It’s been a while; I’ve been a bit busy.

I left my old firm yesterday, Innes England, after 21 years. I had a lot of fun and made lots of friends but the time had come for me to move on.

So, today is the first day proper of my new business (it has been alive for a little while in the background). It’s called Blackstar Advisory (Bowie fans will appreciate) and it exists to help my clients with their property issues. I’m delighted to be continuing to work with a number of my long-standing clients.

I’m really looking forward to this new adventure – and hopefully 2021 will be a much better year!

City gardens…

I never did History at school, at the time you had to choose between it and Geography. Looking back I regret that choice as I hated Geography (or was it that I hated the Welsh sadist at the front of the class?)

During lockdown I have been reading books – something that I usually save for holidays! My latest has been The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo. It’s a story of a 13th Century trader who chronicled his life in thousands of letters which were rediscovered centuries later. It’s a fascinating insight into a man and his family. There was a particular passage which talks about the value proposition at the time,

Roughly speaking, the things that were produced locally were cheap and, anything that had to be imported, dear”.

I couldn’t help but wonder if this current pandemic might push us back towards buying local.

Then a good friend and colleague of mine at NTU, Paul Collins, shared a story titled, “Panic Hoarding Is Our Wakeup Call To Invest In Local And Regional Farming”. You can read it here. The take-away is;

Over the last century or so, city dwellers have become far removed from the sources of their food and thus exposed to uncontrollable disruptions in the supply chain.

Covid19 saw us hoard food again in a moment of panic buying. We were collectively worried that our imported mangoes and all-year-round strawberries might not be there. Madness really.

Perhaps it will be a moment in our history where we return to producing locally and buying local.

Then another story hit the headlines – the apparent halting of work on the Broadmarsh Shopping Centre redevelopment in Nottingham. The owners, INTU, have well-publicised financial difficulties and the current health crisis (effectively strangling their source of income) appears to have slammed the brakes on the work. The City has been waiting years for this development. “Wait some more” it seems will be the mantra.

But perhaps there can be a silver lining. A few years ago I had suggested that the shopping centre be remodelled to house the FE College. But as part of that the roof be used to grow ‘greens’. I had been inspired by Gotham Greens in the USA. The College now emerges to the East – so that horse has bolted. But we may be able to rescue the green roof project. Perhaps with another (non-retail) use inside. The locally grown product can remove some of the anxiety of supply, but the ‘food miles‘ is also reduced to around zero.

This would be a fantastic ‘first’ for Nottingham and rescue a basket-case development which has been flawed from the start.

A second brain?

A few years ago, on a previous blog I wrote about how I used a bullet journal, which was then eaten by a Bear. Last year I discovered Ulysses – which was a great notetaker and was the app I used to make notes for lectures.

I have just cancelled my subscription to both. It’s not that I dislike them, just that there is a new much shinier thing. And it’s not just shiny – It is a complete revelation.

I have discovered Notion – I had actually downloaded it a few months ago, but didn’t have the time to get to grips with its apparent complexity. It has taken me a few days and I am still tweaking it; but I now have a fantastic, one stop shop for everything. It has all of my projects, to do lists, call logs, general notes, web clippings, book reading list and my CRM. The clever bit is that each area is connected, it is a massive relational database.

I must confess that the start was a bit daunting, but YouTube is an amazing resource for our age. There are countless ‘how to’ videos and whilst they weren’t all to my taste, you can quickly glean what Notion actually does. It is scalable and totally flexible for anyone. It can operate a business or your personal life. Or both. You can collaborate in teams too -although you do need to upgrade to do that.

The video I came across which really explains what Notion can do was by Tiago Forte – you can watch it here. The lofty idea is that we can create a second brain… and Notion can help. Like all software it is a tool and must be seen as that.

You do need to have some structure to your work / life before you start trying to load the app with all of your thoughts and notes!

If you fancy giving Notion a try – click the referral link here – they’ll give you a $10 credit toward a pro account (and me $5 towards mine). I haven’t yet upgraded to pro – but will probably do so – for $4 a month it looks to be good value. The free version has a data size limit which if you are attaching pdf’s you will need.

Notion has just eaten a Bear – and Ulysses too…


A plan to return to work?

Hopefully by now most business will be thinking about a return to work (unless they have never been away!). This will be a real test for a number of people – coming back from a period of uncertainty we have never seen in a generation.

I hope that most businesses will have had help with the Government furlough scheme of loans, to keep them afloat. But those schemes will come to an end and we have to get back to the day to day operations – and quickly.

I have wondered how this might best be approached and I think there are some key points:

  1. Relentless Optimism. I think after this period of devastation we will need to take a confident optimistic approach. Doom and gloom is not going to cut it. We will need to find the positives. That is not to say we should sugar coat problems, but the over-arching throats must be to ‘go again’.
  2. Competitive Re-tooling. The world is going to be a different place in many markets and it is the time to look at the market’s the business is in and consider if it ‘works’. By this I mean – is the financial return good enough. I talked in a previous blog about the juice being worth the squeeze and that is the point. We may need to re-evaluate what we do. We should have done this before but the landscape was different then. Now is the time to re-think the make up of our firms. Re-tool, reorganise and re-focus.
  3. Communication. This should never have gone away, but our businesses must communicate. With it’s staff, suppliers and customers / clients. This will become more important than ever. In my world of a service industry the focus (toward clients) must be ‘how can we help you post covid19?‘. We need to make life easier for our clients and customers – they too will have their problems.
  4. The Way We Work. This is likely to be a turning point – it may be forced upon us, with rules on social distancing and cleaning regimes. Now is the time to be thinking about how we have run our businesses over the last 7 weeks or so. What has been good? What didn’t work? What might work in the future. Are there some things we have grown used to and operate smoothly now that we can actually keep? If this is the case we can look at the physical assets we use – offices, cars et al.
  5. Cash. That adage about turnover being vanity, profit is sanity but cash is king is so very true now. Business needs cash and cashflow forecasts – probably for the next 12 months. Realistic forecasts – as there could be rough seas ahead.
  6. Grit and determination. Now more than ever we need to have a goal. Something to aim at, it may be short term or long term – but goals help set a structure. I used Traction in my previous job – and the monthly, quarterly, annual scorecards are probably more relevant than ever. They need to have stretch goals but be realistic. They need to be measurable and people need to be accountable. The future has no room for passengers (it never did actually).

These aren’t the complete list and other people will have other ideas, but we should start somewhere. The planning should have started last week, but now is ok too. Bu plan we must.

I am really positive about the future. As the saying goes, what is the alternative?

The Market – post Covid19

One of the questions I get asked by clients a lot is what the market will look like post-Covid19.

It is almost impossible to guess what the property market will look like at the end of the Covid19 crisis. We have seen ups and downs before, last in September 2008 in the financial crisis. It took almost 5 years for the market to recover.

This crisis is different. Property was a part of the issue in 2008, an overheated housing market was at the root, coupled with sub-prime lending. But in 2020 it is all sectors affected without warning (ignoring the political charge that we should have known about it).

Public and Private sectors are all severely impacted and few will escape unscathed. Significant losses will prevail as shops, factories and offices are all but closed. Government bail-out monies will need to be repaid somehow and the scale of the monies needed to be recovered will be colossal.

By any measure this crisis will impact on society for many years.

The property market where I earn a living is a fickle character. At the moment there are no transactions to speak of. Mortgages and loans are on hold, surveys are not being done. The property market is in a state of limbo.

But there are a number of signs which are emerging.

Firstly, there are people who will see this as an opportunity to acquire at relatively low levels. There will be distressed sales and some will take a long term view and invest in bricks and mortar at this time.

Secondly, there are housebuilders who will be uncertain about their end-users. In one case a National housebuilder who has told us that if they are not ‘exchanged’ on deals in lawyers they will seek a 20% reduction on price on a “take it or leave it” basis. Of course, some sellers may need cash and so may accept reductions – making a new market value ‘tone’. That impacts further down the line in valuations for secured lending – where evidence of actual deals makes no real differentiation between distressed sales of simple market sales. Willing buyer and willing seller fix the price.

Thirdly, this shut down has made a number of businesses realise that they can operate ‘from home’ and a number are starting to question the need for the old-style office (even if it had started to look different – open plan, co-working etc). 45,000 NatWest staff are working from home at the present time, this may become the new norm.

Two of my clients have put on hold re-location plans in order to consider if they should replace their current offices with a like-for-like solution. They have both accepted the need for an office as a ‘base’ and meeting / social space, but in each case, they believe that the space requirement will shrink considerably as they become more used to remote working. We have all learned to use Zoom / MS Teams as the new way of meeting colleagues.

Businesses have generally been moving towards paperless for some time. This crisis has pushed that agenda to the top, reducing the need for cabinets and storage. Cloud computing is relatively cost-effective, incredibly efficient and simple to use.

So, we may see some offices come to the market as businesses shrink their floorspace requirement. Most core cities in the UK have had a scarcity of stock for some time – which has pushed rents up over the last two or three years. An increase in supply coupled with a lack of demand will result in lower rents.

There is also the impact of Generations X, Y and Z impact on the workplace. The baby-boomers are about to leave the workplace and those following have very different views about working and working practices. This is especially so for Generation Z who are now starting leave University and start to influence the way we work. This significant change should not be underestimated. They have a life-view which is focussed on experiences and work-life balance

A lot of corporate clients have put acquisitions on hold pending a review of what actually happens to values. The almost unanimous consensus is that they will reduce – at least in the short term. Of course, this is all anecdotal as the market doesn’t respond quickly to such major events, it will be some time before we see the impact. In effect the market has stopped – suddenly but firmly.

In summary, it is not clear what will happen in the forthcoming weeks or months but:

  • The market will change – it is unlikely to be at current levels. I expect a dip in the short / medium term in most sectors.
  • There will be an increasing consideration about how offices, particularly, will operate in the future – with a potential reduction in the numbers working at a ‘place’ 5 days a week on a 9-5 basis. Home-working and paperless offices will become more prevalent.
  • The recovery period is likely to be years – potentially 2/3 – on the basis that the market was not particularly ‘over-heated’ in the run up to the crisis.
  • Taxation will need to increase and Governments favour using property (Rating, Stamp Duty etc.) as less politically damaging than income tax. Increases in tax may have a negative effect on values.
  • The impact of Generations X, Y and Z are likely to impact on the way ‘work’ is organised and delivered in the future – pointing away from our traditional ways.

Covid19 will have a massive impact on the market, I’m not sure in the short term it is going to be a pretty picture.

Fit for purpose 2020 and beyond?

After my last blog post I have been thinking about what business might look like when we return from our enforced close-downs.

Life is not going to be the same again, that is for certain. People will have had time to re-evaluate. Business needs to re-think how they behave. Our old habits will need to change if we are to retain the good people and let them grow again. This won’t be easy.

Although everyone is focussed on ‘return to work’ not much thought seems to be given to what ‘work’ might look like. The reality is that we do not know what our respective markets might look like. There will be some opportunities – as there always are. But there will also be some casualties.

The key question for business (which I heard from a number of clients) seems to be summed up to a great phrase heard on the Netflix show, Ozark – “Will the juice be worth the squeeze“. In other words, are we ready for an inordinate effort to get a few drops of profit. Will we have the energy to ‘go again’. In some cases the answer may be no.

But if we do have enough drive to get the train back on the track, we may need to think again about our organisations. We know some of this stuff, but in good markets we can ignore the issues, especially if the profit drops in nicely each year. It might have been more, but who cares if it is ‘profit’?

In tougher markets we may need to think about this stuff. We will need to change our ways to survive a new canvas?

I was reminded this morning of the research done by Purdue University biologist William Muir – he ran a project with chickens which has become a great metaphor for business. The experiment took a group of average chickens and then over a period of time, selected the most prolific egg-layers for a super-group. Whilst the average guys just kept on laying eggs, the super-producers after two generations were decimated. Only three survived – having pecked each other to death!

The moral of the story is that we can’t have all super-producers. We have to have a mixture of talent to make the business’s work. We have to engage with everyone. We have to give the talented ones their space, but we need the ‘average’ too. Everyone should be able to bring something to the party.

If you have a moment watch the TED talk from Margaret Heffernan – Forget the Pecking Order at Work. It starts with the chicken story above but also picks out three key characteristics of great teams in successful business to;

  1. They show showed high degrees of empathy for each other
  2. They gave roughly equal time to each other, no one voice dominated
  3. They had more women than men in the groups

This may well be the moment when our businesses need to re-think how they are, how they behave, who gets the microphone and how they are made up.

We will still need our ‘why’ but the ‘who’ just got pushed under the spotlight!



Whoa – what just happened?

I promised some time ago I’d be back with some blog posts. Well here I am. But not quite in the circumstances I, or anyone else, was expecting.

2020 is just over three months old. I lost my mum to Lewy Bodies Dementia in February and my Aunt, her sister, five weeks later. Hardly a positive start. But on a positive note I managed to ski in Whistler Canada in the first week of January, started lecturing part time at Nottingham Trent University on the Real Estate course and squeezed a trip to Los Angeles in last month (just in time).

And then Covid19 appears.

It’s been very hard to see businesses effectively closed down virtually overnight. Staff furloughed (we didn’t know what that meant a month ago). Pay cuts and redundancies were inevitable – and we are at the beginning of a journey which could take months to get back to any sort of normality.

There have been lots of questions about the property market. No one really knows how this will pan out. We remember from the 2008 financial crash that it took a long time to recover – probably 5 years.

This time may be different. I am not sure we will ever be the same again. This could well be a Malcolm Gladwell tipping point. Our High Streets were already in terminal decline. Offices were bloated and (in some areas) hideously expensive; most Core Cities had a shortage of good quality space courtesy of the last downturn. Manufacturing had taken a pounding over decades.

It would be easy to beat ourselves up and bury our heads, but this isn’t normally a good business plan. I was reminded in the week of a 1963 quote from Leon Megginson,

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

It is time for us to adapt – and we have started to do so.

Our offices are closed – we are working from home – remotely and with agility. In reality will we want to go back to that office environment? We need offices for socialising (remember that?) and for meetings (the sort where you don’t try to follow 12 people on screen). We have some administrative functions that may need ‘files’ – although they have a limited life now. If this remote working was an experiment for the few before it is not now. Offices can change shape to reflect this new way; hubs for human interaction, coffee, food, get-togethers, meetings (if you must).

The days of clocking in and being measured on your ‘input’ were numbered anyway. Outputs aren’t much help either. But ‘outcomes’ – now there’s a thought. Get paid for what you achieve… not for being there longer than the boss!

Then there’s the High Street. The dying high street. Amazon may have save us in the short term with their deliveries to the doorstep, but we do still enjoy ‘shopping’ as a leisure activity. And it may be that this is moment when we all realise that the local shop is about to have its day again. We have been walking to the shops. Some people have been sensible and not bought 6 packs of 24 toilet rolls (what was that about?). The best places to shop in my view have always been the surprise finds, the little lanes, the quirky stores. The local businesses built on talent by creative clever folks. Those who see an opportunity.

May be this is the moment the High Street returns to being just that, a place to go, to meet, to chat, to browse, to buy essential and occasional gifts of treats. A simple pleasure again? It used to be.

We must also face the fact that shipping stuff (products, viruses et al) across the world might also be curtailed. Maybe there will be a return to locally produced goods and so our manufacturing (we are good making stuff) will thrive again. I am less optimistic on this as I am unsure we are prepared to pay the price.

But my real thought is that we should be positive. Benjamin Franklin said that “Out of adversity comes opportunity“. It is for us to grasp this opportunity and make the world work again. At the moment we are in ‘survival mode’ – rightly. But this period will end and we need to adapt.

All we need is ideas. And someone else once said “Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast!“.

Ideas on a postcard…