Interview with Alan Thorogood, CEO of STL Group PLC

Alan Thorogood is CEO of STL Group PLC, which has just been acquired by Australian company InfoTrack. He told Today’s Conveyancer why the move is good for STL – and for the conveyancing industry as a whole…

How do you feel about the acquisition?

“We’re extremely positive about it. At STL we’ve just celebrated our 40th anniversary as a company. STL was set up by my father 40 years ago – I’ve been here for 20 years and Chief Executive for over ten and my sister Jackie has been Sales and Marketing Director for ten years too. We have nearly 100 staff and are expanding rapidly – 45 at our main office in Woking, 15 in Burton-on-Trent and around 35 search clerks working from home and going to the local authorities to collect property data. That’s a great achievement so, to mark our four decades, we got everyone together and had a traditional English fete with a coconut shy and magicians!

“But, while we’ve done brilliantly as a family firm, the industry is now ripe for innovation going forward and I believe this acquisition offers that. STL was never proactively up for sale but when InfoTrack approached us – well, we were impressed with their ethos and it was a meeting of minds from the start. InfoTrack is Australia’s largest search company with 50% of the market and over the last, five years, they’ve grown six-fold – that’s phenomenal. They’re one of the top 50 fastest growing tech companies in Australia and were recently voted the 12th best company to work for in Oz.

“A lot of that success is down to a tight integration with InfoTrack’s sister company – Leap – and its market leading case management system. Leap has just launched in the UK and also acquired Peapod – a case management system that includes integrated and automated legal forms. So that’s lots of technological innovation going on and it’s inspiring. Here, in the UK, we’re probably three or four years behind Australia in terms of conveyancing data and systems integration. There have been attempts at technological innovation – the Land Registry’s Chain Matrix for example, which was unsuccessful – but there hasn’t been anything really earth shattering that has stood the test of time.

“Apart from the advances technologically this deal offers, I’ve always believed the UK market is ready for consolidation. People have been predicting it for a long time but it hasn’t happened – the only key event has been Landmark buying SearchFlow. And InfoTrack and STL are a natural fit. We share similar values – we’re both very people-oriented companies, for example. At STL we like having happy staff and InfoTrack’s the same. We’ve even both got table tennis in our offices – in fact, in InfoTrack’s Sydney offices, there’s a bar that opens at 5pm every day!

“So it was a very exciting proposition when InfoTrack first approached us and now, talking to you a fortnight post-acquisition, it’s all very positive.”

So will that Australian technology be coming to the UK now, through STL?

“Absolutely – we have a very well-developed back end system but we’ll be looking at having a global platform of shared technology with InfoTrack and with the UK launch of Leap. It won’t be a huge amount of work to make all our systems fit for the UK conveyancing market.

“InfoTrack wants access to Companies House as they do lots of international company searches so that integration is happening and will benefit us both. InfoTrack also wants access to the Land Registry and that integration is now being finalised. The same goes for anti-money laundering searches, including foreign nationals and, again, having a global shared platform benefits both companies.

“And InfoTrack’s Chief Technology Officer is relocating here, to run our IT team and liase with the developers back in Oz too, in January.

“So it’s very much about merging the technology – helping us to achieve all the things we wanted to achieve but faster and better.”

Will you lose any of your autonomy?

“No – the nature of the deal is that I’m here as Chief Exec for at least three years. We’re the same independent company with the same branding and offices but now we have all this extra support from a larger company – InfoTrack has a £60m turnover and we have about £10m – and that’s brilliant as we can learn from them and utilise their resources. For example, InfoTrack’s national sales manager from Sydney is coming over in January 2015, tasked with recruiting new Account Managers, Telesales Executives and BDMs nationwide.”

What will all this innovation and consolidation mean for conveyancers?

“Hopefully conveyancers will welcome this – our aim is to increase the amount of work they can do without increasing their workload or overheads. Conveyancers are working so hard at the moment but conveyancing prices have decreased over the years and margins have fallen. So anything that improves automation and stops double keying, for example – well, that will improve their margins.

“And there’s also the whole compliance and CQS aspect – conveyancers have to invest significantly in that. So the more a search company can help them meet compliance criteria via systems and audit trails the better. Then they can concentrate on attracting more work and offering a really good customer service.”

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