time in my career there has been an acceptance of what is in fact a very simple and logical reality. If you want to work long hours and don’t have a focus upon family life then that is ok and you are rewarded accordingly. Conversely, if you are at a point in your life where family is more important and you are less able to work the same hours then again, that is ok and your remuneration can be adapted to suit. The reality is that we all go through different stages throughout our careers. Right now, spending time with my wife and teenage daughters is very important but I know that in five years from now I will probably have more time to devote to the business.

CBRE (2010 – 2016) – When I joined CBRE I recall the then Managing Director describing the business as a sweet shop with amazing client opportunities within the jars on the shelf, and that the biggest challenge that I was likely to face was having the time to open each of those jars to explore the opportunities. That was probably the best description anybody could have given of the business and it was very much what it was.

CBRE were, in my opinion, a more corporate, process driven business with exacting precise standards across a broad range of geographical locations and they rallied around QA processes. Whilst at Savills a client would employ an individual, or a particular team, to deliver a piece of work and that work would be, more than likely, serviced from one geographical location in that team’s style. In contrast, at CBRE the client was employing a global business to deliver a piece of work that would be technically identical but serviced from a network of individuals based in different geographical locations. CBRE would invest huge effort in the co-ordination, presentation and QA of the work, and the standard of reporting was nothing short of impressive. You will not be surprised therefore that we employ similar reporting standards at Black Cat and employ both a technical and administrative QA before issue of all proposals, letters and reports.

I was always a little surprised that despite significant investment in a “one Team” ethos, marketing campaigns internally to promote “one team” and these extensive QA processes to present as one team, the business effectively still ran as a series of separate businesses, with separate standard documents, file locations and even accounting centres. It always seemed more logical to have the team working truly as one, sharing those documents and files, and to be one team rather than flirting with the idea.

I recall being invited to attend a National Liaison Group meeting in London in my early days at CBRE where, being new to the business, the senior management team were keen to listen to any ideas. I shared the ideas of physically being one team, and so as to emphasise the usefulness of sharing documents within the business, I also made them aware that I had been trialling this with the Manchester team and that we had had access to London’s documents for the past few months and found it to be very efficient and very helpful.

The meeting didn’t perhaps unfold as I had anticipated! I found myself in a separate meeting with two regional Directors not long after where they emphasised their own reasons why we should not let London have any more influence over the regions. Similarly, I found that my access to the London drives had been removed in the time it took me to travel back to Manchester by train. Therefore it is no great surprise to find that within Black Cat we work truly as one team. We share the same files, standard documents and processes and we make a point of communicating almost daily with each other to that we are actually “One Team”. The idea of “One Team” we must however credit to CBRE.

For me personally, CBRE should have been amazing, arguably much better than Savills if only due to their shear scale and the overwhelming number of clients and opportunities. Whilst their standards were exceptional, their reporting documents incredibly impressive and their staff truly committed, their processes were very complex. New ideas required approvals at so many levels in order to pursue them that they often fell to one side. The business was vast, and we seemed to spend increasing amounts of time in meetings trying to tie things together and to work out what one part of the business was doing or how they could feed into another.

There was an art to getting things done at CBRE. It was, I imagine, like driving an oil tanker. It took time and you needed to know how to lobby key decision makers well in advance of your intent to change direction. You needed to build support for your ideas and eventually, with all of that upfront planning, you would probably succeed, but without it you would almost certainly hit the rocks. For me the process was too slow, the market was moving too quickly and in the time it took to seek approval for one new recruit, we could have hired four whilst at Savills. My training at Savills was very much a case of “how can we get the job done most efficiently to meet the precise requirements of the client, and let’s not get caught up in process”.

Having learnt from those experiences, one of things we now do really well at Black Cat is we support new members of the team. We financially support them over the first twelve months with guaranteed bonuses so that we can give them the time and space to learn how the business works, to explore their connections, their ideas and even to pursue opportunities that we may not yet fully appreciate. We trust them to do what they are good at and we accept they probably know the value of something that we don’t even realise yet.

COVID-19 – I wanted to mention the impact of COVID on the business as whilst this is a new and ongoing situation, it has arguably had the greatest effect, as a catalyst to some of our ideas, than any of my previous employment.

The term ‘work life balance’ until three months ago was a corporate buzz word for most of our competitors. Whilst businesses talked about, it they were awful at actually embracing it. They would claim to offer flexibility, but if someone was not in the office by 9am a manager would have questioned where they were. In contrast we were seeking to employ senior Directors at the very top of their game, and we needed something that people would almost be suspicious of! So, we decided we would offer the whole team unlimited holidays, that they take whenever they feel that they need a holiday. Yes, no limits on the amount of holidays you take. It takes a bit of getting used to I can promise you, especially after a lifetime of filling in holiday cards and requesting leave. I decided on Friday I needed a day off (or my wife did) and so this Friday we booked to take the kids and their horses to a competition venue we have hired out and I will be going offline on Tuesday.

The reality is of course that we are not employing graduates, we are employing the best people we have come across in our careers at the very top of their game and they are conscientious, committed to their clients and their work, and they know how to balance all those things without somebody ten years their junior trying to manage them. It is also worth highlighting the obvious in that it is a balance of relaxation and bonus and people can turn them up and down as they need, but they are linked.

In five years we have never had anyone abuse the system. The truth is that people take less time off in terms of our definition of annual leave, but when they work, they work the hours that suit them, around their lives and from where they want. If they need a day off to sort things out, they can disappear for a time and thus they no longer need to take a day’s leave. Work is something they all now do as part of life and it is not necessarily somewhere they go between certain times. I like to call it work for grownups.

The whole of the Black Cat Team have state of the art laptops, they have dual screens and docks for home and the office and anything else they need. We work off a combination of Dropbox, One Drive and we also have servers in each office and one off site that all replicate the data so at we have a lot of resilience. We operate off a windows 365 system and the whole team can access anything from anywhere and share anything with their clients. The resilience of the systems and the remote support meant that COVID had minimal impact on the functionality of the business as we were
already set up and working remotely.

Some weeks after the majority of restrictions around COVID were lifted, but with the threat of regional lockdowns, one cannot ignore the emptiness of this vibrant City of Manchester, the absence of people from the offices, the emptiness of the shops and the quietness of the roads. The community will take some time to heal from the scars of COVID, the threats that it still presents and the challenges and perhaps even opportunities that it has now enforced around work life balance.

It is pleasing to see, of those moving back into the Cities, how they seem to have adapted in such a short period of time. People are walking and cycling, taking things in their stride with relaxation and calm, and are taking the opportunity to chat whilst maintaining a respectful distance. Somehow people seem to appreciate things more as they have time to focus, rather than simply rushing from place to place just in time for the next meeting.

To celebrate the end of our fifth year we had envisaged a good size celebratory event, with our clients, their families and the firms we partner with. In stark contrast, we take a break from site inspections, zoom meetings and telephone calls to simply reflect for the first time in a long time and to write a short article. I have enjoyed taking the time to write this and would have never had time pre-COVID.

It is as if the world has adjusted in one short sharp step to a better way of life, a life structured more around family and wellbeing and yet at great cost to those families directly affected by it. The world seems to have caught up with what Black Cat set out to achieve just five years ago and suddenly our USP to potential team members is old news! We were proud to be pretty unique, and whilst it’s fantastic that that all businesses have now been forced to take a similar approach to work life balance, we look forward to seeing them follow suit on the unlimited holidays front!

We now need to assess what remains of Black Cat’s identity, what defines us and how we can attract brilliant people to join a business with a name you would expect to find on a pub!

Our business mechanisms were designed for a recession. We had built cash reserves, the team were equipped to work remotely with cloud based systems and attendance at the offices was already limited as people sought to work wherever and whenever they could. Ordinarily a recession would simply reduce the influx of work but COVID has perhaps been the greatest test of all. The reality is that the business mechanisms performed exceptionally well. Only those people who wanted to shield were placed on furlough and the whole team was back working after the first three week period of furlough as enquiries seemed to increase. We didn’t need to adapt the way we worked and all of the systems performed very well indeed.

The Future – On reflection I am extremely grateful for the opportunities which have been provided to me by the likes of DTZ, Savills and CBRE, and by building upon the lessons from those exceptional organisations I am proud to now be in a position where we can say, hand on heart, that we have an amazing business with all of the best aspects of those businesses pulled together. We are surrounded by some truly fantastic individuals who are our most valuable assets and they, having served their time with some of the same businesses above, have now also embraced a truly unique culture in which they are now free to simply be themselves.

Who knows what the future holds or what lessons may be learned going forwards, but we look forward to embracing change and staying ahead of the curve as we seek to now preserve and build upon what I believe to be a more positive, thoughtful and more balanced way of business life whilst preserving life itself.

If you are an Associate Director Level Surveyor or above, with a loyal client base and good work ethic and the above strikes a chord, or if you are interested in exploring in more detail some of the Black Cat philosophy then please do get in touch.

Previously, we would have arranged a discreet coffee. Now we can attend an encrypted zoom call from the comfort of your kitchen at a time to suit!

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