Managed Business Space: Internet Brokers Go Global
There must be something in the water in Tamworth. How else could a couple of novices in this stress-driven business build one of the country’s top agencies in five years but still look like chirpy teenagers?
And how can they flourish when they are based in a Staffordshire market town, rather than joining London’s movers and shakers? ‘Haven’t you heard of the internet?’ asks joint managing director Jim Venables, a youthful 36, laconically.
Leading client Tom Stokes, chief executive of Evans Easyspace, shows a similar lack of surprise at the way online brokers have taken over the industry. A huge gap ignored by conventional agents was perfectly suited to a system where tenants search online for short-term space without the intricate legalities of normal leases.
But Venables attributes a doubling, then redoubling, of turnover for officebroker.com over the last few years to more than a network of computers. He and business partner Andy Haywood, a stately 40, got into the business five years ago when they saw a gap in the market.
When hunting for space for their two-man recruitment firm, they found that brokers merely passed queries to landlords, when they really wanted guidance through the blizzard of choices. More research revealed that landlords were just as annoyed by torrents of time-wasting, unsuitable leads.
So Venables and Haywood adapted their recruitment training principle of real people offering advice on complex choices, and the rest is history. It was a tough first couple of years because they launched into the teeth of a recession. Since then, business has exploded.
Today, around 50 advisers man the lines, each using intimate knowledge of a local market to guide enquiries to – or away from -business centres. Landlords would normally seethe at occupiers being turned away, but not in this frenetic market, where small tenants, often with little idea of what they want, can be more trouble than they are worth. Conventional agents often feel the same.
Online firms such as officebroker.com, Instant offices and SOS have grown exponentially to fill this gap. Venables and Haywood have done this,┬ábut more quietly than others, partly because they are away from the incestuous London scrum and partly because they only got around to joining key networking group the Business Centres Association last week.
Yet they impressed sector giant Regus enough to be chosen as leading UK broker last year, based on deals and revenue generated.
This is hard evidence of how the internet is transforming the property industry. Online
brokers are also becoming as flexible as the space they shift, extending from pure offices
to include anything from workshops to management agreements, where landlords
outsource surplus space to be run as business centres.
Stokes has one nagging criticism, however: names have not changed to reflect shifts in the market. A large number of tenants for the mixed space that Evans provides are put off by the ‘office’ in each broker’s name. ‘This is another gap here that should be filled,’ he says.
Venables has other things on his mind than names at the moment, however. World domination, for instance.
Dallas became an unlikely twin for Tamworth last year when officebroker.com followed other online brokers abroad. But unlike some operators, this is not about handling cross-border demand but taking on the Americans in their own backyard.
How scary is opening a shop in a country where serviced space was invented?
Not at all, insists Venables. In many ways the UK is ahead of the US, he says. The total market might be bigger, but London has more choice per square foot than even Manhattan -which comes back to the need to filter potential occupiers. That approach has been successful enough to draw in more than 200 US landlords.
Asia is next on the agenda. Venables cannot see why the same business plan will network there, and provide some interesting trips.
‘It’s fun being international,’ he says. ‘You get to see so many new places.’
So, stressed-out agents, it’s not Tamworth water that keeps the wrinkles at bay. Have fun to stay young – which is probably easier said than done at the moment.