How to own your own niche

We speak to the leaders of five property and construction consultancies operating in extremely small market niches and find out how they stay resilient in turbulent economic conditions


14 September 2019

Image Aleksandar Savic

TRY TO BROADEN YOUR SERVICES TO MITIGATE YOUR EXPOSURE TO RISK Darren Herdman MRICS is director of InSitu Advisory, Sydney, Australia

The minerals and waste valuation market is quite niche, and one that many larger firms don't operate in because the market isn't deep enough for them. So, the best way to stay competitive in such a small pool is to have appropriately qualified and highly experienced specialists to undertake work, completing projects efficiently, accurately and at competitive rates.

In Australia, we were fortunate not to be severely affected by the global financial crisis. In fact, a mining boom sustained strong economic growth through the mass export of resources to countries such as China and India. However, operating in a small market can be challenging for small firms like us during financially difficult times, so it's important to not over specialise in a niche area. You need to be able to broaden your services to mitigate your exposure to risk, and, crucially, retain established clients who appreciate the value-added advice your business provides.

Small firms always have to work harder to stay resilient in the market. This could mean evolving to find new ways to deliver your specialist services to clients, so they feel that they are receiving advice that will keep their business ahead of the competition during difficult times. It is the solid, long-standing client relationships that will help keep your business fighting fit when things get a bit tough.

BUSINESSES LIVE OR DIE ON THE STRENGTH OF CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS Andrew Acquier FRICS is a chartered arts, antiques and jewellery surveyor based in Kent, UK

I've been running my own business since 1982, and one of our worst periods arose from the global financial crisis in 2008. I had a small office in London's Fleet Street and a team of three, but with the 2009 downturn and rents rising markedly, by 2010 I decided to continue the business on my own, albeit with a reduced workload. The crisis coincided with seismic changes in the fine-art valuing profession ' insurers had cut the amount of information required from valuation professionals, so our fees also took a big hit.

I now predominantly work ensuring the fair division of art and antiques in divorce cases. Working solo means competing with larger firms, so it's important to ensure parity of fees, and to stress my experience as a long-serving, RICS-registered valuer, because not all valuers are qualified.

A business lives or dies on the strength of its client relationships, so it's vital to ensure the contacts you've built up over the years are as strong as they can be. Every five and 10 years, I write to my contacts to help ensure repeat business. Having a buffer of money put aside gives peace of mind too ' and with Brexit looming this is more important than ever. The major turbulence in market confidence since the referendum has been devastating for many businesses, and now is the time to be prepared before the outcome of any deal is finalised.

"It's important ... to stress my experience as a long-serving RICS-registered valuer"

DIFFICULT TRADING PERIODS CAN LEAD YOUR BUSINESS TO FLOURISH Sian Holmes MRICS is a chartered mineral surveyor at London-based Matthews & Son

People do business with people, so it's vital to form strong client relationships to prepare your business for any future financial hiccups. You have to be able to offer immediacy of advice, too, and ideally your client should only need a single point of contact for all their property issues, rather than being continually passed to different team members, which can be off-putting. I would say this is where being a smaller business has its advantages  we can employ chartered surveyors able to deal with a broad spectrum of property issues that affect minerals and waste, which larger organisations may not be able to offer.

What's interesting, though, is how difficult trading periods can actually lead your business to flourish  for example, a client may be looking to rationalise sites, business leaner, for which your advice will be vital. Sometimes it can be easy to dwell on the negative during difficult economic times, but instead, always look at where you can gain an advantage.

Furthermore, smaller firms don't have the huge overheads of a large organisation, so you have more control over the business when you need to react quickly. The next financial crisis could come at any time, so keep your expertise and ability wide to pick up work where you can to help buffer your business against any turbulence.

"Your client should only need a single point of contact for all their property issues"

SMALLER FIRMS IN NICHE MARKETS HAVE TO FIGHT A LOT HARDER FOR WORK Richard Blow FRICS is managing director of Griffin Valuation Advisory, Perth, Australia

Smaller advisory firms in niche markets such as ours have to fight a lot harder for work. Maybe because we don't have the resources to take on larger projects, or because some clients wish to employ a brand rather than looking at the experience and skillsets of the professionals put forward for the project. Many larger firms have commoditised the profession, and end up providing very poor work.

To stay competitive against larger firms offering similar services, be responsive to any client enquiries, don't take advantage of a client's specific need or circumstance and always treat each client not as a one-off project, but as an opportunity to build a longer-term advisory relationship.

The global financial crisis only felt like a speed bump at the time, as Australia was going through a commodities boom. But it taught us that in difficult economic times, it's good to keep your overheads as low as possible and take the lead with clients, to show that you're thinking of them, ahead of their requirements.

In tough times, stick to your skillset  don't try to advise in areas where you have little or no experience or qualifications, as you'll get found out. Don't just focus on the fee  always consider the risk, and promote your experience and, above all, professional qualifications to clients. Remember, we are a profession, not an industry.

"In tough times, stick to your skillset"

YOU HAVE TO KEEP YOUR KNOWLEDGE AND YOUR SKILLSET UP TO DATE Captain Ed Geary FRICS is a chartered surveyor (Admiralty & Maritime) at Geary International, Gibraltar

The maritime industry is really quite small. I'm a one-man shop, and people contact me primarily because I'm the only yacht valuer with RICS membership. My job involves valuing yachts worth up to £50m, so my RICS qualification is key – it's the only way my clients can have complete confidence and trust in the accuracy of my valuation.

In a close-knit market such as this, continuing professional development is crucial to maintaining your knowledge and skillset, to make sure your valuations are as good as they can be. The technical aspect of the industry is constantly changing, and to be a reputable valuer you have to be up to speed with the latest boat manufacturing and maintenance methods to be able to determine the condition of the vessel for the valuation, as well as ensuring it is in compliance with international standards.

Through good times or bad, protecting your personal reputation and the reputation of your profession is crucial. Dealing with such high-value property, sometimes people may not agree with what I'm saying and on occasion I have been offered certain "incentives" to change a valuation. When the chips are down, it could be so easy to take that incentive just to give yourself an easy life. But you should never be tempted, because the second you do, you're on the hook for life, and it could affect the reputation of the profession as a whole.

Illustrations by Aleksandar Savic 

"Protecting your personal reputation and the reputation of your profession is crucial"

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