Interview: James Bailey, Managing Partner at Bruton Knowles
- Credit: Archant
James Bailey, Managing Partner at Bruton Knowles, talks cricket, women in the workplace and the tech revolution transforming the business
James Bailey and I are talking cricket, the weather, cups of tea and Brexit. It couldn’t have been more of a British start to an interview if it tried.
Which, given the chaos going on at Westminster at the time we were talking - the day we were supposed to be leaving the EU, when Parliament had descended into farce and everyone began to realise the Backstop should have stayed as a rounders position - was rather calming.
James arrived at Bruton Knowles as a fresh-faced surveyor in 1999 and, two years ago, landed the top job of Managing Partner.
He’s passionate about lots of things in life; politics, diversity, education - and cricket. Growing up in a small Nottinghamshire village, Trent Bridge was never far from his thoughts and this most civilised of games has bowled him over ever since.
One of his earliest political memories was during the miners’ strike when his cousin, en route to play cricket, had a breeze block thrown through his car window.
Politics, he says, has always been “fascinating, seismic”, but none more so than now.
He worries about a hard Brexit, about mortgages becoming difficult, impacting on on valuations and loans and calls for mass investment in UK utilities.
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And he is a passionate advocate of modernisation, determined to lead surveying - Bruton Knowles in particular - from a bastion of old-school, cord-wearing Cirencester graduates to a bright, young, diverse profession.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Cirencester graduates - far from it. The 12 Bruton Knowles offices still recruit RICS-qualified graduates from traditional higher educational establishments.
But there’s a new wave of graduate surveyors coming through, and it’s a shift that James has been championing througout the business, with considerable success.
“Our graduates are more diverse these days,” says the father-of-four.
“Yes, some still come through the RAC and Harper Adams, but many have completed non-cognate degree courses who then go on to do a conversion course.
“They come to us a little later, at 23, but we find this brings something new to the business.
“It’s a different route into the profession.
“The challenge for us with our graduate programme is for us to help them get their hands dirty.”
It’s this hands-on approach that has fuelled an apprenticeship programme, with one apprentice in the Birmingham office and another working out of Gloucester.
“It’s a genuine alternative to university,” says James. “The notion that people don’t need to go to uni wasn’t that rare when I was growing up.
“Then there was a sea change, when everyone had to go to uni to do a degree in, I don’t know, sociology, when they’d got two Es at A-level. It devalues everything.
“For us, apprenticeships are great because they learn on the job. We give them a long-term training package, and then at the end they’ve got a career.
“How do you, when you’re 18, know what you want to do in life? For most people, it’s difficult to sense a real passion at that age. With apprenticeships, if they’re managed well and people are going into structured firms, it’s a great prospect.”
James came to surveying through a non-traditional route.
He started out as a civil servant, working for the Land Registry and laughs when he recalls his time there.
“I remember my boss saying to me, ‘you’re a lovely chap, but you’re a square peg in a round hole here’. I didn’t last long.”
What it did, though, was give the star bowler plenty of down time to play a lot of civil service cricket.
“It was unbelieveably civilised,” he says. “We worked probably two days a week and played cricket the rest of the time.
“And it was in the days before they streamlined all the departments so we used to, for example, play the weights and measures guys. Weights and measures? You can’t believe there was a department for that, can you? It was brilliant.”
At 28, James stepped away from the endless cricket teas and joined Bruton Knowles’ Nottingham office as a trainee surveyor.
It’s been a pretty meteoric rise to fame ever since but he’s keen to remember his roots and inject some dynamisim and diversity into the business.
Along with the RICS, the team has been working with girls’ schools across the country, trying to steer talent traditionally drawn to the medical profession - doctors, pharmacists - or finance or law to surveying.
“As a man with three daughters, I’m passionate that we recruit more women into the profession,” says James.
“I was brought in as Managing Partner in 2017 with a remit to modernise, to take Bruton Knowles to the second stage of growth. As a man in my 50s, I have clients in their 50s.
“But now we’ve got a raft of young, exciting surveyors who are 25 to 30, and they in turn have clients who are 25-30.
“There is a vibrant, entreprenurial spirit here now with fewer meetings.
“You can just feel it coming through and that will just grow and grow.”
Bruton Knowles works with four different recruitment consultants to ensure a diverse group of professionals are joining the company.
And James enthuses about the new female cohort bringing something new to the business.
He’s put one of the women in the Birmingham office in charge of the company’s graduate programme, for example, and reveals out of 49 new faces recruited in the past 12 months, 50% are female.
He also talks about how the adoption of technology across the board has been “a really pleasing eye-opener”.
Thanks to the firm’s younger demographic, Skype meetings are second nature to his graduate cohort, cutting down on lost travelling time, fostering a more collaborative atmosphere in the offices, reducing the number of emails flying about.
Social media is now recognised as a huge business generator, too, propelling this bastion of old-school Britishness well into the 21st century.
It’s all heading towards a younger look and feel to the firm, to modernise, to become more efficient, to change the environment and the culture.
“To be honest, we’d got a bit brochure-led,” says James.
“And that’s helped to redefine us. There are pictures of females on our literature now because we want to be relevant to our customers, representative of our clients. You know, we now have people in our Manchester and Leeds offices with accents. Imagine that? That’s the buisness growing in a proper way.”
There’s a perception, particularly in the Gloucestershire heartland, that Bruton Knowles is a rural land agency business with farming at its heart.
But though the business still deals with commerical lettings and buildings, has a long-standing rural division taking stock of farmers’ assets, helps charities make the most of their assets and works with social housing companies to provide much-needed affordable dwellings, two areas of the business are growing stratospherically.
That’s its utilities and transport infrastructure arm and its valuation services.
The biggest turnover by far comes from utilities - huge, long-term projects with countless spin-offs for the rural team and valuers. Bruton Knowles is at the centre of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset - one of eight similar projects to be announced by the Governmennt in 2010. It’s also focused on HS2, the high speed rail link connecting London to Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester.
One of James’ babies was Nottingham Express Transit (NET), a 32km long tram system in Nottingham which opened in 2004, with phase two - doubling the size - arriving in 2015.
Much time is taken up on specialist compensation projects, CPOs for Network Rail and new roads projects for example.
And this suits James just fine.
“Rural is hardwired into our DNA,” says James, who reveals winning contracts and business development are his biggest drivers. “And it always will be.
“But these are big pieces of work. The trams project was a 12 years of contracts, for example. First you start with the noise compensation, then you move on to land...They’re big jobs.”
The firm is currently developing a lesure team, dealing with pub companies and hoteliers, and is preparing to weather the Brexit storm, whatever and whenever that may be. And all the while, though Birmingham and Gloucester remain its biggest bases, the London and Manchester offices have doubled in size and Bristol is growing steadily.
“We’re holding up very, very well at the moment,” says James.
“And so far, it’s been a very enjoyable journey.”